"I shall find myself in the hands of the police, if I don't take care," Gurdon said to himself. "What an ass I am to embark on an adventure like this. It isn't as if I had the slightest chance of being of any use to the girl, seeing that I—"
He broke off, suddenly conscious of the fact that another of the rooms was lighted now—a large one, by the side of the conservatory. In the silence of the garden it seemed to him that he could hear voices raised angrily, and then a cry, as if of pain, from somebody inside.
Fairly interested at last, Gurdon advanced till he was close to the window. He could hear no more now, for the same tense silence had fallen over the place once more. Gurdon pressed close to the window; he felt something yield beneath his feet, and the next moment he had plunged headlong into the darkness of something that suggested an underground cellar. Perhaps he had been standing unconsciously on a grating that was none too safe, for now he felt himself bruised and half stunned, lying on his back on a cold, hard floor, amid a mass of broken glass and rusty ironwork.
Startled and surprised as he was, the noise of the breaking glass sounded in Gurdon's ears like the din of some earthquake. He struggled to his feet, hoping that the gods would be kind to him, and that he could get away before his presence there was discovered. He was still dazed and confused; his head ached painfully, and he groped in the pitch darkness without any prospect of escape. He could nowhere find an avenue. So far as he could judge, he was absolutely caught like a rat in a trap.
He half smiled to himself; he was still too dazed to grasp the significance of his position, when a light suddenly appeared overhead, at the top of a flight of stairs, and a hoarse voice demanded to know who was there. In the same dreamy kind of way, Gurdon was just conscious of the fact that a strong pair of arms lifted him from the floor, and that he was being carried up the steps. In the same dreamy fashion, he was cognisant of light and warmth, a luxurious atmosphere, and rows upon rows of beautiful flowers everywhere. He would, no doubt, awake presently, and find that the whole thing was a dream. Meanwhile, there was nothing visionary about the glass of brandy which somebody had put to his lips, or about the hands which were brushing him down and removing all traces of his recent adventure.
"When you feel quite up to it, sir," a quiet, respectful voice said, "my master would like to see you. He is naturally curious enough to know what you were doing in the garden."
"I am afraid your master must have his own way," Gurdon said grimly. "I am feeling pretty well now, thanks to the brandy. If you will take me to your master, I will try to explain matters."
The servant led the way into a large, handsome apartment, where a man in evening dress was seated in a big armchair before the fire. He looked round with a peculiar smile as Gurdon came in.
"Well, sir," he said. "And what does this mean?"
Gurdon had no voice to reply, for the man in the armchair was the handsome cripple—the hero of the forefinger.
THE WHITE LADY
Gurdon looked hopelessly about him, utterly at a loss for anything to say. The whole thing had been so unexpected, so very opposite to the commonplace ending he had anticipated, that he was too dazed and confused to do anything but smile in an inane and foolish manner. He had rather looked forward to seeing some eccentric individual, some elderly recluse who lived there with a servant or two. And here he was, face to face with the man who, at the present moment, was to him the most interesting in London.
"You can take your time," the cripple said. "I am anxious for you to believe that I am not in the least hurry. The point of the problem is this: a well dressed man, evidently a gentleman, is discovered at a late hour in the evening in my cellar. As the gentleman in question is obviously sober, one naturally feels a little curiosity as to what it all means."
The speaker spoke quite slowly and clearly, and with a sarcastic emphasis that caused Gurdon to writhe impotently. Every word and gesture on the part of the cripple spoke of a strong mind and a clear intellect in that twisted body. Despite the playful acidity of his words, there was a distinct threat underlying them. It occurred to Gurdon as he stood there that he would much rather have this man for a friend than a foe.
"Perhaps you had better take a seat," the cripple said. "There is plenty of time, and I don't mind confessing to you that this little comedy amuses me. Heaven knows, I have little enough amusement in my dreary life; and, therefore, in a measure, you have earned my gratitude. But there is another side to the picture. I have enemies who are utterly unscrupulous. I have to be unscrupulous in my turn, so that when I have the opportunity of laying one of them by the heels, my methods are apt to be thorough. Did you come here alone to-night, or have you an accomplice?"
"Assuredly, I came alone," Gurdon replied.
"Oh, indeed. You found your way into the garden. To argue out the thing logically, we will take it for granted that you had no intention whatever of paying a visit to my garden when you left home. If such had been your intention, you would not be wearing evening dress, and thin, patent leather shoes. Your visit to the garden was either a resolution taken on the spur of the moment, or was determined upon after a certain discovery. I am glad to hear that you came here entirely by yourself."
There was an unmistakable threat in these latter words; and as Gurdon looked up he saw that the cripple was regarding him with an intense malignity. The grey eyes were cold and merciless, the handsome face hard and set, and yet it was not a countenance which one usually associates with the madman or the criminal. Really, it was a very noble face—the face of a philanthropist, a poet, a great statesman, who devotes his money and his talents to the interests of his country. Despite a feeling of danger, Gurdon could not help making a mental note of these things.
"Won't you sit down?" the cripple asked again. "I should like to have a little chat with you. Here are whisky and soda, and some cigars, for the excellence of which I can vouch, as I import them myself. Perhaps, also, you share with me a love of flowers?"
With a wave of his strong arm, the speaker indicated the wealth of blossoms which arose from all sides of the room. There were flowers everywhere. The luxuriant blooms seemed to overpower and dwarf the handsome furnishings of the room. At the far end, folding doors opened into the conservatory, which was a veritable mass of brilliant colors. The cripple smiled upon his blossoms, as a mother might smile on her child.
"These are the only friends who never deceive you," he said. "Flowers and dogs, and, perhaps, little children. I know this, because I have suffered from contact with the world, as, perhaps, you will notice when you regard this poor body of mine. I think you said just now you came here entirely by yourself."
"That is a fact," Gurdon replied. He was beginning to feel a little more at his ease now. "Let me hasten to assure you that I came here with no felonious intent at all. I was looking for somebody, and I thought that my friend came here. You will pardon me if I do not explain with any amount of detail, because the thing does not concern myself altogether. And, besides—"
Gurdon paused; he could not possibly tell this stranger of the startling events which had led to his present awkward situation. In any case, he would not have been believed.
"We need not go into that," the cripple said. "It is all by the way. You came here alone; and, I take it, when you left your home, you had not the slightest intention of coming here. To make my meaning a little more clear, if you disappeared from this moment, and your friends never saw you again, the police would not have the slightest clue to your whereabouts."
Gurdon laughed just a little uneasily; he began to entertain the idea that he was face to face with some dangerous lunatic, some man whose dreadful troubles and misfortunes had turned him against the world. Evidently, it would be the right policy to humor him.
"That is quite correct," he said. "Nobody has the least idea where I am; and if the unpleasant contingency you allude to happened to me, I should go down to posterity as one of the victims of the mysterious type of crime that startles London now and again."
"I should think," said the stranger, in a thin, dry tone, that caused Gurdon's pulses to beat a little faster—"I should think that your prophecy is in a fair way to turn out correct. I don't ask you why you came here, because you would not tell me if I did. But you must have been spying on the place, or you would not have had the misfortune to tread on a damaged grating, and finish your adventure ignominiously in the cellar. As I told you just now, I have enemies who are absolutely unscrupulous, and who would give much for a chance of murdering me if the thing could be done with impunity. Common sense prompts me to take it for granted that you are in some wry connected with the foes to whom I have alluded."
"I assure you, I am not," Gurdon protested. "I am the enemy of no man. I came here to night—"
Gurdon stopped in some confusion. How could he possibly tell this man why he had come and what he had in his mind? The thing was awkward—almost to the verge of absurdity.
"I quite see the quandary you are in," said the cripple, with a smile. "Now, let me ask you a question. Do you happen to know a man by the name of Mark Fenwick?"
The query was so straight and to the point that Gurdon fairly started. More and more did he begin to appreciate the subtlety and cleverness of his companion. It was impossible to fence the interrogation; it had to be answered, one way or the other.
"I know the man by sight," he said; "but I beg to assure you that until last night I had never seen him."
"That may be," the cripple said drily. "But you know him now, and that satisfies me. Now, listen. You see what I have in my hand. Perhaps you are acquainted with weapons of this kind?"
So saying, the speaker wriggled in his chair, and produced from somewhere behind him a small revolver. Despite its silver plated barrel and ivory handle, it was a sinister looking weapon, and capable of deadly mischief in the hands of an expert. Though no judge of such matters, it occurred to Gurdon that his companion handled the revolver as an expert should.
"I have been used to this kind of thing from a boy," the cripple said. "I could shoot you where you sit within a hair's breadth of where I wanted to hit you."
"Which would be murder," Gurdon said quietly.
"Perhaps it would, in the eyes of the law; but there are times when one is tempted to defy the mandates of a wise legislature. For instance, I have told you more than once before that I have enemies, and everything points to the fact that you are the tool and accomplice of some of them. I have about me one or two faithful people, who would do anything I ask. If I shoot you now the report of a weapon like this will hardly be audible beyond the door. You lie there, dead, shot clean through the brain. I ring my bell and tell my servants to clear this mess away. I give them orders to go and bury it quietly somewhere, and they would obey me without the slightest hesitation. Nothing more would be said. I should be as safe from molestation as if the whole thing had happened on a desert island. I hope I have succeeded in making the position clear, because I should be loth to think that a little incident like this should cause inconvenience to one who might after all have been absolutely innocent."
The words were spoken quietly, and without the slightest trace of passion. Still, there was no mistaking the malignity and intense fury which underlay the well chosen and well balanced sentences.
Gurdon was silent; there was nothing for him to say. He was in a position in which he could not possibly explain; he could only sit there, looking into the barrel of the deadly weapon, and praying for some diversion which might be the means of saving his life. It came presently in a strange and totally unexpected fashion. Upon the tense, nerve-breaking silence, a voice suddenly intruded like a flash of light in a dark place. It was a sweet and girlish voice, singing some simple ballad, with a natural pathos which rendered the song singularly touching and attractive. As the voice came nearer the cripple's expression changed entirely; his hard eyes grew soft, and the handsome features were wreathed in a smile. Then the door opened, and the singer came in.
Gurdon looked at her, though she seemed unconscious of his presence altogether. He saw a slight, fair girl, dressed entirely in white, with her long hair streaming over her shoulders. The face was very sad and wistful, the blue eyes clouded with some suggestion of trouble and despair. Gurdon did not need a second glance to assure him that he was in the presence of one who was mentally afflicted. She came forward and took her place by the side of the cripple.
"They told me that you are busy," she said, "Just as if it mattered whether you were busy or not, when I wanted to see you."
"You must go away now, Beth," the cripple said, in his softest and most tender manner. "Don't you see that I am talking with this gentleman?"
The girl turned eagerly to Gurdon; she crossed the room with a swift, elastic step, and laid her two hands on him.
"I know what you have come for," she said, eagerly. "You have come to tell me all about Charles. You have found him at last; you are going to bring him back to me. They told me he was dead, that he had perished in the mine; but I knew better than that. I know that Charles will come back to me again."
"What mine?" Gurdon asked.
"Why, the Four Finger Mine, of course," was the totally unexpected reply. "They said that Charles had lost his life in the Four Finger Mine. It was in a kind of dream that I saw his body lying there, murdered. But I shall wake from the dream presently, and he will come back to me, come back in the evening, as he always used to when the sun was setting beyond the pines."
There was something so utterly sad and hopeless in this that Gurdon averted his eyes from the girl's face. He glanced in the direction of the door; then it required all his self control to repress a cry, for in the comparative gloom of the passage beyond, he could just make out the figure of Vera, who stood there with her finger on her lip as if imposing silence. He could see that in her hand she held something that looked like a chisel. A moment later she flitted away once more, leaving Gurdon to puzzle his brain as to what it all meant.
"I am sorry for all this," the cripple said. "You have entirely by accident come face to face with a phase in my life which is sacred and inviolate. Really, if I had no other reason for reducing you to silence, this would be a sufficiently powerful inducement. My dear Beth, I really must ask you—"
Whatever the cripple might have intended to say, the speech was never finished; for, at that moment, the electric lights vanished suddenly, plunging the whole house into absolute darkness. A moment later, footsteps came hurrying along in the hall, and a voice was heard to say that the fuse from the meter had gone, and it would be impossible to turn on the light again until the officials had been called in to repair the damage. At the same moment, Gurdon rose to his feet and crept quietly in the direction of the door. Here, at any rate, was a chance of escape, for that his life was in dire peril he had felt for some little time. He had hardly reached the doorway when he felt a slim hand touch his, and he was guided from the room into the passage beyond. He could give a pretty fair idea as to the owner of the slim fingers that trembled in his own, but he made no remark; he allowed himself to be led on till his feet stumbled against the stairs.
"This way," a voice whispered. "Say nothing, and make no protest. You will be quite safe from further harm."
Gurdon did exactly as he was told. He found himself presently at the top of a staircase, and a little later on in a room, the door of which was closed very quietly by his guide.
"I think I can guess who I have to thank for this," Gurdon murmured. "But why did you not take me to the front door, or the back entrance leading to the garden? It was lucky for me that the lights failed at the critical moment—a piece of nominal good fortune, such as usually only happens in a story. But I should feel a great deal safer if I were on the other side of the front door."
"That is quite impossible," Vera said, for it was she who had come to Gurdon's rescue. "Both doors are locked, and all the rooms on the ground floor are furnished with shutters. As to the light going out, I am responsible for it. I learned all about the electric light when I lived in a mining camp in Mexico. I had only to remove one of the lamps and apply my chisel to the two poles, and thereby put out every fuse in the house. That is why the light failed, for it occurred to me that in the confusion that followed the darkness, I should be in a position to save you. But you little realise how near you have been to death to-night. And, why, oh, why did you follow me in this way? It was very wrong of you."
"It was Venner's idea," Gurdon said. "He had a strange fear that you were going into some danger. He asked me to follow you, and I did so. As to the manner of my getting here—"
"I know all about that," Vera said hurriedly. "I have been listening to your conversation. I dare say you are curious to know something more about this strange household; but, for the present, you will be far better employed in getting away from it. I shall not be easy in my mind till you are once more in the street."
Gurdon waited to hear what his companion was going to say now. He had made up his mind to place himself implicitly in her hands, and let her decide for the best. Evidently, he had found himself in a kind of lunatic asylum, where one inhabitant at least had developed a dangerous form of homicidal mania, and he had a pretty sure conclusion that Vera had saved his life. It was no time now to ask questions; that would come later on.
"I am sure I am awfully grateful to you," Gurdon said. "Who are these people, and why do they behave in this insane fashion? This is not exactly the kind of menage one expects to find in one of the best appointed mansions in the West End."
"I can tell you nothing about it," Vera said. There was a marked coldness in her voice that told Gurdon he was going too far. "I can tell you nothing. One thing you may rest assured of—I am in no kind of danger, nor am I likely to be. My concern chiefly at the present moment is with you. I want you to get back as soon as you can to the Great Empire Hotel, and ease Gerald's mind as to myself."
"I hardly like to go, without you," Gurdon murmured.
"But you must," Vera protested. "Let me assure you once more that I am as absolutely safe here as if I were in my own room. Now, come this way. I dare not strike a light. I can only take you by the hand and lead you to the top of the house. Every inch of the place is perfectly familiar to me, and you are not likely to come to the least harm. Please don't waste a moment more of your time."
Gurdon yielded against his better judgment. A moment or two later, he found himself climbing through a skylight on to the flat leads at the top of the house. By the light of the town he could now see what he was doing, and pretty well where he was. From the leads he could look down into the garden, though, as yet, he could not discern any avenue of escape.
"The thing is quite easy," Vera explained. "The late occupant of the house had a nervous dread of fire, and from every floor he had a series of rope ladders arranged. See, there is one fixed to this chimney. I have only to throw it over, and you can reach the garden without delay; then I will pull the ladder up again and no one will be any the wiser. Please, leave me without any further delay, in the absolute assurance that I shall be back again within an hour."
A few minutes later Gurdon was in the street again, making his way back to the hotel where Venner was waiting for him.
It was a strange story that he had to tell; a very thrilling and interesting adventure, but one which, after all, still further complicated the mystery and rendered it almost unintelligible.
"And you mean to say that you have been actually face to face with our cripple friend?" Venner said. "You mean to say that he would actually have murdered you if Vera had not interfered in that providential manner? I suppose I must accept your assurance that she is absolutely safe, though I can't help feeling that she has exaggerated her own position. I am terribly anxious about her. I have an idea which I should like to carry out. I feel tolerably sure that this picturesque cripple of ours could tell us everything that we want to know. Besides, unless I do something I shall go mad. What do you say to paying the interesting cripple a visit to-morrow night, and forcing him to tell us everything?"
Gurdon shook his head; he was not particularly impressed with the suggestion that Venner had made.
"Of course, we could get into the house easily enough," he said. "Now that I have learned the secret of the cellar, there will be no difficulty about that. Still, don't you think it seems rather ridiculous to try this sort of thing when your wife is in a position to tell you the whole thing?"
"But she would decline to do anything of the kind," Venner protested. "She has told me that her lips are sealed; she has even no explanation to offer for the way in which she left me within half-an-hour of our becoming man and wife. I should almost be justified in forcing her to speak; but, you see, I cannot do that. Therefore, I must treat her in a way as if she were one of our enemies. I have a very strong fancy for paying a visit to our cripple friend, and, if the worst came to the worst, we could convince him that we are emphatically not on the side of Mark Fenwick. At any rate, I mean to have a try, and if you don't like to come in—"
"Oh, I'll come in fast enough," Gurdon said. "You had better meet me to-morrow night at my rooms, say, about eleven; then, we will see what we can do with a view to a solution of the mystery."
At the appointed time, Venner duly put in an appearance. He was clothed in a dark suit and cap, Gurdon donning a similar costume. Under his arm Venner had a small brown paper parcel.
"What have you got there?" Gurdon asked.
"A pair of tennis shoes," was the response. "And if you take my advice, you should have a pair, too. My idea is to take off our boots directly we get into the seclusion of the garden and change into these shoes. Now come along, let's get it over."
It was an easy matter to reach the garden without being observed, and in a very short time the two friends were standing close to the windows of the large room at the back of the house. There was not so much as a glimmer of light to be seen anywhere within. Very cautiously they felt their way along until they came at length to the grating through which Gurdon had made so dramatic an entrance on the night before. He took from his pocket a box of vestas, and ventured to strike one. He held it down close to the ground, shading the tiny point of flame in the hollow of his hand.
"Here is a bit of luck to begin with," he chuckled. "They haven't fastened this grating up again. I suppose my escape last night must have upset them. At any rate, here is a way into the house without running the risk of being arrested on a charge of burglary, and if the police did catch us we should find it an exceedingly awkward matter to frame an excuse carefully, to satisfy a magistrate."
"That seems all right," Venner said. "When we get into the cellar it's any odds that we find the door of the stairs locked. I don't suppose the grating has been forgotten. You see, it is not such an easy matter to get the British workman to do a job on the spur of the moment."
"Well, come along; we will soon ascertain that," Gurdon said. "Once down these steps, we shall be able to use our matches."
They crept cautiously down the stairs into the damp and moldy cellar; thence, up the steps on the other side, where Gurdon lighted one of his matches. The door was closed, but it yielded quite easily to the touch, and at length the two men were in the part of the house which was given over to the use of the servants. So far as they could judge the place was absolutely deserted. Doubtless the domestic staff had retired to bed. All the same, it seemed strange to find no signs of life in the kitchen. The stove was cold, and though the grate was full of cinders, it was quite apparent that no fire had been lighted there for the past four and twenty hours. Again, there was no furniture in the kitchen other than a large table and a couple of chairs. The dressers were empty, and the shelves deprived of their usual burden.
"This is odd," Venner murmured. "Perhaps we shall have better luck on the dining-room floor. I suppose we had better not turn on the lights!"
"That would be too risky," Gurdon said. "However, I have plenty of matches, which will serve our purpose equally well."
On cautiously reaching the hall a further surprise awaited the intruders. There was absolutely nothing there—not so much as an umbrella stand. The marble floor was swept bare of everything, the big dining-room which the night before had been most luxuriously furnished, was now stripped and empty; not so much as a flower remained; and the conservatory beyond showed nothing but wooden staging and glittering glass behind that. A close examination of the whole house disclosed the fact that it was absolutely empty.
"If I did not know you as well as I do," Venner said grimly, "I should say that you had been drinking. Do you mean to tell me that you sat in this dining-room last night, and that it was furnished in the luxurious way you described? Do you mean to tell me that you sat here, opposite our cripple friend, waiting for him to shoot you? Are you perfectly certain that we have made our way into the right house? You have no doubt on that score?"
"Of course, I haven't," Gurdon said, a little hotly. "Would there be two houses close together, both of them with a broken grating over the cellar? I tell you this is the same house right enough. It was just in this particular spot I was seated when the lights went out, and your wife's fertility of resource saved my life. It may be possible that the electric fuses have not yet been repaired. At any rate, I'll see."
Gurdon laid his hand upon the switch and snapped it down. No light came; the solitary illuminating point in the room was afforded by the match which Venner held in his hand.
"There," Gurdon said, with a sort of gloomy triumph. "Doesn't that prove it? I suppose that our cripple took alarm and has cleared out of the house."
"That's all very well, but it is almost impossible to remove the furniture of a great place like this in the course of a day."
"My dear chap, I don't think it has been removed in the course of a day. Didn't you notice just now what a tremendous lot of dust we stirred up as we were going over the house? My theory is this—only three or four of the rooms were furnished, and the rest of the house was closed. When I made my escape last night, the cripple must have taken alarm and gone away from here as speedily as possible. What renders the whole thing more inexplicable is the fact that your wife could explain everything if she pleased. But after a check-mate like this, I don't see the slightest reason for staying here any longer. The best thing we can do is to get back to my rooms and discuss the matter over a whiskey and soda and cigar. But, talking about cigars, will you have the goodness to look at this?"
From the empty grate Gurdon picked up a half smoked cigar of a somewhat peculiar make and shape.
"I want you to notice this little bit of evidence," he said. "This is the very cigar that the cripple gave me last night. I can't say that I altogether enjoyed smoking it, but it was my tip to humor him. I smoked that much. When the white lady came in I naturally threw the end of the cigar into the fireplace. In the face of this, I don't think you will accuse me of dreaming."
More than one cigar was consumed before Venner left his friend's rooms, but even the inspiration of tobacco failed to elucidate a solitary point at issue. What had become of the cripple, and where had he vanished so mysteriously? Gurdon was still debating this point over a late breakfast the following morning, when Venner came in. His face was flushed and his manner was excited. He carried a copy of an early edition of an evening paper in his hand—the edition which is usually issued by most papers a little after noon.
"I think I've discovered something," he said. "It was quite by accident, but you will not fail to be interested in something that appears in the Comet. It alludes to the disappearance of a gentleman called Bates, who seems to have vanished from his house in Portsmouth Square. You know the name of the Square, of course?"
Gurdon pushed his coffee cup away from him, and lighted a cigarette. He felt that something of importance was coming.
"I suppose I ought to know the name of the square," he said grimly. "Seeing that I nearly lost my life in a house there the night before last. But please go on. I see you have something to tell me that is well worth hearing."
"That's right," Venner said. "Most of it is in this paper. It appears that the aforesaid Mr. Bates is a gentleman of retiring disposition, and somewhat eccentric habits. As far as one can gather, he has no friends, but lives quietly in Portsmouth Square, his wants being ministered to by a body of servants who have been in his employ for years. Of necessity, Mr. Bates is a man of wealth, or he could not possibly live in a house the rent of which cannot be less than five or six hundred a year. As a rule, Mr. Bates rarely leaves his house, but last night he seems to have gone out unattended, and since then, he has not been seen."
"Stop a moment," Gurdon exclaimed eagerly. "I am beginning to see daylight at last. What was the number of the house where this Bates lived? I mean the number of the square."
Venner turned to his paper, and ran his eye down the printed column. Then he smiled as he spoke.
"The number of the house," he said, "is 75."
"I knew it," Gurdon said excitedly. "I felt pretty certain of it. The man who has disappeared lived at No. 75, and the place where we had our adventure, or rather, I had my adventure, is No. 74. Now, tell me, who was it who informed the police of the disappearance of Mr. Bates? Some servant, I suppose?"
"Of course; and the servant goes on to suggest that Mr. Bates had mysterious enemies, who caused him considerable trouble from time to time. But now I come to the interesting part of my story. At the foot of the narrative which is contained in the Comet, that I hold in my hand, is a full description of Mr. Bates."
"Go on," Gurdon said breathlessly. "I should be little less than an idiot if I did not know what was coming."
"I thought you would guess," Venner said. "A name like Bates implies middle age and respectability. But this Bates is described as being young and exceedingly good looking. Moreover, he is afflicted with a kind of paralysis, which renders his movements slow and uncertain. And now you know all about it. There is not the slightest doubt that this missing Bates is no other than our interesting friend, the good-looking cripple. The only point which leaves us in doubt is the fact that Mr. Bates is a respectable householder, living at 75, Portsmouth Square, while the man who tried to murder you entertained you at No. 74, which house, now, is absolutely empty. We need not discuss that puzzle at the present moment, because there are more important things to occupy our attention. There can be no doubt that this man who calls himself Bates has been kidnapped by somebody. You will not have much difficulty in guessing the name of the culprit."
"I guess it at once," Gurdon said. "If I mention the name of Mark Fenwick, I think I have said the last word."
A NEW PHASE
There was not the slightest doubt that Gurdon had hit the mark. As far as they could see at present, the man most likely to benefit by the death or disappearance of the cripple was Mark Fenwick. Still, it was impossible to dismiss the thing in this casual way, nor could it be forgotten that the cripple had actually been present at the Grand Empire Hotel on the night when the alleged millionaire received his message by means of the mummified finger. Therefore, logically speaking, it was only fair to infer that on the night in question Fenwick had not been acquainted with the personality of the cripple. Otherwise, the latter would have scarcely ventured to show himself in a place where his experiment had been brought to a conclusion.
On the other hand, it was just possible that Fenwick had been looking for the cripple for some time past. But all this was more or less in the air, though there was a great deal to be said for the conclusion at which the two friends had arrived.
"I work it out like this," Venner said, after a long, thoughtful pause. "You know all about the Four Finger Mine; you know exactly what happened to the Dutchman Van Fort after the murder of Le Fenu. It will be fresh in your recollection how, by some mysterious agency, the fingers of the Dutchman were conveyed to his wife, though he himself was never seen again. It is quite fair to infer that Fenwick has contrived to get hold of the same mine, though that dangerous property does not seem to have harmed him as much as it did the other thief. Still, we know that he has lost all the fingers of his left hand, and we have evidence of the fact that the vengeance has been worked out in the same mysterious fashion as it was worked out on the Dutchman. We know, too, who is at the bottom of the plot, we know that the cripple could tell us all about it if he liked. Obviously, this same cripple is a deadly enemy of Fenwick's. And, no doubt, Fenwick has found out where to lay his hands upon his man quite recently. Fenwick is a clever man, he is bold and unscrupulous, and without question he set to work at once to get the better of the cripple. Of course, this may be nothing but a wrong theory of mine, and it may lead us astray, but it is all I can see to work upon at present."
"I don't think you are very far wrong," Gurdon said, "but I am still puzzled about the house in Portsmouth Square."
"Which house do you mean?" Venner asked.
"The one in which my adventure took place. The house from which the furniture vanished so mysteriously."
"That seems to me capable of an easy explanation," Venner replied. "There is no doubt that the man called Bates and the cripple are one and the same person. You must admit that."
"Yes, I admit that freely enough. Go on."
"Well, this Bates, as we will call him, has a large establishment at 75, Portsmouth Square. The house next door was empty, possibly it belonged to Mr. Bates. He had a whim for furnishing a room or two in an empty house, or perhaps there was some more sinister purpose behind it. Anyway, after you had blundered on the place and had taken your life in your hands, it became necessary for the man to disappear from No. 74. Therefore, he had that furniture removed at once. I daresay if we investigated the house carefully we should find that there was some means of communication between the two; at least, that is the only explanation I can think of."
"You've got it," Gurdon cried. "I'll wager any money, you are right. But I am sorry the man has vanished in this mysterious way, because it checks our investigations at the very outset. The last thing you wanted in this matter was police interference. Now the whole thing has got into the papers, and the public are sure to take the matter up. It is the very class of mystery that the cheap press loves to dwell upon. It has all the attributes of the cause celebre. Here is a handsome man, picturesque looking, a cripple into the bargain, a man leading an absolutely secluded life, and the very last person in the world one would expect to have enemies. He is very rich, too, and lives in one of the finest houses in the West End of London. He disappears in the most mysterious manner. Unless I am greatly mistaken, within the next two or three days London will be disclosing this matter and the newspapers will be full of it."
"I am afraid you are right," Venner admitted; "but I don't see how we are going to gain any thing by telling the police what we have found out. As you know, I investigated this matter solely in the interests of the woman I love, and with the one intention of freeing her life from the cloud that hangs over it. In any other circumstances I would go direct to Scotland Yard and tell them everything we know. But not now. I think you will agree with me that we should go our own way and say nothing to anybody about our discovery."
The events of the next day or so fully verified the fears of the two friends. The Bates case appealed powerfully to the large section of the public who delight in crimes of the mysterious order. Within a couple of days most of the papers were devoting much space to the problem. It so happened, too, that the week was an exceedingly barren one from a news point of view; therefore, the Bates case had the place of honor. There was absolutely no fresh information, not a single line that pointed to a definite solution of the problem. Indeed, the ingenious way in which most of the papers contrived to fill some three columns a day was beyond all praise. But both Gurdon and Venner searched in vain for a scrap of information that threw any light on the identity of the missing man. His habits were described at some length, a tolerably accurate description of his household appeared in several quarters; but nothing very much beyond that. The missing man's servants were exceedingly reticent, and if they knew anything whatever about their master they had preferred to confide it to the police in preference to the inquisitive reporter. Not a single relative turned up, though it was generally understood that the missing man was possessed of considerable property.
It was on the third day that Venner began to see daylight. One of the evening papers had come out with a startling letter which seemed to point to a clue, though it conveyed nothing to the police. Venner came round to Gurdon's rooms with a copy of the evening paper in his hand. He laid it before his friend and asked him to read the letter, which, though it contained but a few lines, was of absorbing interest to both of them.
"You see what this man says?" Venner remarked. "He appears to be a workingman who got himself into trouble over a drinking bout. Two days ago he was charged before the magistrate with being drunk and disorderly, and was sentenced to a fine of forty shillings or fourteen days' imprisonment. According to his story, the money was not forthcoming, therefore he was taken to gaol. At the end of two days his friends contrived to obtain the necessary cash and he was released. He writes all this to show how it was that he was entirely ignorant of the startling events which had taken place in the Bates case. This man goes on to say that on the night when Mr. Bates disappeared he was passing Portsmouth Square on his way home from some public-house festivities. He was none too sober, and has a hazy recollection of what he saw. He recollects quite clearly, now that he has time to think the matter over, seeing a cab standing at the corner of the Square within three doors of No. 75. At the same time, a telegraph boy called at No. 75 with a message. It was at this point that the narrator of the story stopped to light his pipe. It was rather a windy evening, so that he used several matches in the process. Anyway, he stood there long enough to see the telegraph boy deliver his message to a gentleman who appeared to have great difficulty in getting to the door. No sooner had the telegraph boy gone than the gentleman crept slowly and painfully down the steps and walked in the direction of the cab. Then somebody stepped from the cab and accosted the cripple, who, beyond all question, was the mysterious Bates. The writer of the letter says that he heard a sort of cry, then someone called out something in a language that he was unable to understand. He rather thinks it was Portuguese, because among his fellow workmen is a Portuguese artisan, and the language sounded something like his."
"We are getting on," Gurdon said. "That little touch about the Portuguese language clearly points to Fenwick."
"Of course, it does," Venner went on. "But that is not quite all. The letter goes on to say that something like a struggle took place, after which the cripple was bundled into the cab, which was driven away. It was a four-wheeled cab, and the peculiarity about it was that it had india rubber tires, which is a most unusual thing for the typical growler. The author of all this information says that the struggle appeared to be of no very desperate nature, for it was followed by nothing in the way of a call for help. Indeed, the workman who is telling all this seemed to think that it was more or less in the way of what he calls a spree. He said nothing whatever to the police about it, fearing perhaps that he himself was in no fit state to tell a story; and, besides, there was just the possibility that he might find himself figuring before a magistrate the next morning. That is the whole of the letter, Gurdon, which though it conveys very little to the authorities, is full of pregnant information for ourselves. At any rate, it tells us quite clearly that Fenwick was at the bottom of this outrage."
"Quite right," Gurdon said. "The little touch about the Portuguese language proves that. Is there anything else in the letter likely to be useful to us?"
"No, I have given you the whole of it. Personally, the best thing we can do is to go and interview the writer, who has given his name and address. A small, but judicious, outlay in the matter of beer will cause him to tell us all we want to know."
It was somewhere in the neighborhood of the Docks where the man who had given his name as James Taylor was discovered later on in the day. He was a fairly intelligent type of laborer, who obtained a more or less precarious livelihood as a docker. As a rule, he worked hard enough four or five hours a day when things were brisk, and, in slack periods when money was scarce, he spent the best part of his day in bed. He had one room in a large tenement house, where the friends found him partially dressed and reading a sporting paper. He was not disposed to be communicative at first, but the suggestion of something in the way of liquid refreshment stimulated his good-nature.
"Right you are," he said. "I've had nothing today besides a mouthful of breakfast, and when I've paid my rent I shall have a solitary tanner left; but I 'ope you gents are not down here with a view of getting a poor chap into trouble?"
Gurdon hastened to reassure him on that head. He was balancing a half-sovereign thoughtfully on his forefinger.
"We are not going to hurt you at all," he said. "We want you to give us a little information. In proof of what I say you can take this half-sovereign and obtain what liquid refreshment you require. Also, you can keep the change. If you don't like my proposal, there is an end of the matter."
"Don't be short, guv'nor," Taylor responded. "I like that there proposition of yours so well that I'm going to take it; 'alf-sovereigns ain't so plentiful as all that comes to. If you just wait a moment, I'll be back in 'alf a tick. Then I'll tell you all you want to know."
The man was back again presently, and professed himself ready to answer any questions that might be put to him. His manner grew just a little suspicious as Venner mentioned the name of Bates.
"You don't look like police," he said. "Speaking personally, I ain't fond of 'em, and I don't want to get into trouble."
"We have no connection whatever with the police," Venner said. "In fact, we would rather not have anything to do with them. It so happens that we are both interested in the gentleman that you saw getting into the cab the other night. I have read your letter in the paper, and I am quite prepared to believe every word of it. The only thing we want to know is whether you saw the man in the cab—"
"Which one?" Taylor asked. "There were two blokes in the cab."
"This is very interesting," Venner murmured. "I shall be greatly obliged to you if you will describe both of them."
"I couldn't describe the one, guv'nor," Taylor replied. "His back was to me all the time, and when you come to think of it, I wasn't quite so clear in the head as I might have been. But I caught a glimpse of the other man's face; as he looked out of the cab the light of the lamp shone on his face. He'd a big cloak on, as far as I could judge, with the collar turned up about his throat, and a soft hat on his head. He knocks the hat off looking out of the cab window, then I see as 'is head was bald like a bloomin' egg, and yellow, same as if he had been painted. I can't tell you any more than that, not if you was to give me another 'alf-sovereign on the top of the first one."
"Just another question," Gurdon said. "Then we won't bother you any more. About what age do you suppose the man was?"
Taylor paused thoughtfully for a moment before he replied.
"Well, I should think he was about fifty-five or sixty," he said. "Looked like some sort of a foreigner."
"That will do, thank you," Venner said. "We will not detain you any longer. At the same time I should be obliged if you would keep this information to yourself; but, of course, if the police question you, you will have to speak. But a discreet silence on the subject of this visit of ours would be esteemed."
Taylor winked and nodded, and the friends departed, not displeased to get away from the stuffy and vitiated atmosphere of Taylor's room. On the whole, they were not dissatisfied with the result of their expedition. At any rate, they had now proof positive of the fact that Fenwick was at the bottom of the mysterious disappearance of the man called Bates.
"I don't quite see what we are going to do next," Venner said. "So far, we have been exceedingly fortunate to find ourselves in possession of a set of clues which would be exceedingly valuable to the police. But how are we going to use these clues is quite another matter. What do you suggest?"
"Keeping a close eye upon Fenwick at any rate. For that purpose it would not be a bad idea to employ a private inquiry agent. He need know nothing of what we are after."
Thereupon it was decided that Gurdon was to dine with Venner that night and go fully into the matter.
THE SECOND FINGER
It was, perhaps, fortunate for all concerned that, though Venner was so closely identified by the irony of Fate with the movements of Mark Fenwick, he was not known to the latter personally, though they had been almost side by side three years previous in Mexico. Therefore, it was possible for Venner to get a table in the dining-room quite close to that of the alleged millionaire. It was all the more fortunate, as things subsequently turned out, that Fenwick had returned to town that afternoon and had announced his intention of dining at the hotel the same evening. This information Venner gave to Gurdon when the latter turned up about half-past seven. Then the host began to outline the plan of campaign which he had carefully thought out.
"Fenwick is dining over there," he said. "He generally sits with his back to the wall, and I have had our table so altered that we can command all his movements. Vera, of course, will dine with him. Naturally enough, she will act as if we were absolute strangers to her. That will be necessary."
"Of course," Gurdon admitted. "But isn't it a strange thing that you should be an absolute stranger to Fenwick?"
"Well, it does seem strange on the face of it. But it is capable of the easiest explanation. You see, when I first met Vera, she was at school in a town somewhere removed from the Four Finger Mine. I saw a good deal of her there, and when finally she went up country, we were practically engaged. At her urgent request the engagement was kept a secret, and when I followed to the Mines it was distinctly understood that I should not call at Fenwick's house or make myself known to him except in the way of business. As it happens, we never did meet, and whenever I saw Vera it was usually by stealth. The very marriage was a secret one, and you may charge me fairly with showing great weakness in the matter. But there, I have told you the story before, and you must make the best of it. On the whole, I am glad things turned out as they did, for now I can play my cards in the game against Fenwick without his even suspecting that he has me for an opponent. It is certainly an advantage in my favor."
Venner had scarcely ceased speaking before Fenwick and Vera appeared. She gave one timid glance at Venner; then, averting her eyes, she walked demurely across to her place at the table. Fenwick followed, looking downcast and moody, and altogether unlike a man who is supposed to be the happy possessor of millions. His manner was curt and irritable, and he seemed disposed to find fault with everything. Venner noticed, too, that though the man ate very little he partook of far more champagne than was good for anyone. Thanks no doubt to the wine, the man's dark mood lifted presently, and he began chatting to Vera. The two men at the other table appeared to be deeply interested in their dinner, though, as a matter of fact, they were listening intently to every word that Fenwick was saying. He was talking glibly enough now about some large house in the country which he appeared to have taken for the winter months. Vera listened with polite indifference.
"In Kent," Fenwick was saying. "Not very far from Canterbury. A fine old house, filled with grand furniture, just the sort of place you'd like. I've made all arrangements, and the sooner we get away from London the better I shall be pleased."
"It will be rather dull, I fear," Vera replied. "I don't suppose that I shall get on very well with county people—"
"Hang the county people," Fenwick growled. "Who cares a straw for them? Not but what they'll come along fast enough when they hear that Mark Fenwick, the millionaire, is in their midst. Still, there is a fine park round the house, and you'll be able to get as much riding as you want."
Venner watching furtively saw that Vera was interested for the first time. He had not forgotten the fact that she was an exceedingly fine horsewoman; he recollected the glorious rides they had had together. Interested as he was in the mysterious set of circumstances which had wound themselves into his life, he was not without hope that this change would enable him to see more of Vera than was possible in London. In the lonely country he would be able to plan meetings with her; indeed, he had made up his mind to leave London as soon as Vera had gone. Moreover, in this instance, duty and inclination pointed the same way. If the mystery were to be solved and Vera freed from her intolerable burden, it would be essential that every movement of Fenwick's should be carefully watched. The only way to carry out this plan successfully would be to follow him into Kent.
"You heard that?" he murmured to Gurdon. "We must find out exactly where this place is, and then look out some likely quarters in the neighborhood. I must contrive to see Vera and learn her new address before she goes."
"No reason to worry about that," Gurdon said. "It will all be in the papers. The doings of these monied men are chronicled as carefully now as the movements of Royalty. It is any odds when you take up your Morning Post in the morning that you will know not only exactly where Fenwick is going to spend the winter, but get an exact history of the house. So far as I can see we might finish our dinner and go off to a theatre. We are not likely to hear any more to-night, and all this mystery and worry is beginning to get on my nerves. What do you say to an hour or two at the Gaiety?"
Venner pleaded for a few moments' delay. So far as he was personally concerned he felt very unlike the frivolity of the typical musical comedy; but still, he had finished his dinner by this time and was not disposed to be churlish. Fenwick had completed his repast also, and was sipping his coffee in an amiable frame of mind, heedless apparently of business worries of all kinds.
At the same moment a waiter came into the room and advanced to the millionaire's table with a small parcel in his hand.
"A letter for you, sir. An express letter which has just arrived. Will you be good enough to sign the receipt?"
"Confound the people," Fenwick growled. "Can't you leave me alone for half an hour when I am having my dinner? Take the thing up to my room. You sign it, Vera."
"I'll sign it, of course," Vera replied. "But don't you think you had better open the parcel? It may be of some importance. People don't usually send express letters at this time of night unless they are urgent. Or, shall I open it for you?"
The waiter had gone by this time, taking the receipt for the letter with him. With a gesture Fenwick signified to Vera that she might open the parcel. She cut the string and opened the flat packet, disclosing a small object in tissue paper inside. This she handed to Fenwick, who tore the paper off leisurely. Then the silence of the room was startled by the sound of an oath uttered in tones of intense fury.
"Curse the thing!" Fenwick cried. His yellow face was wet and ghastly now. The big purple veins stood out like cords on his forehead. "Am I never to be free from the terror of this mystery? Where did it come from? How could it be possible when the very man I have most reason to dread is no longer in a position—"
The speaker broke off suddenly, as if conscious that he was betraying himself. The little object in the tissue paper lay on the table in such a position that it was impossible for Venner or Gurdon to see what it was, but they could give a pretty shrewd guess. Venn or looked inquiringly at his friend.
"Well, what do you suppose it is?" he asked.
"Personally, I have no doubt whatever as to what it is," Gurdon said. "I am as sure as if I held the thing in my hand at the present moment. It is the second finger which at some time or another was attached to Fenwick's hand."
"You've got it," Venner said. "Upon my word, the farther we go with this thing the more complicated it becomes. No sooner do we clear up one point than a dozen fresh ones arrive. Now, is not this amazing? We know perfectly well that the man whom we have to call Bates has been kidnapped by our interesting friend opposite, and yet here the second warning arrives just as if Bates were still free to carry out his vengeance. What can one make of it?"
"Well, the logical conclusion is that Bates has an accomplice. I fail to see any other way of accounting for it."
Fenwick still sat there mopping his heated face and turning a disgusted eye upon the little object on the table. He seemed to be terribly distressed and upset, though there was nothing like the scene on the previous occasion, and, doubtless, few diners besides Venner and Gurdon knew that anything out of the common was taking place there. But they were watching everything carefully; they noted Fenwick's anxious face, they could hear his stertorous breathing. Though he had dined so freely he called for brandy now, a large glass of which he drank without any addition whatever. Then his agitation became less uncontrollable and a little natural color crept into his cheeks. Without glancing at it he slipped the little object on the table into his pocket and rose more or less unsteadily to his feet.
"I have had a shock," he muttered. "I don't deny that I have had a terrible shock. You don't understand it, Vera, and I hope you never will. I wish I had never touched that accursed mine. I wish it had been fathoms under the sea before I heard of it, but the mischief has been done now, and I shall have to go on to the end. You can stay here if you like—as to me, I am going to my own room. I want to be alone for a bit and think this matter out."
Fenwick lurched across the room with the air of a man who is more or less intoxicated, though his head was clear enough and his faculties undimmed. Still, his limbs were trembling under him and he groped his way to the door with the aid of a table here and there. It was perhaps rather a risky thing to do, but Venner immediately crossed over and took the seat vacated so recently by Fenwick. Vera welcomed him shyly, but it was palpable that she was ill at ease. She would have risen had not Venner detained her.
"Don't you think you are very imprudent?" she said. "Suppose he should change his mind and come back here again?"
"I don't think there is much chance of that," Venner said, grimly. "Fenwick will only be too glad to be by himself for a bit. But tell me, dear, what was it that gave him such a shock?"
"I don't understand it at all," Vera said. "It was something to do with that dreadful mine and the vengeance connected with it. This is the second time the same thing has happened within the last few days, and I fear that it will culminate sooner or later in some fearful tragedy. I have some hazy idea of the old legend, but I have almost forgotten what it is."
"I don't think you need worry about that," Venner said. "Though it will have to be spoken of again when the whole thing is cleared up; but now I wish to talk to you on more personal matters. Did I not understand Fenwick to say to-night that he was taking a large house somewhere in Kent?"
"That is his intention, I believe," Vera replied. "I understand it is a large, dull place in the heart of the country. Personally I am not looking forward to it with the least pleasure. Things are bad enough here in London, but there is always the comfortable feeling that one is protected here, whereas in a lonely neighborhood the feeling of helplessness grows very strong."
"You are not likely to be lonely or neglected," Venner smiled. "As soon as I have definitely ascertained where you are going, Gurdon and myself will follow. It is quite necessary that we should be somewhere near you; but, of course, if you object—"
But Vera was not objecting. Her face flushed with a sudden happiness. The knowledge that the man she loved was going to be so near her filled her with a sense of comfort.
"Don't you think it will be dangerous?" she asked.
"Not in the least," Venner said. "Don't forget that I am a stranger to Mark Fenwick, which remark applies with equal force to Gurdon. And if we take a fancy to spend a month or two hunting in the neighborhood of Canterbury, surely there is nothing suspicious in that. I am looking forward to the hunting as a means whereby we may manage to get some long rides together. And even if Fenwick does find it out, it will be easy to explain to him that you made my acquaintance on the field of sport."
"I am glad to hear you say that," Vera whispered. "I may be wrong, of course, but I feel that strange things are going to happen, and that I shall need your presence to give me courage."
Vera might have said more, but a waiter came into the room at the same moment with an intimation to the effect that Mr. Fenwick desired to speak to her. She flitted away now, and there was nothing for it but for Venner to fall in with Gurdon's suggestion of a visit to the theatre.
It was not long after breakfast on the following morning that Venner walked into Gurdon's rooms with a new proposal.
"I have been thinking out this confounded thing," he said. "I have an idea; as you know, the house where you had your adventure the other night is empty, it has occurred to me that perhaps it may be to let. If so, we are going to call upon the agent in the characters of prospective tenants. What I want to do is to ascertain if possible the name of the owner of the premises."
"I see," Gurdon said thoughtfully. "I am ready for you now."
It was some little time before the friends got on the right track, but they found the right man at length. The agent was not quite sure whether he was in a position at present to make any definite arrangements on the part of the owner.
"I presume he wants to let the house," he said, "though I have no instructions, and it is some considerable time since I have heard from my client. You see, he lives abroad."
"Can't you give us his address," Venner asked, "and let us write to him direct? It would save time."
"That I fear is equally impossible," the agent explained. "My client wanders about from place to place, and I haven't the remotest idea where to find him. However, I'll do my best."
"You might tell us his name," Venner said.
"Certainly. His name is Mr. Le Fenu."
"What do you make of it?" Venner said, when once more he and Gurdon were in the street. "I see you have forgotten what the name of Le Fenu implies. Don't you remember my telling you that the original owner of the Four Finger Mine who was murdered by the Dutchman, Van Fort, was called Le Fenu?"
AN UNEXPECTED MOVE
On the whole the discovery was startling enough. It proved to demonstration that the man who called himself Bates must have been in some way connected with the one-time unfortunate owner of the Four Finger Mine. There was very little said as the two friends walked down the street together. Venner paused presently, and stood as if an idea had occurred to him.
"I have a notion that something will come of this," he said. "I had a great mind to go back to the agent's and try to get the key of the empty house under some pretext or another."
"What do you want it for?" Gurdon asked.
"I am not sure that I want it for anything," Venner admitted. "I have a vague idea, a shadowy theory, that I am on the right track at last, but I may be wrong, especially as I am dealing with so unscrupulous an opponent as Fenwick. All the same, I think I'll step round to that agent's office this afternoon and get the key. Sooner or later, I shall want a town house, and I don't see why that Portsmouth Square place shouldn't suit me very well."
Venner was true to his intention, and later in the afternoon was once more closeted with the house-agent.
"Do you really want to let the place?" he asked.
"Well, upon my word, sir, I'm not quite sure," the agent replied. "As I said before, it is such a difficult matter to get in contact with the owner."
"But unless he wanted to let it, why did he put it in your hands?" Venner asked. "Still, you can try to communicate with him, and it will save time if you let me have the keys to take measurements and get estimates for the decorating, and so on. I will give you any references you require."
"Oh, there can be no objection to that," the agent replied. "Yes, you can have the keys now, if you like. You are not in the least likely to run away with the place."
Venner departed with the keys in his possession, and made his way back to the hotel. He had hardly reached his own room before a waiter came in with a note for him. It was from Vera, with an urgent request that Venner would see her at once, and the intimation that there would be no danger in his going up to the suite of rooms occupied by Mark Fenwick. Venner lost no time in answering this message. He felt vaguely uneasy and alarmed. Surely, there must be something wrong, or Vera would not have sent for him in this sudden manner. He could not quite see, either, how it was that he could call at Fenwick's rooms without risk. However, he hesitated no longer, but knocked at the outer door of the self-contained rooms, which summons was presently answered by Vera herself.
"You can come in," she said. "I am absolutely alone. Mr. Fenwick has gone off in a great hurry with all his assistants, and my own maid will not be back for some little time."
"But is there no chance of Fenwick coming back?" Venner asked. "If he caught me here, all my plans would be ruined. My dear girl, why don't you leave him and come to me? I declare it makes me miserable to know that you are constantly in contact with such a man as that. It isn't as if you were any relation to him."
"Thank goodness, I am no relation at all," Vera replied. "It is not for my own sake that I endure all this humiliation."
"Then, why endure it?" Venner urged.
"Because I cannot help myself. Because there is someone else whom I have to look after and shield from harm. Some day you will know the whole truth, but not yet, because my lips are sealed. But I did not bring you here to talk about myself. There are other and more urgent matters. I am perfectly sure that something very wrong is going on here. Not long after breakfast this morning, Mr. Fenwick was sitting here reading the paper, when he suddenly rose in a state of great agitation and began sending telegrams right and left. I am certain that there was terribly disturbing intelligence in that paper; but what it was, I, of course, cannot say. I have looked everywhere for a clue and all in vain. No sooner were the telegrams dispatched than the three or four men here, whom Mr. Fenwick calls his clerks, gathered all his papers and things together and sent them off by express vans. Mr. Fenwick told me that everything was going to the place that he had taken at Canterbury, but I don't believe that, because none of the boxes were labelled. Anyway, they have all gone, and I am instructed to remain here until I hear from Mr. Fenwick again."
Venner began to understand; in the light of his superior knowledge it was plain to him that these men had been interrupted in some work, and that they feared the grip of the law. He expressed a wish to see the paper which had been the cause of all the trouble. The news-sheet lay on the floor where Fenwick had thrown it, and Venner took it up in his hands.
"This has not been disturbed?" he asked.
"No," Vera replied. "I thought it best not to. I have looked at both sides of the paper myself, but I have not turned over a leaf. You see, it must have been on one side or another of this sheet that the disturbing news appeared, and that is why I have not looked further. Perhaps you will be able to pick out the particular paragraph? There is plenty of time."
Very carefully Venner scanned the columns of the paper. He came at length to something that seemed to him to bear upon the sudden change of plans which appeared to have been forced upon Fenwick. The paragraph in question was not a long one, and emanated from the New York correspondent of the Daily Herald.
"We are informed," the paragraph ran, "that the police here believe that at length they are on the track of the clever gang of international swindlers who were so successful in their bank forgeries two years ago. Naturally enough, the authorities are very reticent as to names and other details, but they declare that they have made a discovery which embraces what is practically a new crime, or, at any rate, a very ingenious variant upon an old one. As far as we can understand, the police were first put on the track by the discovery of the fact that the head of the gang had recently transported some boxes of gold dust to London. Quite by accident this discovery was made, and, at first, the police were under the impression that the gold had been stolen. When, however, they had proved beyond the shadow of a doubt that the gold in question was honestly the property of the gang, they naturally began to ask themselves what it was intended for. As the metal could be so easily transferred into cash, what was the object of the gang in taking the gold to Europe? This question the Head of the Criminal Investigation Department feels quite sure that he has successfully solved. The public may look for startling developments before long. Meanwhile, two of the smartest detectives in New York are on their way to Europe, and are expected to reach Liverpool by the Lusitania to-day."
"There is the source of the trouble," Venner said. "I hardly care about telling you how I know, because the less information you have on this head the better. And I don't want your face to betray you to the sharp eyes of Mark Fenwick. But I am absolutely certain that that paragraph is the source of all the mischief."
"I daresay it is," Vera sighed. "I feel so terribly lonely and frightened sometimes, so afraid of something terrible happening, that I feel inclined to run away and hide myself. What shall I do now, though I am afraid you cannot help me?"
"I can help you in a way you little dream of," Venner said through his teeth. "For the present, at any rate, you had better do exactly as Fenwick tells you. I am not going to leave you here all alone, when we have a chance like this; after dinner, I am going to take you to a theatre. Meanwhile, I must leave you now, as I have much work to do, and there is no time to be lost. It will be no fault of mine if you are not absolutely free from Mark Fenwick before many days have passed."
Venner sat alone at dinner, keeping a critical eye open for whatever might be going on around him. He had made one or two little calculations as to time and distance, and, unless his arithmetic was very far out, he expected to learn something useful before midnight.
The meal had not proceeded very far when two strangers came in and took their places at a table close by. They were in evening dress and appeared to be absolutely at home, yet, in some subtle way, they differed materially from the other diners about them. On the whole, they might have passed for two mining engineers who had just touched civilisation after a long lapse of time. Venner noticed that they both ate and drank sparingly, and that they seemed to get through their dinner as speedily as possible. They went off to the lounge presently to smoke over their coffee, and Venner followed them. He dropped into a seat by their side.
"You have forgotten me, Mr. Egan," he said to the smaller man of the two. "Don't you remember that night on the Bowery when I was fortunate enough to help you to lay hands on the notorious James Daley? You were in rather a tight place, I remember."
"Bless me, if it isn't Mr. Venner," the other cried. "This is my friend, Grady. I daresay you have heard of him."
"Of course I have," Venner replied. "Mr. Grady is quite as celebrated in his way as you are yourself. But you see, there was a time when I took a keen interest in crime and criminals, and some of my experiences in New York would make a respectable volume. When I heard that you were coming over here—"
"You heard we were coming here?" Egan exclaimed. "I should very much like to know how you heard that."
"Oh, you needn't be alarmed," Venner laughed. "Nobody has betrayed your secret mission to Europe, though, strangely enough, I fancy I shall be in a position to give you some considerable assistance. I happened to see a paragraph in the Herald to-day alluding to a mysterious gang of swindlers who had hit upon a novel form of crime—something to do with gold dust, I believe it was. At the end of the paragraph it stated that two of the smartest detectives in the New York Force were coming over here, and, therefore, it was quite fair to infer that you might be one of them. In any case, if you had not been, I could have introduced myself to your colleagues and used your name."
Egan looked relieved, but he said nothing.
"You are quite right to be reticent," Venner said. "But, as I remarked before, I think I can help you in this business. You hoped to lay hands on the man you wanted in this hotel."
"I quite see you know something," Egan replied. "As a matter of fart, we are a long way at present from being in a position to lay hands on our man with a reasonable hope of convicting him. There will be a great deal of watching to do first, and a lot of delicate detective work. That is the worst of these confounded newspapers. How that paragraph got into the Herald, I don't know, but it is going to cause Grady and myself a great deal of trouble. To be quite candid, we did expect to find our man here, but when he had vanished as he did, just before we arrived, I knew at once that somebody must have been giving him information."
"Do I know the name of the man?" Venner asked.
"If you don't, I certainly can't tell you," Egan said. "One has to be cautious, even with so discreet a gentleman as yourself."
"That's very well," Venner said. "But it so happens that I am just as much interested in this individual as yourself. Now let me describe him. He is short and stout, he is between fifty and sixty years of age, he has beady black eyes, and a little hooked nose like a parrot. Also, he has an enormous bald head, and his coloring is strongly like that of a yellow tomato. If I am mistaken, then I have no further interest in the matter."
"Oh, you're not mistaken," Egan said. "That is our man right enough. But tell me, sir, do you happen to know what his particular line is just at present?"
"I have a pretty good idea," Venner said; "but I am not quite sure as yet. I have been making a few inquiries, and they all tend to confirm my theory, but I am afraid I cannot stay here discussing the matter any longer, as I have an important appointment elsewhere. Do you propose to stay at the Empire Hotel for any time?"
Egan replied that it all depended upon circumstances. They were in no way pressed for time, and as they were there on State business they were not limited as to expenses. With a remark to the effect that they might meet again later on in the evening, Venner went on his way and stood waiting for Vera at the foot of the stairs. She came down presently, and they entered a cab together.
"We won't go to a theatre at all," Venner said. "We will try one of the music halls, and we shall be able to talk better there; if we have a box we shall be quite secure from observation."
"It is all the same to me," Vera smiled. "I care very little where I go so long as we are together. How strange it is that you should have turned up in this extraordinary way!"
"There is nothing strange about it at all," Venner said. "It is only Fate making for the undoing of the criminal. It may be an old-fashioned theory of mine, but justice always overtakes the rogue sooner or later, and Fenwick's time is coming. I have been the instrument chosen to bring about his downfall, and save you from your terrible position. If you would only confide in me—"
"But I can't, dear," Vera said. "There is somebody else. If it were not for that somebody else, I could end my troubles to-morrow. But don't let us talk about it. Let us have two delightful hours together and thank Providence for the opportunity."
The time passed all too quickly in the dim seclusion of one of the boxes; indeed, Vera sat up with a start when the orchestra began to play the National Anthem. It seemed impossible that the hour was close upon twelve. As to the performance itself, Vera could have said very little. She had been far too engrossed in her companion to heed what was taking place upon the stage.
"Come along," Venner said. "It has been a delightful time, but all too brief. I am going to put you in a cab and send you back to the hotel, as I have to go and see Gurdon."
Vera made no demur to this arrangement, and presently was being conveyed back to the hotel, while Venner thoughtfully walked down the street. Late as it was, the usual crop of hoarse yelling newsboys were ranging the pavement and forcing their wares on the unwilling passers-by.
"Here you are, sir. 'Late Special.' Startling development of the Bates Case. The mystery solved."
"I'll take one of those," Venner said. "Here's sixpence for you, and you can keep the change. Call me that cab there."
THE HOUSE NEXT DOOR
Venner lost no time in reaching the rooms of his friend Gurdon, and was fortunate enough to find the latter at home. He was hard at work on some literary matter, but he pushed his manuscript aside as Venner came excitedly into the room.
"Well, what is it?" he asked. "Anything fresh? But your face answers that question. Have you found Bates?"
"No, I haven't," Venner said; "but he seems to have been discovered. I bought this paper just now in Piccadilly, but I have not been able to look at it yet. It is stated here that the mystery has been solved."
"Hand it over," Gurdon cried excitedly. "Let's see if we can find it. Ah! here we are. The Press Association has just received a letter which appears to come from Mr. Bates himself. He says he is very much annoyed at all this fuss and bother in the papers, about his so-called kidnapping. He goes on to say that he was called to the Continent by pressing business, and that he had not even time to tell his servants he was going, as it was imperatively necessary that he should catch the midnight boat to Dieppe. The correspondent of the Press Association says that Mr. Bates has been interviewed by a foreign journalist, who is absolutely certain as to his identity. Moreover, an official has called at Mr. Bates' residence and found that his servants have had a letter from their master instructing them to join him at once, as he has let his house furnished for the next two months. Well, my dear man, that seems to be very satisfactory, and effectually disposes of the idea that Mr. Bates has been mysteriously kidnapped. I am rather sorry for this in a way, because it upsets all our theories and makes it necessary to begin our task all over again."
"I don't believe a word of it," Venner said. "I believe it's a gigantic bluff. I was coming to see you to-night in any case, but after buying that paper I came on here post haste. Now that story of the Press Association strikes me as being decidedly thin. Here is a man living comfortably at home who suddenly disappears in a most mysterious manner, and nothing is heard of him for some time. Directly the public began to regard it as a fascinating mystery and the miscreants realising what a storm they were likely to stir up, the man himself writes and says that it is all a mistake. Now, if he had come back and shown himself, it would have been quite another matter. Instead of doing that, he writes a letter from abroad, or sends a telegram or something of that kind, saying that he has been called away on urgent business. That might pass easily enough, but mark what follows. He writes to his servants asking them to join him at once in some foreign town because he has let his house for two months, and the new tenant wishes to get in without delay. Did ever anybody hear anything so preposterous? Just as if a man would let a house in that break-neck fashion without giving his servants due warning. The thing is not to be thought of."
"Then you think the servants have been lured away on a fools' errand?" Gurdon asked. "You don't think there is anybody in the house?"
"Oh, yes, I do," Venner said drily. "I have a very strong opinion that there are people in the house, and I also have a pretty shrewd idea as to who they are. It happens, also, that I am in a position to test my theory without delay."
"How do you propose to do that?" Gurdon asked.
"Quite easily. After I left you this afternoon I went back to the agent and succeeded in obtaining possession of the keys of the empty house in Portsmouth Square. My excuse was that I wanted to go into detail and to take measurements and the like. I need not remind you that Bates' house is next door to the empty one. In fact, there is no question that both houses belong to the same person. You will remember, also, the mysterious way in which that furniture vanished from the scene of your adventure."
"I remember," Gurdon said grimly. "But all the same I don't quite see what you are driving at."
"The thing is quite plain. That furniture did not vanish through the prosaic medium of a van, nor was it carted through the front door from one house to the other. The two houses communicated in some way, and it will be our business to find the door. As I have the keys and every legitimate excuse for being on the premises, we can proceed to make our investigations without the slightest secrecy, and without the least fear of awkward questions being asked. Now do you follow me?"
"I follow you fast enough. I suppose your game is to try and get into the next house by means of the door?"
"You have hit it exactly," Venner said. "That is precisely what I mean to do. We shall find it necessary to discover the identity of Mr. Bates' tenant."
"When are we going to make the experiment?" Gurdon asked.
"We are going to make it now," Venner replied. "We will have a cab as far as the Empire Hotel, so that I can get the keys. After that, the thing will be quite easy. Come along, and thank me for an exciting evening's adventure. I shall be greatly surprised if it is not even more exciting than the last occasion."
They were in the empty house at last. The windows were closed and shuttered, so that it was possible to use matches in the various rooms without attracting attention from the outside. But search how they would, for upwards of two hours, they could find no trace whatever of a means of communication between the two houses. They tapped the walls and sounded the skirtings, but without success. Venner paced the floor of the drawing-room moodily, racking his brains to discover a way out of the difficulty.
"It must be here somewhere," he muttered. "I am sure all that furniture was moved backwards and forwards through some door, and a wide one at that."
"Then it must be on the ground floor," Gurdon remarked. "When you come to think of it, some of that furniture was so heavy and massive that it would not go through an ordinary doorway, neither could it have been brought upstairs without the assistance of two or three men of great strength. We shall have to look for it in the hall; if we don't find it there, we shall have to give it up as a bad job and try some other plan."
"I am inclined to think you are right," Venner said. "Let us go down and see. At any rate, there is one consolation. If we fail to-night we can come again to-morrow."
Gurdon did not appear to be listening. He strode resolutely down the stairs into the hall and stood for some moments contemplating the panels before him. The panels were painted white; they were elaborately ornamented with wreaths of flowers after the Adams' style of decoration. Then it seemed to Gurdon that two pairs of panels, one above and one below, had at one time taken the formation of a doorway. He tapped on one of the panels, and the drumming of his fingers gave out a hollow sound. Gurdon tapped again on the next panel, but hardly any sound came in response. He looked triumphantly at Venner.
"I think we have got it at last," he said. "Do you happen to have a knife in your pocket? Unless I am greatly mistaken, the decorations around these panels come off like a bead. If you have a knife with you we can soon find out."
Venner produced a small knife from his pocket, and Gurdon attempted to insinuate the point of the blade under the elaborate moulding. Surely enough, the moulding yielded, and presently came away in Gurdon's hands.
"There you are," he said. "It is exactly as I told you. I thought at first that those mouldings were plaster, but you can see for yourself now that they are elaborately carved wood."
Venner laid the ornament aside and stood watching Gurdon with breathless interest while the latter attacked another of the mouldings. They came away quite easily, pointing to the fact that they must have been removed before within a very short period. Once they were all cleared away, Gurdon placed the point of the knife behind one of the panels, and it came away in his hands, disclosing beyond a square hole quite large enough for anybody to enter. Here was the whole secret exposed.
"Exactly what I thought," Gurdon said. "If I removed all the mouldings from the other three panels there would be space enough here to drive a trap through. I think we have been exceedingly lucky to get to the bottom of this. How clever and ingeniously the whole thing has been managed! However, I don't think there is any occasion for us to worry about moving any more of the panels, seeing that we can get through now quite easily. Wouldn't it be just as well to put all the lights out?"
"I haven't thought of that," Venner muttered. "On the whole, it would be exceedingly injudicious not to extinguish all the lights. We had better go on at once, I think, and get it over."
The house was reduced to darkness, and very quietly and cautiously the two adventurers crept through the panel. They were in the hall on the other side, of which fact there was no doubt, for they stepped at once off a marble floor on to a thick rug which deadened the sound of their footsteps. They had, naturally enough, expected to find the whole place in darkness, and the tenant of the house and his servants in bed. This, on the whole, would be in their favor, for it would enable them to take all the observations they required with a minimum chance of being disturbed.
A surprise awaited them from the first. True, the hall was in darkness, and, as far as they could judge, so was the rest of the house. But from somewhere upstairs came the unmistakable sound of a piano, and of somebody singing in a sweet but plaintive soprano voice. Gurdon clutched his companion by the arm.
"Don't you think it is just possible that we have made a mistake?" he whispered. "Isn't it quite on the cards that this is a genuine affair, and that we are intruding in an unwarrantable manner upon some respectable private citizen? I am bound to say that that beautiful voice does not suggest crime to me."
"We must go on now," Venner said, impatiently. "It won't do to judge by appearances. Let us go up the stairs and see what is going on for ourselves. If we are intruding, we will get away as speedily as possible."
Gurdon made no further objection, and together they crept up the stairs. There was no chance of their being surprised from behind by the servants, for they had taken good care to notice that the basement was all in darkness. They were getting nearer and nearer now to the sound of the music, which appeared to come from the drawing-room, the door of which was widely enough open for the brilliant light inside to illuminate the staircase. A moment later the music ceased, and someone was heard to applaud in a hoarse voice.
"Sing some more," the voice said. "Now don't be foolish, don't begin to cry again. Confound the girl, she makes me miserable."
"Do you recognise the voice?" Venner whispered.
"Lord! yes," was Gurdon's reply. "Why, it's Fenwick. No mistaking those tones anywhere. Now, what on earth does all this mean?"
"We shall find out presently," Venner said. "You may laugh at me, but I quite expected something of this kind, which was one of the reasons why I obtained the keys of the house."
"It's a most extraordinary thing," Gurdon replied. "Now isn't this man—Fenwick—one of the last persons in the world you would credit with a love of music?"
"I don't know," Venner said. "You never can tell. But don't let's talk. We are here more to listen than anything else. I wish we could get a glimpse of the singer."
"I am going to," Gurdon declared. "Unless I am greatly mistaken, I have made a discovery, too. Oh, I am not going to take any risk. Do you see that mirror opposite the door? It strikes me if I get close enough to look into it that I shall be able to see who is in the room without betraying my presence."
So saying, Gurdon crept forward till he was close enough to the mirror to get a very good idea of the room and its occupants. He could see a pale figure in white standing by a piano; he could see that Fenwick was sprawling in a big armchair, smoking a large cigar. Then he noticed that the girl crossed the floor and laid a slim hand half timidly, half imploringly, on Fenwick's shoulder.
"Why are you so unkind to me?" she said. "Why so cruel? How many times have you promised me that you will bring him back to me again? I get so tired of waiting, I feel so sad and weary, and at times my mind seems to go altogether."
"Have patience," Fenwick said. "If you will only wait a little longer he will come back to you right enough. Now go to the piano and sing me another song before I go to bed. Do you hear what I say?"
The last words were harshly uttered; the girl reeled back as if fearing a blow. Gurdon standing there clenched his fists impulsively; he had considerable difficulty in restraining himself.
"Very well," she said; "just one more, and then I will go to bed, for I am so tired and weary."
Once more the sweet pathetic voice rang out in some simple song; the words gradually died away, and there was silence. Gurdon had barely time to slip back to the head of the stairs before the girl came out and made her way to the landing above. Standing just below the level of the floor, Venner gazed eagerly at the pretty tired face and mournful blue eyes. He grasped his companion by the arm in a grip that was almost painful.
"We are getting to it," he said. "It was a good night's work coming here to-night. Do you mean to say you don't notice the likeness? Making due allowance for the difference in height and temperament, that poor girl is the image of my wife."
"I must have been a dolt not to have noticed it before," Gurdon said. "Now that you mention it, the likeness is plain enough. My dear fellow, can't you see in this a reason for your wife's reticence in speaking of the past?"
There was no time to reply, for the sinister evil face of Fenwick appeared in the doorway, and he called aloud in Spanish some hoarse command, which was answered from above by someone, in the same language. Gurdon whispered to his companion, with a view to ascertaining what had been said.
"You will see for yourself in a minute," Venner said in an excited whisper. "You are going to have another surprise. You wanted to know just now what had become of Bates. Unless I am greatly mistaken, you will be able to judge for yourself in a few moments. I believe the man to be a prisoner in his own house."
THE WHITE LADY AGAIN
It was perhaps an imprudent thing for the two friends to remain there, exposed as they were to the danger of discovery at any moment; but, so completely were they fascinated by what was going on about them, that they had flung caution to the winds. One thing was in their favor, however; there was not much likelihood of their being attacked from below, seeing that all the servants had gone to bed; unless, perhaps, some late comer entered the house. Still, the risk had to be run, and so they stood there together, waiting for the next move. It was Venner who spoke first.
"I cannot get over the extraordinary likeness of that girl to my wife," he said. "Is she anything like the woman you saw next door? I mean the poor half-demented creature who happened to come into the room when you were talking with the owner?"
"Why, of course, it is the same girl," Gurdon replied.
"Then I am sure she is Vera's sister. I'll ask her about it the first time I have an opportunity. Be silent and get a little lower down the stairs. There is somebody coming from the top of the house. We can see here without being seen."
Assuredly there were sounds emanating from the top of the house. A voice was raised in angry expostulation, followed by other voices morose and threatening. As far as the listeners could judge, two men were dragging a third down the stairs against his will. But for that, the house was deadly silent; the watchers could hear the jingle of a passing cab bell, a belated foot passenger whistled as he went along. It seemed almost impossible to believe that so close to light and law and order and the well-being of the town a strange tragedy like this should be in progress; hidden from the eye of London, by mere skill of brick and mortar, this strange thing was going on. Venner wondered to himself how many such scenes were taking place in London at the same moment.
But he had not much time for his meditation, for the shuffling of feet came closer. There were no more sounds of expostulation now; only the heavy breathing of three people, as if the captive had ceased to struggle and was making but a passive resistance. Then there emerged on the landing the figure of the handsome cripple with a guardian on either side. His face was no longer distorted with pain; rather was it white with an overpowering anger—his eyes shone like points of flame. On his right side Venner and Gurdon recognised the figure of the man in the list slippers—the man who had been handling the sovereigns in Fenwick's rooms. His comrade was a stranger, though of the same type, and it seemed to Venner that anyone would have been justified in repudiating either of them as an acquaintance. It was perfectly evident that the cripple came against his will, though he was struggling no longer. Probably the condition of his emaciated frame had rendered the task of his captors an easy one. They dragged him, limp and exhausted, into the drawing-room where Fenwick was seated and they stood in the doorway awaiting further instructions.
"You needn't stay there," Fenwick growled. "If I want you I can call. You had better go back to your cards again."
The two men disappeared up the stairs, and just for a moment there was silence in the drawing-room. It was safe for Venner and his companion now to creep back to the drawing-room door and take a careful note of what was going on. With the aid of a friendly mirror on the opposite side of the room, it was possible to see and note everything. The cripple had fallen into a chair, where he sat huddled in a heap, his hand to his head, as if some great physical pain racked him. His heavy breathing was the only sound made, except the steady puffing of Fenwick's cigar. A fit of anger gripped Venner for the moment; he would have liked to step in and soundly punish Fenwick for his brutality. Doubtless the poor crippled frame was racked with the pain caused by the violence of his late captors.
But under that queer exterior was a fine spirit. Gradually the cripple ceased to quiver and palpitate; gradually he pulled himself up in his chair and faced his captor. His face was still deadly white, but it was hard and set now; there was no sign of fear about him. He leaned forward and stared Fenwick between the eyes.