"You mean you won't!"
"Not at all. If I knew anything of this young lady who, you said, died in my wife's bedroom in Stretton Street, and at whose bedside you and I stood together, I would tell you. But I really don't."
He tossed his cigarette hastily out of the open window.
"No," he added. "I won't hear any more. I haven't the time or the inclination to listen to the wanderings of any insane person. I've had enough!"
"And so have I!" I retorted. "You are trying to mislead me by affecting ignorance of my very existence, but I don't intend that you shall escape!" I added, again raising my voice.
"Hush, please," he said in a calmer tone. "My wife may overhear."
"I don't care!" I cried in desperation. "You never dreamed that I should arise against you, as I have. You are not fair towards me! If you revealed to me in confidence the reason you gave me that bribe of five thousand pounds, then I, on my part, would have played the straight game."
"My dear sir, play whatever game you like. It is immaterial to me whether straight or crooked. I don't know anything about what you have been talking, and you have only wasted your breath and got out of temper for nothing."
Again I looked him straight in the face. There was no doubt that the strain of his clever denials was telling upon him. His dark complexion had paled; in his eyes there was a fierce, haunted look as that of a man who was straining every effort to remain calm under the gravest circumstances.
"I have no game to play," I declared. "I only demand the truth. Why was I invited into your house in Stretton Street to be present as witness at the poor girl's death?"
"I don't know. Find out for yourself, my dear Mr. Garfield," laughed the rich man. "I have no time to discuss this silly affair further. I'm sorry you have troubled to come out from London to see me. But really yours has been a fool's errand," and he turned towards the door.
"A fool's errand!" I echoed. "I am no fool and my errand is in deep earnestness. You may try to befool me, but I tell you that I will leave no stone unturned to solve the problem which you alone can explain."
"Well, get along with your work," he laughed in open defiance. "I have no further time to waste," and glancing at his watch he opened the door and abruptly left me.
CHAPTER THE FIFTH
THE CITY OF THE LILY
Full of indignation I remained for a few further moments in that wonderful old room, the room of faded tapestries with the marvellous painted ceiling.
From the window was afforded a glorious view over the gardens where, even in winter, tangled masses of flowers ran riot, while beyond lay the picturesque old red-roofed Tuscan city. Fiesole is distinctly a village of the wealthy, for the several colossal villas, built in the days of the Medici and even before, are now owned by rich foreigners, many of them English.
Oswald De Gex was one of them.
He had certainly foiled me. I gritted my teeth and vowed that, come what might, I would compel him to accept the inevitable and reveal to me the truth. I left the room and found my way alone across the great marble entrance hall, and out to where my taxi awaited me.
I drove back to Florence, where, at the station, I obtained my bag, and then went to the Savoy Hotel in the Piazza Vittorio Emanuele, where I engaged a room.
For a long time I sat at my window gazing down upon the busy square below, one of the centres of Florentine life. The bell of the Duomo was ringing, the shops were mostly closed, and all Florence was out in the streets, it being the Festa of the Befana, one of the greatest of all the ever-recurring festas of Florence. Street urchins were parading the thoroughfares with horns and wildly shouting, and there was an exchange of presents on every hand. At the Befana everyone in Firenze goes mad with good intentions.
The artistic side of the ancient Lily City did not interest me. I knew it of old. I had strolled on the Lung Arno, I had long ago with my father on a winter tour looked into the little shops of the coral and pearl merchants on the Ponte Vecchio, and I had taken my aperatif at Doney's or at Giacosa's. I was no stranger in Florence. My mind was fully occupied by the deep mystery of Gabrielle Engledue's death, and of the millionaire's flat denial that we had ever met before.
As I sat gazing across the square my anger and indignation increased. That De Gex should have dared to affect such entire ignorance surpassed belief.
I tried to form a scheme for further action, but could think of no way by which to force him to acknowledge our previous meeting. That the beautiful girl had died, and that her body had been cremated upon the false certificate I had given, was beyond all doubt. But what had been the rich man's motive?
How very perturbed and anxious he was I had noticed, though he put such a very brave face upon it and appeared so imperturbable. That he could treat such a serious matter as a joke utterly amazed me. Nevertheless, I recollected that he had long earned the reputation of being highly eccentric.
That afternoon I spent in wandering about the sunny streets of Florence. In the evening I dined at Bonciani's, in the Via Panzani, an unpretentious place at which I well remembered having eaten famously when on my last visit to Florence. Afterwards, having nothing to do, I went to a variety show at the Alhambra.
Florence was full of French and English visitors, as it always is in winter, so next day I formed a plan, and in pretence of desiring to rent a furnished flat, I called at the office of a well-known English house-agent in the Via Tornabuoni. My real object was to ascertain some facts concerning Oswald De Gex.
The English clerk became quite enthusiastic when I mentioned him.
"Mr. De Gex is greatly respected here," he hastened to tell me. "Since he bought the Villa Clementini outside Fiesole he has lived here for about eight months out of the twelve. Italians love rich people, and because of his wealth he is most popular. I see a good deal of him, for we act as agents for his property in Italy. He has quite a large estate—mostly wine-growing."
I mentioned that I had met him in London, and then asked in curiosity:
"Do you happen to know anything of his niece, a tall, very handsome, dark-haired girl, Miss Engledue?"
For a moment he reflected. Then he said:
"I recollect when up at the villa just before he went to London—that was about three months ago—seeing a tall, dark-haired young lady. She came into the library while I was chatting with him. But I don't know her name."
"Was she about twenty-one?" I asked eagerly.
"Yes—about that age," was his reply. "But, of course, I have no idea whether it is the young lady you mean."
"Had you seen her before?"
"I think so—once before. She was in the car in the Cascine with Mrs. De Gex."
"I wonder how I could discover more about her?" I asked. "Who would know?"
"Robertson, the butler, or Mr. Henderson, the secretary."
"The butler would be best," I said. "How could I approach him, do you think? I don't want to go up to the villa."
"It would be easy. He's often down at the Gambrinus in the afternoon. I frequently meet him there, and we have a drink and a chat."
"Would he be there this afternoon? I do wish you would introduce me," I urged. "The matter is an important personal one concerning myself."
"He might be down this afternoon—about four o'clock," replied the alert young Englishman who spoke Italian so well. "I'll look in there at four, if you will be about."
"I certainly will be there," I said, and then we went along to Giacosa's, where we each had that cocktail-like speciality known as a "piccolo."
At five minutes to four that afternoon I entered the big Gambrinus Cafe, which was nearly opposite my hotel on the other side of the piazza, and I took a seat just inside the door. The orchestra was playing, and the place was well filled with a gay cosmopolitan crowd, many of them winter idlers.
I looked around, wondering if the butler, Robertson, had arrived, and waited in patience for the coming of my friend.
Punctually at four he appeared, and greeting me, cast his eyes over the many small tables, until suddenly he exclaimed:
"Ah! There he is!"
We walked to a table some distance away, where a stoutish, grey-haired, clean-shaven Englishman was smoking a cigarette and reading a newspaper, with a glass of vermouth and seltzer before him.
"Hallo, Arthur!" he exclaimed as he raised his eyes to my friend.
"This is a friend of mine, Mr. Garfield," my companion said, introducing me, and then we sat down and began to chat. At last I could possess myself in patience no longer, and addressing the millionaire's butler, told him frankly that I was in search of information concerning the dark-haired young lady who had been guest up at the villa about three months ago.
"Oh! I suppose you mean Miss Thurston—the young American lady, don't you? But she's fair-haired!"
"The lady I mean is named Engledue," I replied.
"Oh! I don't know anyone of that name," was his reply. "Miss Thurston has stayed with us in London and down in Cornwall, and has been here several times. I fancy she's some relation of the mistress's. She first came to stay about three years ago, when she left school in Paris. Then she went home to America, and after six months came back again to us."
"You haven't any idea who her parents are—or where she lived in America?"
"She lived somewhere near Detroit, I believe. That's all I know about her. I believe her people are motor-car makers and extremely wealthy. At least, somebody said so—and she's very free with tips to the under-servants."
"When did she leave here?"
"When the master went to London. I was to go too, but I had influenza and had to remain here."
"And where was Mrs. De Gex?" I inquired.
"She was already at Stretton Street. She and the little boy went to London early in October, but came back at the end of the month."
Then I questioned the estimable Robertson concerning the domestic happiness of his master. I said I had heard rumours in London of matrimonial differences.
"Well, that's a lie," he replied quickly. "There isn't a pair in the whole of London Society who are more devoted to each other."
This greatly surprised me after the words that had fallen from the millionaire's lips.
Again I referred to the mysterious Gabrielle whom I described as minutely as I was able, and apparently my description fitted that of Rose Thurston, save for the colour of her hair.
"You have no idea where she is, I suppose?"
"Not the slightest. Back in America, perhaps. She seems to come over every year."
"I wonder if you could find out her address?" I asked. "If you could, it would be of very great service to me," and I handed him my card, expressing a hope that he would refrain from mentioning the matter to his master.
"I'll try," he said. "But I fear I shan't succeed. Mr. Henderson, the master's secretary, would know, of course."
The point at issue now was whether the young American girl, who had been the millionaire's guest at the villa, and Gabrielle Engledue were actually one and the same person. If they were, then I had made one step towards the solution of the enigma.
I confess to utter bewilderment. My brain was still confused. Sometimes my skull seemed wrapped in cotton wool. From a mere unimportant person in the world of electrical engineering I had suddenly become a man upon whom rested a great and criminal responsibility!
In that huge, garish cafe, with its great arc lamps glowing though night had not yet fallen, and with a noisy orchestra playing selections from the latest crazes of music from the revues in London, I sat with a perfectly open mind. I had been the victim of some extremely clever plot. But of its motive, of its ramifications, or of its conception, I had no knowledge. Even my wildest imagination was at fault.
All I knew was that the sallow-faced De Gex—the millionaire who lived up at the huge Villa Clementini—had plotted against the handsome girl, and she had died in his wife's bedroom in Stretton Street.
"Well, Mr. Robertson, how can I find out anything more about Miss Thurston? Give me your advice."
"I'll try and see what I can do," he said. "Perhaps I may be able to get a glance at the mistress's address book. I have seen it. I'll try."
"Yes—do!" I said very anxiously. "It means so very much to me."
I hesitated. My intention was to mislead both of my companions.
"Well," I said with a laugh, "the fact is, I—I'm very fond of her!"
Both men exchanged glances. Then they smiled, almost imperceptibly, I know, but it struck them as humorous that I had fallen in love with the daughter of a wealthy American.
"Of course I'm not yet certain whether she is the same lady," I went on. "She may not be. But on calm consideration I believe she is. The description you give of her is exact."
"Well," exclaimed the butler, "I'll see if I can get at the address book. She keeps it in a drawer in her boudoir, which is usually locked. But sometimes she leaves it open. At any rate, I'll see what I can do and let you know."
I thanked him and told him that I was staying at the Savoy. Then I was compelled to discuss with the estate-agent's clerk the pretended renting of an apartment out by the Porta Romana, which, he said, was vacant.
On the following day, in order to still sustain the deception, I went and viewed the place, and found it really quite comfortable and very reasonable. But, of course, I was compelled to express dislike of it. Whereupon my friend promised to find me another.
Day after day I waited in Florence, hoping against hope that Robertson would be able to furnish me with Miss Thurston's address. But though I saw him several times he reported that the drawer containing the address book was still locked.
Mr. De Gex had gone to Rome, and was away for three days. The British Ambassador was giving some official function and the millionaire had been invited. Indeed, I read all about it in the Nazione.
On the fourth day he returned, for I saw him in his big yellow car driving along the Via Calzajoli. An elegant Italian, the young Marchese Cerretani, was seated at his side, and both were laughing together.
Twice I had been up to the Villa Clementini, and wandered around its high white walls which hid the beautiful gardens from the public gaze. Surely there was no fairer spot in all sunny Italy than that chosen by the rich man as his abode. To the hundreds of visitors of all nations, who came up by train to Fiesole from Florence to lunch or dine at the various pleasant little restaurants, the great imposing place was pointed out as the residence of the rich "Inglese"—the man who possessed more money than any of the most wealthy in the kingdom of Italy.
When I thought of that fateful night in Stretton Street, I waxed furious. Was it possible, that, by the possession of great riches, a man could commit crime with impunity? Perhaps what goaded me to desperation more than anything was the foul trick that had been played upon me—the administration of that drug which had caused me to lose all sense of my own being.
That subtle odour of pot-pourri had gripped me until I felt faint and inert beneath its perfume, and it often returned to me—but in fancy, of course.
In the winter sunshine I wandered about the busy, old-world streets of Florence, idling in the cafes, gazing into the many shop-windows of the dealers in faked pictures and faked antiques, while often my wandering footsteps led me into one or other of the "sights" of the city, all of which I had visited before—the National Museum at the Bargello, the Laurenziana Library, with its rows of priceless chained manuscripts, the Chiostro dello Scalzo, where Andrea del Sarto's wonderful frescoes adorn the walls, or into the Palazzo Vecchio, or the galleries of the Pitti, or the Uffizi. I was merely killing time in the faint hope that the good-natured Robertson might get for me the information which, in the circumstances, I was naturally most eager to obtain.
In the course of my erratic wanderings through the grand old city, with its host of monuments of a glorious past, I was one morning passing the great marble-built cathedral and noticed a number of people entering. There seemed to be an unusual number of visitors, so having nothing to do I passed through the narrow door into the sombre gloom of the magnificent old place—one of the most noteworthy and most beautiful sacred buildings in the world.
At first, entering from the bright sunshine of the piazza, I could scarcely see, so dim was the huge interior, but slowly my vision, rather bad since my strange adventure, grew accustomed to the half-darkness, and I saw that upon the high altar there were many long candles burning in their brass sconces and before the high altar three priests in gorgeous vestments were kneeling.
In the great cavernous place, with its choir beneath the dome, I heard low prayers in Latin. Men and women who passed me bowed and crossed themselves while many knelt.
The glorious cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore, so called from the Lily which figures in the Arms of Florence—hence "the Lily City"—had always an attraction for me, as it has for every visitor to the ancient Tuscan capital. The stained glass of Ghiberti, the wonderful mosaics of Gaddo Gaddi, the frescoes of angels by Santi di Tito, and the beautiful pictures by the great mediaeval masters, all are marvellous, and worth crossing the world to see.
From before the altar a long spiral mist of incense was rising, and about me as I stood in the centre of the enormous interior, many visitors were passing out from the dim religious gloom into the light of the open doorway.
Suddenly my eyes caught sight of a countenance.
I held my breath, standing rooted to the spot. What I saw staggered belief. Was it only a chimera of my unbalanced imagination—or was it actual fact?
For a few seconds I remained undecided. Then, aghast and amazed, I became convinced that it was a stern reality.
The mystery of the affair at Stretton Street became in that single moment a problem even more than ever bewildering.
CHAPTER THE SIXTH
Kneeling before Donatello's magnificent picture of the Virgin over one of the side altars, her outline dimly illuminated by the light of many candles, was a slim, dark-haired young woman in deep mourning. Her head was bowed in an attitude of great devotion, but a few moments later, when she raised her face, I stood rooted to the spot.
The countenance was that of the dead girl Gabrielle Engledue!
An involuntary exclamation left my lips, and a woman standing near me heard me, and wondered.
Kneeling beside the girl in black was a thin-faced, black-haired Italian of about forty-five. He was somewhat handsome, though a sinister expression played about his lips.
I watched the pair for several minutes, wondering whether in my brain, unbalanced as it had been, the scene was a mere chimera on my part and that, after all, the girl only slightly resembled the victim at Stretton Street.
The latter I had not seen in life, and death always alters the features. Nevertheless, the sudden encounter was most startling, and from where I stood behind a great marble column I watched them.
At last both rose and crossing themselves piously, walked slowly to the door. I followed them. It surely could not be that the girl whose death certificate I had forged, and whose body had been reduced to ashes, was actually alive and well! I recollected that sum of five thousand pounds, and the strange adventures which had befallen me after I had accepted the bribe to pose as a doctor, and certify that death had been due to natural causes.
Outside in the bright sunlight of the Piazza, I obtained a full view of her. Her rather shabby black was evidently of good material, but her face struck me as distinctly strange. The expression in her dark luminous eyes was fixed, as though she were fascinated and utterly unconscious of all about her. She walked mechanically, without interest, and utterly heedless of where she went. Her companion's hand was upon her arm as she crossed to the Via Calzajoli, and I wondered if she were blind.
I had never before seen such a blank, hopeless expression in a woman's eyes.
The man, on the contrary, was shrewd and alert. His close-set eyes shot shrewd glances from beneath black bushy eyebrows with a keen, penetrating gaze, as though nothing escaped him. He seemed to be trying to hurry her, in fear of being recognized. He had not noticed me, hence in the bustle of the busy street I managed to get up close behind them, when of a sudden, I heard her exclaim:
"Not so fast! Really I can't walk so fast!"
She spoke in English!
Her companion, uncouth and heedless, still had his hand upon her arm, hurrying her along without slackening his pace. She seemed like a girl in a dream. Truly, she was very handsome, a strange tragic figure amid all the hubbub of Florence, the old-world city of noise and of narrow streets, where Counts and contadini rub shoulders, and the tradesmen are ever on the look out to profit—if only a few soldi—upon the innocent foreigner.
Firenze la Bella—or Florence as the average Englishman knows it—is surely a city of strange people and of strange moods. By the discordant clanging of its church bells the laughter-loving Florentines are moved to gaiety, or to piety, and by the daily articles in the local journals, the Nazione or the Fieramosca, they can be incited to riot or violence. The Tuscans, fine aristocratic nobles with ten centuries of lineage behind them, and splendid peasants with all their glorious traditions of feudal servitude under the "nobile," are, after all, like children, with a simplicity that is astounding, combined with a cunning that is amazing.
Along the Via Calzajoli I followed the pair in breathless eagerness. At that hour of the morning the central thoroughfare is always crowded by business men, cooks out shopping, and open-mouthed forestieri—the foreigners who come, guide-book in hand, to gaze at and admire the thousand wonderful monuments of the ancient city of Medici. The girl's face certainly resembled very closely that of the dead girl Gabrielle Engledue. The countenance I had seen at Stretton Street was white and lifeless, while that of the girl was fresh and rosy. Nevertheless, that blank expression upon her face, and the fact that her companion had linked his arm in hers, both pointed to the fact that either her vision was dim, or her great dark eyes were actually sightless. The man was fairly well dressed, but the girl was very shabby. Her rusty black, her cheap stockings, her down-at-heel shoes, and her faded hat combined to present a picture of poverty. Indeed, the very fact of the neglect of her dress was increasing evidence that her vision was dim, for surely she would not go forth with the rent in the elbow of her blouse. Did she know that it was torn?
Just as we were passing the ancient church of Or San Michele, with its wonderful armorial bearings by Luca della Robbia, an old man with long white hair and beard, whom I took to be one of the mangy painters who copy the masterpieces in the Uffizi or the Pitti, passed by, and raising his hat, wished the pair: "Buon giorno!"
The girl's companion returned the salute with a slight expression of annoyance, perhaps at being recognized, but the girl took no notice, and did not acknowledge him.
The man uttered some words in the girl's ear, and then hurried her on more quickly, at the same time glancing furtively around. It was quite plain that he had no wish to be seen there, hence my curiosity became increased.
Every moment I, however, feared that he might realize I was following them; but I did not mean that they should escape me.
In the Piazza della Signorina they halted opposite that great old prison-like building, the Palazzo Vecchio, where several people were awaiting an omnibus, and as they stood there the girl, who bore such a striking resemblance to the dead niece of the millionaire, stared straight before her, taking no notice of anything about her, a strange, statuesque, pathetic figure, inert and entirely guided by the ferret-eyed man at her side.
I was compelled to draw back and watch them from a distance, hoping that I might be successful in following them to their destination. It certainly was strange that the girl who was so much like Gabrielle Engledue should be there in Florence, within a mile or two of De Gex's villa!
As I watched, yet another person—a well-dressed woman of about forty—recognizing the girl's companion, smiled as she passed, while he, on his part, raised his hat. The woman who had passed struck me as being either English or American, for there are many English-speaking residents in Florence. For a second I debated within myself, and then a moment later I followed her until she turned a corner in the Via di Porta Rossa. Then I hurried, and overtaking her politely raised my hat.
"I trust you will pardon me, Madame," I exclaimed in English, as she started and looked at me askance. "I presume you are either English or American?"
"I am American," she replied with a pronounced drawl.
"Please forgive my inquisitiveness, but I seek your aid in a little matter which is of greatest consequence to me," I went on. "A moment ago, as you crossed the Piazza, you encountered an Italian gentleman and a girl. Could you tell me the gentleman's name?"
"What, the person I bowed to a moment ago?" she exclaimed. "Oh! that's Doctor Moroni."
Moroni! I recollected the name. He was one of the mourners!
"And the girl?" I asked.
"Ah! I do not know. I saw her out with an old woman the other day. But I have no idea who she is."
"Is Doctor Moroni a doctor of medicine?" I inquired.
"Yes. The people at the pension of the Lung Arno where I live, always call him in. I was ill six months ago, and he attended me. He lives in the Via Cavezzo, near the Porta Romona—number six, I believe."
"I am sure I am extremely obliged to you," I replied very gratefully. "I have a very strong reason for asking these questions—reasons which concern the young lady," I added.
The American woman smiled, and then, reiterating my thanks, I raised my hat and left her.
At least I had discovered the identity of the girl's companion. He was a doctor, hence it was most probable that she was under his charge. Nevertheless, it was strange that he should take her to the Duomo and pray at her side. Doctors do not usually act in that manner with their patients.
When I returned to the Piazza the pair were nowhere to be seen, therefore I strolled to the nearest cafe, and sat down with a cigarette to think out the remarkable affair.
One or two features of the problem now became more than ever puzzling. First, in view of the fact that I had seen Gabrielle Engledue lying dead and had, for a bribe of five thousand pounds, signed a death certificate purporting to be from Doctor Gordon Garfield, of Queen Anne Street, Cavendish Square, it seemed beyond credence that the girl who had died and been cremated should be led about the streets of Florence by this Italian, Doctor Moroni. Oswald De Gex's denials were, in themselves, only thin, and yet they were all very clever and carefully prepared. The story of how his wife had left his little son in Westbourne Grove to be discovered by the police was no doubt well thought out. De Gex and his wife were actually on most affectionate terms, hence the tale he had told had been purposely concocted, in order to mislead me. Besides, his pretence that the dead girl had been his niece was, of course, a similarly concocted story to mislead me, and also to discredit me if perchance I made any unwelcome inquiries.
That I had been half asphyxiated and then drugged until my mental balance had been upset, was quite plain. And it was equally plain that De Gex did not intend that I should be capable of making inquiries concerning the events of that memorable November night. When I had been thrown out of the motor-car on that French highway, near St. Malo, the bank-notes had been purposely left in my pocket. I had already copied the numbers, and had called upon the millionaire's bankers in Pall Mall, but there was no record that any of them had been issued to him. That payment had evidently been very well concealed.
On every hand it appeared quite plain that I had been the victim of some strange and remarkable conspiracy, the motive of which was entirely obscure. Surely I must have been watched, and my habits noted. De Gex had known that I frequently passed his door on my way to visit my uncle, and further, he must have known that I should pass on that fateful night in November when Horton was sent out to entice me within.
But the chief point of that complex puzzle was the fact that there, in Florence, within a mile or two of the millionaire's almost regal residence, I had encountered a living girl who, in every feature, was the exact counterpart of the poor girl whose death and cremation stood recorded in the official registry at Somerset House!
When in London I had been half inclined to call upon Doctor Gordon Garfield and explain the situation. But such confession must, I knew, lead to my prosecution and inevitable imprisonment. I had taken a false step while under the baneful influence of some drug which had stultified my own volition and held me powerless to resist the temptation. I was now endeavouring to seek the truth.
That the amazing adventure in Stretton Street was not the outcome of imagination was proved by the entry in the register at Somerset House, and also by the evidence of the cremation of the body. But that the beautiful girl I had seen lying dead could now be walking about the streets of Florence was, of course, utterly absurd.
Was my memory, in my rather weak state of health, playing tricks with me? I began to fear that such was the case.
As I sat over my "bock" watching the tide of Florentine life pass and repass across the great piazza, I began to laugh at myself, and felt half inclined to abandon the inquiry. Still it was all most mysterious and mystifying. Why had I been marked down as a tool to further the millionaire's ends? And who, after all, was the victim?
I tried to dismiss the apparently sightless girl from my mind, but somehow the affair obsessed me. I seemed impelled to go farther and try to elucidate the mystery. I endeavoured to make up my mind to forget it all and return to England and to my work at Francis and Goldsmith's—but all to no avail. My duty, I felt, was to leave no stone unturned until I had discovered whether Gabrielle Engledue had died from natural causes, or as a result of foul play.
The pale, tragic face of the girl I had encountered in the Duomo haunted me. Towards the narrow-eyed Doctor Moroni I felt an instinctive dislike, even though I had no cause to distrust him.
I think it was the strange intuition I experienced at that moment which caused me to decide to act with discretion and caution, and to discover all that I could concerning the doctor and his tragic-faced companion.
With a fixed plan I returned to my hotel, ate my luncheon in the big salle a manger, which was crowded with foreigners wintering in Florence. Then, after lunch, I complained to the manager of feeling unwell, and asked him to telephone to Doctor Moroni, in the Via Cavezzo.
"Ah! a most excellent doctor!" remarked the hotel manager. "He has a very large practice among the English and Americans. And he is quite popular. I suppose you know him?"
"No. I have only heard of him, and of his cleverness," I said with affected carelessness.
Ten minutes later the manager sent me a message by a page that the doctor would call at three o'clock. So, in my pretended illness, I went to my room and feigned the symptoms of acute indigestion.
Punctually the doctor arrived, and greeted me in his most professional manner. I at once explained that an American lady of my acquaintance had recommended him, whereupon he bowed, smiled, and seating himself before me inquired my symptoms.
His looks were certainly not an index to his character, for though he appeared so stern and taciturn yet at heart he was, I saw, a very humorous, easy-going man, a true Tuscan who showed his white teeth when he laughed, gesticulated violently, and spoke English with a refined accent that was particularly charming.
"It is probably the change of diet," he declared at last, after diagnosing my symptoms. "I see many such cases among foreigners who are unused to some of our rather indigestible dishes. The latter are very toothsome, and they eat heartily—with dire results," and he smiled.
So well indeed did I describe my supposed ailment that before he left he wrote me out a prescription. Afterwards I made pretence of being a perfect stranger in Florence. I longed to speak of Oswald De Gex, but feared to do so because his suspicions might by that become aroused. If so, then all hope of discovering the true facts would instantly vanish.
"I hope you will soon be all right and that you will enjoy your visit to our Tuscany," he said very pleasantly. "Florence is very full of visitors just now. Are you remaining long?"
"I really can't tell," was my reply. "My business in London may recall me at any time."
Then I thanked him for his visit, and remarked that if the mixture gave me no relief I would probably call upon him.
Indeed, it was for this latter reason that I had called him in. By making his acquaintance in that manner I would, I saw, excite no suspicion, and I hoped to be able to meet the girl who was apparently under his charge.
While I had been consulting him I noticed that he seemed a man of curious moods. At one moment his dark countenance was sullen and sinister, while at the next his face broadened into an expression of easy-going bonhomie. He spoke English extremely well, and was apparently a man of considerable taste and refinement. Truly, the situation was so puzzling that I was bewildered.
After he had gone, I re-dressed myself and went across to the Gambrinus, where I had an appointment with Robertson.
I found him seated alone at a table in the corner awaiting me.
"Well?" he said, "I've got that address for you, Mr. Garfield—the address of Miss Thurston," and he handed me a slip of paper upon which was written: Miss Rose Thurston, Cedar Cottage, Overstrand, Norfolk.
"But I thought you said she lived near Detroit?" I remarked.
"She and her mother did live in America, but I have discovered that they now have a house near Cromer," was the butler's reply. So in acknowledgment of his services I passed him a couple of Italian notes, and we then had a drink together.
While doing so a strange thought crossed my mind.
Could it be possible that the girl I had seen with Doctor Moroni and Rose Thurston were one and the same!
CHAPTER THE SEVENTH
THE MILLIONAIRE'S APPREHENSIONS
That same evening I made a number of inquiries concerning Doctor Moroni. On every hand I heard high praise of his skill. He was one of the principal physicians at the great hospital at Gelsomino, and among other of his illustrious patients there had been a Russian Grand Duke and an Austrian princess who lived in a magnificent villa upon the Viale dei Colli.
I went about the wonderful city of art collecting information concerning the doctor, where and when I could, because a startling fact had been revealed to me by Robertson, namely, that Moroni was De Gex's medical attendant.
In the night-time when the narrow ancient side-streets of Florence, with their ponderous prison-like palaces with iron-barred windows are so ill-lit and cavernous, the place seems a city of evil deeds, as indeed it was in the days of the Medici and of the Borgias.
As I trod those streets between the Porta Romana and Santa Maria Novella, I confess that I became apprehensive of a nervous breakdown.
That a girl had been wilfully done to death in that West End mansion, and that I had accepted a bribe to aid and abet the assassin, were undeniable facts. The wealthy man evidently believed that, for my own sake and in order to escape prosecution, I would not seek to solve the enigma. Now, as I reflected upon my interview at the Villa Clementini, I realized how artful he was in denying everything, and yet allowing me a loophole for escape. He had mentioned blackmail—an ugly word with ugly consequences—well-knowing that I dare not go to the Metropolitan Police and make any statement of what I had witnessed or of how I had acted.
I still held that five thousand pounds bribe intact. The accursed notes were at the flat at Rivermead Mansions. My position was now untenable. When that night I retired to my room I realized that the situation was hopeless. How could I support any charge against a man who, being a millionaire, could purchase manufactured evidence—as is done every day—just as easily as he could purchase a cigar?
The evidence given in judicial courts in every European capital in cases where the party, either plaintiff or defendant, is well possessed of this world's goods, is usually tainted. In no place on earth can money work more marvels than in a court of law. Witnesses who make testimony a profession for big fees appear in every Assize court in the world. And some of them are, alas! experts. True it is that every man has his price, and the more so in these hard, post-war days of riot and ruin. Justice and brotherly love departed with the Victorian era. The old game of "Beat-your-neighbour-out-of-doors," played by our grandfathers, seems to be the only one practised in our modern times.
With such thoughts I fell asleep.
Next day I spent in again wandering the old-world streets of Florence, hoping to obtain another glimpse of Moroni and his fair charge. I went to the Duomo and waited near that side-chapel where I had first seen them. Then, as they did not come, I idled before a cafe in the Via Calzajoli, and again in the Piazza della Signorina. But I saw nothing of them. That afternoon I spent the winter sunshine in the Cascine, the beautiful wood beside the Arno where the Florentines go each day for the passeggiata, either in their old-fashioned landaus with armorial bearings upon the panels, in modern motor-cars, or on foot. The afternoon, though it was winter, was glorious, even though the cold wind from the snow-tipped Apennines swept sharply down the valley. Yet everyone was wrapped up warmly, and the fresh air was invigorating.
Though I kept my eyes open everywhere, I failed to detect that slim figure in rusty black.
I allowed the following day to pass. Then, at four o'clock in the afternoon, I called at the house of Doctor Moroni in pretence of again consulting him.
Upon the door of the great old house, now converted into spacious flats, was a small, rather tarnished brass plate with the words: "Dr. Moroni, Primo Piano."
So I climbed the wide stone stairs to the first floor, and rang the bell. My summons was answered by a tall, swarthy, dark-eyed Italian maid, who wore a dainty muslin apron, but no cap—as is the custom in Italy. She was a Piedmontese, for in her hair she wore several of those large pins with round heads of silver filigree placed in a semicircle at the back of her head, until they formed a kind of halo.
"The Signore Dottore is at home," was her reply in Italian. "Be pleased to enter."
And she showed me along a narrow hall to what was evidently Moroni's waiting-room. The atmosphere of the place was close on account of the charcoal stove, and the barely-furnished room smelt of some disinfectant.
I had sat there for some moments when I heard a door open, and men's voices sounded speaking in English:
"Very well, signore," I heard the doctor say. "I will be up at the villa at eleven o'clock."
"Good," replied the other. "You will not be troubled by Robertson this time. He will be away. I am sending him on a message to Pisa, as I do not want him about; he is too inquisitive. Besides, you will not come to the house. You quite understand where we shall meet?"
"Quite, signore," replied Moroni.
By the mode in which the doctor addressed his visitor, and the mention of Robertson, it was plain that he was speaking with Oswald De Gex. Why was the butler to be sent to Pisa? I wondered.
I sat breathless, listening to the footsteps along the hall, and to Moroni wishing his visitor good afternoon.
A few moments later he opened the door brusquely and with a pleasant smile apologized for keeping me waiting. Then he conducted me to his consulting-room, a gloomy, frowsy little apartment much over-heated, as is usual in Florentine houses in winter.
"Well?" he asked. "And how do you feel now, Mr. Garfield?"
My reply was the reverse of satisfactory. The mixture had done me good, I said, but I still felt excruciating pains after eating. In consequence, he felt my pulse and took my temperature, while I, on my part, strained my ears listening for any feminine voice. Was the girl whose secret I sought still there?
Once I heard a woman's voice, but she cried in Italian to a fellow-servant named Enrichetta, hence she was probably the maid who had admitted me.
Moroni, after he had concluded his examination, seemed a little puzzled. No doubt I had, in my ignorance, described some imaginary symptom which was not in accordance with what he expected to find. He, however, gave me another prescription, and as he wrote it I wondered how he would act if he knew that my object in becoming his patient was to probe the mystery of the affair in Stretton Street.
I had at least gained knowledge of his intended visit to the Villa Clementini unknown to the butler, Robertson. He was to be there either at eleven o'clock that night or at eleven next morning. It occurred to me that I might possibly learn something of interest if I watched the doctor's movements at the hours indicated.
"Your symptoms rather puzzle me," said the doctor at last, eyeing me from beneath his bushy black brows. "To tell the truth, I fancy you must have eaten something poisonous at one of the restaurants. They sometimes use tinned food which is not quite good, and it sets up irritant poisoning. I had a case very similar to yours last week. The climate here did not suit him, and he has returned to England."
"Oh! I hope to be better in a few days, doctor," I said cheerfully, for I was anxious for another opportunity to visit him. I wanted to see, and if possible speak in secret with the girl who bore such a striking resemblance to the dead Gabrielle Engledue.
On returning to the hotel I rang up the Villa Clementini and inquired for Robertson. In a few moments I spoke to him, asking if he were coming down to the Gambrinus.
"I'm sorry," he replied. "I have to go to Pisa by the eight o'clock train. But I shall be back to-morrow morning."
By that I established the fact that Oswald De Gex had an appointment with Moroni at eleven o'clock that night, and not on the following morning.
I ate my dinner at Bonciani's, near the station, a place little patronized by foreigners, but where one obtains the best Tuscan cooking—and after an hour or so over coffee at the Bottegone, I took a taxi up to Fiesole. The night was cold but dry and moonlit. As we ascended the steep hill a glorious panorama spread before us, for below lay the valley of the Arno with the twinkling lights of the ancient city, and the great pale moon upon the shimmering river rendering it like a scene from fairyland. And as we went up beyond San Domenico, through those lands which in spring and summer are so fruitful with their vines and olives, two peasant swains passed, chanting one of the old stornelli, those quaint love-songs of the Tuscan contadini—the same which have been sung for centuries in and about old Firenze:
Acqua di rio. Teco saro di luglio e di gennaio Dove tu muori te, moriro anch'io.
Tuscany is essentially a land of love, where the fierce flame of affection burns in the hearts of all the people, and where a hot word is quickly followed by a knife-thrust, and jealousy is ever cruel and unrelenting.
Arriving at last in the little piazza, at Fiesole, where a number of people were awaiting the last tram to take them back into Florence, I alighted, paid the man, and continued my journey on foot, still climbing the high road which led through the chestnut woods of Ricorbico, until at last I found myself at the corner of the grounds of the Villa Clementini, close to a pair of gates of mediaeval wrought-iron which closed the south entrance to the magnificent domain.
On either side of the road were high walls with tall cypresses behind which cast their deep shadows over the highway, rendering it dark around the entrance. I glanced at my luminous wristwatch—a relic of my war service—and found that it still wanted ten minutes to eleven.
Therefore I drew back beneath the wall, and in the black shadow awaited the millionaire's visitor to pass on to the main entrance.
I suppose I had been there ten minutes or so when I detected approaching footsteps in the darkness, and presently the doctor's familiar figure appeared in the patch of moonlight, only to be swallowed up in the black shadows a moment later. Approaching the great iron gates which were a side entrance to the grounds, he drew a key from his pocket, unlocked them easily, and passed in without, however, re-locking them after him. His visit there was undoubtedly a secret one, or De Gex would not have given him the key of the entrance he used himself, nor would he have sent away his butler, Robertson.
The visitor's footsteps suddenly ceased, for he was undoubtedly crossing the grass. In consequence, I stole on tiptoe up to the gates, and entering, saw in the moonlight that Moroni was stealing along in the opposite direction to the great country mansion, many of the windows of which were illuminated. As I halted my ears caught the strains of orchestral music. A waltz was being played, for, as I afterwards knew, a gay ball was in progress, the cars entering and leaving by the main carriage road.
A few seconds later I crept on in the direction the doctor had taken. At first I feared that, as is so often the case in Italy, savage dogs might be kept there at night to attack any thief or intruder. But as Moroni had entered so boldly, it was evident that if any were kept there they were that evening locked up. Hence, I went forward in confidence until I came to the edge of a beautiful lake lying unruffled in the moonlight, and surrounded by many pieces of ancient statuary, most of them moss-grown and lichen-covered.
As I turned a corner there came into view a large white summer-house with a domed roof, supported by columns—a kind of temple such as one often finds in the gardens of ancient Italian villas. The marble-built summer-house, with carved escutcheons, was a fashion of the seventeenth century. As I peered forward I saw Moroni walking in the full light, approaching the place, from which a dark figure emerged and came forth to meet him.
Instantly I again halted, and straining my eyes recognized that the man who was in evening dress was the owner of that palatial home.
They retired into the summer-house together. What, I wondered, was the object of that secret meeting?
It struck me that perhaps if I succeeded in approaching the spot I might overhear some of their confidential conversation, therefore I stole forward, always keeping in the shadow, and treading upon the grass, my eyes ever upon my goal.
The stillness of the night was unbroken, save by the harsh clanging of the convent bell down at San Domenico, and the howl of a distant dog, while ever and anon bursts of dance music from the villa reached my ears.
At last, by skirting a shrubbery in almost pitch darkness, and scratching my hands and face badly, I succeeded in gaining the rear of the little marble temple, and on hearing De Gex's voice I drew back and waited, scarce daring to breathe. I could hear my own heart beat as I listened intently to certain words distinctly audible.
"Then you think he has suspicions—eh, Moroni? What you tell me is interesting, but also alarming."
"I feel certain he has. He would not have consulted me for an imaginary ailment were it not so."
"Then he must have seen her somewhere in Florence and recognized her! I was a fool to suggest that she should be brought here—so near to me! I was a fool to allow him to slip through my fingers!"
"I pointed that out to you at the time," remarked the Italian doctor with a sigh. "But what you have just shown to me is amazing. I never dreamed of that!"
He had evidently shown him something in the moonlight.
"Well, I don't intend that this fellow shall pry into my affairs," snapped the millionaire. I recognized that hard metallic voice of his, and it recalled to me all those strange happenings on that November night.
"I do not really see, if we act boldly, what we have to fear," said the doctor in his very fair English.
We! Then they were both implicated in the plot, whatever its nature.
"Fear!" echoed De Gex. "Suppose he made some very compromising statement to the London police."
"And in doing so he would compromise himself! He posed as a medical man, and gave the death certificate in return for payment—five thousand pounds. Beyond, he committed forgery by signing the name of Gordon Garfield. No, Mr. De Gex, I feel sure he will never court prosecution. He may busy himself in trying to solve what no doubt appears to him a complete enigma—as indeed it is to us. But he will never expose us—never!"
The millionaire grunted dubiously.
"Well, what are we to do now? What do you suggest, Moroni? Your brain is always so fertile where crooked business is concerned."
"I have no suggestion. I came here to learn yours."
"Yes. I called you here to show you what I have shown you, and also because I have a certain person here as guest at my wife's dance to-night—you know whom I mean."
"Certainly. She is equally dangerous. You asked me to bring the little tube. Here it is. But I urge you to use it with extreme caution. When you break the glass be certain that none of the jelly inside touches your fingers. If it does, wash them instantly in carbolic. It is highly contagious."
De Gex gave vent to a queer laugh of satisfaction, as, no doubt, he took the mysterious glass tube in his hand.
"I am not yet certain whether to try the experiment—or not," he remarked with hesitation.
"It is, to say the least, a highly dangerous one."
"You mean dangerous from the point of view of discovery—eh?"
"No, not at all. Your act cannot be discovered, but it may be dangerous for yourself and those about you—highly dangerous. I have obeyed your orders, signore, as I always do, and I have brought it. But my suggestion is that you should not break that tube and disperse its contents."
"You seem to be growing unusually apprehensive, my dear Moroni. The appearance in Florence of this young electrical engineer seems to have quite upset you!" he laughed harshly. I could hear every word.
"I confess his presence here has not inspired me with confidence. We do not know the extent of his knowledge, or what he has discovered," replied the doctor. "If he establishes one fact—you know to what I refer—then he will become a very grave menace to us both."
"But surely he won't dare to reveal anything for his own sake. That is why I made the bribe a substantial one."
"If he established that one fact to which I have referred, then it would be quite within the bounds of possibility that he might face the music, and lay bare the whole facts of the mystery of Stretton Street," Moroni remarked in a rather lower tone. "At present I think he will keep a still tongue."
"Then one thing is quite plain," said the millionaire. "He must not be allowed to prosecute his inquiries any further. And it is for you, Moroni, to rid us of this ever-growing menace. If he is allowed to go on, then we shall one day awake to find our secret revealed."
"I quite agree. But how shall we act?"
"Ah! I leave that to you," replied De Gex. "You have many ways and means within your power. He is a patient of yours," he added grimly.
"Yes. But I happen to know that he is sufficiently wide awake not to take any of my mixtures."
"Ah! Then he suspects you! You must act with greatest caution, Moroni. Act as you will, but we must, at all costs, get rid of this fellow."
"I suggested that after the affair at Stretton Street. It would then have been so very easy."
"I know! I was a fool! I did not foresee the consequences if he met and recognized the girl. Even now we do not know where and how he met her. But the menace to us is the same. We must get rid of him—and quickly, too! The trap must be baited—and what better bait than the girl herself?"
CHAPTER THE EIGHTH
LITTLE MRS. CULLERTON
For nearly half an hour Oswald De Gex and the Italian doctor, Moroni, sat chatting in the darkness.
De Gex apologized to his visitor for not offering him a cigarette, remarking that the striking of a match might reveal their presence to anyone strolling in the grounds, for guests at dances frequently have that habit.
"Indeed, after you have gone, Moroni, I am meeting the lady whom I mentioned, and shall walk with her outside here. I want to speak with her in private."
"But surely that is dangerous!" exclaimed the doctor instantly.
"If you intend to act as you say you should not hold any clandestine meeting with her," Moroni suggested.
"I shall take your advice and preserve this little tube intact," and he paused, "intact at least for the present," he added. "Hence there can be no harm in leaving the ballroom and coming out into the fresh air—eh?"
"In that case I see no risk."
"The only risk we run is in allowing young Garfield to make inquiries here, in Florence. When he saw me, I, of course, denied everything. But I know that he must have noticed how upset I was at his reappearance."
"Well, we have decided to suppress him, have we not?" said Moroni briefly. "And now it is getting late and my taxi is awaiting me down in Fiesole. So I had better be going."
"Have a care that the fellow does not meet her—not until you are quite prepared," the millionaire urged. "And lose no time in making ready. Each day's delay is increasingly dangerous."
"I do not disregard the fact, signore," replied the Italian, and next moment they emerged from the little Greek temple, and having walked a short distance, they parted, De Gex returning to the house, while Moroni made his way back past the lake to the gate.
When the mysterious millionaire had disappeared, I approached the broad terrace which ran along the side of the house from which such a wonderful panorama of the Apennines was to be obtained. If he brought his lady guest out, as was his intention, then he no doubt would descend from the terrace, for I saw two couples walking there as I approached.
Beneath a tree I took cover and waited—waited to establish the identity of the person whom he had marked down as his next victim.
That night I had gained much knowledge of intense interest, yet it all served to puzzle me the more.
That Tito Moroni was his accomplice I had established beyond doubt, and equally that there had been a grave and deep-laid conspiracy against me. And further, it seemed to be intended that I should again meet the mysterious pale-faced girl in black, and that the meeting was meant to be fatal to me.
Fortune had certainly been upon my side that night, otherwise I might have acted in good faith and fallen into some cleverly-baited trap. That the doctor of the Via Cavezzo was a dangerous malefactor was proved by the airy manner in which he had brought to his rich client that little glass tube which I, of course, had not seen, but which he had no doubt put into the hands of his wealthy and unscrupulous host.
The more I reflected as I stood beneath the great oleander, the more puzzled did I become. What was it that De Gex had shown the doctor beneath the pale light of the moon? It was evidently something which greatly surprised Moroni, and yet he had made but little comment concerning it.
But the chief mystery of all was the whereabouts of that poor inert girl Gabrielle Engledue. I waited, eager for the return of the tall, well-set-up man in evening clothes, the man who so much in the public eye was engaged in such a strange career of wickedness and crime.
It seemed incredible that the immensely rich man whose name was so constantly in the papers as a generous patron of the arts, and a pious philanthropist, should be implicated in such devil's doings as those of which I had already proved him to be the author.
The discordant clanging of that convent-bell again aroused me to a sense of my surroundings. I saw upon the terrace before me several men strolling, smoking cigarettes, and with them their fair partners wrapped in rich cloaks and furs. They had come out after supper to admire the wonderful moonlit scene, for before them rose the snow-tipped mountains in a long serrated range, the high Apennines which divide the Adriatic from the Mediterranean.
Suddenly, almost before I was aware of it, a man and a woman passed close to me. The figure revealed by the cold bright moon was that of De Gex, who had now put on a light coat, while at his side walked a slim, tall young woman wrapped warmly in a rich fur coat. The diamonds in her fair hair gleamed in the moonlight, but unfortunately she had passed into the shadow before I could gain a glimpse of her features.
So that was the intended victim—the woman to whom the dangerous contents of that tiny glass tube was one day, sooner or later, to be administered.
They went forward towards the edge of the placid lake, hence I sprang upon the grass and followed them as noiseless as a cat. Little did the owner of the great Villa Clementini dream that I was lurking in such close vicinity.
They halted beside one of the ancient statues of yellow marble, a heavy-limbed representation of Bacchus crowned with vine leaves, where they admired the fairy-like scene. It was indeed glorious. Beneath the pale moonlight lay the placid lake like a mirror, for no breath stirred from the mountains, and beyond in the mystic light rose the snow-capped peaks far away beyond the chestnut forests of Vallombrosa.
There is a charm in all seasons and at all hours about those ancient villas of Tuscany; those country mansions of the nobles which have seen the tramp of men in armour and in plush, and bear upon them the crumbling escutcheons of races which have been rulers for five centuries, and whose present descendants are perhaps waiters in Paris, London, or New York.
The English visitors to Florence see outside the Florence Club effeminate elegants in English-made suits of blue serge, and brown boots, and they sigh to think that such specimens of humanity are the representatives of a noble race. Disguise it as you may, poor Italy is sadly decadent. Her glory has passed, her nobile are ruined and her labour enemies are, alas! bent upon putting her into the melting-pot. The gallant Italian army fought valiantly against the Tedesci. It saved Venice from the heel of the invader and it protected Dalmatia, where the population are Italians. But Italy to-day is not Italy of pre-war days, thanks to its paid agitators and its political scandals.
With the bright moon shining across the huge oleander beneath which I had again taken cover, I listened intently. But De Gex speaking with his guest was too far off for me to distinguish anything he said.
That he treated her with the greatest courtesy was apparent. And that he spoke to her with the most entire confidence I realized by my own observation.
At once I stole noiselessly forward from one bush to another until I was close to where the pair stood. I trod softly upon the grass, my ears strained to catch any word.
The words I at last caught were few and uncertain, for De Gex was speaking in a low and highly confidential tone.
At last, however, on approaching a little nearer, I heard him exclaim:
"Jack, your husband, is a young fool! He has no discretion. He gambles on the Stock Exchange without any expert knowledge. He came up here to me yesterday afternoon and told me that he must have ten thousand pounds to tide him over, and prevent him being hammered. I sent him away, but I shall see that he has the money."
"How really good of you, Mr. De Gex!" exclaimed the girl—for as far as I could see she was hardly a woman. "I don't know how to thank you sufficiently. I know Jack is a born gambler. His father was on the Stock Exchange before him, and I suppose games of chance are in the breed of the Cullertons."
"Not in you, I hope, Dorothy," replied the millionaire. "You have had the misfortune to marry a gambler, and—well, my dear girl—I pity you. Gambling is worse than drink. The drunkard can be sickened and put off, but the gambler never. Now I want you to promise me one thing."
"What is that?" she asked.
"I shall see that he has the money. But it will come through a second party, not through me. I do not wish to appear to lend him money, otherwise he will still continue his speculations, feeling that he has me behind him. Now you know the truth, Dorothy. But you must promise me to say nothing. Nobody must know—not even my wife."
"Oh! how very good of you to help Jack out of a hole!" she exclaimed. "Of course I'll remain silent. But it really is awfully kind of you. I don't know how to thank you."
"I will do it for your sake, Dorothy," said De Gex, bending to her in confidence. "I am indebted to you—remember!"
"Ah! no!" cried the young woman, whose name apparently was Cullerton. "No! Please don't refer to that terrible affair!"
Her voice betrayed emotion and apprehension, while at that moment, as she turned her face to the light of the moon, I was able to get a full view of it. It was that of a very beautiful young woman of about twenty-three, rather petite, with fair bobbed hair, regular features, and sweet lips. But the expression upon her countenance was one of fear and apprehension.
"I have no desire to remember it," said her host. "We agreed at the time that it should be silence for silence. It was a bargain which we have kept ever since. You have married Jack Cullerton, and you are happy except that your husband is a born gambler. And of that he must be cured."
"I know. I know!" she said hastily. "But earlier this evening you promised to tell me about Gabrielle. I must see her. She seems to have disappeared. Where is she?"
"In London, I believe."
"In London! Yet the last time you spoke of her you said she was in Turin, on her way here, to Florence."
Oswald De Gex laughed lightly.
"Yes. She came to Florence for a few days, but she has returned to London. Why are you so anxious to see her?"
"I want to see her about a matter which concerns Jack and myself—that's all," replied young Mrs. Cullerton.
"May I not know?" asked her host.
"It is a purely private matter," was her reply.
Then from the conversation that followed, it seemed as though the millionaire was apprehensive lest she should meet the mysterious Gabrielle, and I wondered whether it was in order to prevent them meeting that he entertained designs upon her life.
I recollected that little glass tube which he was carrying in secret in his pocket, and which the scoundrelly Italian had urged him to refrain from using because he might place his own life in jeopardy.
I listened to every word. De Gex was evidently most anxious to know why she sought Gabrielle so eagerly. And Gabrielle, I could only surmise, was the girl I had seen stark and dead in that handsome room in Stretton Street.
That night of watchfulness had borne fruit. I had learnt from De Gex's own lips that another deep and subtle trap was to be laid for me—a trap baited with the tragic-faced girl herself. Further, I had established that he intended that, sooner or later, an accident should befall the dainty little woman in that rich ermine cloak, the woman with whom he was chatting so affably. Also I had learned her identity, and it now remained for me to forewarn her of what was intended.
The rich Englishman had talked for about a quarter of an hour with Dorothy Cullerton, when at last they returned to the house, while I made my way in the darkness back to the gate. When I arrived, however, I found that Moroni had locked it after him. I was therefore compelled to climb the wrought ironwork, and after several unsuccessful attempts succeeded in regaining the road.
It was long past midnight ere I found myself back in Fiesole, but I discovered a belated cab, and in it I drove back to Florence, full of grave reflections.
On the following day I bought in the Via Tornabuoni an English newspaper which publishes weekly a list of visitors to Florence, and from it discovered that Mr. and Mrs. Cullerton were living at the Villa Tassi, out at Montaguto, about three miles from the Porta Romana, on the opposite side of Florence. That same morning I took the steam tram from the Piazza della Signorina, and after three miles of dusty road, alighted at a spot beyond the little village of Galluzzo in the Val d'Ema. Crossing the brook I soon began to ascend the hill of Montaguto—a pretty eminence clothed with cypresses and olives—and was not long in discovering the neat, newly-built little villa, one of a number which are let furnished each season to wealthy foreigners. I noted as I passed that it was well-kept, that the garden was bright with flowers, even though it was winter, and that in the garage was a small light car which at the moment was being washed by an English chauffeur.
I longed to have some excuse to call upon Mrs. Cullerton, but could think of none. Therefore I returned to Florence and pursued fresh tactics. The afternoon I spent making inquiries regarding the Cullertons, and soon discovered that they were intimate friends of Monsieur Rameil, the French Consul, and his wife.
With this knowledge I lost no time in obtaining an introduction to the French Consul, and three days later received a card for one of Madame's Friday afternoons. Naturally I went, and to my delight Mrs. Cullerton was there also. She was a strikingly pretty young woman, and apparently extremely popular, judging by the manner in which two or three young Italian elegants danced attendance upon her. Shortly before I left my hostess introduced me to her, and naturally I endeavoured to make myself extremely agreeable. But was not the situation a strange one? And this pretty woman had been marked down for destruction by the mysterious millionaire, just as I had been!
Yet had I told anyone of the knowledge I had gained I would not have been believed, any more than would credence have been given to the story of my strange adventure in Stretton Street.
We chatted for perhaps ten minutes. She asked me where I was staying and how long I should be in Florence, and then, expressing a hope that we should meet again, I bowed and left her.
I had accomplished one step towards ascertaining the identity of the girl I had seen dead in London.
Several days passed, during which I kept a good look out in the streets for sight of Doctor Moroni's fair companion. But I was not successful. Perhaps she had gone to London, as my host of Stretton Street had asserted!
One afternoon, while haunting the streets, I suddenly encountered Mrs. Cullerton walking in the Via Tornabuoni, and, raising my hat, stopped to speak.
After a few seconds she recognized me, and I walked at her side chatting. Her car was waiting in the Piazza Santa Trinita, but before she entered it she had promised to send me a card for a little "at home" she was giving on the following Thursday.
Now, not until we had parted did it occur to me that De Gex might be also going there. In that case he certainly should not meet me. So I sought Robertson's aid concerning his master's engagements, and discovered that on Thursday morning the millionaire was going to Leghorn to join his yacht for a week's cruise across to Algiers.
Therefore I accepted Mrs. Cullerton's invitation, and found at the villa a number of pleasant, cosmopolitan people, whom I had already met at the French Consul's. I was introduced by my hostess to her husband, Jack, a smartly-dressed man, and a typical young member of the Stock Exchange. Afterwards I succeeded in having quite a long conversation with his wife.
Quite casually I mentioned the Villa Clementini, and its owner.
"Do you know him?" she asked with interest. "He is such a dear, generous old thing."
"I have met him once," I replied with affected unconcern. "They say he's a little eccentric—don't they?"
"His enemies say that," she replied, "but his friends are full of praise of him. He's the most charming and generous of men, and his great wealth allows him to perform all sorts of kind actions. They say that he can't refuse anybody who asks for his influence or help."
I reflected that his influence was certainly a baneful one.
"Ah! I see you are one of his friends, Mrs. Cullerton!" I said, laughing.
"Yes—I confess I am."
"Then would you be surprised if I told you in strictest confidence that he is not your friend, but one of your bitterest enemies!" I said, lowering my voice, and looking straight into her wide-open blue eyes.
"I don't understand you, Mr. Garfield!" she said, also lowering her voice.
"I will explain one day, Mrs. Cullerton—one day when we are alone."
"When?" she whispered, for Madame Rameil was approaching at the moment.
"Whenever you like to make an appointment," I replied. "Only I must first hold you to absolute secrecy."
"That's agreed," whispered the pretty young woman. "To-morrow. I will be here alone at three o'clock," and then she held out her hand, and aloud said:
"Good-bye, Mr. Garfield. So sorry you have to run away so early. Good-bye!"
CHAPTER THE NINTH
SOME PLAIN SPEAKING
Punctually at three o'clock next afternoon the buxom Italian maid in dainty apron, ushered me into Mrs. Cullerton's charming salone. From the long windows a magnificent view spread away across the green valley of the Ema to the great monastery of the Certosa, a huge mediaeval pile which resembled a mediaeval fortress standing boldly against the background of the rolling Apennines.
Scarcely had I stood there a moment when my blue-eyed young hostess, in a becoming black-and-cherry frock, entered, and greeting me, closed the door.
"Well, Mr. Garfield? It's really awfully good of you to trouble to come out to see me. I'm all excitement to know what you have to tell me about Mr. De Gex. He's gone yachting—as you perhaps know. Do sit down."
As I did so she passed me the cigarettes, and took one herself. Then, when I had held the match for her and had lit my own, I said:
"Well, Mrs. Cullerton, I really don't know how to commence. Somehow, I felt it my duty to come here to see you. I must admit that I have been manoeuvring for several days in order to get an introduction to you, and to obtain an opportunity of seeing you alone. And yet——"
"Yes. I quite see that. I thought by your attitude in the Via Tornabuoni that you seemed very anxious to know me," and her lips relaxed into a pretty smile.
"That is so. In order to—well, to warn you," I said very seriously.
"Warn me!—of what, pray?"
I hesitated. To be perfectly frank with her was, I saw, quite impossible. She might hear all I said and then inform De Gex. She was his friend. Or perhaps she would dismiss me and my story as pure invention. Hence I resolved to preserve my own secret concerning the Stretton Street Affair.
Looking straight into her face, I said:
"I'm here to warn you of a very grave personal danger."
"You are really most alarming, Mr. Garfield," she said in suspicion. "In what danger am I?"
"You are either in possession of some ugly fact concerning Mr. De Gex which he desires suppressed, or else you bar his way to some ambitious achievement."
Her face changed, and she held her breath. Though it was only for a second I saw that what I had suggested was the truth. Her slim white hand twitched nervously upon her lap.
"Some fact concerning Mr. De Gex!" she gasped in feigned surprise. "Who told you that!" she asked, her face blanching.
"I have not been told. But I know it, Mrs. Cullerton," was my reply. "I know that, though De Gex is assisting your husband out of a financial difficulty and pretends to be your good friend, he views you as his bitter enemy—as a person whose lips must, at all hazards, be closed."
"Really, Mr. Garfield, what you say is too extraordinary—too amazing! I don't understand you!"
"I know it sounds most extraordinary," I said. "But first tell me if you know a certain Doctor Moroni, who lives in the Via Cavezzo?"
"Certainly. The doctor attends Mr. De Gex and his family. I first met him in London, about a year ago. Mr. De Gex holds him in very high esteem."
"Ah! Then you know the doctor."
"Of course. When he was in London he several times came to our house in Fitzjohn's Avenue."
"And your husband knows him?" I asked, looking her straight in the face. "Please tell me the truth," I urged.
"No. Jack has never met him—not to my knowledge."
I was silent for a few seconds. I had established a fact which I had all along suspected.
"Then he called in the daytime, when your husband was in the City—eh?"
"Now tell me, did you ever have any strange illness after Doctor Moroni had called?" I inquired very seriously.
"Illness? Why, no! Why do you ask such a curious question?"
"I have reasons for asking it, Mrs. Cullerton," was my reply. "I have called here as your friend, remember."
"But all this is most bewildering," she exclaimed with a nervous little laugh. "Why should I be in any personal peril?"
"Because you know something to the detriment of that wealthy and somewhat eccentric man," I replied. "Pardon me if I put another question to you. Are you acquainted with a girl named Gabrielle Engledue?"
"Gabrielle Engledue?" she repeated. "No, I have never heard the name. I know a Gabrielle—Gabrielle Tennison—an old schoolfellow of mine."
"A tall, dark-haired girl?"
"Yes, she is rather tall, and dark-haired."
"Isn't her real name Engledue?" I asked quickly.
"Not to my knowledge."
"Is she not Mr. De Gex's niece?"
"He has no niece, has he?—except, of course, Lady Shalford, whom I know quite well."
"Where is Gabrielle Tennison?"
"In London—I believe."
"Are you certain she is not here, in Florence?"
"Mr. De Gex told me that she came to Florence for a few days——"
"To visit him—eh?"
"I suppose so. But she has returned to London."
"Do you know her address in London," I asked very anxiously. "I ask you this in our mutual interests, Mrs. Cullerton," I added confidentially.
"Yes. She lives with her mother in a maisonette in Longridge Road, Earl's Court, I forget the number, but you could easily find out."
"And she is there now, I presume?"
"I expect so—if what Mr. De Gex has told me is the truth."
"But will he ever tell you the truth?" I queried. "Recollect that although he poses as your husband's friend, he is nevertheless your enemy—because he fears you! Why is that?"
The pretty wife of the young London stockbroker hesitated. I saw that she was much perturbed by my question.
"I suppose he suspects that I know certain things," was her low, hard reply. "But he has been very good to Jack on several occasions. He has prevented him from being hammered on the Stock Exchange, therefore I can only be grateful to him."
I looked the pretty woman straight in the face, and said:
"Grateful! Grateful to a man whose dastardly intention is, when the whim takes him, to send you to your grave, Mrs. Cullerton?"
"I—I really don't know what you mean. Are you mad? Do be more explicit," she cried. "Why do you make these terrible allegations against Mr. De Gex?"
"Please recollect, Mrs. Cullerton, that I am here first in your interests, and secondly in my own. You and I are now both marked down as victims, because both of us are in possession of certain knowledge which would, if exposed, bring obloquy and prosecution upon an exceedingly wealthy man. Your husband, yourself, and myself, are merely pawns in the clever game which this man is playing—a mysterious game, I admit, and one in which he is actively assisted by Doctor Moroni—but also one in which, if we are not both very wary, we shall find ourselves the victims of fatal circumstances."
My words seemed to impress the stockbroker's wife, for she asked: "Well—what shall I do?"
"Be perfectly frank with me," I replied promptly. "Both of us have all to lose if we close our eyes to the conspiracy against us on the part of your friend De Gex and his shrewd and unscrupulous accomplice, Tito Moroni."
"Moroni is one of the most popular doctors in Florence," she remarked.
"I'm perfectly aware of that," was my reply. "But there is no more dangerous criminal than the medical man who is beneath the thumb of a millionaire. There have been several before the assizes in various cities of Europe. Many, thanks alas! to the power of gold, have never been unmasked. There have been cases in Hungary, in France, in Italy, and in Russia—even one case in England which is recorded in a big file at Scotland Yard. But in that case there was no prosecution because money means influence, and influence means the breaking of those in office who dare to oppose it."
"Then how do you suggest that I should act, Mr. Garfield?" asked young Mrs. Cullerton. "It is distressing news to me that Mr. De Gex is my enemy—and I confess that at present I can scarcely credit it."
I longed to unbosom myself to her—to tell her of all that had occurred to me since that fateful November night when I had passed through Stretton Street, but I was not yet fully confident concerning her attitude towards me. It might be hostile. She might seek De Gex when he returned from Algiers and tell him of our interview! If she did, then all hope of elucidating the mystery of Gabrielle Engledue's death would be at once swept away.
Yet I held before me the fact that the millionaire, hand-in-glove with that scoundrelly Italian, intended to cast me into my grave. The Italians have all through the centuries been experts in secret assassination. The Doges of Venice, the Borgias, and the Medici have all had secret poisoners in their pay. The gay, careless race which laughs when the sun shines, are just the same to-day, after the war, as they were in the days of His Holiness Rodrigo Borgia. To-day your superstitious Italian criminal enters the church and prays to the Madonna that his coup—whatever it may be, from profiteering, picking pockets, or the secret assassination of an enemy—may be successful.
"I allege that Mr. De Gex is your enemy, Mrs. Cullerton," I said. "I have first-hand knowledge of it. Indeed, on the night of the ball at the Villa Clementini, he had in his pocket the wherewithal to bring upon you an illness which must inevitably prove fatal. He had a little glass tube which he had ordered Moroni to prepare, but which the doctor himself urged him not to break for fear of infecting himself and his family."
She sat staring at me open-mouthed.
"I—I really can't believe it!" she gasped. "Mr. De Gex would never act in such a dastardly manner towards me. We are friends—old friends."
"You may be, but I happen to know the truth," I declared. "He pretends friendship towards you, but his intentions are that your lips shall be closed. For some reason he fears you."
"Are you really quite serious?" she asked, looking me full in the face.
"I certainly am," I replied. "The reason I am here is to warn you to have a care of yourself. That some evil is intended, I know. Only I rely upon you to keep the information I have given you to yourself. Watch De Gex, but say nothing—not a word."
"I have already promised that I will remain silent," she remarked.
"You must also say no word to your husband. He is indebted to De Gex, hence he might tell him what I have said. And further, my name must never be mentioned to De Gex."
"He would instantly guess the source of your information."
"But what is your motive for all this, Mr. Garfield?"
"My motive is a simple one. I am trying to find Gabrielle Engledue, and I am now wondering whether the girl I am seeking is not the same as the young lady you know as Gabrielle Tennison."
"Where did you meet this girl Engledue?" asked Mrs. Cullerton, with a queer inquisitive look.
I paused for a second.
"In London—at the house of a mutual friend."
Her expression caused me to ponder, for I discerned that she was inclined to doubt me.
"And why are you seeking her now?"
"I have a distinct object in view."
"You've—well, perhaps you've fallen in love with her—eh?" she laughed lightly.
"Not at all," I assured her. "I have a private, but very strong, motive in discovering her. I want to put to her certain questions."
"About what, Mr. Garfield? Come, it is now my turn to be a little inquisitive," and she laughed again.
"About a certain little matter in which we are mutually interested," was my evasive answer. Then, after a pause, I looked straight into her eyes, and added very earnestly: "I wonder whether if I should require your help, Mrs. Cullerton, you would assist me?"
"In what way?"
"At present I cannot tell. To be frank, I am striving to solve a great and inscrutable mystery. Just now I am amazed and bewildered. But I feel that you are the only person who could help me—because you and I are equally in peril."
"But, Mr. Garfield, I see no reason why I should be upon the brink of this mysterious abyss!" she cried. "You don't explain the situation sufficiently fully."
"Because at present I cannot do so. No one regrets it more than myself. There is a grim mystery—a very great mystery—and I intend, with your assistance, to escape my enemy and clear it up."
"Who is your enemy?"
"Oswald De Gex! He is my enemy as well as yours," I said very seriously. "If you were in the possession of such facts as those I have gathered during the past week or so, you would be startled and—well, perhaps terrified. But I only again beg of you to have a care of yourself. You have promised silence, and I, on my part, will carry on my search for the truth."
"The truth of what?"
"The truth concerning Gabrielle Engledue."
The pretty little woman again looked at me very straight in the face for some moments without speaking. Then, with a strange hardness about her mouth, she said:
"Mr. Garfield, take it from me, you will never discover what you are in search of. The truth is too well hidden."
"What? Then you know something—eh?" I cried quickly.
"Yes. It is true!" she answered in a low, hard voice. "I do know something—something of a certain secret that can never pass my lips!"
CHAPTER THE TENTH
MONSIEUR SUZOR AGAIN
Mrs. Cullerton's words held me breathless.
At first I believed that I might wring the truth from her lips, but I quickly saw that she intended to preserve her secret at all costs. Whether she actually believed what I had told her concerning her own peril was doubtful. In any case, she seemed in some strange manner held powerless and fascinated by the rich man who had saved her speculating husband from ruin.
I remained there for still another quarter of an hour until her maid announced a visitor, when I was compelled to rise and take my leave.
For a few days longer I remained in Florence; then I left for London. On entering the Calais express at the Gare du Nord in Paris on my way home, I was agreeably surprised to find among my fellow travellers to England the affable French banker whom I had met on that memorable journey from York to London. He recognized me at once, and I inquired why he was not, as usual, crossing by air to Croydon.
"Ah!" he laughed. "The last time I crossed three weeks ago we went into a thick fog over the Channel, and it was not very comfortable. So I prefer the rail just now."
On this occasion we exchanged cards. His name was Gaston Suzor, and between Paris and Calais we discussed many things, for he was a well-informed man and a true hater of the Boches. On the steamer we strolled upon the deck together, and we passed quite a pleasant journey in company. He was surprised that I had been in Italy, but I explained that I had been granted long leave of absence by my firm, and that I had gone to Florence upon private affairs.
We parted at Charing Cross, Monsieur Suzor to go to the Carlton, and I home to our little flat in Rivermead Mansions.
A note lay upon the dining-room table. Hambledon was away in Cardiff, and he had left word in case I should return unexpectedly. The place was cold and fireless, and I was glad to go over to the Claredon to have my dinner.
My one thought was of Gabrielle Tennison, who lived with her mother in a maisonette at Earl's Court. So I took a taxi to Longridge Road, and after numerous inquiries at neighbouring shops in Earl's Court Road, I discovered in which house lived Mrs. Tennison and her daughter. The hour was late, therefore I felt that it was useless to keep observation upon the place in the hope of the girl coming forth.
I had no excuse to make a call. Besides, I might, if I acted indiscreetly, destroy all my chances of solving the strange enigma.
Therefore not until ten o'clock on the following morning did I take up my vigilant watch at the end of the road, at a spot from which I had full view of the house in question. My watch proved a long and weary one, for not until three o'clock in the afternoon was my patience rewarded.
The front door suddenly opened, and down the steps came the slim figure of a girl, followed by a woman. As they approached me I saw that it was the girl I had seen with Moroni in Florence, while the woman was, from her dress, evidently an old servant.
The girl of mystery was attired quite smartly in black, her appearance being very different from the shabby figure she presented in Florence. But her beautiful countenance was just as pathetic, with that strange set expression of ineffable sadness. She passed me by without glancing at me, while the stout, homely woman at her side held her arm linked in hers.
They turned into Earl's Court Road and walked towards Kensington High Street, while I followed at a respectable distance. I could not fail to notice the grace of carriage of the girl whose listless attitude was so mysterious, and whose exact whereabouts Oswald De Gex was concealing from his friend, Mrs. Cullerton. But the one point which puzzled me sorely was whether the girl walking in front of me all unconscious of my presence was the same that I had seen dead at Stretton Street, and for whom I had given a false certificate to cover up what had evidently been a crime with malice aforethought.
The pair now and then became lost in the crowd of foot-passengers in busy Kensington, but I followed them. Occasionally they paused to look into Barker's shop windows, but the interest was evidently on the part of the serving-woman, for Gabrielle Tennison—or whatever her actual name—seemed to evince no heed of things about her. She walked like one in a dream, with her thoughts afar off, yet her face was the sweetest, most beautiful, and yet the saddest I had ever witnessed. Tragedy was written upon her pale countenance, and I noticed that one or two men and women in passing the pair turned to look back at them. In that face of flawless beauty a strange story was written—a mystery which I was strenuously seeking to solve.
Presently they entered Kensington Gardens, strolling along the gravelled walks beneath the bare, leafless trees that were so black with London's grime. The day was cold, but bright, hence quite a number of persons were walking there, together with the usual crowd of nursemaids with the children of the well-to-do from the Hyde Park and Kensington districts.
The pair passed leisurely half-way up the Broad Walk, when they presently rested upon a seat nearly opposite the great facade of Kensington Palace.
I saw that I had not been noticed either by the old servant or by her mysterious young mistress, therefore I sank quickly upon a seat some distance away, but in such a position that I could still see them as they talked together.
Was Gabrielle Engledue living—or was she dead? Or was Gabrielle Tennison and Gabrielle Engledue one and the same person? A living face is different from that of the same person when dead, hence the great problem presenting itself.
It seemed as though in conversation the girl became animated, for she gesticulated slightly as though in angry protest at some remark of her companion, and then suddenly I had a great surprise.
Coming down the Broad Walk I saw a figure in a grey overcoat and soft brown hat which I instantly recognized. He walked straight to where the pair were seated, lifted his hat, and then seated himself beside the girl.
The man was my French friend, Suzor!
That they had gone there on purpose to meet him was now quite clear, for after a few moments the old woman laughed, rose and walked on, in order to leave the girl alone with the Frenchman. What could be the meaning of that clandestine meeting?—for clandestine it was, or Monsieur Suzor would have called at Longridge Road. Possibly they expected that they might be watched, hence they had met as though by accident at that spot where they believed they would not be observed.
Gaston Suzor was a shrewd, clever man. But what did this friendship with Gabrielle Tennison denote? As I watched I saw him speaking very earnestly. For some time she sat with her gloved hands idly in her lap listening to his words without comment. Then she shook her head, and put up her hands in protest. Afterwards by her attitude she seemed to be appealing to him, while he remained obdurate and unperturbed.
I longed to overhear their conversation, but in the fading light of that brief wintry afternoon it was impossible to approach closer. I could only sit and watch. My eyes were strained to see every gesture of the pair, now that the stout figure of the girl's companion had disappeared towards the Bayswater Road. In that oasis in the desert of aristocratic London one can obtain quite sylvan surroundings. True, the trees and vegetation are covered with a film of grime from the millions of smoking chimneys of the giant metropolis, still Kensington Gardens ever possesses a charm all its own as a clandestine meeting-place for well-born lovers and ill-born loafers, for nursemaids and soldiers, and for persons of both sexes who wish for a little quiet talk in the open air in order so often to clear a hectic atmosphere.
Such I judged to be the case between Gaston Suzor and Gabrielle Tennison.
At first the girl sat inert with downcast eyes listening to the man. But suddenly she raised her hands in quick protest again, and apparently became resentful—even angry. Then when he spoke some reassuring words she became calmer.
As I sat there shrewdly watching, I could not help reflecting upon a still further problem which now presented itself. The very last person in the world whom I should have suspected of being connected with the strange affair at Stretton Street was my affable friend the French banker. I now began to wonder if my first meeting with him in the express train between York and King's Cross just before my amazing adventure had been simply by chance, or had it any connection between that meeting and the trap which had, without a doubt, been so cunningly prepared for me as I passed through Stretton Street to my uncle's house on the following evening.
The fact that I had again met the mysterious Suzor at the Gare du Nord, in Paris, just as I was on my way back to London to pursue further inquiries was, in itself, suspicious. I confess that I sat utterly bewildered. One thing was plain, namely, that he had no suspicion that I was keeping such close observation upon Gabrielle. I knew where she lived, and to me he had given his hotel address.
At last, after quite twenty minutes of serious conversation, the stout, flat-footed servant returned, and after a few pleasant words with her, Suzor rose, and raising his hat, left them.
Instantly it occurred to me that, as I knew the girl's abode, it would be more useful perhaps to watch the movements of my friend the French banker.
He took the path which skirted the lake, and then cut down the straight way which leads to Alexandra Gate into Rotten Row, while I followed him far behind though I kept him well in sight. He went swiftly at a swinging pace, for he had apparently grown cold while seated there in the north wind. The ground was hard and frosty, and the sky grey and lowering, with every evidence that a snowstorm might be expected.
He walked the whole length of Rotten Row, that leafy way which is so animated when social London disports itself in the season, and which on a black wintry afternoon, when the smart set are on the Riviera or in Egypt, is so dull and deserted. At Hyde Park Corner he turned along Piccadilly, until he hailed a passing taxi, to the driver of which he gave deliberate instructions.
I glanced around, and very fortunately saw another disengaged taxi, which I entered, giving the man instructions to keep the other in view, with a promise of double fare. Instantly the man entered into the spirit of the enterprise, and away we went towards the Circus, and thence by way of Oxford Street to the Euston Road, where before a small private hotel quite close to the station Suzor descended, and, paying the man, entered.
For three hours I waited outside, but he did not emerge. Then I went to the Carlton, and from the reception-clerk ascertained that Monsieur Suzor was staying there, but he did not always sleep there. Sometimes he would be absent for two or three nights. He went away into the country, the smart young clerk believed.
Hence I established the curious fact that Gaston Suzor when in London had two places of abode, one in that best-known hotel, and the other in the obscurity of a frowsy house patronized by lower-class visitors to London.
What could be the motive, I wondered?
I returned to the Carlton at midnight and inquired for Monsieur Suzor. The night-clerk told me that he had not yet returned.
So I went back to the cold cheerlessness of Rivermead Mansions, and slept until the following morning.
At each turn I seemed to be confronted by mystery which piled upon mystery. Ever before my eyes I saw that handsome girl lying cold and lifeless, and I had forged a certificate in the name of a well-known medical man, upon which her body had been reduced to ashes! That I had acted as accomplice to some cunning and deliberate crime I could not disguise from myself. It was now up to me to make amends before God and man, to strive to solve the enigma and to bring the guilty persons to justice.
This was what I was endeavouring, with all my soul, to accomplish.
Yet the point was whether Gabrielle Engledue was really dead, or whether she still existed in the person of Gabrielle Tennison. That was the first fact for me to establish.
Next morning I rose early and gazed across the cold misty Thames to the great factories and wharves upon the opposite bank. The outlook was indeed dull and dispiriting, I stood recalling how Moroni had walked with the beautiful girl in the streets of Florence, unwillingly it seemed, for he certainly feared lest his companion be recognized. I also recollected the strange conversation I had heard with my own ears, and the curious attitude which little Mrs. Cullerton had adopted towards me, even though she had revealed to me the whereabouts of Gabrielle Tennison.
My breakfast was ready soon after eight o'clock, and afterwards I went to Earl's Court to watch the house in Longridge Road. By dint of careful inquiries in the neighbourhood I was told that Mrs. Tennison had gone away a few days before—to Paris, they believed.
"The young lady, Miss Tennison, appears to be rather peculiar," I remarked casually to a woman at a baker's shop near by, after she had told me that she served them with bread.
"Yes, poor young lady!" replied the woman. "She's never been the same since she was taken ill last November. They say she sustained some great shock which so upset her that her mind is now a little affected. Old Mrs. Alford, the servant there, tells me that the poor girl will go a whole day and never open her mouth. She's like one dumb!"
"How very curious!" I remarked. "I wonder what kind of shock it was that caused such a change in her? Was she quite all right before November?"
"Perfectly. She was a bright clever girl, and used often to come in here to me for chocolate and cakes. She was full of life and merriment. It is really pathetic to see her as she is nowadays. She seems to be brooding over something, but what it is nobody can make out."
"Very remarkable," I said. "I've noticed her about, and have wondered at her attitude—like many others, I suppose."
"Yes. Her mother has taken her to a number of mental specialists, I hear, but nobody seems to be able to do her any good. They say she's suffered from some shock, but they can't tell exactly what it is, because the young lady seems to have entirely lost her memory over a certain period."
"Is Mrs. Tennison well off?" I asked.
"No—the reverse, I should think," the baker's wife replied. "I've heard that Mr. Tennison was a very rich man, but when he died it was found that he was on the verge of bankruptcy, and the widow was left very poorly off."
It is curious what intimate knowledge the little tradespeople glean about their neighbours, even in London. From the woman I gathered one or two facts of interest.
I inquired if Mrs. Tennison had many visitors, whereupon she replied in the negative, and added:
"There used to be an Italian gentleman who called very often a few weeks ago. He often walked out with the young lady. Somebody said he was a doctor, but I don't know if he was."
I asked the woman to tell me what he was like, when she gave me an accurate description of the mysterious doctor of the Via Cavezzo!