She sat up in bed and a cold shiver ran down her spine. Somebody was in the room! She reached out to turn on the light and could have shrieked, for she touched a hand, a cold, small hand that was resting on the bedside table. For a second she was paralysed and then the hand was suddenly withdrawn. There was a rustle of curtain rings and the momentary glimpse of a figure against the lesser gloom of the night, and, shaking in every limb, she leapt from the bed and switched on the light. The room was empty, but the French window was ajar. And then she saw on the table by her side, a grey card. Picking it up with shaking hands she read: “One who loves you, begs you for your life and honour’s sake to leave this house.” It bore no other signature than a small Blue Hand ...
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Edgar Wallace (1875-1932)
Ward, Lock & Co., Limited
In various editions
SANDERS OF THE RIVER
JACK O’ JUDGMENT
THE DAFFODIL MYSTERY
BOSAMBO OF THE RIVER
THE NINE BEARS
BONES IN LONDON
THE BOOK OF ALL-POWER
THE KEEPERS OF THE KING’S PEACE
MR. JUSTICE MAXELL
THE COUNCIL OF JUSTICE
THE BOOKS OF BART
THE DUKE IN THE SUBURBS
THE DARK EYES OF LONDON
THE PEOPLE OF THE RIVER
DOWN UNDER DONOVAN
SANDI THE KING-MAKER
THE THREE OAK MYSTERY
THE ADMIRABLE CARFEW
THE FELLOWSHIP OF THE FROG
THE MAN WHO BOUGHT LONDON
THE JUST MEN OF CORDOVA
THE SECRET HOUSE
A DEBT DISCHARGED
KATE PLUS TEN
THOSE FOLK OF BULBORO
THE MAN WHO WAS NOBODY
THE ADVENTURES OF HEINE
WARD, LOCK & CO., LIMITED
Printed in Great Britain by Butler & Tanner Ltd., Frome and London
MR. SEPTIMUS SALTER pressed the bell on his table for the third time and uttered a soft growl.
He was a stout, elderly man, and with his big red face and white side-whiskers, looked more like a prosperous farmer than a successful lawyer. The cut of his clothes was queerly out of date, the high white collar and the black satin cravat that bulged above a flowered waistcoat were of the fashion of 1850, in which year Mr. Salter was a little ahead of his time so far as fashions were concerned. But the years had caught him up and passed him, and although there was not a more up-to-date solicitor in London, he remained faithful to the style in which he had made a reputation as a “buck.”
He pressed the bell again, this time impatiently.
“Confound the fellow!” he muttered, and rising to his feet, he stalked into the little room where his secretary was usually to be found.
He had expected to find the apartment empty, but it was not. A chair had been drawn sideways up to the big ink-stained table, and kneeling on this, his elbows on the table, his face between his hands, was a young man who was absorbed in the perusal of a document, one of the many which littered the table.
“Steele!” said Mr. Salter sharply, and the reader looked up with a start and sprang to his feet.
He was taller than the average and broad of shoulder, though he gave an impression of litheness. His tanned face spoke eloquently of days spent out of doors, the straight nose, the firm mouth, and the strong chin were all part of the characteristic “soldier face” moulded by four years of war into a semblance of hardness.
Now he was a little confused, more like the guilty school-boy than the V.C. who had tackled eight enemy aeroplanes, and had come back to his aerodrome with a dozen bullets in his body.
“Really, Steele,” said Mr. Salter reproachfully, “you are too bad. I have rung the bell three times for you.”
“I’m awfully sorry, sir,” said Jim Steele, and that disarming smile of his went straight to the old man’s heart.
“What are you doing here?” growled Mr. Salter, looking at the papers on the desk, and then with a “tut” of impatience, “Aren’t you tired of going over the Danton case?”
“No, sir, I’m not,” said Steele quietly. “I have a feeling that Lady Mary Danton can be found, and I think if she is found there will be a very satisfactory explanation for her disappearance, and one which will rather disconcert——” He stopped, fearful of committing an indiscretion.
Mr. Salter looked at him keenly and helped himself to a pinch of snuff.
“You don’t like Mr. Groat?” he asked, and Jim laughed.
“Well, sir, it’s not for me to like him or dislike him,” he replied. “Personally, I’ve no use for that kind of person. The only excuse a man of thirty can produce for not having been in the war, is that he was dead at the time.”
“He had a weak heart,” suggested Mr. Salter, but without any great conviction.
“I think he had,” said Jim with a little twist of his lips. “We used to call it a ‘poor heart’ in the army. It made men go sick on the eve of a battle, and drove them into dugouts when they should have been advancing across the open with their comrades.”
Mr. Salter looked down at the papers.
“Put them away, Steele,” he said quietly. “You’re not going to get any satisfaction out of the search for a woman who—why, she must have disappeared when you were a child of five.”
“I wish, sir——” began Steele, and hesitated. “Of course, it’s really no business of mine,” he smiled, “and I’ve no right to ask you, but I’d like to hear more details of that disappearance if you can spare me the time—and if you feel inclined. I’ve never had the courage to question you before. What is the real story of her disappearance?”
Mr. Salter frowned, and then the frown was gradually replaced by a smile.
“I think, Steele, you’re the worst secretary I ever had,” he said in despair. “And if I weren’t your godfather and morally bound to help you, I should write you a polite little note saying your services were not required after the end of this week.”
Jim Steele laughed.
“I have expected that ever since I’ve been here,” he said.
There was a twinkle in the old lawyer’s eyes. He was secretly fond of Jim Steele; fonder than the boy could have imagined. But it was not only friendship and a sense of duty that held Jim down in his job. The young man was useful, and, despite his seeming inability to hear bells when he was wrapped up in his favourite study, most reliable.
“Shut that door,” he said gruffly, and when the other had obeyed, “I’m telling this story to you,” and he pointed a warning finger at Jim Steele, “not because I want to satisfy your curiosity, but because I hope that I’m going to kill all interest in the Danton mystery as you call it for evermore! Lady Mary Danton was the only daughter of the Earl of Plimstock—a title which is now extinct. She married, when she was quite a young girl, Jonathan Danton, a millionaire shipowner, and the marriage was not a success. Jonathan was a hard, sour man, and a sick man, too. You talk about Digby Groat having a bad heart, well, Jonathan had a real bad one. I think his ill-health was partly responsible for his harsh treatment of his wife. At any rate, the baby that was born to them, a girl, did not seem to bring them together—in fact, they grew farther apart. Danton had to go to America on business. Before he left, he came to this office and, sitting at that very table, he signed a will, one of the most extraordinary wills that I have ever had engrossed. He left the whole of his fortune to his daughter Dorothy, who was then three or four months old. In the event of her death, he provided that the money should go to his sister, Mrs. Groat, but not until twenty years after the date of the child’s death. In the meantime Mrs. Groat was entitled to enjoy the income from the estate.”
“Why did he do that?” asked Jim, puzzled.
“I think that is easily understood,” said Mr. Salter. “He was providing against the child’s death in its infancy, and he foresaw that the will might be contested by Lady Mary. As it was drawn up—I haven’t explained all the details—it could not be so contested for twenty years. However, it was not contested,” he said quietly. “Whilst Danton was in America, Lady Mary disappeared, and with her the baby. Nobody knew where she went to, but the baby and a strange nurse, who for some reason or other had care of the child, were traced to Margate. Possibly Lady Mary was there too, though we have no evidence of this. We do know that the nurse, who was the daughter of a fisherman and could handle a boat, took the child out on the sea one summer day and was overtaken by a fog. All the evidence shows that the little boat was run down by a liner, and its battered wreck was picked up at sea, and a week later the body of the nurse was recovered. We never knew what became of Lady Mary. Danton returned a day or two after the tragedy, and the news was broken to him by Mrs. Groat, his sister. It killed him.”
“And Lady Mary was never seen again?”
Salter shook his head.
“So you see, my boy,” he rose, and dropped his hand on the other’s shoulder, “even if by a miracle you could find Lady Mary, you could not in any way affect the position of Mrs. Groat, or her son. There is only one tiny actress in this drama who could ever have benefited by Jonathan Danton’s will, and she,” he lowered his voice until it was little more than a whisper, “she is beyond recall—beyond recall!”
There was a moment of silence.
“I realize that, sir,” said Jim Steele quietly, “only——”
“I have a queer feeling that there is something wrong about the whole business, and I believe that if I gave my time to the task I could unveil this mystery.”
Mr. Salter looked at his secretary sharply, but Jim Steele met his eyes without faltering.
“You ought to be a detective,” he said ironically.
“I wish to heaven I was,” was the unexpected reply. “I offered my services to Scotland Yard two years ago when the Thirteen Gangs were holding up the banks with impunity.”
“Oh, you did, did you?” said the lawyer sarcastically as he opened the door, and then suddenly he turned. “Why did I ring for you?” he asked. “Oh, I remember! I want you to get out all those Danton leases of the Cumberland property.”
“Is Mrs. Groat selling?” asked Steele.
“She can’t sell yet,” said the lawyer, “but on the thirtieth of May, providing a caveat is not entered, she takes control of the Danton millions.”
“Or her son does,” said Jim significantly. He had followed his employer back to the big private office with its tiers of deed boxes, its worn furniture and threadbare carpet and general air of mustiness.
“A detective, eh?” snorted Mr. Salter as he sat down at his table. “And what is your equipment for your new profession?”
Jim smiled, but there was an unusual look in his face.
“Faith,” he said quietly.
“Faith? What is faith to a detective?” asked the startled Salter.
“ ‘Faith is the substance of things hoped for; the evidence of things unseen.’ ” Jim quoted the passage almost solemnly, and for a long time Mr. Salter did not speak. Then he took up a slip of paper on which he had scribbled some notes, and passed it across to Jim.
“See if you can ‘detect’ these deeds; they are in the strong-room,” he said, but in spite of his jesting words he was impressed.
Jim took up the slip, examined it, and was about to speak when there came a tap at the door and a clerk slipped into the room.
“Will you see Mr. Digby Groat, sir?” he asked.
MR. SALTER glanced up with a humorous glint in his eye. “Yes,” he said with a nod, and then to Jim as he was about to make a hurried exit, “you can wait, Steele. Mr. Groat wrote in his letter that he wanted to see the deeds, and you may have to conduct him to the strong-room.”
Jim Steele said nothing.
Presently the clerk opened the door and a young man walked in.
Jim had seen him before and had liked him less every time he had met him. The oblong sallow face, with its short black moustache, the sleepy eyes, and rather large chin and prominent ears, he could have painted, if he were an artist, with his eyes shut. And yet Digby Groat was good-looking. Even Jim could not deny that. He was a credit to his valet. From the top of his pomaded head to his patent shoes he was an exquisite. His morning coat was of the most fashionable cut and fitted him perfectly. One could have used the silk hat he carried in his hand as a mirror, and as he came into the room exuding a delicate aroma of Quelques Fleurs, Jim’s nose curled. He hated men who scented themselves, however daintily the process was carried out.
Digby Groat looked from the lawyer to Steele with that languid, almost insolent look in his dark eyes, which the lawyer hated as much as his secretary.
“Good morning, Salter,” he said.
He took a silk handkerchief from his pocket and, dusting a chair, sat down uninvited, resting his lemon-gloved hands upon a gold-headed ebony cane.
“You know Mr. Steele, my secretary,” said Salter.
The other nodded his glossy head.
“Oh, yes, he’s a Victoria Cross person, isn’t he?” he asked wearily. “I suppose you find it very dull here, Steele? A place like this would bore me to death.”
“I suppose it would,” said Jim, “but if you’d had four years’ excitement of war, you would welcome this place as a calm haven of rest.”
“I suppose so,” said the other shortly. He was not too well pleased by Jim’s reference to the fact that he had escaped the trials of war.
“Now, Dr. Groat——” but the other stopped him with a gesture.
“Please don’t call me ‘doctor,’ ” he said with a pained expression. “The fact that I have been through the medical schools and have gained my degrees in surgery is one which I wish you would forget. I qualified for my own amusement, and if people get into the habit of thinking of me as a doctor, I shall be called up all hours of the night by all sorts of wretched patients.”
It was news to Jim that this sallow dandy had graduated in medicines.
“I came to see those Lakeside leases, Salter,” Groat went on. “I have had an offer—I should say, my mother has had an offer—from a syndicate which is erecting an hotel upon her property. I understand there is some clause in the lease which prevents building operations of that character. If so, it was beastly thoughtless of old Danton to acquire such a property.”
“Mr. Danton did nothing either thoughtless or beastly thoughtless,” said Salter quietly, “and if you had mentioned it in your letter, I could have telephoned you the information and saved your calling. As it is, Steele will take you to the strong-room, and you can examine the leases at your leisure.”
Groat looked at Jim sceptically.
“Does he know anything about leases?” he asked. “And must I really descend into your infernal cellar and catch my death of cold? Can’t the leases be brought up for me?”
“If you will go into Mr. Steele’s room I dare say he will bring them to you,” said Salter, who did not like his client any more than Jim did. Moreover, he had a shrewd suspicion that the moment the Groats gained possession of the Danton fortune, they would find another lawyer to look after their affairs.
Jim took the keys and returned with an armful of deeds, to discover that Groat was no longer with his chief.
“I sent him into your room,” said Salter. “Take the leases in and explain them to him. If there’s anything you want to know I’ll come in.”
Jim found the young man in his room. He was examining a book he had taken from a shelf.
“What does ‘dactylology’ mean?” he asked, looking round as Jim came in. “I see you have a book on the subject.”
“Finger-prints,” said Jim Steele briefly. He hated the calm proprietorial attitude of the man, and, moreover, Mr. Groat was examining his own private library.
“Finger-prints, eh?” said Groat, replacing the book. “Are you interested in finger-prints?”
“A little,” said Jim. “Here are the Lakeside leases, Mr. Groat. I made a sketchy examination of them in the strong-room and there seems to be no clause preventing the erection of the building you mention.”
Groat took the document in his hand and turned it leaf by leaf.
“No,” he said at last, and then, putting down the document, “so you’re interested in finger-prints, eh? I didn’t know old Salter did a criminal business.”
“He has very little common law practice,” said Jim.
“What are these?” asked Groat.
By the side of Jim’s desk was a bookshelf filled with thick black exercise books.
“Those are my private notes,” said Jim, and the other looked round with a sneering smile.
“What the devil have you got to make notes about, I wonder?” he asked, and before Jim could stop him, he had taken one of the exercise books down.
“If you don’t mind,” said Jim firmly, “I would rather you left my private property alone.”
“Sorry, but I thought everything in old Salter’s office had to do with his clients.”
“You’re not the only client,” said Jim. He was not one to lose his temper, but this insolent man was trying his patience sorely.
“What is it all about?” asked the languid Groat, as he turned one page.
Jim, standing at the other side of the table watching him, saw a touch of colour come into the man’s yellow face. The black eyes hardened and his languid interest dropped away like a cloak.
“What is this?” he asked sharply. “What the hell are you——”
He checked himself with a great effort and laughed, but the laugh was harsh and artificial.
“You’re a wonderful fellow, Steele,” he said with a return to his old air of insouciance. “Fancy bothering your head about things of that sort.”
He put the book back where he had found it, picked up another of the leases and appeared to be reading it intently, but Jim, watching him, saw that he was not reading, even though he turned page after page.
“That is all right,” he said at last, putting the lease down and taking up his top-hat. “Some day perhaps you will come and dine with us, Steele. I’ve had rather a stunning laboratory built at the back of our house in Grosvenor Square. Old Salter called me doctor!” He chuckled quietly as though at a big joke. “Well, if you come along, I will show you something that will at least justify the title.”
The dark brown eyes were fixed steadily upon Jim as he stood in the doorway, one yellow-gloved hand on the handle.
“And, by the way, Mr. Steele,” he drawled, “your studies are leading you into a danger zone for which even a second Victoria Cross could not adequately compensate you.”
He closed the door carefully behind him, and Jim Steele frowned after him.
“What the dickens does he mean?” he asked, and then remembered the exercise book through which Groat had glanced, and which had had so strange an effect upon him. He took the book down from the shelf and turning to the first page, read: “Some notes upon the Thirteen Gang.”
THAT afternoon Jim Steele went into Mr. Salter’s office. “I’m going to tea now, sir,” he said.
Mr. Salter glanced up at the solemn-faced clock that ticked audibly on the opposite wall.
“All right,” he grumbled; “but you’re a very punctual tea-drinker, Steele. What are you blushing about—is it a girl?”
“No, sir,” said Jim rather loudly. “I sometimes meet a lady at tea, but——”
“Off you go,” said the old man gruffly. “And give her my love.”
Jim was grinning, but he was very red, too, when he went down the stairs into Marlborough Street. He hurried his pace because he was a little late, and breathed a sigh of relief as he turned into the quiet tea-shop to find that his table was as yet unoccupied.
As his tall, athletic figure strode through the room to the little recess overlooking Regent Street, which was reserved for privileged customers, many heads were turned, for Jim Steele was a splendid figure of British manhood, and the grey laughing eyes had played havoc in many a tender heart.
But he was one of those men whose very idealism forbade trifling. He had gone straight from a public school into the tragic theatre of conflict, and at an age when most young men were dancing attendance upon women, his soul was being seared by the red-hot irons of war.
He sat down at the table and the beaming waitress came forward to attend to his needs.
“Your young lady hasn’t come yet, sir,” she said.
It was the first time she had made such a reference to Eunice Weldon, and Jim stiffened.
“The young lady who has tea with me is not my ‘young lady,’ ” he said a little coldly, and seeing that he had hurt the girl, he added with a gleam of mirth in those irresistible eyes, “she’s your young lady, really.”
“I’m sorry,” said the waitress, scribbling on her order pad to hide her confusion. “I suppose you’ll have the usual?”
“I’ll have the usual,” said Jim gravely, and then with a quick glance at the door he rose to meet the girl who had at that moment entered.
She was slim of build, straight as a plummet line from chin to toe; she carried herself with a dignity which was so natural that the men who haunt the pavement to leer and importune, stood on one side to let her pass, and then, after a glimpse of her face, cursed their own timidity. For it was a face Madonna-like in its purity. But a blue-eyed, cherry-lipped Madonna, vital and challenging. A bud of a girl breaking into the summer bloom of existence. In those sapphire eyes the beacon fires of life signalled her womanhood; they were at once a plea and a warning. Yet she carried the banners of childhood no less triumphantly. The sensitive mouth, the round, girlish chin, the satin white throat and clean, transparent skin, unmarked, unblemished, these were the gifts of youth which were carried forward to the account of her charm.
Her eyes met Jim’s and she came forward with outstretched hand.
“I’m late,” she said gaily. “We had a tiresome duchess at the studio who wanted to be taken in seventeen different poses—it is always the plain people who give the most trouble.”
She sat down and stripped her gloves, with a smile at the waitress.
“The only chance that plain people have of looking beautiful is to be photographed beautifully,” said Jim.
Eunice Weldon was working at a fashionable photographer’s in Regent Street. Jim’s meeting with her had been in the very room in which they were now sitting. The hangings at the window had accidentally caught fire, and Jim, in extinguishing them, had burnt his hand. It was Eunice Weldon who had dressed the injury.
A service rendered by a man to a woman may not lead very much farther to a better acquaintance. When a woman helps a man it is invariably the beginning of a friendship. Women are suspicious of the services which men give, and yet feel responsible for the man they have helped, even to the slightest extent.
Since then they had met almost daily and taken tea together. Once Jim had asked her to go to a theatre, an invitation which she had promptly but kindly declined. Thereafter he had made no further attempt to improve their acquaintance.
“And how have you got on with your search for the missing lady?” she asked, as she spread some jam on the thin bread-and-butter which the waitress had brought.
Jim’s nose wrinkled—a characteristic grimace of his.
“Mr. Salter made it clear to me to-day that even if I found the missing lady it wouldn’t greatly improve matters,” he said.
“It would be wonderful if the child had been saved after all,” she said. “Have you ever thought of that possibility?”
“There is no hope of that,” he said, shaking his head, “but it would be wonderful, as you say, and more wonderful,” he laughed, “if you were the missing heiress!”
“And there’s no hope of that either,” she said, shaking her head. “I’m the daughter of poor but honest parents, as the story-books say.”
“Your father was a South African, wasn’t he?”
“Poor daddy was a musician, and mother I can hardly remember, but she must have been a dear.”
“Where were you born?” asked Jim.
She did not answer immediately because she was busy with her jam sandwich.
“In Cape Town—Rondebosch, to be exact,” she said after a while. “Why are you so keen on finding your long-lost lady?”
“Because I am anxious that the most unmitigated cad in the world should not succeed to the Danton millions.”
She sat bolt upright.
“The Danton millions?” she repeated slowly. “Then who is your unmitigated cad? You have never yet mentioned the names of these people.”
This was perfectly true. Jim Steele had not even spoken of his search until a few days before.
“A man named Digby Groat.”
She stared at him aghast.
“Why, what’s the matter?” he asked in surprise.
“When you said ‘Danton’ I remembered Mr. Curley—that is our chief photographer—saying that Mrs. Groat was the sister of Jonathan Danton,” she said slowly.
“Do you know the Groats?” he asked quickly.
“I don’t know them,” she said slowly, “at least, not very well, only——” she hesitated, “I’m going to be Mrs. Groat’s secretary.”
He stared at her.
“You never told me this,” he said, and as she dropped her eyes to her plate, he realized that he had made a faux pas. “Of course,” he said hurriedly, “there’s no reason why you should tell me, but——”
“It only happened to-day,” she said. “Mr. Groat has had some photographs taken—his mother came with him to the studio. She’s been several times, and I scarcely noticed them until to-day, when Mr. Curley called me into the office and said that Mrs. Groat was in need of a secretary and that it was a very good position; £5 a week, which is practically all profit, because I should live in the house.”
“When did Mrs. Groat decide that she wanted a secretary?” asked Jim, and it was her turn to stare.
“I don’t know. Why do you ask that?”
“She was at our office a month ago,” said Jim, “and Mr. Salter suggested that she should have a secretary to keep her accounts in order. She said then she hated the idea of having anybody in the house who was neither a servant nor a friend of the family.”
“Well, she’s changed her views now,” smiled the girl.
“This means that we shan’t meet at tea any more. When are you going?”
“To-morrow,” was the discouraging reply.
He went back to his office more than a little dispirited. Something deep and vital seemed to have gone out of his life.
“You’re in love, you fool,” he growled to himself.
He opened the big diary which it was his business to keep and slammed down the covers savagely.
Mr. Salter had gone home. He always went home early, and Jim lit his pipe and began to enter up the day’s transactions from the scribbled notes which his chief had left on his desk.
He had made the last entry and was making a final search of the desk for some scrap which he might have overlooked.
Mr. Salter’s desk was usually tidy, but he had a habit of concealing important memoranda, and Jim turned over the law books on the table in a search for any scribbled memo he might have missed. He found between two volumes a thin gilt-edged notebook, which he did not remember having seen before. He opened it to discover that it was a diary for the year 1901. Mr. Salter was in the habit of making notes for his own private reading, using a queer legal shorthand which no clerk had ever been able to decipher. The entries in the diary were in these characters.
Jim turned the leaves curiously, wondering how so methodical a man as the lawyer had left a private diary visible. He knew that in the big green safe in the lawyer’s office were stacks of these books, and possibly the old man had taken one out to refresh his memory. The writing was Greek to Jim so that he felt no compunction in turning the pages, filled as they were with indecipherable and meaningless scrawls, punctuated now and again with a word in longhand.
He stopped suddenly, for under the heading “June 4th” was quite a long entry. It seemed to have been written in subsequently to the original shorthand entry, for it was in green ink. This almost dated the inscription. Eighteen months before, an oculist had suggested to Mr. Salter, who suffered from an unusual form of astigmatism, that green ink would be easier for him to read, and ever since then he had used no other.
Jim took in the paragraph before he realized that he was committing an unpardonable act in reading his employers’ private notes.
“One month imprisonment with hard labour. Holloway Prison. Released July 2nd. Madge Benson (this word was underlined), 14, Palmer’s Terrace, Paddington. 74, Highcliffe Gardens, Margate. Long enquiries with boatman who owned Saucy Belle. No further trace——”
Here the entry ended.
“What on earth does that mean?” muttered Jim. “I must make a note of that.”
He realized now that he was doing something which, might be regarded as dishonourable, but he was so absorbed in the new clues that he overcame his repugnance.
Obviously, this entry referred to the missing Lady Mary. Who the woman Madge Benson was, what the reference to Holloway Gaol meant, he would discover.
He made a copy of the entry in the diary at the back of a card, went back to his room, locked the door of his desk and went home, to think out some plan of campaign.
He occupied a small flat in a building overlooking Regent’s Park. It is true that his particular flat overlooked nothing but the backs of other houses, and a deep cutting through which were laid the lines of the London, Midland and Scottish Railway—he could have dropped a penny on the carriages as they passed, so near was the line. But the rent of the flat was only one-half of that charged for those in a more favourable position. And his flat was smaller than any. He had a tiny private income, amounting to two or three pounds a week, and that, with his salary, enabled him to maintain himself in something like comfort. The three rooms he occupied were filled with priceless old furniture that he had saved from the wreckage of his father’s home, when that easy-going man had died, leaving just enough to settle his debts, which were many.
Jim had got out of the lift on the fourth floor and had put the key in the lock when he heard the door on the opposite side of the landing open, and turned round.
The elderly woman who came out wore the uniform of a nurse, and she nodded pleasantly.
“How is your patient, nurse?” asked Jim.
“She’s very well, sir, or rather as well as you could expect a bedridden lady to be,” said the woman with a smile. “She’s greatly obliged to you for the books you sent in to her.”
“Poor soul,” said Jim sympathetically. “It must be terrible not to be able to go out.”
The nurse shook her head.
“I suppose it is,” she said, “but Mrs. Fane doesn’t seem to mind. You get used to it after seven years.”
A “rat-tat” above made her lift her eyes.
“There’s the post,” she said. “I thought it had gone. I’d better wait till he comes down.”
The postman at Featherdale Mansions was carried by the lift to the sixth floor and worked his way to the ground floor. Presently they heard his heavy feet coming down and he loomed in sight.
“Nothing for you, sir,” he said to Jim, glancing at the bundle of letters in his hand.
“Miss Madge Benson—that’s you, nurse, isn’t it?”
“That’s right,” said the woman briskly, and took the letter from his hand, then with a little nod to Jim she went downstairs.
Madge Benson! The name that had appeared in Salter’s diary!
“I’M sick to death of hearing your views on the subject, mother,” said Mr. Digby Groat, as he helped himself to a glass of port. “It is sufficient for you that I want the girl to act as your secretary. Whether you give her any work to do or not is a matter of indifference to me. Whatever you do, you must not leave her with the impression that she is brought here for any other purpose than to write your letters and deal with your correspondence.”
The woman who sat at the other side of the table looked older than she was. Jane Groat was over sixty, but there were people who thought she was twenty years more than that. Her yellow face was puckered and lined, her blue-veined hands, folded now on her lap, were gnarled and ugly. Only the dark brown eyes held their brightness undimmed. Her figure was bent and there was about her a curious, cringing, frightened look which was almost pitiable. She did not look at her son—she seldom looked at anybody.
“She’ll spy, she’ll pry,” she moaned.
“Shut up about the girl!” he snarled, “and now we’ve got a minute to ourselves, I’d like to tell you something, mother.”
Her uneasy eyes went left and right, but avoided him. There was a menace in his tone with which she was all too familiar.
“Look at this.”
He had taken from his pocket something that sparkled and glittered in the light of the table lamp.
“What is it?” she whined without looking.
“It is a diamond bracelet,” he said sternly. “And it is the property of Lady Waltham. We were staying with the Walthams for the week-end. Look at it!”
His voice was harsh and grating, and dropping her head she began to weep painfully.
“I found that in your room,” he said, and his suave manner was gone. “You old thief!” he hissed across the table, “can’t you break yourself of that habit?”
“It looked so pretty,” she gulped, her tears trickling down her withered face. “I can’t resist the temptation when I see pretty things.”
“I suppose you know that Lady Waltham’s maid has been arrested for stealing this, and will probably go to prison for six months?”
“I couldn’t resist the temptation,” she snivelled, and he threw the bracelet on the table with a growl.
“I’m going to send it back to the woman and tell them it must have been packed away by mistake in your bag. I’m not doing it to get this girl out of trouble, but to save myself from a lot of unpleasantness.”
“I know why you’re bringing this girl into the house,” she sobbed; “it is to spy on me.”
His lips curled in a sneer.
“To spy on you!” he said contemptuously, and laughed as he rose. “Now understand,” his voice was harsh again, “you’ve got to break yourself of this habit of picking up things that you like. I’m expecting to go into Parliament at the next election, and I’m not going to have my position jeopardized by an old fool of a kleptomaniac. If there’s something wrong with your brain,” he added significantly, “I’ve a neat little laboratory at the back of this house where that might be attended to.”
She shrank back in terror, her face grey.
“You—you wouldn’t do it—my own son!” she stammered. “I’m all right, Digby; it’s only——”
He smiled, but it was not a pleasant smile to see.
“Probably there is a little compression,” he said evenly, “some tiny malgrowth of bone that is pressing on a particular cell. We could put that right for you, mother——”
But she had thrown her chair aside and fled from the room before he had finished. He picked up the jewel, looked at it contemptuously and thrust it into his pocket. Her curious thieving propensities he had known for a very long time and had fought to check them, and as he thought, successfully.
He went to his library, a beautiful apartment, with its silver grate, its costly rosewood bookshelves and its rare furnishings, and wrote a letter to Lady Waltham. He wrapped this about the bracelet, and having packed letter and jewel carefully in a small box, rang the bell. A middle-aged man with a dark forbidding face answered the summons.
“Deliver this to Lady Waltham at once, Jackson,” said Digby. “The old woman is going out to a concert to-night, by the way, and when she’s out I want you to make a very thorough search of her room.”
The man shook his head.
“I’ve already looked carefully, Mr. Groat,” he said, “and I’ve found nothing.”
He was on the point of going when Digby called him back.
“You’ve told the housekeeper to see to Miss Weldon’s room?”
“Yes, sir,” was the reply. “She wanted to put her on the top floor amongst the servants, but I stopped her.”
“She must have the best room in the house,” said Groat. “See that there are plenty of flowers in the room and put in the bookcase and the Chinese table that are in my room.”
The man nodded.
“What about the key, sir?” he asked after some hesitation.
“The key?” Digby looked up. “The key of her room?”
The man nodded.
“Do you want the door to lock?” he asked significantly.
Mr. Groat’s lips curled in a sneer.
“You’re a fool,” he said. “Of course, I want the door to lock. Put bolts on if necessary.”
The man looked his surprise. There was evidently between these two something more than the ordinary relationship which existed between employer and servant.
“Have you ever run across a man named Steele?” asked Digby, changing the subject.
Jackson shook his head.
“Who is he?” he asked.
“He is a lawyer’s clerk. Give him a look up when you’ve got some time to spare. No, you’d better not go—ask—ask Bronson. He lives at Featherdale Mansions.”
The man nodded, and Digby went down the steps to the waiting electric brougham.
Eunice Weldon had packed her small wardrobe and the cab was waiting at the door. She had no regrets at leaving the stuffy untidy lodging which had been her home for two years, and her farewell to her dishevelled landlady, who seemed always to have dressed in a violent hurry, was soon over. She could not share Jim Steele’s dislike of her new employers. She was too young to regard a new job as anything but the beginning of an adventure which held all sorts of fascinating possibilities. She sighed as she realized that the little tea-table talks which had been so pleasant a feature of her life were now to come to an end, and yet—surely he would make some effort to see her again?
She would have hours—perhaps half-days to herself, and then she remembered with dismay that she did not know his address! But he would know hers. That thought comforted her, for she wanted to see him again. She wanted to see him more than she had ever dreamt she would. She could close her eyes, and his handsome face, those true smiling eyes of his, would look into hers. The swing of his shoulders as he walked, the sound of his voice as he spoke—every characteristic of his was present in her mind.
And the thought that she might not see him again——
“I will see him—I will!” she murmured, as the cab stopped before the imposing portals of No. 409, Grosvenor Square.
She was a little bewildered by the army of servants who came to her help, and just a little pleased by the deference they showed to her.
“Mrs. Groat will receive you, miss,” said a swarthy-looking man, whose name she afterwards learnt was Jackson.
She was ushered into a small back drawing-room which seemed poorly furnished to the girl’s eye, but to Mrs. Groat was luxury.
The old woman resented the payment of a penny that was spent on decoration and furniture, and only the fear of her son prevented her from disputing every account which was put before her for settlement. The meeting was a disappointment to Eunice. She had not seen Mrs. Groat except in the studio, where she was beautifully dressed. She saw now a yellow-faced old woman, shabbily attired, who looked at her with dark disapproving eyes.
“Oh, so you’re the young woman who is going to be my secretary, are you?” she quavered dismally. “Have they shown you your room?”
“Not yet, Mrs. Groat,” said the girl.
“I hope you will be comfortable,” said Mrs. Groat in a voice that suggested that she had no very great hopes for anything of the sort.
“When do I begin my duties?” asked Eunice, conscious of a chill.
“Oh, any time,” said the old woman off-handedly.
She peered up at the girl.
“You’re pretty,” she said grudgingly, and Eunice flushed. Somehow that compliment sounded like an insult. “I suppose that’s why,” said Mrs. Groat absently.
“Why what?” asked the girl gently.
She thought the woman was weak of intellect and had already lost whatever enthusiasm she had for her new position.
“Nothing,” said the old woman, and with a nod dismissed her.
The room into which Eunice was shown left her speechless for a while.
“Are you sure this is mine?” she asked incredulously.
“Yes, miss,” said the housekeeper with a sidelong glance at the girl.
“But this is beautiful!” said Eunice.
The room would have been remarkable if it had been in a palace. The walls were panelled in brocade silk and the furniture was of the most beautiful quality. A small French bed, carved and gilded elaborately, invited repose. Silk hangings hung at either side of the head, and through the French windows she saw a balcony gay with laden flower-boxes. Under her feet was a carpet of blue velvet pile that covered the whole of the room. She looked round open-mouthed at the magnificence of her new home. The dressing-table was an old French model in the Louis Quinze style, inlaid with gold, and the matching wardrobe must have been worth a fortune. Near one window was a lovely writing-table, and a well-filled bookcase would almost be within reach of her hand when she lay in bed.
“Are you sure this is my room?” she asked again.
“Yes, miss,” said the housekeeper, “and this,” she opened a door, “is your bathroom. There is a bath to every room. Mr. Groat had the house reconstructed when he came into it.”
The girl opened one of the French windows and stepped on to the balcony which ran along to a square and larger balcony built above the porch of the house. This, she discovered, opened from a landing above the stairs.
She did not see Mrs. Groat again that afternoon, and when she inquired she discovered that the old lady was lying down with a bad headache. Nor was she to meet Digby Groat. Her first meal was eaten in solitude.
“Mr. Groat has not come back from the country,” explained Jackson, who waited on her. “Are you comfortable, miss?”
“Quite, thank you,” she said.
There was an air about this man which she did not like. It was not that he failed in respect, or that he was in any way familiar, but there was something proprietorial in his attitude. It almost seemed as though he had a financial interest in the place, and she was glad when her meal was finished. She went straight up to her room a little dissatisfied that she had not met her employer. There were many things which she wanted to ask Mrs. Groat; and particularly did she wish to know what days she would be free.
Presently she switched out the light, and opening the French windows, stepped out into the cool, fragrant night. The after-glow of the sun still lingered in the sky. The square was studded with lights; an almost incessant stream of motor-car traffic passed under her window, for Grosvenor Square is the short cut between Oxford Street and Piccadilly.
The stars spangled the clear sky with a million specks of quivering light. Against the jewelled robe of the northern heavens, the roofs and steeples and stacks of London had a mystery and wonder which only the light of day could dispel. And in the majestic solitude of the night, Eunice’s heart seemed to swell until she could scarcely breathe. It was not the magic of stars that brought the blood flaming to her face; nor the music of the trees. It was the flash of understanding that one-half of her, one splendid fragment of the pattern on which her life was cut, was somewhere there in the darkness asleep perhaps—thinking of her, she prayed. She saw his face with startling distinctness, saw the tender kindness of his eyes, felt on her moist palm the pressure of those strong brown fingers. . . .
With a sigh which was half a sob, she closed the window and drew the silken curtains, shutting out the immortal splendours of nature from her view.
Five minutes later she was asleep.
How long she slept she did not know. It must have been hours she thought. The stream of traffic had ceased and there was no sound from outside, save the distant hoot of a motor-horn. The room was in darkness, and yet she was conscious that somebody was there!
She sat up in bed and a cold shiver ran down her spine. Somebody was in the room! She reached out to turn on the light and could have shrieked, for she touched a hand, a cold, small hand that was resting on the bedside table. For a second she was paralysed and then the hand was suddenly withdrawn. There was a rustle of curtain rings and the momentary glimpse of a figure against the lesser gloom of the night, and, shaking in every limb, she leapt from the bed and switched on the light. The room was empty, but the French window was ajar.
And then she saw on the table by her side, a grey card. Picking it up with shaking hands she read:
“One who loves you, begs you for your life and honour’s sake to leave this house.”
It bore no other signature than a small blue hand.
She dropped the card on the bed and stood staring at it for a while, and then, slipping into her dressing-gown, she unlocked the door of her room and went out into the passage. A dim light was burning at the head of the stairs. She was terror-stricken, hardly knew what she was doing, and she seemed to fly down the stairs.
She must find somebody, some living human creature, some reality to which she could take hold. But the house was silent. The hall lamp was burning, and by its light she saw the old clock and was dimly conscious that she could hear its solemn ticking. It was three o’clock. There must be somebody awake in the house. The servants might still be up, she thought wildly, and ran down a passage to what she thought was the entrance to the servants’ hall. She opened a door and found herself in another passage illuminated by one light at the farther end, where further progress was arrested by a white door. She raced along until she came to the door and tried to open it. There was no handle and it was a queer door. It was not made of wood, but of padded canvas.
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