The Sign of Silence - William Le Queux - ebook
Kategoria: Sensacja, thriller, horror Język: angielski Rok wydania: 1915

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William Le Queux

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About
Chapter 1 - INTRODUCES A GENTLEMAN.
Chapter 2 - THE SCENT.

About Le Queux:

William Tufnell Le Queux (July 2, 1864 London - October 13, 1927 Knocke, Belgium) was an Anglo-French journalist and writer. He was also a diplomat (honorary consul for San Marino), a traveller (in Europe, the Balkans and North Africa), a flying buff who officiated at the first British air meeting at Doncaster in 1909, and a wireless pioneer who broadcast music from his own station long before radio was generally available; his claims regarding his own abilities and exploits, however, were usually exaggerated.

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Chapter 1 INTRODUCES A GENTLEMAN.

"Then it's an entire mystery?"

"Yes, Phrida."

"But it's astounding! It really seems so utterly impossible," declared my well-beloved, amazed at what I had just related.

"I've simply stated hard facts."

"But there's been nothing about this affair in the papers."

"For certain reasons the authorities are not exactly anxious for any publicity. It is a very puzzling problem, and they do not care to own themselves baffled," I replied.

"Really, it's the most extraordinary story of London life that I've ever heard," Phrida Shand declared, leaning forward in her chair, clasping her small white hands as, with her elbows upon the table-a-deux, she looked at me with her wondrous dark eyes across the bowl of red tulips between us.

We were lunching together at the Berkeley, in Piccadilly, one January day last year, and had just arrived at the dessert.

"The whole thing is quite bewildering, Teddy—an utter enigma," she exclaimed in a low, rather strained voice, her pretty, pointed chin resting upon the back of her hand as she gazed upon me from beneath those long, curved lashes.

"I quite agree," was my answer. "The police are mystified, and so am I. Sir Digby Kemsley is my friend, you know."

"I remember," she said. "You once introduced me—at the opening of the Motor Show at Olympia, I believe. A very brilliant and famous man, isn't he?"

"Rather! A famous engineer. He made the new railway across the Andes, and possesses huge rubber interests in Peru. His name, both in Seina and Valparaiso, is one to conjure with," was my reply; "but——"

"But what?" queried my well-beloved.

"Well, there's one fact which greatly increases the mystery—a fact which is yet to be told."

"What's that?" she asked eagerly.

I hesitated.

"Well, I've been making inquiries this morning," I replied with some reluctance, "and I learn to my blank amazement that there is no such person as my friend."

"No such person!" she echoed, staring at me, her lips parted. Being seated in a corner, no one could overhear our conversation. "I don't follow you!"

"Well, Sir Digby died somewhere in South America about a year ago," was my quiet response.

"What? Was your friend a fraud, eh?"

"Apparently so. And yet, if he was, he must have been a man of marvellous cunning and subterfuge," I said. "He was most popular at the club, known at the Ritz and the Savoy, and other places about town."

"He struck me as a man of great refinement—a gentleman, in fact," Phrida said. "I recollect him perfectly: tall, rather thin, with a pointed, grey beard, a long, oval face, and thinnish, grey hair. A very lithe, erect man, whose polite, elegant manner was that of a diplomat, and in whose dark eyes was an expression of constant merriment and good humour. He spoke with a slight accent—Scotch, isn't it?"

"Exactly. You remember him perfectly, dear. A most excellent description," I said; "and that same description has been circulated this morning to every police office throughout the United Kingdom, as well as to the prefectures of police in all the European capitals. All the ports are being watched, as it is expected he may make his way abroad."

"But what do the authorities suspect?" asked Phrida, with a serious look.

"Ah, that's just it! They haven't yet decided what to suspect."

I looked across at her and thought, though slightly more pale than usual, she had never appeared more charming.

Sweet-faced, slim, with a soft, sibilant voice, and dainty to her finger-tips, she did not look more than nineteen, though her age was twenty-four. How shall I describe her save to say that her oval, well-defined features were perfect, her dark, arched brows gave piquancy to a countenance that was remarked wherever she went, a merry face, with a touch of impudence in her smile—the face of an essentially London girl.

Only daughter of my father's late partner, James Shand, we had been friends from childhood, and our friendship had, three years ago, blossomed into a deep and mutual affection. Born and bred in Kensington, she cared little for country life. She loved her London, its throbbing streets, its life and movement, its concerts, its bright restaurants, and, most of all, its theatres—for she was an ardent playgoer.

My father, Edward Royle, was head of the firm of well-known chemical manufacturers, Messrs. Royle and Shand, whose works were a feature of the river landscape close to Greenwich, and whose offices were in St. Mary Axe. He had died two years before, pre-deceasing his partner by a year. The business—a big one, for we were the largest chemical manufacturers in England—had been left solely in my hands. Shand's widow still lived with Phrida in Cromwell Road, drawing from it an income of seven thousand pounds yearly.

As for myself, I was a bachelor, aged thirty-two, and if golf be a vice I was greatly addicted to it. I occupied a cosy set of chambers, half-way up Albemarle Street, and am thankful to say that in consequence of my father's business acumen, my balance at my bankers was increasing annually. At the works at Greenwich nearly two thousand hands were employed, and it had always been the firm's proud boast that they laboured under the most healthy conditions possible to secure in the manufacture of chemicals.

My father, upon his deathbed, had held my hand and expressed to me his profoundest satisfaction at my engagement with the daughter of his partner, and almost with his last breath had pronounced a blessing upon our union.

Yes, I loved Phrida—loved her with all my heart and all my soul. She was mine—mine for ever.

Yet, as I sat at that little table in the white-enamelled restaurant gazing at her across the bowl of tulips, I felt a strange, a very curious misgiving, an extraordinary misty suspicion, for which I could not in the least account.

I experienced a strange intuition of doubt and vague uncertainty.

The facts we had just been discussing were, to say the least, amazing.

Only the Metropolitan Police and myself were aware of the astounding discovery which had been made that morning—a discovery of which the ever-vigilant London evening newspapers had as yet no inkling.

The affair was being carefully hushed up. In certain quarters—high official quarters, I believe—a flutter of excitement had been caused at noon, when it had become known that a mystery had occurred, one which at the outset New Scotland Yard had acknowledged itself utterly without a clue.

About the affair there was nothing usual, nothing commonplace. The murder mysteries of London always form exciting reading, for it is surely the easiest work of the practised journalist to put forward from day to day fresh clues and exciting propositions.

The present case, however, was an entirely fresh and unheard-of mystery, one such as London had never before known.

In the whole annals of Scotland Yard no case presenting such unusual features had previously been reported.

"Have you no theory as to what really occurred?" Phrida asked slowly, after a very long and pensive silence.

"None whatever, dear," I replied.

What theory could I form? Aye, what indeed?

In order that the exact truth should be made entirely plain to the reader and the mystery viewed in all its phases, it will be best for me to briefly record the main facts prior to entering upon any detail.

The following were the circumstances exactly as I knew them.

At twenty-five minutes to ten on the previous night—the night of January the sixth—I was at home in Albemarle Street, writing letters. Haines, my man, had gone out, and I was alone, when the telephone bell rang. Taking up the receiver I heard the cheery voice of Sir Digby Kemsley asking what I was doing. My prompt reply was that I was staying at home that night, whereupon his voice changed and he asked me in great earnestness to come over to his flat in Harrington Gardens, South Kensington, at eleven o'clock.

"And look here," he added in a confidential tone, "the outside door will be closed at half-past ten and the porter off duty. I'll go down just before eleven and leave the door ajar. Don't let anyone see you come in. Be extremely careful. I have reasons I'll explain afterwards."

"Right," I replied, and shut off.

His request seemed just a little curious. It struck me that he perhaps wished to consult with me over some private matter, as he had done once before. Therefore, just before eleven I hailed a taxi in Piccadilly and drove westward past Gloucester Road Station, and into the quiet, eminently select neighbourhood where my friend lived.

At eleven o'clock Harrington Gardens—that long thoroughfare of big rather gloomy houses, most of them residences of City merchants, or town houses or flats of people who have seats in the country—was as silent as the grave, and my taxi awoke its echoes until, about half way up, I stopped the man, alighted, and paid him off.

Then, after walking a couple of hundred yards, I found the door ajar and slipped into the hall unobserved.

Ascending the wide carpeted steps to the second floor, the door of the flat was opened noiselessly by the owner himself, and a few seconds later I found myself seated before a big fire in his snug sitting-room.

My friend's face was grey and entirely changed, yet his manner was still as polished, cheery, and buoyant as ever.

The flat—quite a small one, though very expensive as he had once remarked to me—was furnished throughout with elegance and taste. Upon its walls everywhere hung curios and savage arms, which he had brought from various parts of the world. The drawing-room was furnished entirely in Arab style, with cedar-wood screens, semi-circular arches, low, soft divans and silken rugs, which he had bought in Egypt, while, in contrast, the little den in which we were sitting at that moment was panelled in white with an old-rose carpet, rendering it essentially bright and modern.

The tall, grey-bearded, elegant man handed me a box of Perfectos Finos, from which we selected, and then, throwing myself into a chair, I slowly lit up.

His back was turned from me at the moment, as he leaned over the writing-table apparently gathering up some papers which he did not desire that I should see. He was facing a circular mirror on the wall, and in it I could see his countenance reflected. The expression upon his face—cold, cynical, sinister—startled me. He placed the papers in a drawer and locked it with a key upon his chain.

"Well?" I asked. "Why all this confounded mystery, Digby?"

He turned upon me quickly, his long face usually so full of merriment, grey and drawn. I saw instantly that something very serious was amiss.

"I—I want to ask your advice, Royle," he replied in a hard voice scarce above a whisper. Walking to the pretty rug of old-rose and pale green silk spread before the fire he stood upon it, facing me. "And—well, truth to tell, I don't want it to be known that you've been here to-night, old fellow."

"Why?"

"For certain private reasons—very strong reasons."

"As you wish, my dear chap," was my response, as I drew at his perfect cigar.

Then he looked me straight in the face and said: "My motive in asking you here to-night, Royle, is to beg of you to extend your valued friendship to me at a moment which is the greatest crisis of my career. The fact is, I've played the game of life falsely, and the truth must out, unless—unless you will consent to save me."

"I don't follow you," I said, staring at him. "What in heaven's name do you mean?"

"My dear boy, I'll put my cards down on the table at once," he said in a slow, deep tone. "Let's see—we've known each other for nearly a year. You have been my best friend, entirely devoted to my interests—a staunch friend, better than whom no man could ever desire. In return I've lied to you, led you to believe that I am what I am not. Why? Because—well, I suppose I'm no different to any other man—or woman for the matter of that—I have a skeleton in my cupboard—a grim skeleton, my dear Royle. One which I've always striven to hide—until to-night," he added with emotion.

"But that hardly interferes with our friendship, does it? We all of us have our private affairs, both of business and of heart," I said.

"The heart," he echoed bitterly. "Ah! yes—the heart. You, my dear boy, are a man of the world. You understand life. You are never narrow-minded—eh?" he asked, advancing a step nearer to me.

"I hope not," I said. "At any rate, I've always been your friend, ever since our first meeting on the steamer on the Lake of Garda, last February."

The eminent engineer rolled his cigar between his fingers, and calmly contemplated it in silence.

Then, quite abruptly, he exclaimed:

"Royle, my present misfortune is due to a woman."

"Ah!" I sighed. "A woman! Always a woman in such cases! Well?"

"Mind you, I don't blame her in the least," he went on quickly, "I—I was hot-tempered, and I miscalculated her power. We quarrelled, and—and she, though so young, refined and pretty, has arisen to crush me."

"Anyone I know?"

"No. I think not," was his slow reply, his dark eyes gazing full into mine as he still stood astride upon the hearthrug.

Then he fidgeted uneasily, stroked his well-clipped grey beard with his strong, bronzed hand, and strode across the room and back again.

"Look here, Royle," he exclaimed at last. "You're my friend, so I may as well speak straight out. Will you help me?"

"Certainly—if I can."

"I'm in a hole—a confounded hole. I've been worried ever since I got back from Egypt just before Christmas. Only you can save me."

"Me! Why?"

"I want you to remain my friend; to still believe in me, when—well—when I've gone under," he answered brokenly, his brows contracting as he spoke.

"I don't understand you."

"Then I'll speak more plainly. To-night is the last time we shall meet. I've played the game, I tell you—and I've lost!"

"You seem horribly hipped about something to-night, my dear fellow!" I exclaimed in wonder at his strange words. In all my circle of friends no man was more level-headed than Sir Digby Kemsley.

"Yes, I'm not quite myself. Perhaps you wouldn't be, Royle, in the same circumstances." Halting, he stood erect with his hands clasped behind his back. Even then, at that moment of despair, he presented the fine figure of a man in his well-cut dinner clothes and the single ruby in his piqué shirt-front. "I want to entrust a secret to you—a great secret," he went on a few seconds later. "I tell you that to-night is the last occasion we shall ever meet, but I beg—may I implore you to judge me with leniency, to form no unjust conclusions, and when you remember me to regard my memory as that of a man who was not a rogue, but a victim of untoward circumstances."

"Really, my dear fellow," I said, "you speak in enigmas. What do you mean—you intend what?"

"That matters nothing to you, Royle," was his hoarse reply. "I merely ask for your continued friendship. I ask that you will treat my successor here in the exact manner in which you have treated me—that you will become his firm friend—and that you will perform for me one great and most important service."

"Your successor! Who will succeed you? You have no son!"

"No, I have no male relation whatever," he replied. "But we were speaking of the favour I am begging of you to perform for me. On the fourteenth of January I shall not be here, but it is highly necessary that on that evening, at eight o'clock, a secret message should be delivered into the hands of a certain lady—a message from myself. Will you do it?"

"Certainly. Are you going abroad again?"

"I—well, I can hardly tell. I may be dead by then—who knows?" And he smiled grimly.

He returned to his writing-table, unlocked a drawer, and took therefrom a letter which was carefully sealed with black wax.

"Now, listen," he said, holding the letter in his fingers; "on the night of the fourteenth, just at eight o'clock precisely, go to the Piccadilly tube station, stand at the telephone box numbered four on the Haymarket side, when a lady in black will approach you and ask news of me. In response you will give her this note. But there is a further condition: you may be watched and recognised, therefore be extremely careful that you are not followed on that day, and, above all, adopt some effective disguise. Go there dressed as a working-man, I would suggest."

"That request, Kemsley, is certainly a very queer one," I remarked. "Is she the lady?"

He smiled, and I took that as an affirmative.

"You say she'll be dressed in black. Lots of ladies dress in black. I might mistake her."

"Not very likely. I forgot to tell you that she will wear a small spray of mimosa."

"Ah, that shows originality," I remarked. "Mimosa is not often worn on the person."

"It will serve as a distinguishing mark." Then, after a pause, he added, handing me the letter: "There is one further request I want to make—or, at least, I want you to give me your promise, Royle. I ask you to make a solemn vow to me that if any suspicion arises within your mind, that you will believe nothing without absolute and decisive proof. I mean that you will not misjudge her."

"I certainly will not."

"Your hand upon it?"

I put forth my hand and, gripping his warmly, gave him my word of honour.

"I hope you will never regret this, Royle," he said in an earnest tone.

"We are friends," I remarked simply.

"And I trust, Royle, you will never regret the responsibility which you have accepted on my behalf," he said in a deep, hard voice—the voice of a desperate man. "Remember to treat my successor exactly as you have treated me. Be his best friend, as he will be yours. You will be astonished, amazed, mystified, no doubt, at the events which must, alas! inevitably occur. But it is not my fault, Royle, believe me," he declared with solemn emphasis. "It is, alas! my misfortune!"


Chapter 2 THE SCENT.

After giving me the letter, and receiving my assurance that it would be safely delivered, Sir Digby's spirits seemed somewhat to revive.

He chatted in his old, good-humoured style, drank a whisky and soda, and, just before one o'clock, let me out, urging me to descend the stairs noiselessly lest the hall-porter should know that he had had a visitor.

Time after time I had questioned him regarding his strange reference to his successor, but to all my queries he was entirely dumb. He had, I recollected, never been the same since his return from a flying visit to Egypt.

"The future will, no doubt, astound you, but I know, Royle, that you are a man of honour and of your word, and that you will keep your promise at all hazards," was all he would reply.

The secrecy with which I had entered and left caused me considerable curiosity. Kemsley was one of those free, bluff, open-hearted, open-handed, men. He was never secretive, never elusive. I could only account for his curious, mystifying actions by the fact that the reputation of a woman was at stake—that he was acting for her protection.

And I was to meet that woman face to face in eight days' time!

As I walked towards Gloucester Road Station—where I hoped to find a taxi—all was silence. At that hour the streets of South Kensington are as deserted as a graveyard, and as I bent towards the cutting wind from the east, I wondered who could be the mysterious woman who had broken up my dear friend's future plans. Yet he bore her no malice. Some men's temperaments are really curious.

Beneath a street-lamp I paused and looked at the superscription upon the envelope. It ran:

"For E. P. K."

The initial K! Was the lady Digby's wife? That was the suspicion which at once fell upon me, and by which I became convinced.

At half-past one o'clock I let myself into my own flat in Albemarle Street. The faithful Haines, who had been a marine wardroom servant in the navy before entering my employ, was awaiting me.

"The telephone bell rang ten minutes ago, sir," he said. "Sir Digby Kemsley wishes to speak to you."

"Very well!" I replied. "You can go to bed."

The man placed my tray with whisky and soda upon the little table near my chair, as was his habit, and, wishing me good-night, retired.

I went to the telephone, and asked for Digby's number.

After a few seconds a voice, which at first I failed to recognise, replied to mine:

"I say, Royle; I'm so sorry to disturb you, old chap, but could you possibly come back here at once?"

"What?" I asked, very surprised. "Is it so very important? Can't it wait till to-morrow?"

"No, unfortunately it can't. It's most imperative that I should see you. Something has happened. Do come!" he begged. "But don't attract attention—you understand!"

"Something happened!" I echoed. "What?"

"That woman. Come at once—do, there's a good fellow. Will you—for my sake and hers?"

The mention of the woman decided me, so I replied "All right!" and hung up the receiver.

Within half an hour I alighted in Courtfield Gardens and walked up Harrington Gardens to the door of my friend's house, which I saw was already ajar in anticipation of my arrival.

Closing the door noiselessly, in order not to attract the attention of the alert porter who lived in the basement, I crept up the carpeted stairs to the door of the flat, which I found also ajar.

Having closed the door, I slipped into the hall and made my way to the warm, cosy room I had left earlier that night.

The door was closed, and without ceremony I turned the handle.

I threw it open laughingly in order to surprise my friend, but next instant halted in amazement upon the threshold.

I stood there breathless, staring in speechless wonder, and drawing back.

"I'm really very sorry!" I exclaimed. "I thought Sir Digby was here!"

The man who had risen from his chair and bowed when I opened the door was about the same build, but, apparently, a trifle younger. He had iron-grey hair and a pointed beard, but his face was more triangular, with higher cheek-bones, and eyes more brilliant and deeper set.

His thin countenance relaxed into a pleasant smile as he replied in a calm, suave voice:

"I am Sir Digby Kemsley, and you—I believe—are Mr. Edward Royle—my friend—my very intimate friend—are you not?"

"You!" I gasped, staring at him.

And then, for several seconds I failed to articulate any further words. The imposture was so utterly barefaced.

"You are not Sir Digby Kemsley," I went on angrily at last. "What trick is this?"

"No trick whatever, my dear Royle," was the man's quiet reply as he stood upon the hearthrug in the same position in which my friend had stood an hour before. "I tell you that my name is Kemsley—Sir Digby Kemsley."

"Then you assert that this flat is yours?"

"Most certainly I do."

"Bosh! How can you expect me to believe such a transparent tale?" I cried impatiently. "Where is my friend?"

"I am your friend, my dear Royle!" he laughed.

"You're not."

"But did you not, only an hour ago, promise him to treat his successor in the same manner in which you had treated himself?" the man asked very slowly, his high, deep-set eyes fixed upon me with a crafty, almost snake-like expression, an expression that was distinctly one of evil.

"True, I did," was my quick reply. "But I never bargained for this attempted imposture."

"I tell you it is no imposture!" declared the man before me. "You will, perhaps, understand later. Have a cigar," and he took up Digby's box and handed it to me.

I declined very abruptly, and without much politeness, I fear.

I was surveying the man who, with such astounding impudence, was attempting to impose upon me a false identity. There was something curiously striking in his appearance, but what it was I could not exactly determine. His speech was soft and educated, in a slightly higher pitch than my friend's; his hands white and carefully manicured, yet, as he stood, I noted that his left shoulder was slightly higher than the other, that his dress clothes ill-fitted him in consequence; that in his shirt-front were two rare, orange-coloured gems such as I had never seen before, and, further, that when I caught him side face, it much resembled Digby's, so aquiline as to present an almost birdlike appearance.

"Look here!" I exclaimed in anger a few moments later. "Why have you called me over here? When you spoke to me your voice struck me as peculiar, but I put it down to the distortion of sound on the telephone."

"I wanted to see if you recognised my other self," he answered with a smile.

"At this late hour? Couldn't you have postponed your ghastly joke till the morning?" I asked.

"Joke!" he echoed, his face suddenly pale and serious. "This is no joke, Royle, but a very serious matter. The most serious that can occur in any man's life."

"Well, what is it? Tell me the truth."

"You shall know that later."

"Where is Sir Digby?"

"Here! I am Sir Digby, I tell you."

"I mean my friend."

"I am your friend," was the man's response, as he turned away towards the writing-table. "The friend you first met on the Lake of Garda."

"Now, why all this secrecy?" I asked. "I was first called here and warned not to show myself, and, on arrival, find you here."

"And who else did you expect to find?" he asked with a faint smile.

"I expected to find my friend."

"But I am your friend," he asserted. "You promised me only an hour ago that you would treat my successor exactly as you treated me. And," he added, "I am my own successor!"

I stood much puzzled.

There were certain features in his countenance that were much like Digby's, and certain tones in his voice that were the same. His hands seemed the same, too, and yet he was not Digby himself.

"How can I believe you if you refuse to be frank and open with me?" I asked.

"You promised me, Royle, and a good deal depends upon your promise," he replied, looking me squarely in the face. "Perhaps even your own future."

"My future!" I echoed. "What has that to do with you, pray?" I demanded angrily.

"More than you imagine," was his low response, his eyes fixed upon mine.

"Well, all I know is that you are endeavouring to make me believe that you are what you are not. Some evil purpose is, no doubt, behind it all. But such an endeavour is an insult to my intelligence," I declared.

The man laughed a low, harsh laugh and turned away.

"I demand to know where my friend is!" I cried, stepping after him across the room, and facing him again.

"My dear Royle," he replied, in that curious, high-pitched voice, yet with a calm, irritating demeanour. "Haven't I already told you I am your friend?"

"It's a lie! You are not Sir Digby!" I cried angrily. "I shall inform the police that I've found you usurping his place and name, and leave them to solve the mystery."

"Act just as you think fit, my dear old fellow," he laughed. "Perhaps the police might discover more than you yourself would care for them to know."

His words caused me to ponder. At what could he be hinting?

He saw my hesitancy, and with a sudden movement placed his face close to me, saying:

"My dear fellow look—look into my countenance, you surely can penetrate my disguise. It cannot be so very perfect, surely."

I looked, but turned from him in disgust.

"No. Stop this infernal fooling!" I cried. "I've never seen you before in my life."

He burst out laughing—laughed heartily, and with genuine amusement.

His attitude held me in surprise.

"You refuse to be my friend, Royle—but I desire to be yours, if you will allow me," he said.

"I can have no friend whom I cannot trust," I repeated.

"Naturally. But I hope you will soon learn to trust me," was his quiet retort. "I called you back to-night in order to see if you—my most intimate friend—would recognise me. But you do not. I am, therefore, safe—safe to go forth and perform a certain mission which it is imperative that I should perform."

"You are fooling me," I declared.

For a second he looked straight and unflinchingly into my eyes, then with a sudden movement he drew the left cuff of his dress shirt up to the elbow and held out his forearm for me to gaze upon.

I looked.

Then I stood dumbfounded, for half-way up the forearm, on the inside, was the cicatrice of an old knife wound which long ago, he had told me, had been made by an Indian in South America who had attempted to kill him, and whom he had shot in self-defence.

"You believe me now?" he asked, in a voice scarce above a whisper.

"Of course," I said. "Pardon me, Digby—but this change in your personality is marvellous—almost superhuman!"

"So I've been told before," he replied lightly.

"But, really, didn't you penetrate it?" he asked, resuming his normal voice.

"No. I certainly did not," I answered, and helping myself to a drink, swallowed it.

"Well?" I went on. "What does this mean?"

"At present I can't exactly tell you what I intend doing," he replied. "To-night I wanted to test you, and have done so. It's late now," he added, glancing at the clock, which showed it to be half-past two o'clock in the morning. "Come in to-morrow at ten, will you?" he asked. "I want to discuss the future with you very seriously. I have something to say which concerns your own future, and which also closely concerns a friend of yours. So come in your own interests, Royle—now don't fail, I beg of you!"

"But can't you tell me to-night," I asked.

"Not until I know something of what my own movements are to be," he replied. "I cannot know before to-morrow," he replied with a mysterious air. "So if you wish to be forewarned of an impending peril, come and see me and I will then explain. We shall, no doubt, be on closer terms to-morrow. Au revoir," and he took my hand warmly and then let me out.

The rather narrow, ill-lit staircase, the outer door of which had been shut for hours, was close and stuffy, but as I descended the second flight and was about to pass along the hall to the door, I distinctly heard a movement in the shadow where, on my left, the hall continued along to the door of the ground-floor flat.

I peered over the banisters, but in the darkness could distinguish nothing.

That somebody was lurking there I instantly felt assured, and next moment the truth became revealed by two facts.

The first was a light, almost imperceptible noise, the jingle of a woman's bangles, and, secondly, the faint odour of some subtle perfume, a sweet, intoxicating scent such as my nostrils had never greeted before.

For the moment I felt surprise, but as the hidden lady was apparently standing outside the ground-floor flat—perhaps awaiting admittance—I felt it to be no concern of mine, and proceeding, opened the outer door and passed outside, closing it quietly after me.

An unusually sweet perfume one can seldom forget. Even out in the keen night air that delightful odour seemed to cling to my memory—the latest creation of the Rue de la Paix, I supposed.

Well, I duly returned home to Albemarle Street once again, utterly mystified.

What did it all mean? Why had Digby adopted such a marvellous disguise? What did he mean by saying that he wished to stand my friend and safeguard me from impending evil?

Yes, it was all a mystery—but surely not so great a mystery as that which was to follow. Ah! had I but suspected the astounding truth how very differently would I have acted!

Filled with curiosity regarding Digby's strange forebodings, I alighted from a taxi in Harrington Gardens at a quarter to eleven that same morning, but on entering found the uniformed hall-porter in a great state of excitement and alarm.

"Oh, sir!" he cried breathlessly, advancing towards me. "You're a friend of Sir Digby's sir. The police are upstairs. Something extraordinary has happened."

"The police!" I gasped. "Why, what's happened?"

"Well, sir. As his man left the day before yesterday, my wife went up to Sir Digby's flat as usual this morning about eight, and put him his early cup of tea outside his door. But when she went in again she found he had not taken it into his room. She believed him to be asleep, so not till ten o'clock did she go into the sitting-room to draw up the blinds, when, to her horror, she found a young lady, a perfect stranger, lying stretched on the floor there! She rushed down and told me, and I went up. I found that Sir Digby's bed hadn't been slept in, and that though the poor girl was unconscious, she was still breathing. So I at once called in the constable on point duty at the corner of Collingham Road, and he 'phoned to the police station."

"But the girl—is she dead?" I inquired quickly.

"I don't know, sir. You'd better go upstairs. There's an inspector, two plain-clothes men, and a doctor up there."

He took me up in the lift, and a few moments later I stood beside Digby's bed, whereon the men had laid the inanimate form of a well-dressed girl whom I judged to be about twenty-two, whose dark hair, unbound, lay in disorder upon the pillow. The face, white as marble, was handsome and clean cut, but upon it, alas! was the ashen hue of death, the pale lips slightly parted as though in a half-sarcastic smile.

The doctor was bending over her making his examination.

I looked upon her for a moment, but it was a countenance which I had never seen before. Digby had many lady friends, but I had never seen her among them. She was a perfect stranger.

Her gown was of dark blue serge, smartly made, and beneath her coat she wore a cream silk blouse with deep sailor collar open at the neck, and a soft flowing bow of turquoise blue. This, however, had been disarranged by the doctor in opening her blouse to listen to her breathing, and I saw that upon it was a small crimson stain.

Yes, she was remarkably good-looking, without a doubt.

When I announced myself as an intimate friend of Sir Digby Kemsley, the inspector at once took me into the adjoining room and began to eagerly question me.

With him I was perfectly frank; but I said nothing regarding my second visit there in the night.

My gravest concern was the whereabouts of my friend.

"This is a very curious case, Mr. Royle," declared the inspector. "The C.I.D. men have established one fact—that another woman was with the stranger here in the early hours of this morning. This hair-comb"—and he showed me a small side-comb of dark green horn—"was found close beside her on the floor. Also a couple of hair-pins, which are different to those in the dead woman's hair. There was a struggle, no doubt, and the woman got away. In the poor girl's hair are two tortoiseshell side-combs."

"But what is her injury?" I asked breathlessly.

"She's been stabbed," he replied. "Let's go back."

Together we re-entered the room, but as we did so we saw that the doctor had now left the bedside, and was speaking earnestly with the two detectives.

"Well, doctor?" asked the inspector in a low voice.

"She's quite dead—murder, without a doubt," was his reply. "The girl was struck beneath the left breast—a small punctured wound, but fatal!"

"The woman who left this hair-comb behind knows something about the affair evidently," exclaimed the inspector. "We must first discover Sir Digby Kemsley. He seems to have been here up until eleven o'clock last night. Then he mysteriously disappeared, and the stranger entered unseen, two very curious and suspicious circumstances. I wonder who the poor girl was?"

The two detectives were discussing the affair in low voices. Here was a complete and very remarkable mystery, which, from the first, the police told me they intended to keep to themselves, and not allow a syllable of it to leak out to the public through the newspapers.

A woman had been there!

Did there not exist vividly in my recollection that strange encounter in the darkness of the stairs? The jingle of the golden bangles, and the sweet odour of that delicious perfume?

But I said nothing. I intended that the police should prosecute their inquiries, find my friend, and establish the identity of the mysterious girl who had met with such an untimely end presumably at the hands of that woman who had been lurking in the darkness awaiting my departure.

Truly it was a mystery, a most remarkable problem among the many which occur each week amid the amazing labyrinth of humanity which we term London life.

Sir Digby Kemsley had disappeared. Where?

Half an hour after noon I had left Harrington Gardens utterly bewildered, and returned to Albemarle Street, and at half-past one met Phrida at the Berkeley, where, as I have already described, we lunched together.

I had revealed to her everything under seal of the secrecy placed upon me by the police—everything save that suspicion I had had in the darkness, and the suspicion the police also held—the suspicion of a woman.

Relation of the curious affair seemed to have unnerved her. She had become paler and was fidgeting with her serviette. Loving me so devotedly, she seemed to entertain vague and ridiculous fears regarding my own personal safety.

"It was very foolish and hazardous of you to have returned there at that hour, dear," she declared with sweet solicitation, as she drew on her white gloves preparatory to leaving the restaurant, for I had already paid the bill and drained my liqueur-glass.

"I don't see why," I said. "Whatever could have happened to me, when——"

My sentence remained unfinished.

I held my breath. The colour must have left my cheeks, I know.

My well-beloved had at that moment opened her handbag and taken out her wisp of lace handkerchief.

My nostrils were instantly filled with that same sweet, subtle perfume which I so vividly recollected, the identical perfume of the woman concealed in that dark passage-way!

Her bangles, two thin gold ones, jingled as she moved—that same sound which had come up to me from the blackness. I sat like a statue, staring at her amazed, aghast, like a man in a dream.