The whole circumstances of the Stretton Street Affair were so complicated and so amazing from start to finish that, had the facts been related to me, I confess I should never have for a moment given them credence.
That they were hard, undeniable facts, presenting a problem both startling and sensational, the reader will quickly learn from this straightforward narrative—an open confession of what actually occurred.
In all innocence, and certainly without any desire to achieve that ephemeral notoriety which accrues from having one’s portrait in the pictorial press and being besieged by interviewers in search of a “story,” I found myself, without seeking adventure, one of the chief actors in a drama which was perhaps one of the strangest and most astounding of this our twentieth century.
I almost hesitate to set down the true facts, so utterly amazing are they. Indeed, as I sit in the silence of this old brown room in a low-built and timbered Surrey farmhouse, with pen and paper before me, I feel that it is only by a miracle that I have been spared to narrate one of the most complex and ingenious plots which the human mind, with malice aforethought, ever conceived.
I ought, I suppose, in opening to tell you something concerning myself. Hugh Garfield is my name; my age twenty-nine, and I am the son of the late Reverend Francis Garfield, rector of Aldingbourne and minor canon of Chichester. In the war I served with the Royal Air Force and obtained my pilot’s certificate. I went to France and afterwards to Italy, and on being demobilized returned to my work as an electrical engineer in the employ of Messrs. Francis and Goldsmith, the well-known firm whose palatial offices are in Great George Street, Westminster, quite close to the Institute of Electrical Engineers.
Though I had obtained my Degree in Science I was at the time employed a good deal upon clerical work. Five years of war had, of course, been something of a set-back to my career, but in our reputable firm our places had been kept open for us—for those who returned, and we were, alas! only three out of twenty-eight.
Perhaps it was that having done my duty and obtained my captaincy and a Military Cross, the loyal, old-fashioned firm regarded me with considerable favour. At any rate, it set its face against anything German, even in the post-war days when the enemy sent its Ambassador to the Court of St. James, and we weakheartedly reopened trade with the diabolical Huns and allowed them to dump in their cheap and nasty goods just as though no war had happened.
Messrs. Francis and Goldsmith was a private firm, and the principals were both fine, patriotic Britons. Though electrical appliances were coming from Germany wholesale, and being put in to the market at prices with which British firms could never hope to compete, yet they stuck to their old resolution when in 1918 they had joined the Anti-German Union of “No German Goods.”
Would that all other firms, electrical and otherwise, had done likewise!
Before I describe the amazing adventures which befell me I suppose I ought to tell you the exact circumstances. I had an excellent business appointment, with a salary which was quite adequate for my modest needs as a bachelor. Further, my Aunt Emily had died and left me quite a comfortable little fortune in addition. I shared a small flat in Rivermead Mansions, just over Hammersmith Bridge, with another bachelor, a young solicitor—a dark-haired, clean-shaven, alert fellow named Henry Hambledon, who had created quite a good practice, with only small fees of course, at the Hammersmith Police Court and its vicinity.
I first met Hambledon at the front—years ago it seems in these days when events march on so rapidly. For nearly a year we were brother-officers, until I was sent to Italy. We met again after the Armistice and set up housekeeping together, our female “Kaiserin” being a sharp-featured, grey-haired young lady of about fifty-five, who “looked after us” very well, and though she possessed many idiosyncrasies, did not rob us quite so openly as do most housekeepers of the London bachelor’s home.
Harry was one of the best of good fellows. He had seen a lot of service ever since he had responded to his country’s call and joined up as a private. We always got on excellently together, so we had furnished our pleasant little six-roomed, second-floor flat quite comfortably, and as Harry had looked after the artistic side of its furnishings—aided by a pal of his, an impecunious artist who lived in Chelsea—it certainly was a very passable bachelor’s snuggery.
The small front room commanded a view over the river with works, wharves, and high factory chimneys on the Middlesex shore. To the left, across the long suspension bridge, was Chiswick and Kew, while to the right lay Putney and Chelsea. Before the house flowed the great broad muddy river where once each year the University eights flashed past, while ever and anon, year in, year out, noisy tugs towed strings of black barges up and down the stream.
Away across the high-road to the left were the great reservoirs of London’s water works, a huge open space always fresh and breezy even within a stone’s throw of stifled Hammersmith, with its “tubes” and its dancing-halls. Used as we both had been to years of roughing it, the spot had taken our fancy, and we got on famously together. On most evenings we were out, but sometimes, before we turned in, we would sit and smoke and laugh over our stirring adventures and humorous incidents in the war, and the “scraps” we had been safely through.
Since his demobilization Harry had fallen deeply in love with an extremely pretty girl named Norah Peyton, who lived in a house overlooking the Terrace Gardens at Richmond, and whose father was partner in a firm of well-known importers in Mincing Lane. As for myself, I was “unattached.” Like every other young man of my age I had, of course, had several little affairs of the heart, all of which had, however, died within a few short weeks.
Now it happened that on the evening of the day prior to the opening of this strange series of adventures which befell me, I was in the city of York, whither I had gone on business for the firm, and as my old-fashioned employers allowed first-class travelling expenses, I entered an empty first-class compartment of the London express which left York at six-twenty-three, and was due at King’s Cross at ten-thirty.
A few moments later a fellow-passenger appeared, a well-dressed, middle-aged man, who asked me in French if the train went to London, and on my replying in the affirmative, he thanked me profusely and joined me.
“I regret, m’sieur, that I, alas! know so very leetle of your Engleesh,” he remarked pleasantly, and continued in French: “Sometimes my ignorance places me in great difficulty when en voyage here.”
Knowing French fairly well we soon commenced to chat in that language. He struck me as a man of considerable refinement and education. Therefore it was no surprise to me when he told me that, as an official at the head office of the Crédit Lyonnais in Paris, it was his duty sometimes to visit their correspondents in the chief commercial centres of Great Britain.
“I am on my way from Glasgow back to Paris,” he said. “But I had to break my journey in York this morning. I shall leave London for Paris to-morrow. I shall travel by the air-route,” he added; “it is so much quicker, and far less fatiguing. I have been backwards and forwards to the Croydon Aerodrome quite half a dozen times of late.”
“Yes,” I remarked. “Travel by aeroplane must be of very considerable advantage to really busy men.”
And thus we chatted until dinner was announced, and we went together along the corridor to the restaurant-car, where we sat opposite each other.
As the train sped along over the flat fertile country through Doncaster and Grantham on that moonlit winter’s night we sat gossiping pleasantly, for I had looked forward to a lonely journey back to London.
I have “knocked about” ever since the commencement of the war, but I abhor a lonely four-hour railway journey. I had had enough of slow railway journeys in France and elsewhere. But on that evening I confess I was greatly taken with my fellow-traveller.
He had all the alertness and exquisite politeness of the Parisian, and he compelled me to have a Benedictine at his expense. Then, as aquid pro quo, he took one of my cigarettes.
Later, when we had concluded the usual and never-altering meal provided by the Great Northern Railway Company—I often wonder who are the culinary artists who devise those menus which face us on all English trains—we returned to our compartment to stretch ourselves in our corners and to smoke. Grantham we had passed and we were approaching Peterborough, the old fen town with the ancient cathedral.
In French my friend the banker kept up a continuous chatter, even though I was tired and drowsy. He had told me much concerning himself, and I, in turn, told him of my profession and where I lived. I did not tell him very much, for I am one of those persons who prefer to keep themselves to themselves. I seldom give strangers any information. After a time, indeed, I tired of him.
At last we entered King’s Cross—a little late, as is usual on a long run.
“I have to get to the Carlton,” my companion said. “Of course there will be no taxis. But are not you in London very badly served in that respect? We, in Paris, have taxis at any hour. When your stations close I find always a great difficulty in getting a conveyance. By the way! Could you not dine with me to-morrow night?”
“I am sorry,” I replied. “But I have arranged to visit my uncle in Orchard Street.”
Two minutes later the train drew up slowly, and wishing my fellow-traveller bon soir, I expressed a hope that one day, ere long, we might meet again. I had not given him my card, as our acquaintance was only upon chance, and—well, after all, he was only a passing foreigner.
Half an hour after I had stepped from the train, I was back again in my cosy little flat in Rivermead Mansions, after a very strenuous day. On the hall table lay a letter from my solicitors. I tore it open eagerly and read that they regretted to inform me that certain investments I had made a year before, with the money which my aunt had left me, had not realized my expectations. In other words, I had lost the whole of my money!
All I possessed was the salary paid me by Messrs. Francis and Goldsmith.
My heart stood still. The blow staggered me. Yet, after all, I had been a fool—a fact which my solicitors had hinted at the time.
I crushed the letter in my hand and passed on into the little sitting-room.
Harry had gone out to a dance, and had left a scribbled note on the table saying that he had his latchkey and would not be back until two or so. He wished me “cheerio.” So having smoked a final cigarette I retired.
Next day I went to the office in Great George Street and reported upon the business I had done in York—and good business it was, too, with the Municipal Electric Supply—and in the evening I returned across Hammersmith Bridge at about six o’clock.
At seven our buxom “Kaiserin” put our meal upon the table—a roast, a sweet, and a wedge of Cheshire cheese. The mind of the dear old soul, who had so many relations, never rose above the butcher’s joint and apple tart. Alas! that cooking is an art still unknown in our dear old England. We sit at table only by Nature’s necessity—not to enjoy the kindly fruits of the earth as do other nations.
Yet what could we expect of the ’Ammersmith charlady who looked after us?—and who, by the way, probably looked after her own pocket as well.
The bachelor’s housekeeper is always a fifteen puzzle—twelve for herself and the remaining three for her employer. As sure as rain comes in winter, so does the smug and sedate female who keeps house for the unfortunate unattached male place the onus of housekeeping bills upon him and reap the desserts of life for herself.
On that particular evening I felt very tired, for in the five days of my absence many business matters had accumulated, and I had had much to attend to.
Harry, who ate hurriedly—even gobbling his food—told me that he was taking Norah to the theatre, hence, after dinner, I was left alone. I read the evening paper when he had left, and then, at eight o’clock, stretched myself, for it was time that I went out to my uncle’s.
The evening was cold and bright, with twinkling stars which on air-raid nights in London would have caused much perturbation among average householders and their families.
Our “Kaiserin” had gone home, so I rose, put on my overcoat, switched off the lights and descended the stairs to Hammersmith Bridge.
And yet all unconsciously I plunged into a vortex of mystery and uncertainty such as, perhaps, no other living man has ever experienced.
Again I hesitate to pen these lines.
Yet, be patient, and I will endeavour, as far as I am able in these cold printed pages, to reveal exactly what occurred, without any exaggeration or hysterical meanderings. My only object being to present to you a plain, straightforward, and unvarnished narrative of those amazing occurrences, and in what astounding circumstances I found myself.
Surely it was not any of my own seeking—as you will readily understand. Because I performed what I believed to be a good action—as most readers of these pages would have done in similar circumstances—I was rewarded by unspeakable trouble, tribulation and tragedy.