General Besserley’s Second Puzzle Box - E. Phillips Oppenheim - ebook

General Besserley’s Second Puzzle Box ebook

E. Phillips Oppenheim

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General Besserley sat before his writing-table, drawn close up to the wide-flung windows of his summer-house, his pen clasped in his idle fingers, his eyes wandering though a tangle of drooping roses and clematis beyond the gardens below to where a car was crawling up the mountain road. He leaned a little sideways and touched a bell. In a few moments a white-coated butler opened the door and approached the table.

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Contents

I. THE DUCHESS GAVE A PARTY

II. BUSINESS FOR FATHER

III. GENERAL BESSERLEY RUNS THE GAUNTLET

IV. THE UNPREPOSSESSING DANSEUSE

V. THE HUSBAND OF O-NAN-SEN

VI. THE TRIFLING LAPSE OF THE MAYOR OF ST. MARAC

VII. FIFTY THOUSAND FRANCS AND A MARRIAGE LICENCE FOR MARIE LOUISE

VIII. THE SPHINX WHISPERED

IX. A WET DAY’S TRAGEDY FOR ANDREW MASON

X. THE DRAMA ON THE SIXTH TEE

XI. THE STRANGER AT THE BAR

XII. TRESILLIAN FOUND A CURE

I. THE DUCHESS GAVE A PARTY

General Besserley sat before his writing-table, drawn close up to the wide-flung windows of his summer-house, his pen clasped in his idle fingers, his eyes wandering though a tangle of drooping roses and clematis beyond the gardens below to where a car was crawling up the mountain road. He leaned a little sideways and touched a bell. In a few moments a white-coated butler opened the door and approached the table.

“It is, I believe, Madame la Vicomtesse who arrives, Henri,” his master announced. “Send word to Jean that the gates may be opened and let François know that there will probably be a guest for lunch.”

“Parfaitement, Monsieur.”

The servant departed. General Besserley laid down his pen and stood in the entrance to his exquisitely planned summer retreat. He watched the car, now clearly visible, took note of the familiar uniform of the chauffeur, recognized the single slight figure of the woman seated in the corner of the limousine toying with her sunshade. It was a morning of early springtime, before the sweetness had been drawn from the flowers or the colour from the herbage. Even though this was France, there were birds singing. The blue expanse of the distant Mediterranean glittered in the sunshine, but Besserley, so responsive as a rule to all the beautiful sights and sounds and perfumes by which he was surrounded, looked only at the woman. The car swept through the open gates and came suddenly to a standstill. The Vicomtesse de Bressac, once known as Lady Grace Massingham, the most popular woman in Monte Carlo, descended with the air of one in familiar surroundings and climbed the little foot-path towards the Chalet. Besserley stepped forward to meet her.

“Once more, my dear Grace!” he exclaimed, as he bent over her fingers. “I am so happy to see you.”

She smiled and the natural gaiety of a girl was there still in her expression of obvious delight.

“They told me in Paris that you were here,” she said. “Victor said you were on no account to be disturbed–that you had really begun your Reminiscences.”

“The writing of those Memoirs is only my excuse to gain a little solitude,” he told her. “Solitude, as you know very well, means only a refuge from boring people. You will lunch, of course?”

“May I?” she asked.

He waved the car on to the Château which loomed in the background and led his visitor into the Chalet. Here he established her in his favourite easy chair and hurried Henri away with his special orders.

“You flatter me, Grace, you know, by this prompt visit,” he said.

“My dear man,” she replied, “I am like everyone else. I do the thing I like best in life. As it happens, though, I come also upon a serious errand.”

He shook his head at her.

“Nothing in this world could bring me to a gala dinner.”

“You are ungallant!” she exclaimed. “I have only one reply–nothing in the world would induce me to invite you to one.”

“We all have our weaknesses,” he excused himself. “My work––”

She interrupted him with a laugh.

“The only time I have seriously doubted the genuineness of your sense of humour,” she said, “is when you show your aversion so pointedly to those harmless and pleasant little functions. Never mind, I came to see you upon something that really matters. I must have your advice, and at once. I may even have to ask you to fight a duel for me.”

“You know how I hate bloodshed,” he sighed, “but it shall be done.”

Henri appeared with a tray. She accepted her cocktail with a little gesture of delight.

“Now,” she declared, “I shall feel fortified, because really, Sam, I am in trouble and I need your help.”

“Come out into the garden for a few moments,” he proposed, “whilst they lay the table here.”

He led her to a seat in a retired spot. She certainly showed then that she could be a woman of plain speech.

“Sam,” she confided, “that Dragounil woman has given up her establishment in Paris, she is opening up her villa here and commencing operations next month. Nothing will keep Maurice away from the villa, the stories of his losses will get into the Press, his grandfather will keep his word. He will be ruined–incidentally, so shall I.”

“Very concisely put,” Besserley acknowledged with a sympathetic smile. “It follows without saying that the wicked Duchess must not open that villa.”

“She owns it, you know,” Grace reminded her companion. “How is one to stop her?”

“Problems in my young life,” he replied, “I have solved by the dozen but never yet have I been able to solve them on an empty stomach. You see the mystic signs behind? Our omelette is being served. Put this little matter out of your mind for an hour, Grace. Afterwards we will see what can be done.”

“Almost you inspire me to hope,” she murmured as she passed her hand through his arm.

They lunched before the open window, to the music of a few isolated feathered songsters and the faint sighing of the west wind in the pine trees. François, the chef, presented himself for a moment to pay his respects to his master’s honoured guest. He doffed his tall white headgear and bowed low.

“Madame la Vicomtesse est servie avec une omelette fines herbes,” he announced. “Après cela la truite de rivière de ce matin et puis les petites côtelettes d’agneau, très très petites, avec les petits pois et pommes de terre sautés. Pour finir vous avez un soufflé et comme vin le Montrachet ’vingt-et-un et le Château Mouton Rothschild ’seize.”

“C’est parfait, François,” the Vicomtesse acknowledged, smiling.

François bowed low; he bowed also to his master, who nodded his commendations, and took his leave.

“It is an old custom of François’,” Besserley apologized. “He hates the menu. He likes to announce his performances.”

“Already I forget my troubles,” Grace declared as she took her place.

Luncheon amply fulfilled its promise. With the coffee, cigarettes and a not too heavy Armagnac were served. Then Besserley opened his desk, ran through some papers and drew out a gilt-edged glossy card.

“The Duchess opens her villa, I see, on the twentieth of next month,” he remarked.

“You, too, are marked down for a victim! You are going?”

“I had no idea of accepting,” he replied. “I don’t approve of heavy gambling in private houses. What you are telling me, though, may make a difference.”

“Give me some advice,” she begged earnestly. “Tell me what to do. You know the story of Maurice’s life up to now. He has lost twenty-five millions and both his châteaux–gambling. His grandfather allows him now a quite adequate income upon one sole condition–that he never enters a casino or indulges in heavy gambling anywhere. He will go to this woman’s villa and he will lose as he always loses. She has had some of his millions already. His grandfather will hear about it and it will be the end. It will be the end of a great family, Sam. Even though our marriage has been rather a pitiful affair, I do feel my responsibilities.”

Besserley was silent for several moments. He rose to his feet and moved to the threshold of the Chalet, looking down at the smiling valley below. His heart was full of sympathy for the woman who had broken through her proud silence to make this appeal, but the pain he felt was not for her alone.

“I can give you no advice, Grace, for the moment,” he said, turning towards her. “Don’t communicate with his grandfather, whatever you do. I will make some enquiries. We shall meet again often, I hope, before the villa opens. I may have to go to Paris. If I do, I shall see Maurice. I will do all that I possibly can to help you.”

Her eyes were a little sad, even though she knew so well the reason for his constraint.

“You will find him entirely and absolutely hopeless,” she declared. “He will not call playing at the villa gambling at all. Such rubbish!”

“I shall not argue with him,” he told her. “I know myself how obstinate a family the De Bressacs are. Something else may occur to me.”

They loitered over their coffee, they walked for a while in the flower gardens and back through the pine grove. It was late in the afternoon before Besserley handed his guest into her car.

“A memorable afternoon, dear Grace,” he said. “If I see any hope–and I shall see hope–I will let you know. You must trust me.”

“You are a marvellous man. You seem to help everyone who is in trouble,” she sighed, as he raised her fingers to his lips. “I hate tearing myself away.”

“And I shall loathe going back to my Memoirs,” he assured her.

The car rolled away and Besserley climbed the rock-hewn steps and found his way back to his Chalet. The name of Besserley appeared in no telephone directory, but with a key which hung from a chain in his pocket he unlocked the door of a mahogany cabinet where an instrument was disclosed, asked the exchange for a number in Paris and walked backwards and forwards in the quickly passing twilight until he was called. He spoke for some time in English. Then he asked for another number and entered upon a very guarded conversation in French. He wound up having arranged a rendezvous, rang off and moved back to his task. He read over the last sentence he had written of his manuscript and sighed as he enclosed the sheet in a leather folder and packed it away. The world was destined to wait a little longer for those much discussed Memoirs.

For several weeks the distinguished figure of General Besserley was seen in strange parts of Paris. He was a frequent visitor at a little Bureau of Information situated in the Boulevard Haussmann, a bureau which had an anomalous existence and was supposed to be the possession and hobby of a well-known foreigner. He frequented even stranger places. He visited a famous sporting club where there was a good deal of gambling behind closed doors, and he even crossed the river and travelled down to one or two of the factories engaged in the manufacture of billiard-tables, factories which supplied casinos all over the world with the impedimenta of their trade. He made a few strange acquaintances and gained a vast amount of miscellaneous but thoroughly useful knowledge concerning the day-by-day life of croupiers, professional gamblers and their kind. He met Maurice de Bressac, Grace’s husband, one day at the Armenonville before the racing and they lunched together.

“I saw your wife only a fortnight ago,” Besserley told his companion. “She looked just as charming as ever–a little worried about you, as usual.”

The young man’s attractive but boyish face clouded over.

“I do wish she would let me run my own affairs,” he said peevishly. “If I choose to drop a little money gambling she worries about it as though we had not a sou left in the world.”

“Steady, now,” Besserley remonstrated kindly. “It is not a little you lose, remember. It is a great deal, even when you have a millionaire grandfather behind you. She is a sensible woman and she would much rather see you settle down. Gambling’s a mug’s game, after all, you know.”

“That depends entirely upon whether you have any luck or not,” the young man declared cheerfully. “You gamble yourself, sometimes, do you not?”

“Occasionally,” Besserley replied. “I do it just as I should pay a subscription to a very expensive club. One meets at the casinos all one’s friends, there are to be found there the best restaurants, the best dancing and a certain amount of excitement for one’s money. All the same, gambling for large sums is stupid. You must lose in the long run.”

“That is an old woman’s wail,” he laughed. “Take the simplest game–roulette. Thirty-six numbers and zero, and they give you thirty-five to one against any number you like. If you have a little luck you must win sometimes. If you have a lot of luck you might win some weeks or some months practically the whole of the time. The odds in all these games of chance are not much more against you. You have a fair run for your money and if you have the instinct for it, gambling is the greatest amusement in the world. Racing does not amuse me. I know very little about horses and I can never reckon up what the odds are against me. Gambling on the tables I can figure out exactly.”

“Oh, I suppose, if you want to throw your money away,” Besserley conceded, “and if you are sure that you are getting a fair run for it, the tables are the best.”

“I wish someone would make Grace see that. She and my grandfather between them make me perfectly sick sometimes. I admit I have lost a few million francs, but why should they try to stop the only thing that really amuses me in life? My grandfather can afford it well enough. He has had to pay my debts once or twice, of course, but that is because he does not make me a sufficient allowance.”

“I don’t think you would find any trouble about the allowance if you were to settle down and chuck the casinos of your own will, for good,” Besserley assured him.

“Why should I? Gambling is the only thing, as I said before, that amuses me. I shall put fifty mille on a horse this afternoon, and I shall not understand why I win or why I lose, and except for the money, it will not give me any particular pleasure. If I take fifty mille into a casino, I know exactly where I am the whole of the time. Let us stop talking about it, Besserley. Do not forget you are coming up to shoot with us next season. The old man is all the time talking about the way you picked off those tall pheasants at Rambouillet.”

“Very nice of him,” Besserley acknowledged smiling. “When are you coming south?”

“Well, you have asked me and I will tell you,” the young man replied a little stubbornly. “I am going down for the opening of the Dragounil villa next week. I shall not stay with Grace because I know she will try to persuade me that gambling in a private house on a big scale is the same as a casino.”

“You will have your own way, I suppose,” Besserley remarked. “As you say, as long as you get a fair run for your money you may get your losses back in time. All the same, if you will take a word of advice from an older man, you will keep your losses out of the paper. You would feel foolish, wouldn’t you, if anything were to happen to the old man and you found yourself a Marquis of France instead of just a humble Vicomte and about fifty thousand francs a year to keep the estates up on? Those elderly gentlemen are peculiar, you know.”

The young man laughed.

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