The Grays Manor Mystery - Aidan de Brune - ebook

The Grays Manor Mystery ebook

Aidan de Brune

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Opis

„The Dagger and the Cord,” „The Green Pearl,” „The Unlawful Adventure” and other thrilling tales of mystery and intrigue have made Mr. de Brune popular with Australian fiction readers. Nineteen novel length serials, two novella serials, and eighteen short stories, all except one published in Australian and New Zealand newspapers between 1926 and 1935. „The Grays Manor Mystery” enhances his reputation. It is a story packed with mystery and intrigue and Aidan de Brune keeps the action moving along swiftly, as he always did, and it highlights de Brune’s unmatched skill in setting a pulse-pounding pace. Wonderful entertainment and highly entertaining.

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Liczba stron: 320

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Contents

CHAPTER I

CHAPTER II

CHAPTER III

CHAPTER IV

CHAPTER V

CHAPTER VI

CHAPTER VII

CHAPTER VIII

CHAPTER IX

CHAPTER X

CHAPTER XI

CHAPTER XII

CHAPTER XIII

CHAPTER XIV

CHAPTER XV

CHAPTER XVI

CHAPTER YVII

CHAPTER XVIII

CHAPTER XIX

CHAPTER XX

CHAPTER XXI

CHAPTER XXII

CHAPTER XXIII

CHAPTER XXIV

CHAPTER XXV

CHAPTER XXVI

CHAPTER I

“I THINK you have the essential facts, of the case now, Mr. Dening,” Sir John McNiven, seated at the head of the long boardroom table, sighed, almost in relief. “Of course, you understand there are reasons why we do not wish the matter to become public.”

Richard Dening nodded briefly. He quite understood the knight’s meaning. He glanced from one to the other of the seven men seated at the table, tensed and expectant. What bond held these seven men together? What common link could there be between them? Normally, they could have nothing in common.

That morning he had received a letter from Sir John McNiven, the managing director of the Altona Trading Company, requesting him to call on him at the company’s offices that afternoon. The letter did not state the business Sir John proposed to discuss. Very vaguely worded, it had aroused the barrister’s curiosity, causing him to waive his accustomed practice of only acting through the principal’s solicitors. He had telephoned a brief acceptance of the invitation.

Immediately on giving his name to the inquiry clerk in the general Offices of the company, he had been escorted to Sir John’s private room. The knight had barely taken time to greet him before leading him to the company’s boardroom. There he had found the other six men awaiting him. Very particularly he had been introduced to them, one by one.

Most of them he knew by repute, and–Immediately the question formed in his mind. What were these men doing together–in that room?

Although he was familiar with the appearance and reputation of the seven men, with only one had he any acquaintance. That man was Reuben Gray, the younger son of an impoverished house, living on the fringe of bankruptcy; good-looking, debonair, not lazy, but entirely idle; a fashion’s darling, more at home in exclusive west-end drawing rooms than in a city boardroom.

The remaining six men were wealthy. Sir John McNiven held large interests in many prosperous companies, although his main activities were centred in the Altona Trading Company, a firm of excellent repute conducting an enormous trade in the East and India. Aaron Parotta was a newcomer in the world of finance. Recently he had come into prominence through the building and organising of elaborate gambling casinos in European pleasure resorts. Rudolph N. Rudder was an American. Rumour held that he controlled big interests in the rum-running organisations that had St. Pierre and Miquelon, two islands in the North Atlantic, for headquarters of their illegal trade.

He had immediately recognised Sydney Kedwell on entering the room. “Black Ked” had an international reputation, and his features had for years decorated the sporting pages of the newspapers. Rising quickly to fame, he had, for three years, held undisputed sway as champion heavyweight boxer. Suddenly he had relinquished the title, to become the controlling force in London’s night-club life.

Baron Otto von Rosenfeld was, until that moment, but a name. Very few photographs of the man, who had welded the chemical companies of Germany into a powerful combine, had ever appeared in print. Yet, in the streets of finance his was a name to conjure with. He was enormously wealthy, as wealthy as he was gross of body and full of face.

The last member of the party gathered to meet him was Anton Letoit. Dening knew him to be another quick-rising star in the financial firmament. In Paris he was idolised by newspapers and the unthinking-populace. Rumour credited him with being the brain and moving force behind the stabilisation of the franc. A typical Frenchman in appearance; yet now he sat silent and morose, hardly acknowledging the barrister’s advent.

Abruptly Dening turned his attention to the man at the head of the table.

“Please forgive me, Sir John,” he spoke slowly. “I can hardly accept your statement as complete.”

The knight flushed. “I beg your pardon, Mr. Dening.”

“Is it necessary for me to explain?” A slight smile came on the young man’s lips. “If so, then–But, let me explain my own position first.” He paused, glancing round the table at the men watching him; then pushed has chair back, slightly, from the table.

“As you are no doubt aware, Sir John, I am nominally a barrister. Chance drifted me into another sphere of activity. An unexpected legacy gave me the means to indulge my desires–to allow me to devote my time to an occupation that intrigued me.

“I suppose I must admit that I am a private investigator of unusual happenings, with certain reservations.” The smile on Dening’s lips broadened. “While practising as a barrister I chanced to elucidate a mystery that had baffled the police. Other matters, of a like nature, were brought to me. I was lucky. I found solutions where others found only failure. I liked the work, the adventure, the possibilities of excitement. Yet I have never relinquished my standing as a barrister. To preserve that status I had to make a rule that I would only act through–and by the direct instructions of solicitors acting for my clients.”

“We quite understand that, Mr. Dening.” Sir John spoke quickly. “Perhaps you would prefer to consider this conversation as informal and to receive formal instructions through my solicitors?”

“That would be difficult, would it not, Sir John?” Dening professed to misunderstand the knight. “These gentlemen are not members of the board of the Altona Trading Company.”

“Is that material?” Reuben Gray interjected hastily.

“Only in so far that any firm of solicitors who required my services would lay the whole facts of the case before me. Sir John stated that I have now the essential facts of the case. I regret that I cannot agree with him.”

“If your objections are financial, Mr. Dening–” Sydney Kedwell spoke loudly.

“They are not, Mr. Kedwell.” A sharp tone came in the barrister’s voice. “Have I to tell you gentlemen that it is just as essential to trust your investigator as you trust your lawyer or doctor, that is, fully and completely.”

A long silence followed; then Dening spoke again.

“Perhaps you will permit me to traverse Sir John’s statement. I understand that you gentlemen are engaged in an occupation, or, should I say an adventure, of a nature you do not care to inform me of. In the course of that business you came in contact with a person named Matthew Ashcombe–”

“I believed I had explained that, Mr. Dening,” Sir John interrupted. “Mr. Ashcombe wrote to me explaining a method by which he could be of assistance to us. He made a definite offer. I placed the offer before my associates and they decided to accept–this person’s offer.”

“Yet you informed me that Matthew Ashcombe is but a name to you all; that you have never met the man; that not one of you have any knowledge of his personal appearance; no knowledge, even, of his address?”

“That is so, Mr. Dening.” Anton Letoit spoke in careful, precise English. “I was in Sir John’s company when the letter arrived, and he showed it to me. I advised acceptance of this person’s offer. I believe that, in a telephone conversation that happened later, Sir. John invited Mr. Ashcombe to call on him, and he declined.”

Sir John nodded. “Matthew Ashcombe definitely stated that he would only deal with us through correspondence, or over the telephone.”

“Mr. Ashcombe proposed that you gentlemen remunerate him for his services?”

“Yes, by post.”

“By means of a cheque, I presume?”

“He required the payments made by means of bank notes, sent to him through the registered post.”

“You accepted that condition?”

“Yes.”

“And sent the money in a registered packet. May I ask to what address?”

“To Grays Manor, Grays, near, Ewell.”

“To Grays Manor?” Dening turned to face the young society man. “I think, Mr. Gray, that you are the man who can give me the best account of that place.”

“Sir John’s knowledge is more up to date than mine,” Reuben Gray laughed slightly. “Of course, at one time the manor belonged to my family. Over twenty years ago my father sold the estate to Sir John McNiven.”

“You live at Grays Manor, Sir John?” The barrister carefully suppressed his surprise.

“I live within half a mile of the manor, Mr. Dening.” A slight frown came on the financier’s face. “The manor is a ruin, and has been one for many, years.”

“Yet Matthew Ashcombe directed that a valuable registered package be addressed to him there?”

Sir John and Reuben Gray both nodded.

“And–the parcel was sent?” Dening accented the question. “I presume the post office returned it to you marked ‘addressee unknown?’”

“The packet was delivered and acknowledged,” Gray answered briefly.

“I’m sorry; I don’t understand.” Dening spoke after a considerable pause. “Am I to understand that Sir John forwarded by registered post to this person a package containing bank notes amounting to–” Again he paused, glancing interrogatively at the knight.

“Five thousand pounds,” the financier answered reluctantly.

“I am afraid I am very dense,” Dening laughed lightly. “Let me put the question in another form. Mr. Ashcombe engaged to perform certain work and in return was to be paid five thousand pounds. At his request that sum, in bank notes of small denomination, was forwarded to him through the post. The address given was a ruined, uninhabitable house. Yet that package was delivered and duly acknowledged.”

“That is correct,” Gray answered, his voice very flat.

“But–someone must live there.”

“That is impossible, the place is not habitable.” Irritation showed in the knight’s voice. “Grays Manor stands on my land. When I bought the estate I consulted architects, wishing to have the place properly restored. They informed me that it was impossible; that the only thing possible was to pull the ruins down and rebuild to the original design. I then built Upton Lodge about half a mile from Grays Manor.”

“You still assure me that a registered packet was sent to Grays Manor, delivered and acknowledged?” Dening waited a moment, then pushed his chair still further back from the table. “Sir John, I regret I cannot accept that explanation.”

“Yet we have to accept it,” Gray broke in almost roughly, his fair face flushed. “Look here, Dening; I give you my word that what we have said is purely fact. I am not going to attempt an explanation–I cannot.”

Dening shook his head slowly. He had to accept Gray’s word that the statements made were true; but he was assured, in his own mind, that he had not been told all the facts.

Almost, he was inclined to leave the room; to have nothing further to do with these men. Yet the mystery surrounding the packet of bank notes, the secretive actions of the man naming himself Matthew Ashcombe, intrigued him. If he could make these men talk, some casual, unguarded word might place him on The track of the truth they appeared determined to conceal.

“I cannot refuse your definite assurance.” The barrister spoke reluctantly. “Will you tell me, Sir John, was this the last you heard from Matthew Ashcombe?”

“About two months later he wrote me–this.” Sir John pushed a letter that lay on the table towards the investigator. “You have read it?”

Yet Dening again picked up the letter and read it carefully. It was very guardedly worded. In view of the previous facts recounted by the knight, in view of the reluctance of these men to explain their common business with the writer of the letter, there underlay the simple words a sinister note.

“We all received similar letters.” Gray laughed lightly, as he reached for his pocket book. “I can assure you, Mr. Dening, that all are in identical terms.”

“You mean that Mr. Ashcombe applied to each one of you, individually for a loan of ten thousand pounds? Seventy thousand pounds in all?”

A series of nods answered his quick glance around the table.

“May I ask what action you then took? I notice this note is dated over a fortnight ago.”

“We decided to forward a sum of money, with a covering letter stating that we did not feel justified in advancing a larger sum.”

“You forwarded that money to Grays Manor?”

“Yes.”

“I presume in bank notes of small denominations, as before. Was that package also received and acknowledged?”

“The package was returned to me.”

“With a message?”

“Yes. The–the man telephoned that the sum was not sufficient, and that he could not accept marked money.”

“Got his wits about him,” Rudder laughed loudly.

“I suppose you did not think to mark the notes in the first payment, Sir John?” Dening asked interestedly.

“I did.” Sir John flushed slightly. “I marked some of the notes and took the numbers of all of them.”

“Did you succeed in tracing any of the notes?”

“I did,” Kedwell interjected. “Some of them turned up in the receipts of one of my clubs.”

“That was a step,” the barrister nodded. “I suppose you tried to discover who paid them in.”

“Wasn’t possible,” the ex-boxer laughed harshly. “There’s too many small notes floating about a night-club. Besides, my people weren’t on the watch; they hadn’t been warned; and I wasn’t at the club that night myself. I doubt if I should have noticed them if I had been. Sir John told me that he had marked the notes, but I never expected them to turn up at the Blue Heaven.”

“Where were you?”

“What the hell’s that to do with you?” The man spoke angrily. “Let me tell you, I’ve other private interests than this game, profitable as it is. I’m not going to tell you my private business, or anyone, not even to catch that skunk, Matthew Ashcombe.”

Reuben Gray laughed suddenly. “Nice lot, aren’t we, Dening? Dealing with blackmailers–”

“Mind your own damned business.” Black Ked was on his feet, glowering angrily across the table. “I don’t interfere with your affairs; keep out of mind. Understand?”

Dening’s quick eyes caught the warning glance that passed between the knight and the ex-boxer. Kedwell suddenly subsided into his seat. A sudden suspicion, an almost improbable idea, dawned in the barrister’s mind. Would that explain the unnatural reticence of these men?

“Let me try to understand.” His cool voice dominated the antagonism that was growing in the room. “You wish me to discover a man named Matthew Ashcombe, who gave you an address at Grays Manor, an old ruin. You definitely state that the only clue you can give me is that certain registered packages have been, sent to him at that address and received–”

“There is one other matter on which Sir John has not informed you, Mr. Dening.” Gray’s tones were uneven. “I think you should know it and, for the life of me, I can’t understand why he has not mentioned it. Of course, we agreed that he was to do all the talking, although we all wished to hear what he had to say–”

“And that, Mr. Gray?”

“Just this. After Sir John sent the first bundle of money I suggested that we should take some steps to discover who Matthew Ashcombe really was. You see, giving his address at my family’s old home, I was rather interested.”

“Yes.”

“Well, we got Edward Symonds, the big private inquiry man, to trace the packet of money. I went to Ewell and Grays with him. We saw the registered articles books.” The young man paused impressively. “Symonds couldn’t find a single soul who knew a about the packet. There wasn’t a delivery man who would acknowledge that he had taken a registered package to Grays Manor. He couldn’t find a solitary soul at Ewell or Grays who would acknowledge that the packet had passed through their hands.”

Dening was bewildered.

“You are assuring me that the package passed through the registered post, yet you and Symonds could not find a postal employee who acknowledged handling it?” he asked.

Gray nodded. For some moments the barrister, sat, considering. Suddenly he looked up at Sir John McNiven. “Sir John, you stated that in the first instance you received a letter from Matthew Ashcombe offering you and your associates certain services. Have you that letter?”

The knight nodded.

“I should like to have that letter.”

“I am afraid that is impossible.” Sir John answered without hesitation. “That letter contains–er–information that cannot pass out of my hands.”

“I want a signature of Matthew Ashcombe.”

“There is his signature.” The knight indicated the letter that lay before the barrister. “Am I to understand that you will accept our commission to investigate the mystery, Mr. Dening?”

“Yes.” Dening stood up quickly, a bright light shining in his eyes. “Yes, I will investigate the problem, and I warn you that I will uncover the whole matter. There is much to be explained, but one thing is very clear.”

“And that, Dening?” Gray was on his feet, facing the barrister, a strange tenseness about his rather weak mouth.

“If you really wish to know, Mr. Gray–” For a moment the barrister paused. “If you really wish to know, I firmly believe that Matthew Ashcombe is in this room, at this moment.”

CHAPTER II

RICHARD DENING was smiling quietly as he passed down the steps from Altona House into Arundel Street. In his mind was the spectacle of the seven dumbfounded men in the boardroom of the Altona Trading Company; yet, with their outward show of astonishment he believed to be mingled some sense of fear. He had not spoken on sudden impulse, or at the urge of a newly formed theory. He had decided to undertake the inquiry some time before he left the room. His final questions had been carefully calculated to evoke some show of emotion from the men gathered about the table.

Now he wondered if he had succeeded. Had he been able to read more than astonishment into the glances that had followed him from the room? For some moments he stood on the pavement, deep in thought, then, glancing at his watch, walked up the slight incline to the strand. There he again looked at his watch. Should he go back to his chambers and wait for some move, he believed would be made by one of the men he had just left, or immediately start on the plan that was slowly forming in his mind?

A moment’s thought and he raised his stick, hailing a passing taxi. He gave the address of the Karmel Club as he entered the vehicle. During the short drive he forced the problem he had undertaken to solve, from his mind. For the moment he would neither wait for his opponents to move nor take any definite step himself. He wanted more information; information that only one of the seven men could provide and Reuben Gray was a member of the Karmel Club.

In the club he sought a quiet corner where he could keep a watch on the members entering the club, then abandoned, himself to reflections. The story Sir John McNiven had told that afternoon had completely intrigued him. Obviously much had been left unsaid; much that was of importance to him in his investigations; much that bore on the connection that bound these men of diverse views and objectives in one common tie. What mutual interest linked these men together? He knew that, individually, they were wealthy, with the exception of Reuben Gray; that collectively they represented a very large power in the financial world. Rapidly he scanned his knowledge of them.

Rumour reported that most of them were none too scrupulous in their methods of conducting business; yet, not one of them had ever wandered outside the rather fragile barriers of commercial morality–or, if they had, they had succeeded in not being found out. He knew that to succeed in his quest he had more to do, than to uncover the identity of Matthew Ashcombe. He had to find the common bond that held these men; men who distrusted, if they did not absolutely hate, one another.

Yes; he was certain that “hate” must be applied to the major emotion that linked these men. Whatever interest had brought them together, hate had replaced it–hatred and fear. That he had read in their glances while he probed the strange story Sir John McNiven had told him, relating to Matthew Ashcombe, blackmailer.

A happy family. Dening smiled grimly as he reviewed his clients. A gambling house manager; a rum-runner of prohibition America; an ex-boxer, night club proprietor; and three financiers, serving opposite national interests. Lastly, a young man, reputed to be financially embarrassed. The younger son of an impoverished house; a loiterer on the fringe of society, swimming with the current, yet owning no visible means by which he kept afloat.

Truly a happy family; so united that they could not depute any one or more of their number to interview him. So distrustful of each other that they had to sit and watch–listen to all that was said.

Again Dening saw, mentally, the gross unwieldy body of Baron Rosenfeld, eyes half-closed, yet probing the hidden meaning of every word that was spoken around him; the sharp ferret eyes of the Frenchman, who had broken the silence with one short statement.

He laughed gently. Had he deceived them? Did they believe that he would proceed on the quest they had set him, blindfold. He asked himself the question: Would he have taken the commission they had offered if they had acted differently? Honestly, he answered himself–he would not.

In spite of his preoccupation, Dening’s eyes had searched the moving throng for the man he sought. At half-past six he shrugged slightly and rose from his seat. Reuben Gray would not come to the club that evening. Possibly he had some social engagement. He mounted the wide stairs to the dining room. On the threshold he paused to scan the tables, still seeking his man.

“Lo, Dening.” He turned, to face a tall military-looking man, leaning heavily on a stout stick. “Dining with anyone?”

“No engagements, colonel. Going to dine with me? Delighted. Come on, François always keeps a corner table for me.”

Dening was genuinely pleased to meet the old man. Colonel Middleton was always an interesting companion. Tonight he was specially welcome, for he was a connection of the Gray family and might possibly be able to impart information of value, if properly handled.

“Well, m’boy?” Colonel Middleton looked up sharply when he had satisfactorily settled with the club waiter the important question of the moment and had time for minor affairs. “What’s the latest scandal? Still probing mysteries.”

“Yes.” The barrister decided on a bold stroke. “Perhaps you can help me, if you will. I’m engaged on a matter that has some relation to the Gray family’s old estate. You are some connection with the family, I believe?”

“Grays Manor?” The old man peered up sharply from beneath shaggy white brows. “The Grays sold it years ago. Belongs to Sir John McNiven now. What’s he been up to, the damned old scoundrel?”

“So that’s your opinion of one of our leading financial props,” Dening laughed gently.

“Not mine only. It’s public opinion, sir. That man will finish up in jail, mark my word.”

“He may engage men to keep him out of it, colonel.” The younger man paused a moment. He had his guest on the wrong line. Far better he asked his questions direct. “Colonel, what is your opinion of Reuben Gray? You know him, of course?”

“Ought to.” For a few seconds Middleton devoted his attention to his plate, then looked up sharply. “Go on, man. I know him. He’s my godson, though I ain’t proud of the fact. What’s he been up to now?”

“Nothing much. Only a sideline on a lost registered letter, but the case has certain uncommon features.” Dening tried to make his voice very careless. “I thought I’d like to get a line on him. You see, I don’t know him very well; he’s only a club acquaintance.”

“Not been up to any mischief, has he?” Again the keen old eyes searched the barrister’s face.

“Not to my knowledge. You say he’s your godson. Then you ought to know him well. What is your opinion of him?”

“Straight, so far as I know. All the Grays are straight; it’s their chief failing in this world of crookedness, otherwise they’d be better off. As for Reuben, he’s got ability, if the young scoundrel cared to use it; but all he does is to fool about on nothing a year. How he manages I don’t know. Last time he honoured me with a visit I offered him a hundred for the recipe. Damned useful thing to have in these days of income taxes, super-taxes and H.C.L. He laughed in my face; blasted young scoundrel; not a bit of respect for his elders.”

“I think you said that the Grays had to sell the family estates,” questioned the barrister cautiously.

“Grays Manor. Lord, Reuben’s got nothing to do with that place. Why, he wasn’t even born until long after it was sold. ‘Course I know Grays Manor. Stayed there umpteen times when old Sir Luke had it. He was George’s father, y’know. Reuben’s George’s fifth son. George sold the place; no money for repairs, no money to live in it, and the only thing that kept the roof and walls together were the mortgages. Fact.”

“Pity,” Dening mused. “Believe the place was in the family for quite a time. The Grays were one of the old Surrey families.”

For half a minute there was silence, then Colonel Middleton burst into a great guffaw. “Pumping me for the family history.” The old man enjoyed the joke thoroughly. “Well, well. What will you young fellows be up to next? I’d have blackballed you here, young Dening, if I’d known you were going to bring shop into the place. Still, just for once, I’ll talk.”

For a few seconds he devoted his attention to his dinner; then he looked up, a little smile crinkling his eyes.

“Ever been to Grays? Well, it’d interest you. Fine place, if it is a ruin now. That man, McNiven, ought to be scragged for not making something of it; but he says he can’t, it’s too far gone, and those scoundrels of architects back him up in it. Grays was a damned fine place when I was your age. I stayed there often enough. They got it from one of the Stuarts, something to do with a love affair, I believe, but that’s scandal. Anyway, the Grays held the place and quite a slice of the country for quite a while; in spite of their fondness for the pasteboards and the gee-gees. Sir Luke was the last of the bunch to hold it. When he died it went to George, and he found that he’d inherited half the Jews in London, and that’s all. Someone had the sense to advise him to sell. Wisest thing he’s done. Moved to London and became a guinea-pig. That’s all he’s had to live on. Married and brought up a family of five, all boys. As I’ve said, Reuben’s the youngest of the brood. That what you wanted to know?”

“Only one thing more, colonel.” Dening spoke directly. “How old is Reuben Gray? You said that Sir George sold the estates before Reuben was born, but Sir John McNiven told me to-day that he had only held the place for the past twenty years.”

“Oh, he’s in it, eh?” Middleton peered suspiciously across the table. “If he told you that he only bought the place twenty years ago he’s a liar, but I knew that before. Let me see; Reuben’s twenty-eight or twenty-nine. No, twenty-eight. George sold the place two years before he came to live in London and drag his family name through the Throgmorton Street gutters. That makes thirty years. Then he married about a year after he sold the family pride, as well as the family estates, to the Jews; and Reuben was born six years later. Lord! Why it’s nigh on forty years since George left Grays. Now, who’d have thought that?”

“Perhaps there was a previous purchaser before Sir John McNiven?” hazarded the barrister.

“Not on your life,” the colonel was, positive. “I was at Grays when Sir John came there to look it over. George was living in the lodge, the only place on the land fit to live in. He and the money-knight had quite a set-to and I sat in the window seat and watched it. Thought it’d come to a dust up, and George could use his hands. Anyway, they got to some sort of terms and the lawyers patched up the sale. That what you want to know, young Dening?”

“Thanks, yes.”

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