The Hunchback of Westminster - William Le Queux - ebook
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Up to that time, I remember, my big brass plate, with the legend „Mr Hugh Glynn, Secret Investigator,” had only succeeded in drawing a very average and ordinary amount of business. True, I had had several profitable cases in which wives wanted to know what happened to their husbands when they didn’t come home at the usual hours, and employers were anxious to discover certain leakages through which had disappeared a percentage of their cash; but for the most part my work had been shockingly humdrum, and already I had begun to regret the whim that had prompted me, after reading certain latter-day romances, to throw up my career as a barrister in Gray’s Inn to emulate the romancer’s heroes in real life.

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Contents

PREFACE. A WORD BEFORE READING.

I. HOW DON JOSÉ BAITED HIS TRAP.

II. LOT EIGHTY-TWO.

III. I DETERMINE TO GO FORWARD.

IV. THE HOUSE AT HAMPSTEAD.

V. INTRODUCES THE HUNCHBACK.

VI. THE SACRED SECRET.

VII. IN STANTON STREET.

VIII. SOME GRAVE SUSPICIONS.

IX. THE HUNCHBACK TRIES A NEW RUSE.

X. THE LADY FROM MEXICO.

XI. WHAT HAPPENED TO US.

XII. WHAT THE PAPERS SAID.

XIII. THE TWO BROTHERS.

XIV. WHICH CONTAINS A FRESH DEVELOPMENT.

XV. IN SEARCH OF THE SECRET.

XVI. ABOVE THE CLOUDS.

XVII. THE MYSTERIES OF ST BRUNO'S.

XVIII. LONDON AGAIN.

XIX. REVEALS THE SECRET OF THE ORDER.

XX. MORE MYSTERY.

XXI. THE USE OF THE IMAGE.

XXII. THE JESUITS' CIPHER.

XXIII. IN WHICH FURTHER FACTS ARE DECIPHERED.

XXIV. REVEALS A SCHEME.

XXV. HELD IN BONDAGE.

XXVI. THE WORDS OF FATHER GANTON.

XXVII. AT THE PRESENT MOMENT.

PREFACE. A WORD BEFORE READING.

FOR many years I have busied myself making a collection of rare and valuable historical documents, and strange indeed are some of the stories and scandals which these ancient, crinkled parchments whisper to me in my hours of leisure.

In France, in Italy, in Russia, in Germany, in Belgium, in all corners of England, this craze of mine has led me, through many adventures, free but captive; and, looking back now, I realise that it has been really through this little-known hobby of mine, the hobby of palaeography, that there have come some of the most suggestive and magical hours I have ever spent in a wandering, erratic life that has never been wholly free from movement, but has often held its time of danger and its resistless, restless passion for change, romance, and adventure.

Perhaps, then, it is not really wonderful that this love of mine for the records of the dead-and-gone ages colours my later stories. Yet, in a sense, it would be strangely odd if it did not, for when an author hears so weird and thrilling a narrative of hidden treasure as this I have here striven to recount it would surely be more than human of him to fail to put it into print.

This “Hunchback of Westminster” is really no idle fiction spun for the entertainment of an idle hour. In many ways, indeed, it is tragically true–particularly that portion which tells how men only a few months ago in this prosaic London of ours fought for a certain treasure worth several millions of pounds.

–William Le Queux.

I. HOW DON JOSÉ BAITED HIS TRAP.

IT was in the second year of my practice as a private detective that young José Casteno came to my office in Stanton Street, WC, and entrusted me with that strange and terrible mission in regard to which I have really hesitated, in all sincerity, for some days before I could actually nerve myself to take the public into my confidence.

Up to that time, I remember, my big brass plate, with the legend “Mr Hugh Glynn, Secret Investigator,” had only succeeded in drawing a very average and ordinary amount of business. True, I had had several profitable cases in which wives wanted to know what happened to their husbands when they didn’t come home at the usual hours, and employers were anxious to discover certain leakages through which had disappeared a percentage of their cash; but for the most part my work had been shockingly humdrum, and already I had begun to regret the whim that had prompted me, after reading certain latter-day romances, to throw up my career as a barrister in Gray’s Inn to emulate the romancer’s heroes in real life.

Indeed, at the rate of progress I was making then, I calculated that it would be exactly forty-seven and a half years before I could save 1000 pounds out of my expenses, and, with that as a nest-egg, dare to ask pretty Doris Napier to marry me; and hence, as such long engagements were no more fashionable then than they are now, I can assure you I often felt a trifle despondent about my future.

Still, that was before José Casteno appeared on the scene in Stanton Street, WC. Afterwards things, as you will see, were different.

Now, of course, there are always plenty of people who do not believe that the great and wonderful things that happen in life come heralded by a sky angry with the glow of blood or by a storm in which the wind seems to range from end to end of the gamut of all human emotion, and to sob and shriek and sigh as though it were possessed by some fugitive spirit stricken with mortal pain. On the contrary, they argue, the biggest things have the smallest beginnings, and hence one never knows what tiny affair betokens crisis. As a matter of fact, I hadn’t noticed, I own, any peculiar association of sympathy between Man and Nature until this particular night I write of, but then I do recollect very well it did so happen that I was very late indeed at the office, that there was a most terrifying thunderstorm in London, and that, just about midnight, the darkness was both cavernous and oppressive.

As I close my eyes I can recall the whole scene again–that black, deserted street, the flickering gaslights, the vague suggestion, in the swirl of the rain, of a mighty, impalpable presence that was sweeping through the metropolis rent by passion and terrors which no human imagination could ever give shape to. Then, all at once, a great calm seemed to fall over the night, and as I swung my chair round from the fireplace to see what had happened I became suddenly conscious of a white, haggard face pressed to the window-pane staring at me with wide, dilated eyes that dogged my every movement and seemed to hypnotise all my senses.

For a moment, I admit, I paused, paralysed by a nameless horror. Immediately afterwards the utter absurdity of any serious cause for fright on a ground floor in a thoroughfare not a dozen yards from the never-dying turmoil of the Strand broke upon me. With one bound I sprang to my office door, which I instantly flung far open, and there immediately entered to me, without a word being uttered on either side, a tall, thin, foreign-looking man of about twenty-five. His was the face which I had seen staring at me so eagerly through the window-pane!

“Pardon me coming at this unseasonable hour,” he said, with a profound gesture of humility, yet in a gentle, refined accent that suggested the student and the scholar. “Permit me to introduce myself,” and, with a flourish, he handed me a large-sized card, on which was engraved the name, in a distinctly foreign hand, “Don José Casteno,” but the address was scratched out.

For an instant his eyes met mine in one long, keen, lingering gaze of scrutiny–in that fatal instant, indeed, which follows the coming together of all men destined to do much in common, and which I have always found, in my experience, invariably decides whether we trust or we hate. Strange as his arrival had been, I will say, frankly, I took a liking to him even in that ghostly glare of the firelight; and, motioning him to a chair opposite to my desk, I turned up the gas. Then as he removed a wide-brimmed felt hat and unfastened a shabby black coat with a kind of Inverness cape, most often seen in use by foreign priests, I noticed his pale, intellectual-looking, clean-shaven face, with a mouth as tender and expressive as a girl’s.

“My business,” he began in a low voice of explanation as soon as he saw me seat myself and take up a pen to follow him, “is by no means a piece of common detective work which I am anxious that you should undertake in my behalf. On the contrary, it deals, Mr Glynn,” and now his voice became very grave, “with much that is startling and mysterious–much that spells ugly words like `treachery’ even in London–striking, as it does, at the root of at least one far-reaching unprincipled, foreign intrigue. First of all, then, I must ask you to tell me quite openly and frankly, are you free and prepared to undertake a series of difficult and dangerous missions?”

“I am,” I replied after a moment’s pause; “but it must be on terms.”

“And what are those terms?”

“First, that I am well and punctually paid,” and, in spite of myself, I smiled, for I found quite suddenly I had grown quite mercenary after my bitter reflections about Doris.

“Certainly, you shall be promptly remunerated,” he returned, and, thrusting a hand into a breast pocket, he withdrew a letter case stuffed with bank notes. “Pray let me put you right on that point at once by placing that in your safe,” he added. “Take from it as the work progresses any sums you may reasonably require. When all is over I will call on you to account for the amount. To-night it stands at 750 pounds.”

I counted the notes. They were quite new, but perfectly genuine, and of the amount he had stated, and I promptly locked them up in the small strong room that adjoined my office, which, alas! had hitherto seen too little of all such valuables. Then I faced Don José again.

“My next condition,” I said slowly, “is that you give me your entire confidence. There must be nothing kept from me. You must tell me all– absolutely all.”

“Ah, but–that is impossible,” he replied gently. “I simply dare not reveal the details of the secret, which I want you to work on, to any single soul. If I did, my life would be taken within the following four and twenty hours.” And all at once he shivered, as though he had himself caught instinctively some eerie presentiment of his doom.

“But how can I hope to work successfully in the dark?” I cried, throwing up my hands.

“Easily enough,” he returned. “All you have to do is to carry out my instructions, then nothing need be feared. For instance, here is the first task which I desire you should undertake.” And again he put his hand in his breast pocket, and this time he did not produce a pocket-book, but a tiny cutting which he explained came from that evening’s Globe, and which set out this odd notice:

To be sold–without Reserve–the Library and Effects of a Refugee Spanish priest, lately deceased. Contains many early printed Books, Horae, Liturgical, and other Manuscripts. By Auction to-morrow (Friday) at 3 PM. The Bromley Mart, King’s Street, Covent Garden, WC.

Now, almost in spite of myself, I felt flattered by this quaint and unexpected turn of negotiations which dropped so suddenly a mystery and touched on concrete things.

Let me explain the reason. As a matter of fact, if there was one hobby at that moment that appealed to me more than another it was that connected with old books, old furniture, old silver, old deeds, and charters. Indeed, I admit freely, I had attained already some certain amount of notoriety amongst the well-informed in this direction, acting as I had done for the young Earl of Fotheringay before I became a secret investigator, and at a time when I had leisure to roam from auction mart to curiosity shop, and thence to old country mansions on the eve of important sales–where more bargains in antiques are picked up than most wealthy curio-collectors dream of. But how Don José could have guessed I had any specialist knowledge of this sort I was powerless to explain. None the less, the probability of some romance, or some rare discovery in this sale, tempted me sorely, and the Spaniard, who had been narrowly watching my features, seemed to divine that, to recognise that I was then almost as good as won to his cause, for all at once he lowered his eyes before me, but not before I caught in their deep, dark depths the glint of some conscious triumph.

“So you wish me to bid for these things,” I at length suggested tentatively, laying the cutting on the table and tapping it interrogatively. “All of them or some?” I asked after another moment’s pause.

“One lot. Number 82, a bundle of manuscripts. These are very valuable.” And again his eyes flashed.

“What limit may I go to?”

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