The Mystery of the Four Fingers - Fred M. White - ebook

The Mystery of the Four Fingers ebook

Fred M White

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The main characters of this story are a wealthy lawyer named Jim Gourdon and his tanned, adventurous friend Gerald Wenner traveling the world who amazes Gurdon and readers with his own story about the alleged millionaire Fenwick, his daughter, and some other noteworthy characters. After all, Fenwick has recently become a millionaire, it seems that posing as another. And his daughter is full of past secrets.

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Liczba stron: 408

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Contents

The Black Patch

The First Finger

The Lost Mine

In The Lift

A Puzzle For Venner

A Partial Failure

The White Lady

Missing

A New Phase

The Second Finger

An Unexpected Move

The House Next Door

The White Lady Again

Master Of The Situation

Felix Zary

Fenwick Moves Again

Merton Grange

A Couple Of Visitors

Phantom Gold

The Prodigal’s Return

The Third Finger

The Time Will Come

Smoked Out

The Mouth Of The Net

An Act Of Charity

The Last Finger

Nemesis

Explanations

This Mortal Coil

A Peaceful Sunset

I. THE BLACK PATCH

Considering it was nearly the height of the London winter season, the Great Empire Hotel was not unusually crowded. This might perhaps have been owing to the fact that two or three of the finest suites of rooms in the building had been engaged by Mark Fenwick, who was popularly supposed to be the last thing in the way of American multi-millionaires. No one knew precisely who Fenwick was, or how he had made his money; but during the last few months his name had bulked largely in the financial Press and the daily periodicals of a sensational character. So far, the man had hardly been seen, it being understood that he was suffering from a chill, contracted on his voyage to Europe. Up to the present moment he had taken all his meals in his rooms, but it was whispered now that the great man was coming down to dinner. There was quite a flutter of excitement in the Venetian dining-room about eight o’clock.

The beautifully decorated saloon had a sprinkling of well-dressed men and women already dining decorously there. Everything was decorous about the Great Empire Hotel. No thought had been spared in the effort to keep the place quiet and select. The carpets were extra thick, and the waiters more than usually soft-footed. On the whole, it was a restful place, though, perhaps, the decorative scheme of its lighting erred just a trifle on the side of the sombre. Still, flowers and ferns were soft and feathery. The band played just loudly enough to stimulate conversation instead of drowning it. At one of the little tables near the door two men were dining. One had the alertness and vigor which bespeaks the dweller in towns. He was neatly groomed, with just the slight suspicion of the dandy in his dress, though it was obvious at the merest glance that he was a gentleman. His short, sleek hair gave to his head a certain suggestion of strength. The eyes which gleamed behind his gold-rimmed glasses were keen and steady. Most men about town were acquainted with the name of Jim Gurdon, as a generation before had been acquainted with his prowess in the athletic field. Now he was a successful barrister, though his ample private means rendered professional work quite unnecessary.

The other man was taller, and more loose-limbed, though his spare frame suggested great physical strength. He was dark in a hawk-like way, though the suggestion of the adventurer about him was softened by a pair of frank and pleasant grey eyes. Gerald Venner was tanned to a fine, healthy bronze by many years of wandering all over the world; in fact, he was one of those restless Englishmen who cannot for long be satisfied without risking his life in some adventure or other.

The two friends sat there quietly over their dinner, criticising from time to time those about them.

“After all,” Gurdon said presently, “you must admit that there is something in our civilization. Now, isn’t this better than starving under a thin blanket, with a chance of being murdered before morning?”

Venner shrugged his shoulders indifferently.

“I don’t know,” he said. “There is something in danger that stimulates me; in fact, it is the only thing that makes life worth living, I dare say you have wondered why it is that I have never settled down and become respectable like the rest of you. If you heard my story, you would not be surprised at my eccentric mode of living; at any rate, it enables me to forget.”

Venner uttered the last words slowly and sadly, as if he were talking to himself, and had forgotten the presence of his companion. There was a speculative look in his eyes, much as if London had vanished and he could see the orchids on the table before him growing in their native forests.

“I suppose I don’t look much like a man with a past,” he went on; “like a man who is the victim of a great sorrow. I’ll tell you the story presently, but not here; I really could not do it in surroundings like these. I’ve tried everything, even to money-making, but that is the worst and most unsatisfactory process of the lot. There is nothing so sordid as that.”

“Oh, I don’t know,” Gurdon laughed. “It is better to be a multi-millionaire than a king today. Take the case of this man Fenwick, for instance; the papers are making more fuss of him than if he were the President of the United States or royalty travelling incognito.”

Venner smiled more or less contemptuously. He turned to take a casual glance at a noisy party who had just come into the dining room, for the frivolous note jarred upon him. Almost immediately the little party sat down, and the decorous air of the room seemed to subdue them. Immediately behind them followed a man who came dragging his limbs behind him, supported on either side by a servant. He was quite a young man, with a wonderfully handsome, clean-shaven face. Indeed, so handsome was he, that Venner could think of no more fitting simile for his beauty than the trite old comparison of the Greek god. The man’s features were perfectly chiselled, slightly melancholy and romantic, and strongly suggestive of the early portraits of Lord Byron. Yet, all the same, the almost perfect face was from time to time twisted and distorted with pain, and from time to time there came into the dark, melancholy eyes a look of almost malignant fury. It was evident that the newcomer suffered from racking pain, for his lips were twitching, and Venner could see that his even, white teeth were clenched together. On the whole, it was a striking figure to intrude upon the smooth gaiety of the dining-room, for it seemed to Venner that death and the stranger were more than casual acquaintances. He had an idea that it was only a strong will which kept the invalid on this side of the grave.

The sufferer sank at length with a sigh of relief into a large armchair, which had been specially placed for him. He waved the servants aside as if he had no further use for them, and commenced to study his menu, as if he had no thought for anything else. Venner did not fail to note that the man had the full use of his arms, and his eye dwelt with critical approval on the strong, muscular hands and wrists.

“I wonder who that fellow is?” he said. “What a magnificent frame his must have been before he got so terribly broken up.”

“He is certainly a fascinating personality,” Gurdon admitted. “Somehow, he strikes me not so much as the victim of an accident as an unfortunate being who is suffering from the result of some terrible form of vengeance. What a character he would make for a story! I am ready to bet anything in reason that if we could get to the bottom of his history it would be a most dramatic one. It regularly appeals to the imagination. I can quite believe our friend yonder has dragged himself out of bed by sheer force of will to keep some appointment whereby he can wreak his long nursed revenge.”

“Not in a place like this,” Venner smiled.

“Why not? In the old days these things used to be played out to the accompaniment of thunder and lightning on a blasted heath. Now we are much more quiet and gentle in our methods. It is quite evident that our handsome friend is expecting someone to dine with him. He gives a most excellent dinner to his enemy, points out to him his faults in the most gentlemanly fashion, and then proceeds to poison him with a specially prepared cigar. I can see the whole thing in the form of a short story.”

Venner smiled at the conceit of his companion. He was more than half inclined to take a sentimental view of the thing himself. He turned to the waiter to give some order, and as he did so, his eyes encountered two more people, a man and a woman, who, at that moment, entered the dining-room. The man was somewhat past middle age, with a large bald head, covered with a shining dome of yellow skin, and a yellow face lighted by a pair of deep-sunk dark eyes. The whole was set off and rendered sinister by a small hook nose and a little black moustache. For the rest, the man was short and inclined to be stout. He walked with a wonderfully light and agile step for a man of his weight; in fact he seemed to reach his seat much as a cat might have done. Indeed, despite his bulk, there was something strangely feline about the stranger.

Venner gave a peculiar gasp and gurgle. His eyes started. All the blood receded from his brown face, leaving him ghastly white under his tan. It was no aspect of fear–rather one of surprise,–of strong and unconquerable emotion. At the same moment Venner’s hand snapped the stem of his wine glass, and the champagne frothed upon the table.

“Who is that man?” Venner asked of the waiter. His tone was so strained and harsh that he hardly recognised his own voice. “Who is the man, I say? No, no; I don’t mean him. I mean that stout man, with the lady in white, over there.”

The waiter stared at the speaker in astonishment. He seemed to wonder where he had been all these years.

“That, sir, is Mr. Mark Fenwick, the American millionaire.”

Venner waved the speaker aside. He was recovering from his emotion now and the blood had returned once more to his cheeks. He became conscious of the fact that Gurdon was regarding him with a polite, yet none the less critical, wonder.

“What is the matter?” the latter asked. “Really, the air seems full of mystery. Do you know that for the last two minutes you have been regarding that obese capitalist with a look that was absolutely murderous? Do you mean to tell me that you have ever seen him before?”

“Indeed, I have,” Venner replied. “But on the last occasion of our meeting, he did not call himself Mark Fenwick, or by any other name so distinctly British. Look at him now; look at his yellow skin with the deep patches of purple at the roots of the little hair he has. Mark the shape of his face and the peculiar oblique slit of his eyelids. Would you take that man for an Englishman?”

“No, I shouldn’t,” Gurdon said frankly. “If I had to hazard a guess, I should say he is either Portuguese or perhaps something of the Mexican half caste.”

“You would not be far wrong,” Venner said quietly. “I suppose you thought that the appearance of that man here tonight was something of a shock to me. You can little guess what sort of a shock it has been. I promise to tell you my story presently, so it will have to keep. In the meantime, it is my mood to sit here and watch that man.”

“Personally, I am much more interested in his companion,” Gurdon laughed. “A daughter of the gods, if ever there was one. What a face, and what a figure! Do you mean to say that you didn’t notice her as she came in?”

“Positively I didn’t,” Venner confessed. “My whole attention was rivetted on the man. I tell you I can see absolutely nothing but his great, yellow, wicked face, and for the background the romantic spot where we last met.”

It was Gurdon’s turn now to listen. He leant forward in his chair, his whole attention concentrated upon the figure of the stranger, huddled up in the armchair at the little table opposite. He touched Venner on the arm, and indicated the figure of the man who had suffered so cruelly in some form or other.

“The plot thickens,” Venner murmured. “Upon my word, he seems to know this Mark Fenwick as well as I do.”

The maimed crippled figure in the armchair had dragged himself almost to his feet, with his powerful, muscular arm propping him against the table. His unusually handsome face was all broken and twisted up with an expression of malignant fury. He stood there for a moment or two like a statue of uncontrollable passion, rigid, fixed, and motionless, save for the twitching of his face. Then, gradually he dropped back into his chair again, a broken and huddled heap, quivering from head to foot with the pain caused by his recent exertion. A moment later he took from his breast pocket a silk shade, which he proceeded to tie over his eyes, as if the light hurt him. Watching his every movement with intense eagerness, the two friends saw that he had also taken from his pocket a small silver case, about the same size as an ordinary box of safety matches. Indeed, the case looked not unlike the silver coverings for wood matches, which are generally to be seen in well-appointed households. Then, as if nothing interested him further, he leaned back in his chair, and appeared to give himself over entirely to his enjoyment of the orchestra. In all probability no diner there besides Venner and Gurdon had noticed anything in the least out of the common.

“This is very dramatic,” Gurdon said. “Here is a melo-drama actually taking place in a comedy ‘set’ like this. I am glad you will be in a position later on to gratify my curiosity. I confess I should like to learn something more about this Mark Fenwick, who does not appear to be in the least like one’s idea of the prosaic money spinner.”

“He isn’t,” Venner said grimly. “Anything but that. Why, three years ago that man was as poor and desperate as the most wretched outcast who walks the streets of London to-night. And one thing you may be certain of–wherever you dine from now to your dying day, you will be under the roof of no more diabolical scoundrel than the creature who calls himself Mark Fenwick.”

There was a deep note in Venner’s voice that did not fail to stimulate Gurdon’s curiosity. He glanced again at the millionaire, who appeared to be talking in some foreign tongue with his companion. The tall, fair girl with the shining hair had her back to the friends, so they could not see her face, and when she spoke it was in a tone so low that it was not possible to catch anything more than the sweetness of her voice.

“I wonder what she is doing with him?” Gurdon said. “At any rate, she is English enough. I never saw a woman with a more thoroughbred air. She is looking this way.”

Just for a moment the girl turned her head, and Venner caught a full sight of her face. It was only for an instant; then the fair head was turned again, and the girl appeared to resume her dinner. Venner jumped from his chair and took three strides across the room. He paused there as if struggling to regain possession of himself; then he dropped into his chair again, shielding his face from the light with his hands. Gurdon could see that his companion’s face had turned to a ghastly grey. Veritably it was a night of surprises, quick, dramatic surprises, following close upon one another’s heels.

“What, do you mean to say you know her, too?” Gurdon whispered.

Venner looked up with a strange, unsteady smile on his face. He appeared to be fighting hard to regain his self-control.

“Indeed, I do know her,” he said. “My friend, you are going to have all the surprises you want. What will you say when I tell you that the girl who sits there, utterly unconscious of my presence, and deeming me to be at the other end of the world, is no less a person than–my own wife?”

II. THE FIRST FINGER

Gurdon waited for his companion to go on. It was a boast of his that he had exhausted most of the sensations of life, and that he never allowed anything to astonish him. All the same, he was astonished now, and surprised beyond words. For the last twenty-five years, on and off, he had known Venner. Indeed, there had been few secrets between them since the day when they had come down from Oxford together. From time to time, during his wanderings, Venner had written to his old chum a fairly complete account of his adventures. During the last three years the letters had been meagre and far between; and at their meeting a few days ago, Gurdon had noticed a reticence in the manner of his old chum that he had not seen before.

He waited now, naturally enough, for the other to give some explanation of his extraordinary statement, but Venner appeared to have forgotten all about Gurdon. He sat there shielding one side of his face, heedless of the attentions of the waiter, who proffered him food from time to time.

“Is that all you are going to tell me?” Gurdon asked at length.

“Upon my word, I am very sorry,” Venner said. “But you will excuse me if I say nothing more at present. You can imagine what a shock this has been to me.”

“Of course. I don’t wish to be impertinent, old chap, but I presume that there has been some little misunderstanding–”

“Not in the least. There has been no misunderstanding whatever. I honestly believe that the woman over yonder is still just as passionately fond of me as I am of her. As you know, Gurdon, I never was much of a ladies’ man; in fact, you fellows at Oxford used to chaff me because I was so ill at ease in the society of women. Usually a man like myself falls in love but once in his lifetime, and then never changes. At any rate, that is my case. I worship the ground that girl walks upon. I would have given up my life cheerfully for her; I would do so now if I could save her a moment’s pain. You think, perhaps, that she saw me when she came in here to-night. That is where you have got the impression that there is some misunderstanding between us. You talked just now of dramatic surprises. I could show you one even beyond your powers of imagination if I chose. What would you say if I told you that three years ago I became the husband of that beautiful girl yonder, and that from half-an-hour after the ceremony till the present moment I have never set eyes on her again?”

“It seems almost incredible,” Gurdon exclaimed.

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