"Then it's an entire mystery?"
"But it's astounding! It really seems so utterly impossible," declared my well-beloved, amazed at what I had just related.
"I've simply stated hard facts."
"But there's been nothing about this affair in the papers."
"For certain reasons the authorities are not exactly anxious for any publicity. It is a very puzzling problem, and they do not care to own themselves baffled," I replied.
"Really, it's the most extraordinary story of London life that I've ever heard," Phrida Shand declared, leaning forward in her chair, clasping her small white hands as, with her elbows upon the table-a-deux, she looked at me with her wondrous dark eyes across the bowl of red tulips between us.
We were lunching together at the Berkeley, in Piccadilly, one January day last year, and had just arrived at the dessert.
"The whole thing is quite bewildering, Teddy—an utter enigma," she exclaimed in a low, rather strained voice, her pretty, pointed chin resting upon the back of her hand as she gazed upon me from beneath those long, curved lashes.
"I quite agree," was my answer. "The police are mystified, and so am I. Sir Digby Kemsley is my friend, you know."
"I remember," she said. "You once introduced me—at the opening of the Motor Show at Olympia, I believe. A very brilliant and famous man, isn't he?"
"Rather! A famous engineer. He made the new railway across the Andes, and possesses huge rubber interests in Peru. His name, both in Seina and Valparaiso, is one to conjure with," was my reply; "but——"
"But what?" queried my well-beloved.
"Well, there's one fact which greatly increases the mystery—a fact which is yet to be told."
"What's that?" she asked eagerly.
"Well, I've been making inquiries this morning," I replied with some reluctance, "and I learn to my blank amazement that there is no such person as my friend."
"No such person!" she echoed, staring at me, her lips parted. Being seated in a corner, no one could overhear our conversation. "I don't follow you!"
"Well, Sir Digby died somewhere in South America about a year ago," was my quiet response.
"What? Was your friend a fraud, eh?"
"Apparently so. And yet, if he was, he must have been a man of marvellous cunning and subterfuge," I said. "He was most popular at the club, known at the Ritz and the Savoy, and other places about town."
"He struck me as a man of great refinement—a gentleman, in fact," Phrida said. "I recollect him perfectly: tall, rather thin, with a pointed, grey beard, a long, oval face, and thinnish, grey hair. A very lithe, erect man, whose polite, elegant manner was that of a diplomat, and in whose dark eyes was an expression of constant merriment and good humour. He spoke with a slight accent—Scotch, isn't it?"
"Exactly. You remember him perfectly, dear. A most excellent description," I said; "and that same description has been circulated this morning to every police office throughout the United Kingdom, as well as to the prefectures of police in all the European capitals. All the ports are being watched, as it is expected he may make his way abroad."
"But what do the authorities suspect?" asked Phrida, with a serious look.
"Ah, that's just it! They haven't yet decided what to suspect."
I looked across at her and thought, though slightly more pale than usual, she had never appeared more charming.
Sweet-faced, slim, with a soft, sibilant voice, and dainty to her finger-tips, she did not look more than nineteen, though her age was twenty-four. How shall I describe her save to say that her oval, well-defined features were perfect, her dark, arched brows gave piquancy to a countenance that was remarked wherever she went, a merry face, with a touch of impudence in her smile—the face of an essentially London girl.
Only daughter of my father's late partner, James Shand, we had been friends from childhood, and our friendship had, three years ago, blossomed into a deep and mutual affection. Born and bred in Kensington, she cared little for country life. She loved her London, its throbbing streets, its life and movement, its concerts, its bright restaurants, and, most of all, its theatres—for she was an ardent playgoer.
My father, Edward Royle, was head of the firm of well-known chemical manufacturers, Messrs. Royle and Shand, whose works were a feature of the river landscape close to Greenwich, and whose offices were in St. Mary Axe. He had died two years before, pre-deceasing his partner by a year. The business—a big one, for we were the largest chemical manufacturers in England—had been left solely in my hands. Shand's widow still lived with Phrida in Cromwell Road, drawing from it an income of seven thousand pounds yearly.
As for myself, I was a bachelor, aged thirty-two, and if golf be a vice I was greatly addicted to it. I occupied a cosy set of chambers, half-way up Albemarle Street, and am thankful to say that in consequence of my father's business acumen, my balance at my bankers was increasing annually. At the works at Greenwich nearly two thousand hands were employed, and it had always been the firm's proud boast that they laboured under the most healthy conditions possible to secure in the manufacture of chemicals.
My father, upon his deathbed, had held my hand and expressed to me his profoundest satisfaction at my engagement with the daughter of his partner, and almost with his last breath had pronounced a blessing upon our union.
Yes, I loved Phrida—loved her with all my heart and all my soul. She was mine—mine for ever.
Yet, as I sat at that little table in the white-enamelled restaurant gazing at her across the bowl of tulips, I felt a strange, a very curious misgiving, an extraordinary misty suspicion, for which I could not in the least account.
I experienced a strange intuition of doubt and vague uncertainty.
The facts we had just been discussing were, to say the least, amazing.
Only the Metropolitan Police and myself were aware of the astounding discovery which had been made that morning—a discovery of which the ever-vigilant London evening newspapers had as yet no inkling.
The affair was being carefully hushed up. In certain quarters—high official quarters, I believe—a flutter of excitement had been caused at noon, when it had become known that a mystery had occurred, one which at the outset New Scotland Yard had acknowledged itself utterly without a clue.
About the affair there was nothing usual, nothing commonplace. The murder mysteries of London always form exciting reading, for it is surely the easiest work of the practised journalist to put forward from day to day fresh clues and exciting propositions.
The present case, however, was an entirely fresh and unheard-of mystery, one such as London had never before known.
In the whole annals of Scotland Yard no case presenting such unusual features had previously been reported.
"Have you no theory as to what really occurred?" Phrida asked slowly, after a very long and pensive silence.
"None whatever, dear," I replied.
What theory could I form? Aye, what indeed?
In order that the exact truth should be made entirely plain to the reader and the mystery viewed in all its phases, it will be best for me to briefly record the main facts prior to entering upon any detail.
The following were the circumstances exactly as I knew them.
At twenty-five minutes to ten on the previous night—the night of January the sixth—I was at home in Albemarle Street, writing letters. Haines, my man, had gone out, and I was alone, when the telephone bell rang. Taking up the receiver I heard the cheery voice of Sir Digby Kemsley asking what I was doing. My prompt reply was that I was staying at home that night, whereupon his voice changed and he asked me in great earnestness to come over to his flat in Harrington Gardens, South Kensington, at eleven o'clock.
"And look here," he added in a confidential tone, "the outside door will be closed at half-past ten and the porter off duty. I'll go down just before eleven and leave the door ajar. Don't let anyone see you come in. Be extremely careful. I have reasons I'll explain afterwards."
"Right," I replied, and shut off.
His request seemed just a little curious. It struck me that he perhaps wished to consult with me over some private matter, as he had done once before. Therefore, just before eleven I hailed a taxi in Piccadilly and drove westward past Gloucester Road Station, and into the quiet, eminently select neighbourhood where my friend lived.
At eleven o'clock Harrington Gardens—that long thoroughfare of big rather gloomy houses, most of them residences of City merchants, or town houses or flats of people who have seats in the country—was as silent as the grave, and my taxi awoke its echoes until, about half way up, I stopped the man, alighted, and paid him off.
Then, after walking a couple of hundred yards, I found the door ajar and slipped into the hall unobserved.
Ascending the wide carpeted steps to the second floor, the door of the flat was opened noiselessly by the owner himself, and a few seconds later I found myself seated before a big fire in his snug sitting-room.
My friend's face was grey and entirely changed, yet his manner was still as polished, cheery, and buoyant as ever.
The flat—quite a small one, though very expensive as he had once remarked to me—was furnished throughout with elegance and taste. Upon its walls everywhere hung curios and savage arms, which he had brought from various parts of the world. The drawing-room was furnished entirely in Arab style, with cedar-wood screens, semi-circular arches, low, soft divans and silken rugs, which he had bought in Egypt, while, in contrast, the little den in which we were sitting at that moment was panelled in white with an old-rose carpet, rendering it essentially bright and modern.
The tall, grey-bearded, elegant man handed me a box of Perfectos Finos, from which we selected, and then, throwing myself into a chair, I slowly lit up.
His back was turned from me at the moment, as he leaned over the writing-table apparently gathering up some papers which he did not desire that I should see. He was facing a circular mirror on the wall, and in it I could see his countenance reflected. The expression upon his face—cold, cynical, sinister—startled me. He placed the papers in a drawer and locked it with a key upon his chain.
"Well?" I asked. "Why all this confounded mystery, Digby?"
He turned upon me quickly, his long face usually so full of merriment, grey and drawn. I saw instantly that something very serious was amiss.
"I—I want to ask your advice, Royle," he replied in a hard voice scarce above a whisper. Walking to the pretty rug of old-rose and pale green silk spread before the fire he stood upon it, facing me. "And—well, truth to tell, I don't want it to be known that you've been here to-night, old fellow."
"For certain private reasons—very strong reasons."
"As you wish, my dear chap," was my response, as I drew at his perfect cigar.
Then he looked me straight in the face and said: "My motive in asking you here to-night, Royle, is to beg of you to extend your valued friendship to me at a moment which is the greatest crisis of my career. The fact is, I've played the game of life falsely, and the truth must out, unless—unless you will consent to save me."
"I don't follow you," I said, staring at him. "What in heaven's name do you mean?"
"My dear boy, I'll put my cards down on the table at once," he said in a slow, deep tone. "Let's see—we've known each other for nearly a year. You have been my best friend, entirely devoted to my interests—a staunch friend, better than whom no man could ever desire. In return I've lied to you, led you to believe that I am what I am not. Why? Because—well, I suppose I'm no different to any other man—or woman for the matter of that—I have a skeleton in my cupboard—a grim skeleton, my dear Royle. One which I've always striven to hide—until to-night," he added with emotion.
"But that hardly interferes with our friendship, does it? We all of us have our private affairs, both of business and of heart," I said.
"The heart," he echoed bitterly. "Ah! yes—the heart. You, my dear boy, are a man of the world. You understand life. You are never narrow-minded—eh?" he asked, advancing a step nearer to me.
"I hope not," I said. "At any rate, I've always been your friend, ever since our first meeting on the steamer on the Lake of Garda, last February."
The eminent engineer rolled his cigar between his fingers, and calmly contemplated it in silence.
Then, quite abruptly, he exclaimed:
"Royle, my present misfortune is due to a woman."
"Ah!" I sighed. "A woman! Always a woman in such cases! Well?"
"Mind you, I don't blame her in the least," he went on quickly, "I—I was hot-tempered, and I miscalculated her power. We quarrelled, and—and she, though so young, refined and pretty, has arisen to crush me."
"Anyone I know?"
"No. I think not," was his slow reply, his dark eyes gazing full into mine as he still stood astride upon the hearthrug.
Then he fidgeted uneasily, stroked his well-clipped grey beard with his strong, bronzed hand, and strode across the room and back again.
"Look here, Royle," he exclaimed at last. "You're my friend, so I may as well speak straight out. Will you help me?"
"Certainly—if I can."
"I'm in a hole—a confounded hole. I've been worried ever since I got back from Egypt just before Christmas. Only you can save me."
"I want you to remain my friend; to still believe in me, when—well—when I've gone under," he answered brokenly, his brows contracting as he spoke.
"I don't understand you."
"Then I'll speak more plainly. To-night is the last time we shall meet. I've played the game, I tell you—and I've lost!"
"You seem horribly hipped about something to-night, my dear fellow!" I exclaimed in wonder at his strange words. In all my circle of friends no man was more level-headed than Sir Digby Kemsley.
"Yes, I'm not quite myself. Perhaps you wouldn't be, Royle, in the same circumstances." Halting, he stood erect with his hands clasped behind his back. Even then, at that moment of despair, he presented the fine figure of a man in his well-cut dinner clothes and the single ruby in his piqué shirt-front. "I want to entrust a secret to you—a great secret," he went on a few seconds later. "I tell you that to-night is the last occasion we shall ever meet, but I beg—may I implore you to judge me with leniency, to form no unjust conclusions, and when you remember me to regard my memory as that of a man who was not a rogue, but a victim of untoward circumstances."
"Really, my dear fellow," I said, "you speak in enigmas. What do you mean—you intend what?"
"That matters nothing to you, Royle," was his hoarse reply. "I merely ask for your continued friendship. I ask that you will treat my successor here in the exact manner in which you have treated me—that you will become his firm friend—and that you will perform for me one great and most important service."
"Your successor! Who will succeed you? You have no son!"
"No, I have no male relation whatever," he replied. "But we were speaking of the favour I am begging of you to perform for me. On the fourteenth of January I shall not be here, but it is highly necessary that on that evening, at eight o'clock, a secret message should be delivered into the hands of a certain lady—a message from myself. Will you do it?"
"Certainly. Are you going abroad again?"
"I—well, I can hardly tell. I may be dead by then—who knows?" And he smiled grimly.
He returned to his writing-table, unlocked a drawer, and took therefrom a letter which was carefully sealed with black wax.
"Now, listen," he said, holding the letter in his fingers; "on the night of the fourteenth, just at eight o'clock precisely, go to the Piccadilly tube station, stand at the telephone box numbered four on the Haymarket side, when a lady in black will approach you and ask news of me. In response you will give her this note. But there is a further condition: you may be watched and recognised, therefore be extremely careful that you are not followed on that day, and, above all, adopt some effective disguise. Go there dressed as a working-man, I would suggest."
"That request, Kemsley, is certainly a very queer one," I remarked. "Is she the lady?"
He smiled, and I took that as an affirmative.
"You say she'll be dressed in black. Lots of ladies dress in black. I might mistake her."
"Not very likely. I forgot to tell you that she will wear a small spray of mimosa."
"Ah, that shows originality," I remarked. "Mimosa is not often worn on the person."
"It will serve as a distinguishing mark." Then, after a pause, he added, handing me the letter: "There is one further request I want to make—or, at least, I want you to give me your promise, Royle. I ask you to make a solemn vow to me that if any suspicion arises within your mind, that you will believe nothing without absolute and decisive proof. I mean that you will not misjudge her."
"I certainly will not."
"Your hand upon it?"
I put forth my hand and, gripping his warmly, gave him my word of honour.
"I hope you will never regret this, Royle," he said in an earnest tone.
"We are friends," I remarked simply.
"And I trust, Royle, you will never regret the responsibility which you have accepted on my behalf," he said in a deep, hard voice—the voice of a desperate man. "Remember to treat my successor exactly as you have treated me. Be his best friend, as he will be yours. You will be astonished, amazed, mystified, no doubt, at the events which must, alas! inevitably occur. But it is not my fault, Royle, believe me," he declared with solemn emphasis. "It is, alas! my misfortune!"