CHAPTER IX STRANGE DISCLOSURES ARE MADE
The strange letter of Elma Heath, combined with what Lydia Moreton had told me, aroused within me a determination to investigate the mystery. From the moment I had landed from the Lola on that hot, breathless night at Leghorn, mystery had crowded upon mystery until it was all bewildering.
It was now proved that the sweet-faced girl, the original of the torn photograph, held a secret, and that, by her own words, she knew that death was approaching. The incomprehensible attempt upon my life, the strange actions of Hornby and Chater-who, by the way, seemed to have entirely disappeared-the assassination of the man who by masquerading as the Italian waiter had met his death, and the murder of Olinto's wife were all problems which required solution.
Had it not been for the mystery of it all-and mystery ever arouses the human curiosity-I should have given up trying to get at the truth. Yet as a man with some leisure, and knowing by that letter of Elma Heath's that she was in sore distress, I redoubled my efforts to ascertain the reason of it all.
The mystery of the Lola was still a mystery along the Mediterranean. At every French and Italian port the yacht's false name and general build was written in the police-books, while at Lloyd's the name Lola was marked down as among the mysterious craft at sea.
Chater was missing, while Hornby was abroad. Perhaps they were both cruising again, with their yacht repainted and bearing a fresh name. But why? What had been their motive?
Stirred by the complete mystery which now seemed to enshroud the unfortunate girl, I set before myself the task of elucidating it. Hitherto I had remained passive rather than active, but I now realized by that curious letter that at least one woman's life was at stake-that Elma Heath was in possession of some secret.
On leaving Leghorn I had given up all hope of tracing the mysterious yachtsman, and had left the matter in the hands of the Italian police. But, without any effort on my own part, I seemed to have been drawn into a veritable network of strange incidents, all of which combined to form the most complete and remarkable enigma ever presented in life. Surely no man was ever confronted by so many mysteries at one time as I was at this moment.
Fortunately I had been careful not to show my hand to anyone, and this perhaps gave me a distinct advantage. On my journey back to London, as the train swung through Peterborough and out across the rich level lands towards Hitchin, I recollected Jack Durnford's words when I had mentioned the Lola. What, I wondered, did he know?
Next month, in November, he was due back in London after his three years' service on the Mediterranean station. Then we should meet in a few weeks I hoped. Would he tell me anything when he became aware of all I knew? He held some secret knowledge. Was it possible that his secret was the same as that held by the unfortunate girl in far-off, dreary Finland?
I called at the house in Cork Street indicated by Elma, and learned from the old commissionaire who acted as lift-man and porter, that Mr. Woodroffe's chambers were closed.
"'E's nearly always away, sir-abroad, I think," was all I could get out of the old soldier, who, like his class, was no doubt well paid to keep his mouth closed.
For two days I lounged about Westbourne Grove watching Ferrari's restaurant. In such a busy, bustling thoroughfare, with so many shop windows as excuses for loitering, the task was easy. I saw that Olinto came regularly at ten o'clock in the morning, worked hard all day, and left at nine o'clock at night, taking an omnibus home from Royal Oak. His exterior was calm and unconcerned, unlike that of a man whose devoted wife had disappeared.
I would have approached him and explained the ghastly truth, had it not been for the fact that the poor woman's body was missing.
Those September days were full of anxiety for me. Alone and unaided I was trying to solve one of the greatest of problems, plunged as I was in a veritable sea of mystery. I wanted to see Muriel Leithcourt, and to question her further regarding Elma Heath. Therefore again I left Euston, and, traveling through the night, took my seat at the breakfast-table at Greenlaw next morning.
Sir George, who was sitting alone-it not being my aunt's habit to appear early-welcomed me, and then in his bluff manner sniffed and exclaimed:
"Nice goings on up at Rannoch! Have you heard of them?"
"No. What?" I cried breathlessly, staring at him.
"Well, my suspicions that those Leithcourts were utter outsiders turns out to be about correct."
"Well, it's a very funny story, and there are a dozen different distorted versions of it," he said. "But from what I can gather the true facts are these: About seven o'clock the night before last, as Leithcourt and his house-party were dressing for dinner, a telegram arrived. Mrs. Leithcourt opened it, and at once went off into hysterics, while her husband, in a breathless hurry, slipped off his evening clothes again and got into an old blue serge suit, tossed a few things into a bag, and then went along to Muriel's room to urge her to prepare for secret flight."
"Flight!" I gasped. "What, have they gone?"
"Listen, and I'll tell you. The servants have described the whole affair down in the village, so there's no doubt about it. Leithcourt showed Muriel the telegram and urged her to fly. At first she refused, but for her father's sake was induced to prepare to accompany him. Of course, the guests were in ignorance of all this. The brougham was ordered to be ready in the stable-yard and not to go round, while Mrs. Leithcourt's maid tried to bring the lady back to her senses. Leithcourt himself, it seemed, rushed hither and thither, seizing the jewel-cases of his wife and daughter and whatever valuables he could place his hand upon, while the mother and daughter were putting on their things. As he rushed down the main staircase to the library, where his check-book and some ready cash were locked in the safe, he met a stranger who had just been admitted and shown into the room. Leithcourt closed the door and faced him. What afterwards transpired, however, is a mystery, for two hours later, after he and the two women had escaped, leaving the house-party to their own diversions, the stranger was found locked in a large cupboard and insensible. The sensation was a tremendous one. Cowan, the doctor, was called, and declared that the stranger had been drugged and was suffering from some narcotic. The servant who admitted him declared that the man had said he had an appointment with his master, and that no card was necessary. He, however, gave the name of Chater."
"Chater!" I cried, starting up. "Are you certain of that name?"
"I only know what Cowan told me," was my uncle's reply. "But do you know him?"
"Not at all. Only I've heard that name before," I said. "I knew a man out in Italy of the same name. But where is the visitor now?"
"In the hospital at Dumfries. They took him there in preference to leaving him alone at Rannoch."
"Of course. Everyone has left, now the host and hostess have slipped off without saying good-bye. Scandalous affair, isn't it? But, my boy, you'll remember that I always said I didn't like those people. There's something mysterious about them, I feel certain. That telegram gave them warning of the visit of the man Chater, depend upon it, and for some reason they're afraid of him. It would be interesting to know what transpired between the two men in the library. And these are people who've been taken up by everybody-mere adventurers, I should call them!" And old Sir George sniffed again at thought of such scandal happening in the neighborhood. "If Gilrae must let Rannoch, then why in the name of Fortune doesn't he let it to respectable folk and not to the first fellow who answers his advertisement in The Field? It's simply disgraceful!"
"Certainly, it is a most extraordinary story," I declared. "Leithcourt evidently wished to escape from his visitor, and that's why he drugged him."
"Why he poisoned him, you mean. Cowan says the fellow is poisoned, but that he'll probably recover. He is already conscious, I hear."
I resolved to call on the doctor, who happened to be well known to me, and obtain further particulars. Therefore at eleven o'clock I drove into Dumfries and entered his consulting-room.
He was a spare, short, fair man, a trifle bald, and when I was shown in he welcomed me warmly, speaking with his pronounced Galloway accent.
"Well, it is a very mysterious case, Mr. Gregg," he said, after I had told him the object of my visit. "The gentleman is still in the hospital, and I have to keep him very quiet. He was poisoned without a doubt, and has had a very narrow escape of his life. The police got wind of the affair, and Mackenzie called to question him. But he refused to make any statement whatever, apparently treating the affair very lightly. The police, however, are mystified as to the reason of Mr. Leithcourt's sudden flight, and are anxious to get at the bottom of the curious affair."
"Naturally. And more especially after the tragedy up in Rannoch Wood a short time ago," I said.
"That's just it," said the doctor, removing his pince-nez and rubbing them. "Mackenzie seems to suspect some connection between Leithcourt's sudden disappearance and that mysterious affair. It seems very evident that the telegram was a warning to Leithcourt of the man Chater's intention of calling, and that the last-named was shown in just at the moment when the fugitive was on the point of leaving."
"Chater." I echoed. "Do you know his Christian name?"
"Hylton Chater. He is apparently a gentleman. Curious that he will tell us nothing of the reason he called, and of the scene that occurred between them."
Knowing all that I did, I was not surprised. Leithcourt had undoubtedly taken him unawares, but knights of industry never betray each other.
My next visit was to Mackenzie, for whom I had to wait nearly an hour, as he was absent in another quarter of the town.
"Ah, Mr. Gregg!" he cried gladly, as he came in to find me seated in a chair patiently reading the newspaper. "You are the very person I wish to see. Have you heard of this strange affair at Rannoch?"
"I have," was my answer. "Has the man in the hospital made any statement yet?"
"None. He refuses point-blank," answered the detective. "But my own idea is that the affair has a very close connection with the two mysteries of the wood."
"The first mystery-that of the man-proves to be a double mystery," I said.
"How? Explain it."
"Well, the waiter Olinto Santini is alive and well in London."
"What!" he gasped, starting up. "Then he is not the person you identified him to be?"
"No. But he was masquerading as Santini-made up to resemble him, I mean, even to the mole upon his face."
"But you identified him positively?"
"When a person is dead it is very easy to mistake countenances. Death alters the countenance so very much."
"That's true," he said reflectively. "But if the man we've buried is not the Italian, then the mystery is considerably increased. Why was the real man's wife here?"
"And where has her body been concealed? That's the question."
"Again a mystery. We have made a thorough search for four days, without discovering any trace of it. Quite confidentially, I'm wondering if this man Chater knows anything. It is curious, to say the least, that the Leithcourts should have fled so hurriedly on this man's appearance. But have you actually seen Olinto Santini?"
"Yes, and have spoken with him."
"I sent up to London asking that inquiries should be made at the restaurant in Bayswater, but up to the present I have received no report."
"I have chatted with Olinto. His wife has mysteriously disappeared, but he is in ignorance that she is dead."
"You did not tell him anything?"
"Ah, you did well. There is widespread conspiracy here, depend upon it, Mr. Gregg. It will be an interesting case when we get to the bottom of it all. I only wish this fellow Chater would tell us the reason he called upon Leithcourt."
"What does he say?"
"Merely that he has no wish to prosecute, and that he has no statement to make."
"Can't you compel him to say something?" I asked.
"No, I can't. That's the infernal difficulty of it. If he don't choose to speak, then we must still remain in ignorance, although I feel confident that he knows something of the strange affair up in the wood."
And although I was silent, I shared the Scotch detective's belief.
The afternoon was chill and wet as I climbed the hill to Greenlaw.
The sudden disappearance of the tenants of Rannoch was, I found, on everyone's tongue in Dumfries. In the smoke-room of the railway hotel three men were discussing it with many grimaces and sinister hints, and the talkative young woman behind the bar asked me my opinion of the strange goings-on up at the Castle.
As I walked on alone, with the dark line of woods crowning the hill-top before me, the scene of that double tragedy, I again calmly reviewed the situation. I longed to go to the hospital and see Hylton Chater, yet when I recollected the part he had played with Hornby on board the Lola, I naturally hesitated. He was allied with Hornby, apparently against Leithcourt, although the latter was Hornby's friend.
What, I wondered, had transpired in the library of that gray old castle which stood out boldly before me, dark and grim, as I plodded on through the rain? How had Leithcourt succeeded in rendering his enemy insensible and hiding him in that cupboard? Did he believe that he had killed him?
If I went boldly to Chater, then it would only be the betrayal of myself. No. I decided that the man who had smoked and chatted with me so affably on that hot, breathless night in the Mediterranean must remain in ignorance of my presence, or of my knowledge. Therefore I stayed for a week at Greenlaw with eyes and ears ever open, yet exercising care that the patient in the hospital should be unaware of my presence.
Mackenzie saw him on several occasions, but he still persisted in that tantalizing silence. The inquiry into the death of the unidentified man in Rannoch Wood had been resumed, and a verdict returned of willful murder against some person unknown, while of the second crime the public had no knowledge, for the body was not discovered.
Time after time I searched the wood alone, on the pretense of shooting pigeon, but discovered nothing. When not having sport on my uncle's property, I joined various parties in the neighborhood, not because Scotland at that time attracted me, but because I desired to watch events.
Chater, as soon as he recovered, left the hospital and went south-to London, I ascertained-leaving the police utterly in the dark and filled with suspicion of the fugitives from Rannoch.
I longed to know the whereabouts of Muriel, hoping to gain from her some information regarding their visitor who had so nearly escaped with his life. That she was aware of the object of his visit was plain from the statements of the servants, all of whom had been left without either money or orders.
One day I called at the castle, the front entrance of which I found closed. Gilrae, the owner, had come up from London, met his factor there, and discharged all the late tenant's servants, keeping on only three of his own who had been in service there for a number of years. Ann Cameron, a housemaid, was one of these, and it was she whom I met when entering by the servants' hall.
On questioning her, I found her most willing to describe how she was in the corridor outside the young mistress's room when Mr. Leithcourt dashed along in breathless haste with the telegram in his hand. She heard him cry: "Look at this! Read it, Muriel. We must go. Put on your things at once, my dear. Never mind about luggage. Every minute lost is of consequence. What!" he cried a moment later. "You won't go? You'll stay here-stay here and face them? Good Heavens! girl, are you mad? Don't you know what this means? It means that the secret is out-the secret is out, you hear! We must fly!"
The woman told me that she distinctly heard Miss Muriel sobbing, while her father walked up and down the room speaking rapidly in a low tone. Then he came out again and returned to his dressing-room, while Miss Muriel presumably changed from her evening-gown into a dark traveling-dress.
"Did she say anything to you?" I inquired.
"Only that they were called away suddenly, sir. But," the domestic added, "the young lady was very pale and agitated, and we all knew that something terrible had happened. Mrs. Leithcourt gave orders that nothing was to be told to the guests, who dined alone, believing that their host and hostess had gone down to the village to see an old man who was dying. That was the story we told them, sir."
"And in the meantime the Leithcourts were in the express going to Carlisle?"
"Yes, sir. They say in Dumfries that the police telegraphed after them, but they had reached Carlisle and evidently changed there, and so got away."
By the administration of a judicious tip I was allowed to go up to Miss Muriel's room, an elegantly furnished little chamber in the front of the fine old place, with a deep old-fashioned window commanding a magnificent view across the broad Nithsdale.
The room had been tidied by the maids, but allowed to remain just as she had left it. I advanced to the window, in which was set the large dressing-table with its big swing-mirror and silver-topped bottles, and on gazing out saw, to my surprise, it was the only window which gave a view of that corner of Rannoch Wood where the double tragedy had taken place. Indeed, any person standing at the spot would have a clear view of that one distant window while out of sight of all the rest. A light might be placed there at night as signal, for instance; or by day a towel might be hung from the window as though to dry and yet could be plainly seen at that distance.
Another object in the room also attracted my attention-a pair of long field-glasses. Had she used these to keep watch upon that spot?
I took them up and focused them upon the boundary of the wood, finding that I could distinguish everything quite plainly.
"That's where they found the man who was murdered," explained the servant, who still stood in the doorway.
"I know," I replied. "I was just trying the glasses." Then I put them down, and on turning saw upon the mantelshelf a small, bright-red candleshade, which I took in my hand. It was made, I found, to fit upon the electric table-lamp.
"Miss Muriel was very fond of a red light," explained the young woman; and as I held it I wondered if that light had ever been placed upon the toilet-table and the blind drawn up-whether it had ever been used as a warning of danger?
As I expressed a desire to see the young lady's boudoir, the maid Cameron took me down to the luxurious little room where, the first moment I entered, one fact struck me as peculiar. The picture of Elma Heath was no longer there. The photograph had been taken from its frame, and in its place was the portrait of a broad-browed, full-bearded man in a foreign military uniform-a picture that, being soiled and faded, had evidently been placed there to fill the empty frame.
Whose hand had secured that portrait before the Leithcourt's flight? Why, indeed, should I, for the second time, discover the unhappy girl's picture missing?
"Has the gentleman who called on the evening of Mr. Leithcourt's disappearance been back here again since he left the hospital?" I inquired as a sudden idea occurred to me.
"Yes, sir. He called here in a fly on the day he came out, and at his request I took him over the castle. He went into the library, and spent half-an-hour in pacing across it, taking measurements, and examining the big cupboard in which he was found insensible. It was a strange affair, sir," added the young woman, "wasn't it?"
"Very," I replied.
"The gentleman might have been in there now had I not gone into the library and found a lot of illustrated papers, which I always put in the cupboard to keep the place tidy, thrown out on to the floor. I went to put them back but discovered the door locked. The key I afterwards found in the grate, where Mr. Leithcourt had evidently thrown it, and on opening the door imagine the shock I had when I found the visitor lying doubled up. I, of course, thought he was dead."
"And when he returned here on his recovery, did he question you?"
"Oh, yes. He asked about the Leithcourts, and especially about Miss Muriel. I believe he's rather sweet on her, by the way he spoke. And really no better or kinder lady never breathed, I'm sure. We're all very sorry indeed for her."
"But she had nothing to do with the affair."
"Of course not. But she shares in the scandal and disgrace. You should have seen the effect of the news upon the guests when they knew that the Leithcourts had gone. It was a regular pandemonium. They ordered the best champagne out of the cellars and drank it, the men cleared all the cigar-boxes, and the women rummaged in the wardrobes until they seemed like a pack of hungry wolves. Everybody went away with their trunks full of the Leithcourt's things. They took whatever they could lay their hands on, and we, the servants, couldn't stop them. I did remonstrate with one lady who was cramming into her trunk two of Miss Muriel's best evening dresses, but she told me to mind my own business and leave the room. One man I saw go away with four of Mr. Leithcourt's guns, and there was a regular squabble in the billiard-room over a set of pearl and emerald dress-studs that somebody found in his dressing-room. Crane, the valet, says they tossed for them."
"Disgraceful!" I ejaculated. "Then as soon as the host and hostess had gone, they simply swept through the rooms and cleared them?"
"Yes, sir. They took away all that was most valuable. They'd have had the silver, only Mason had thrown it into the plate-chest, all dirty as it was, locked it up and hid the key. The plate was Mr. Gilrae's, you know, sir, and Mason was responsible."
"He acted wisely," I said, surprised at the domestic's story. "Why, the guests acted like a gang of thieves."
"They were, sir. They rushed all over the house like demons let loose, and they even stole some of our things. I lost a silver chain."
"And what did the stranger say when you told him of this?"
"He smiled. It did not seem to surprise him in the least, for after all his visit was the cause of the sudden breaking up of the party, wasn't it?"
"And did you show him over the whole house?" I inquired.
"Yes, sir," responded the servant. "Curiously enough he had with him what seemed to be a large plan of the castle, and as we went from room to room he compared it with his plan. He was here for hours, and told me he wanted to make a thorough examination of the place and didn't want to be disturbed. He also said that he might probably take the place for next season, if he liked it. I think, however, he only told me this because he thought I would be more patient while he took his measurements and made his investigations. He was here from twelve till nearly six o'clock, and went through every room, even up to the turrets."
"He came into this room, I suppose?"
"Yes, sir," she responded, with just a slight hesitation, I thought. "This was the room where he stayed the longest. There was a photograph in that frame over there," she added, indicating the frame that had held the picture of Elma Heath, "a portrait of a young lady, which he begged me to give him."
"And you gave it to him?" I cried quickly.
"Well-yes, sir. He begged so hard for it, saying that it was the portrait of a friend of his."
"And he gave you something handsome for it-eh?"
The young woman, whom I knew could not refuse half-a-sovereign, colored slightly and smiled.
"And who put that picture in its place?" I asked.
"I did, sir. I found it upstairs."
"He didn't tell you who the young lady was, I suppose?"
"No, sir. He only said that that was the only photograph that existed, and that she was dead."
"Dead!" I gasped, staring at her.
"Yes, sir. That was why he was so anxious for the picture."
Elma Heath dead! Could it be true? That sweet-pictured face haunted me as no other face had ever impressed itself upon my memory. It somehow seemed to impel me to endeavor to penetrate the mystery, and yet Hylton Chater had declared that she was dead! I recollected the remarkable letter from Abo, and her own declaration that her end was near. That letter was, she said, the last she should write to her friend. Did Hylton Chater actually possess knowledge of the girl's death? Had he all along been acquainted with her whereabouts? What the young woman told me upset all my plans. If Elma Heath were really dead, then she was beyond discovery, and the truth would be hidden forever.
"After he had put the photograph in his pocket, the gentleman made a most minute search in this room," the domestic went on. "He consulted his plan, took several measurements, and then tapped on the paneling all along this wall, as though he were searching for some hidden cupboard or hiding place. I looked at the plan, and saw a mark in red ink upon it. He was trying to discover that spot, and was greatly disappointed at not being able to do so. He was in here over an hour, and made a most careful search all around."
"And what explanation did he give?"
"He only said, 'If I find what I want, Ann, I shall make you a present of a ten-pound note.' That naturally made me anxious."
"He made no other remark about the young lady's death?" I inquired anxiously.
"No. Only he sighed, and looked steadily for a long time at the photograph. I saw his lips moving, but his words were inaudible."
"You haven't any idea of the reason why he called upon Mr. Leithcourt, I suppose?"
"From what he said, I've formed my own conclusions," was her answer.
"And what is your opinion?"
"Well, I feel certain that there is, or was, something concealed in this house that he's very anxious to obtain. He came to demand it of Mr. Leithcourt, but what happened in the library we don't know. He, however, believes that Mr. Leithcourt has not taken it away, and that, whatever it may be, it is still hidden here."