CHAPTER VIII LIFE'S COUNTER-CLAIM
No words of mine can express my absolute and abject amazement when I faced the man, whom I had seen lying cold and dead upon that gray stone slab in the mortuary at Dumfries.
My eye caught the customer who, on the entry of Olinto, had dropped his paper and sat staring at him in wonderment. The detective had evidently been furnished with a photograph of the dead man, and now, like myself, discovered him alive and living.
"Signor Padrone!" cried the man whose appearance was so absolutely bewildering. "How did you find me here? I admit that I deceived you when I told you I worked at the Milano," he went on rapidly in Italian. "But it was under compulsion-my actions that night were not my own-but those of others."
"Yes, I understand," I said. "But come out into the street. I don't wish to speak before these people. Your padrone knows Italian, no doubt."
"Ah! only a very little," he answered, smiling. "Have no fear of him."
"But there is Emilio, the cook?"
"Then you have met him!" he exclaimed quickly, with a strange look of apprehension. "He is an undesirable person, signore."
"So I gather," I answered. "But I desire to speak to you outside-not here." And then turning with a smile to the Pole, I apologized for taking away his servant for a few minutes. "Recollect, I am his old master, I added."
"Of course, m'sieur," answered the Pole, bowing politely. "Speak with him where and how long you will. He is entirely at your service."
And when we were outside in Westbourne Grove, Olinto walking by my side in wonderment, I asked suddenly:
"Tell me. Have you ever been in Scotland-at Dumfries?"
"Never, signore, in my life. Why?"
"Answer me another question," I said quickly. "You married Armida at the Italian Consulate. Where is she now-where is she this morning?"
He turned pale, and I saw a complete change in his countenance.
"Ah, signore!" he responded, "I only wish I could tell."
"It is untrue that she is an invalid," I went on, "or that you live in Lambeth. Your address is in Albany Road, Camberwell. You can't deny these facts."
"I do not deny them, Signor Commendatore. But how did you learn this?"
"The authorities in Italy know everything," I answered. "Like that of all your countrymen, your record is written down at the Commune."
"It is a clean one, at any rate, signore," he declared with some slight warmth. "I have a permesso to carry a revolver, which is in itself sufficient proof that I am a man of spotless character."
"I cast no reflection whatever upon you, Olinto," I answered. "I have merely inquired after your wife, and you do not give me a direct reply."
We had walked to the Royal Oak, and stood talking on the curb outside.
"I give you no reply, because I can't," he said in Italian. "Armida-my poor Armida-has left home."
"Why did you tell me such a tale of distress regarding her?"
"As I have already explained, signore, I was not then master of my own actions. I was ruled by others. But I saved your life at risk of my own. Some day, when it is safe, I will reveal to you everything."
"Let us allow the past to remain," I said. "Where is your wife now?"
He hesitated a moment, looking straight into my face.
"Well, Signor Commendatore, to tell the truth, she has disappeared."
"Disappeared!" I echoed. "And have you not made any report to the police?"
"For reasons known only to myself I did not wish the police to pry into my private affairs."
"I know. Because you were once convicted at Lucca of using a knife-eh? I recollect quite well that affair-a love affair, was it not?"
"Yes, Signor Commendatore. But I was a youth then-a mere boy."
"Then tell me the circumstances In which Armida has disappeared," I urged, for I saw quite plainly that his sudden meeting with me had upset him, and that he was trying to hold back from me some story which he was bursting to tell.
"Well, signore," he said at last in a low tone of confidence, "I don't like to trouble you with my private affairs after those untruths I told you when we last met."
"Go on," I said. "Tell me the truth."
After the exciting incidents of our last meeting, I was half inclined to doubt him.
"The truth is, Signor Commendatore, that my wife has mysteriously disappeared. Last Saturday, at eleven o'clock, she was talking over the garden wall with a neighbor and was then dressed to go out. She apparently went out, but from that moment no one has seen or heard of her."
It was on the tip of my tongue to tell him the ghastly truth, yet so strange was the circumstance that his own double, even to the mole upon his face, should be lying dead and buried in Scotland that I hesitated to relate what I knew.
"She spoke English, I suppose?"
"She could make herself understood very well," he said with a sigh, and I saw a heavy, thoughtful look upon his brow. That he was really devoted to her, I knew. With the Italian of whatever station in life, love is all-consuming-it is either perfect love or genuine hatred. The Tuscan character is one of two extremes.
I glanced across the road, and saw that the detective who had ordered his chop and coffee had stopped to light his pipe and was watching us.
"Have you any idea where your wife is, or what has induced her to go away from home? Perhaps you had some words!"
"Words, signore!" he echoed. "Why, we were the happiest pair in all London. No unkind word ever passed between us. There seems absolutely no reason whatever why she should go away without wishing me a word of farewell."
"But why haven't you told the police?"
"For reasons that I have already stated. I prefer to make inquiries for myself."
"And in what have your inquiries resulted?"
"Nothing-absolutely nothing," he said gravely.
"You do not suspect any plot? I recollect that night in Lambeth you told me that you had enemies?"
"Ah! so I have, signore-and so have you!" he exclaimed hoarsely. "Yes, my poor Armida may have been entrapped by them."
"And if entrapped, what then?"
"Then they would kill her with as little compunction as they would a fly," he said. "Ah! you do not know the callousness of those people. I only hope and pray that she may have escaped and is in hiding somewhere, and will arrive unexpectedly and give me a startling surprise. She delights in startling me," he added with a laugh.
Poor fellow, I thought, she would never again be able to startle him. She had actually fallen a victim just as he dreaded.
"Then you think she must have been called away from home by some urgent message?" I suggested.
"By the manner in which she left things, it seemed as though she went away hurriedly. There were five sovereigns in a drawer that we had saved for the rent, and she took them with her."
I paused again, hesitating whether to tell him the terrible truth. I recollected that the body had disappeared, therefore what proof had I of my allegation that she had been murdered?
"Tell me, Olinto," I said as we moved forward again in the direction of Paddington Station, "have you any knowledge of a man named Leithcourt?"
He started suddenly and looked at me.
"I have heard of him," he answered very lamely.
"And of his daughter-Muriel?"
"And also of her. But I am not acquainted with them-nor, to tell the truth, do I wish to be."
"Because they are enemies of mine-bitter enemies."
His declaration was strange, for it threw some light upon the tragedy in Rannoch Wood.
"And of your wife also?"
"I do not know that," he responded. "My enemies are my wife's also, I suppose."
"You have not told me the secret of that dastardly attempt upon me when we last met," I said in a low voice. "Why not tell me the truth? I surely ought to know who my enemies really are, so as to be warned against any future plot."
"You shall know some day, signore. I dare not tell you now."
"You said that before," I exclaimed with dissatisfaction. "If you are faithful to me, you ought at least to tell me the reason they wished to kill me in secret."
"Because they fear you," was his answer.
"Why should they fear me?"
But he shrugged his shoulders, and made a gesture with his hands indicative of utter ignorance.
"I ask you one question. Answer yes or no. Is the man Leithcourt my enemy?"
The young Italian paused, and then answered:
"He is not your friend. I am quite well aware of that."
"And his daughter? She is engaged, I hear."
"I think so."
"Where did you first meet Leithcourt?"
"I have known him several years. When we first met he was poor."
"Suddenly became rich-eh?"
"Bought a fine house in the country; lives mostly at the Carlton when he and his wife and daughter are in London-although I believe they now have a house somewhere in the West End-and he often makes long cruises on his steam-yacht."
"And how did he make his money?"
Again Olinto elevated his shoulders, without replying.
If he would only betray to me the reason he had been induced to entice me to that house, I might then be able to form some conclusion regarding the tenants of Rannoch and their friends.
Who was the man who, having represented the man now before me, had been struck dead by an unerring hand? Was it possible that Armida had been called by telegram to meet her husband, and recognizing the fraud perpetrated upon her threatened to disclose it and, for that reason, shared the same fate as the masquerader?
This was the first theory that occurred to me; one which I believed to be the correct one. The motive was a mystery, yet the facts seemed to me plain enough.
As the young Italian had refused to give any satisfactory explanation, I resolved within myself to wait until the unfortunate woman's body was recovered before revealing to him the ghastly truth. Without doubt he had some reason in withholding from me the true facts, either because he feared that I might become unduly alarmed, or else he himself had been deeply implicated in the plot. Of the two suggestions, I was inclined to believe in the latter.
He walked with me as far as the end of Bishop's Road, endeavoring with all the Italian's exquisite diplomacy to obtain from me what I knew concerning the Leithcourts. But I told him nothing, nor did I reveal that I had only that morning returned from Scotland. Then at last we parted, and he retraced his steps to the little restaurant in Westbourne Grove, while I entered a hansom and drove to the well-known photographer's in New Bond Street, whose name had been upon the torn photograph of the young girl in the white piqué blouse and her hair fastened with a bow of black ribbon, the picture that I had found on board the Lola on that memorable night in the Mediterranean, and a duplicate of which I had seen in Muriel's cosy little room up at Rannoch.
I recollected that she had told me the name of the original was Elma Heath, and that she had been a schoolfellow of hers at Chichester. Therefore I inquired of the photographer's lady-clerk whether she could supply me with a print of the negative.
For a considerable time she searched in her books for the name, and at last discovered it. Then she said:
"I regret, sir, that we can't give you a print, for the customer purchased the negative at the time."
"Ah, I'm very sorry for that," I said. "To what address did you send it?"
"The customer who ordered it was apparently a foreigner," she said, at the same time turning round the ledger so that I could read. And I saw that the entry was: "Heath-Miss Elma-3 dozen cabinets and negative. Address: Baron Xavier Oberg, Vosnesenski Prospect 48, St. Petersburg, Russia."
"Did this gentleman come with the young lady when her portrait was taken?" I inquired.
"I can't tell, sir," she replied. "I've only been here a year, and you see the date-over two years ago."
"The photographer would know, perhaps?"
"He's a new man, sir. He only came a month ago. In fact, the business changed hands a year ago, and none of the previous employees have remained."
"Ah! that's unfortunate," I said, greatly disappointed; and having copied the address to which the negative and prints had been sent, I thanked her and left.
Who, I wondered, was this Baron Oberg, and what relation was he to Elma Heath?
The picture of the girl in the white blouse somehow exercised a strange attraction for me.
Have you never experienced the fascination of a photograph, inexplicable and yet forcible-a kind of magnetism from which you cannot release yourself? Perhaps it was the curious fact that some person had taken it from its frame on board the Lola and destroyed it that first aroused my interest; or it might have been the discovery of it in Muriel's room at Rannoch. Anyhow, it had for me an absorbing interest, for I often wondered whether the unknown girl who had secretly gone ashore from the yacht when I had left it was not Elma Heath herself.
Who was this Baron Oberg? The name was German undoubtedly, yet he lived in the Russian capital. From London to Petersburg is a far cry, yet I resolved that if it were necessary I would travel there and investigate.
At the German Embassy, in Carlton House Terrace, I found my friend Captain Nieberding, the second secretary, of whom I inquired whether the name of Baron Oberg was known, but having referred to a number of German books in his Excellency's library, he returned and told me that the name did not appear in the lists of the German nobility.
"He may be Russian-Polish most probably," added the captain, a tall, fair fellow in gold spectacles, whom I had known when he was third secretary of Embassy at Rome. His opinion was that it was not a German name, for there was a little place called Oberg, he said, on the railway between Lodz and Lowicz.
Then, after luncheon, I went to Albany Road, one of those dreary, old-fashioned streets that were pleasant back in the early Victorian days when Camberwell was a suburb and Walworth Common was still an open waste. I found the house where Olinto lived-a small, smoke-blackened, semi-detached place standing back in a tiny strip of weedy garden, with a wooden veranda before the first floor windows. The house, according to the woman who kept a general shop at the corner, was occupied by two families. The "Eye-talians," as she termed them, lived above, while the Gibbonses rented the ground floor.
"Oh, yes, sir. The foreigners are respectable enough. Always pays me ready money for everythink, except the milk. That they pays for weekly."
"I understand that the wife has disappeared. What have you heard about that?"
"They do say, sir, that they 'ad some words together the other day, and that the woman's took herself off in a tantrum. Only you can't believe all you 'ear, you know."
"Did they often quarrel?"
"Not to my knowledge, sir. They were really very quiet, respectable persons for foreigners."
I repassed the house of the dead woman, and then regaining the busy Camberwell Road I took an omnibus back to the Hotel Cecil in the Strand where I had put up, tired and disappointed.
Next day I ran down to Chichester, and after some difficulty found the Cheverton College for Ladies, a big old-fashioned house about half-a-mile out of the town on the Drayton Road. The seminary was evidently a first-class one, for when I entered I noticed how well everything was kept.
To the principal, an elderly lady of a somewhat severe aspect, I said:
"I regret, madam, to trouble you, but I am in search of information you can supply. It is with regard to a certain Elma Heath whom you had as pupil here, and who left, I believe, about two years ago. Her parents lived in Durham."
"I remember her perfectly," was the woman's response as she sat behind the big desk, having apparently at first expected that I had a daughter to put to school.
"Well," I said, "there has been some little friction in the family, and I am making inquiries on behalf of another branch of it-an aunt who desires to ascertain the girl's whereabouts."
"Ah, I regret, sir, that I cannot tell you that. The Baron, her uncle, came here one day and took her away suddenly-abroad, I think."
"Had she no school-friend to whom she would probably write?"
"There was a girl named Leithcourt-Muriel Leithcourt-who was her friend, but who has also left."
"And no one else?" I asked. "Girls often write to each other after leaving school, until they get married, and then the correspondence usually ceases."
The principal was silent and reflective.
"Well," she said at last, "there was another pupil who was also on friendly terms with Elma-a girl named Lydia Moreton. She may have written to her. If you really desire to know, sir, I dare say I could find her address. She left us about nine months after Elma."
"I should esteem it a great favor if you would give me that young lady's address," I said, whereupon she unlocked a drawer in her writing-table and took therefrom a thick, leather-bound book which she consulted for a few minutes, at last exclaiming:
"Yes, here it is-'Lydia Moreton, daughter of Sir Hamilton Moreton, K.C.M.G., Whiston Grange, Doncaster.'" And she scribbled it in pencil upon an envelope, and handing it to me, said:
"Elma Heath was, I fear, somewhat neglected by her parents. She remained here for five years, and had no holidays like the other girls. Her uncle, the Baron, came to see her several times, but on each occasion after he had left I found her crying in secret. He was mean and unkind to her. Now that I recollect, I remember that Lydia had said she had received a letter from her, therefore she might be able to give you some information."
And with that I took my leave, thanking her, and returned to London.
Could Lydia Moreton furnish any information? If so, I might find this girl whose photograph had aroused the irate jealousy of the mysterious unknown.
The ten o'clock Edinburgh express from King's Cross next morning took me up to Doncaster, and hiring a musty old fly at the station, I drove three miles out of the town on the Rotherham Road, finding Whiston Grange to be a fine old Elizabethan mansion in the center of a great park, with tall old twisted chimneys, and beautifully-kept gardens.
When I descended at the door and rang, the footman was not aware whether Miss Lydia was in. He looked at me somewhat suspiciously, I thought, until I gave my card and impressed upon him meaningly that I had come from London purposely to see his young mistress upon a very important matter.
"Tell her," I said, "that I wish to see her regarding her friend, Miss Elma Heath."
"Miss Elma 'Eath," repeated the man. "Very well, sir. Will you walk this way?"
And then I followed him across the big old oak-paneled hall, filled with trophies of the chase and arms of the civil wars, into a small paneled room on the left, the deep-set window with its diamond panes giving out upon the old bowling-green and the flower-garden beyond.
Presently the door opened, and a tall dark-haired girl in white entered with an enquiring expression upon her face as she halted and bowed to me.
"Miss Lydia Moreton, I believe?" I commenced, and as she replied in the affirmative I went on: "I have first to apologize for coming to you, but Miss Sotheby, the principal of the school at Chichester, referred me to you for information as to the present whereabouts of Miss Elma Heath, who, I believe, was one of your most intimate friends at school." And I added a lie, saying: "I am trying, on behalf of an aunt of hers, to discover her."
"Well," responded the girl, "I have had only one or two letters. She's in her uncle's hands, I believe, and he won't let her write, poor girl. She dreaded leaving us."
"Ah! she would never say. She had some deep-rooted terror of her uncle, Baron Oberg, who lived in St. Petersburg, and who came over at long intervals to see her. But possibly you know the whole story?"
"I know nothing," I cried eagerly. "You will be furthering her interests, as well as doing me a great personal favor, if you will tell me what you know."
"It is very little," she answered, leaning back against the edge of the table and regarding me seriously. "Poor Elma! Her people treated her very badly indeed. They sent her no money, and allowed her no holidays, and yet she was the sweetest-tempered and most patient girl in the whole school."
"Well-and the story regarding her?"
"It was supposed that her people at Durham did not exist," she explained. "Elma had evidently lived a greater part of her life abroad, for she could speak French and Italian better than the professor himself, and therefore always won the prizes. The class revolted, and then she did not compete any more. Yet she never told us of where she had lived when a child. She came from Durham, she said-that was all."
"You had a letter from her after the Baron came and took her away?"
"Yes, from London. She said that she had been to several plays and concerts, but did not care for life in town. There was too much bustle and noise and study of clothes."
"And what other letters did you receive from her?"
"Three or four, I think. They were all from places abroad. One was from Vienna, one was from Milan, and one from some place with an unpronounceable name in Hungary. The last–"
"Yes, the last?" I gasped eagerly, interrupting her.
"Well, the last I received only a fortnight ago. If you will wait a moment I will go and get it. It was so strange that I haven't destroyed it." And she went out, and I heard by the frou-frou of her skirts that she was ascending the stairs.
After five minutes of breathless anxiety she rejoined me, and handing me the letter to read, said:
"It is not in her handwriting-I wonder why?"
The paper was of foreign make, with blue lines ruled in squares. Written in a hand that was evidently foreign, for the mistakes in the orthography were many, was the following curious communication:
"My Dear Lydia:
"Perhaps you may never get this letter-the last I shall ever be able to send you. Indeed, I run great risks in sending it. Ah! you do not know the awful disaster that has happened to me, all the terrors and the tortures I endure. But no one can assist me, and I am now looking forward to the time when it will all be over. Do you recollect our old peaceful days in the garden at Chichester? I think of them always, always, and compare that sweet peace of the past with my own terrible sufferings of to-day. Ah, how I wish I might see you once again; how that I might feel your hand upon my brow, and hear your words of hope and encouragement! But happiness is now debarred from me, and I am only sinking to the grave under this slow torture of body and of soul.
"This will pass through many hands before it reaches the post. If, however, it ever does get despatched and you receive it, will you do me one last favor-a favor to an unfortunate girl who is friendless and helpless, and who will no longer trouble the world? It is this: Take this letter to London, and call upon Mr. Martin Woodroffe at 98 Cork Street, Piccadilly. Show him my letter, and tell him from me that through it all I have kept my promise, and that the secret is still safe. He will understand-and also know why I cannot write this with my own hand. If he is abroad, keep it until he returns.
"It is all I ask of you, Lydia, and I know that if this reaches you, you will not refuse me. You have been my only friend and confidante, but I now bid you farewell, for the unknown beckons me, and from the grave I cannot write. Again farewell, and for ever.
"Your loving and affectionate friend,
"A very strange letter, is it not?" remarked the girl at my side. "I can't make it out. You see there is no address, but the postmark is Russian. She is evidently in Russia."
"In Finland," I said, examining the stamp and making out the post town to be Abo. "But have you been to London and executed this strange commission?"
"No. We are going up next week. I intend to call upon this person named Woodroffe."
I made no remark. He was, I knew, abroad, but I was glad at having obtained two very important clues: first, the address of the mysterious yachtsman, Woodroffe, alias Hornby, and, secondly, ascertaining that the young girl I sought was somewhere in the vicinity of the town of Abo, the Finnish port on the Baltic.
"Poor Elma, you see, speaks in her letter of some secret, Mr. Gregg," my companion said. "She says she wishes this Mr. Woodroffe, whoever he is, to know that she has kept her promise and has not divulged it. This only bears out what I have all along suspected."
"What are your suspicions?"
"Well, from her deep, thoughtful manner, and from certain remarks she at times made to me, I believe that Elma is in possession of some great and terrible secret-a secret which her uncle, Baron Oberg, is desirous of learning. I know she holds him in deadly fear-she is in terror that she may inadvertently betray to him the truth!"