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   Chapter 8 No.8

The Slave of Silence By Fred M. White Characters: 12240

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:04

The cabman gave a knowing wink and touched his hat. Berrington lay back inside the hansom abstractedly, smoking a cigarette that he had lighted. His bronzed face was unusually pale and thoughtful; it was evident that he felt himself on no ordinary errand, though the situation appeared to be perfectly prosaic. One does not usually attach a romantic interest to a well-dressed military man in a hansom cab during broad daylight in London. But Berrington could have told otherwise.

"Poor little girl," he muttered to himself. "Sad as her fate is, I did not think it was quite so sad as this. We must do something to save her. What a fortunate thing it is that I have always had a love for the study of underground human nature, and that I should have found out so much that appears only normal to the average eye. That innocent patch of salt in the shape of a bullet, for instance. Thank goodness, I am on my long leave and have plenty of time on my hands. My dear little grey lady, even your affairs must remain in abeyance for the present."

The drive promised to be a long one, for half London seemed to have been traversed before the cabman looked down through the little peep-hole and asked for instructions, as the hansom in front had stopped.

"The gentleman inside is getting out, sir," he said. "He's stopped at the corner house."

"Go by it at a walk," Berrington commanded, "and see what house our man enters. After that I will tell you exactly what to do, driver. Only be careful as to the right house."

The cab pulled up at length once more, and the house was indicated. Berrington proceeded a little further, and then sent his own driver away rejoicing, a sovereign the richer for his task. Turning up his collar and pulling down his hat, Berrington retraced his steps.

He was enabled to take pretty good stock of the house Richford had entered, and without exciting suspicion, because there were trees on the opposite side of the road and seats beneath them. It was a fairly open part of London, with detached houses on the one side looking on to a kind of park. They were expensive houses, Berrington decided, houses that could not have been less than two hundred and fifty a year. They looked prosperous with their marble steps and conservatories on the right side of the wide doorways; there were good gardens behind and no basements. Berrington could see, too, by the hanging opals in the upper windows that these houses had electric lights.

"This is unusual, very unusual indeed," Berrington muttered to himself, as he sat as if tired on one of the seats under the trees. "The gentry who cultivate the doctrine that has for its cult a piece of salt in the shape of a bullet, don't as a rule favour desirable family mansions like these. Still, fortune might have favoured one of them. No. 100, Audley Place. And No. 100 is the recognized number of the clan. By the way, where am I?"

A passing policeman was in a position to answer the question. Audley Place was somewhat at the back of Wandsworth Common, so that it was really a good way out of town. The policeman was friendly, mainly owing to the fact that he was an old soldier, and that he recognized Berrington as an officer immediately. He was full of information, too.

"Mostly rich City gents live in Audley Place, sir," he said. "There is one colonel, too-Colonel Foley of the East Shropshire Regiment."

"An old college chum and messmate of mine," Berrington said. "I followed Colonel Foley in the command of that very regiment. What house does he live in?"

"That's No. 14, sir," the delighted officer grinned. "Excuse the liberty, sir, but you must be Colonel Berrington, sir. I was with you all through the first Egyptian campaign."

Berrington blessed his own good fortune. Here was the very thing that he wanted.

"We'll fight our battles over again some other day," he said. "I am pretty sure that I shall see a great deal more of you-by the way, what is your name? Macklin. Thank you. Now tell me something as to who lives yonder at No. 100. I am not asking out of idle curiosity."

"I can't tell you the gentleman's name, sir," Macklin replied. "But I can find out. The people have not been there very long. A few good servants, but no men, no ladies so far as I can tell, and the master what you might call a confirmed invalid. Goes about in a bath chair which he hires from a regular keeper of this class of thing. Not a very old gent, but you can't quite tell, seeing that he is muffled up to his eyes. Very pale and feeble he looks."

Berrington muttered something to himself and his eyebrows contracted. Evidently he was a good deal puzzled by what he had heard.

"That is very strange," he said, "very strange indeed. I will not disguise from you, Macklin, that I have a very strong reason for wishing to know everything about No. 100, Audley Place. Keep your eyes open and glean all the information you possibly can. Talk to the servants and try to pump them. And write to me as soon as you have found out anything worth sending. Here is my card. I shall do no good by staying here any longer at present."

The policeman touched his helmet and strode on his way. Berrington strolled along under the friendly shadow of the trees till he had left Audley Place behind him. Once clear of the terrace he called a cab and was whirled back to town again.

Meanwhile, absolutely unconscious of the fact that he was being so closely shadowed, Richford had been driven out Wandsworth way. He did not look in the least like a modern millionaire of good health and enviable prospects as he drove along. His moody face was pale, his lips trembled, his eyes were red and bloodshot with the brandy that he had been drinking. The hand that controlled the market so frequently shook strangely as Richford pressed the bell of No. 100 Audley Place. There was no suggestion of tragedy or mystery about the neat parlourmaid who opened the door.

"Mr. Sartoris desires to see me," Richford said. "He sent me a messenger-a message to the Royal Palace Hotel. Will you please tell him I am here."

The neat

parlourmaid opened the drawing-room door and ushered Richford in. It was a big room looking on the street, but there was nothing about it to give the place the least touch of originality. The furniture was neat and substantial, as might have befitted the residence of a prosperous City man, the pictures were by well-known artists, the carpet gave to the feet like moss. There was nothing here to cause Richford to turn pale, and his lips to quiver.

He paced up and down the room uneasily, starting at every sound until the maid returned and asked if the gentleman would be good enough to step this way. Richford followed down a passage leading to the back of the house into a room that gave on to a great conservatory. It was a fine room, most exquisitely furnished; flowers were everywhere, the big dome-roofed conservatory was a vast blaze of them. The room was so warm, too, that Richford felt the moisture coming out on his face. By the fire a figure sat huddled up in a great invalid chair.

"So you have come," a thin voice said. "Most excellent Richford, you are here. I was loath to send for you on this auspicious occasion, but it could not be helped."

There was the faintest suggestion of a sneer in the thin voice. Richford crossed the room and took another chair by the side of the invalid. The face of the man who called himself Carl Sartoris was as pale as marble and as drawn as parchment, the forehead was hard and tangled with a mass of fair hair upon it, the lips were a little suggestive of cruelty. It was the dark eyes that gave an expression of life and vitality, surprising in so weak a frame. Those eyes held the spectator, they fascinated people by their marvellous vitality.

"What devil's work are you upon now?" Richford growled.

"My dear sir, you must not speak to an invalid like that," Sartoris said. "Do you not know that I am sensitive as to my own beloved flowers? It was my flowers that I asked you to come and see. Since you were here last, the room has been entirely redecorated. It seemed to me to be good that I should share my artistic joy with so congenial a companion."

"Damn your flowers!" Richford burst out passionately. "What a cruel, unfeeling fellow you are! Always the same, and will be the same till the devil comes for you."

"Which sad event you would regard with philosophic equanimity," Sartoris laughed. "So, we will get to business as soon as possible. I see that Sir Charles Darryll is dead. I want to know all about that affair without delay. What did he die of?"

"How should I know? Old age and too much pleasure. And that's all I can tell you. I found him first."

"Oh, indeed. The evening paper says nothing about that."

"For the simple reason that the evening papers don't know everything," Richford growled. "Quite early to-day I found Sir Charles dead in his bed. I dared not say a word about it, because, as you know, I was going to marry his daughter. But, of course, you all knew about that, too. You see if I had made my little discovery public, Beatrice would have known that death had freed her and her father from certain very unpleasant consequences that you and I wot of, and would have refused to meet me at the altar. So I locked the door and discreetly said nothing, my good Sartoris."

The little man in the invalid chair rolled about horribly and silently.

"Good boy," he said. "You are a credit to your parents and the country you belong to. What next?"

"Why, the wedding, of course. Lord Rashborough, as head of the family, was giving Beatrice away. Sir Charles did not turn up, but nobody wondered, as he had never been known to attend to an appointment in his life. And so we were married."

Once more the little man shook with unholy mirth.

"And the girl knows nothing about it?" he asked. "I suppose you'll tell her some day when she is not quite so loving as she might be? Ho, ho; it is a joke after my own heart."

Richford laughed in his turn, then his face grew dark. He proceeded to tell the rest of the story. The little man in the chair became quieter and quieter, his face more like parchment than ever. His eyes blazed with a curious electric fire.

"So you have lost your wife before you have found her?" he asked. "You fool! you double-dyed fool! If that girl chooses to tell her story, suspicion falls on you. And if anybody makes a fuss and demands an inquest or anything of that kind--"

"They are going to hold an inquest, anyway," Richford said sulkily. "Dr. Andrews was in favour of it from the first, and the family doctor, Oswin, has agreed. The police came around and sealed up that suite of rooms before I left the hotel. But why this fuss?"

"Silence, fool!" came from the chair in a hissing whisper. "Let me have time to think. That senseless act of folly of yours over the telegram bids fair to ruin us all. You will say so yourself when you hear all that I have to tell you. Oh, you idiot!"

"Why?" Richford protested. "How did I know Sir Charles was going to die? And if his death took place in a perfectly natural manner and there was no foul play--"

"Oh, if it did. Perhaps it was wrong on my part not to take you more fully into my confidence. But there is one thing certain. Listen to me, Richford. Whatever happens between now and this time to-morrow there must be no inquest on the body of Sir Charles Darryll!"

The words came with a fierce hissing indrawing of the speaker's breath. He tried to get up from his chair, and fell back with a curse of impotence.

"Push me along to the door," he said. "Take me to that little room behind the library where you have been before. I am going to show you something, and I'm going to reveal a plot to you. We shall want all your brutal bulldog courage to-night."

The chair slid along on its cushioned wheels, the door closed with a gentle spring, and, as it did, a female figure emerged from behind a great bank of flowers just inside the conservatory. She crossed on tip-toe to the door and as gently closed it. As the light fell it lit up the pale sad features of the grey lady-the Slave of Silence.

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