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   Chapter 11 No.11

The Slave of Silence By Fred M. White Characters: 11865

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:04


Beatrice reached out a hand and steadied herself against a chair. Just for a moment the whole world seemed to be spinning around her. Brave and courageous as she was, these shocks, coming one after the other, had been too much for her. When she opened her eyes again she found that Mark Ventmore was standing by her side.

"Courage, darling," he whispered. "We seem to have come to the worst of everything. Whatever may be the result and meaning of this dastardly outrage, nothing can hurt your father."

The colour was slowly coming back into the girl's pallid lips. With an effort she struggled for the possession of herself. She was alone in the world, she had a position that would cause most of her women friends to turn coldly from her, but Mark remained. And there was always the feeling that she had nothing further to fear from Stephen Richford.

"I can bear it all now," she said. "Tell me everything, please."

"Up to the present there is very little to say," Inspector Field observed. "I came here a little before ten this morning to open Sir Charles's bedroom so as to be prepared for the visit of the jury and the coroner. After the decision arrived at by both doctors, of course the inquest to-day would have been quite formal. It would have been deferred for a few days pending the post-mortem examination. I am putting it as delicately as possible."

"Oh, I know, I know," Beatrice said with a shudder. "Only it is a dreadful thing for a daughter to listen to. Will you go on, please?"

"In the course of my duty I have to see that the seals have not been tampered with. Of course in a large hotel like this, where guests are in the corridor all day and night, I never for a moment anticipated anything wrong. Still, I examined the seals carefully and they appeared to me to be absolutely intact. With my sergeant we broke the seals and entered the room, the door of which was locked. Imagine our astonishment when we found that the body of the poor gentleman had vanished. In all the extraordinary cases that have ever come under my notice, I never recollect anything so amazing as this."

It was amazing, stupendous-so much so, that nobody spoke for a little time. Beatrice had taken a seat and sat waiting for somebody to ask questions. She was no longer dazed and frightened; her brain was working rapidly. It seemed to her that she would be able to throw a light on this mysterious disappearance presently.

"Are you quite sure that the seals are intact?" Mark asked.

"If you had asked me that question half an hour ago, I should have said most assuredly so, sir," Field replied. "I looked carefully to see. We always do. How on earth a body could have been spirited away like this with people about till late, to say nothing of the night watchman going his rounds, and the night porter down below-but we need not go into that yet. My seals appeared to be in perfect order."

"But that really could not have been the fact," Mark persisted. "I fancy we can dispense with the idea that Sir Charles was removed by spiritual agency. Now, would it not have been possible for anyone to have taken an impression of the seals?"

"Just possible," Field admitted. "But what would have been the use of--"

"A great deal of use, it seems to me," Mark went on. "But I will come to that presently. Let us take one thing at a time. For some reason or other, those scoundrels have found it imperatively necessary to spirit away the body of Sir Charles. Perhaps they are afraid of the result of a post-mortem. That is another point we need not bother about for the present. Did you give any orders to the watchman here to keep an eye on that door?"

"Well, I did," Field admitted. "I particularly mentioned the seals, in case any very zealous housemaid, imagining that somebody had been disfiguring the doors, should remove them."

"Then if the seals had been broken, the night watchman would have noticed it?"

"I should say that such a thing was highly possible," Field admitted with an admiring glance in the direction of his questioner. "Really, sir, you would make an admirable detective. You mean that the scoundrels might require some little time in the next room and that any interruption--"

"Precisely," Mark proceeded. "Let us admit, for the sake of argument, that these men were staying in the hotel last night. Where so many people come and go, they would not be noticed, and, on the whole, that plan would be safer. If they were seen, even in the dead of night, in the corridor-possibly in slippers and pajamas-by the watchman, no suspicion would have been aroused. Previously they had managed to get an impression of the seal and made one like it. They then broke the seal and entered the room by means of a master key. The confederate outside immediately clapped on another seal, and those inside were quite safe until they were ready. After the body was stolen, another seal was affixed which gave them plenty of time and prevented discovery by the night watchman, to say nothing of the addition of mystery to the thing."

The inspector nodded approvingly. So far as he could see, the reasoning was perfectly clear. But then it did not tend to throw any light on the strange disappearance of the body.

"So far I follow you perfectly, sir," Field said. "Nothing could be clearer or more logical. In that way it would be comparatively easy to enter the bedroom and make preparations for the removal of the body without any chance of being interrupted. At this part the real trouble begins. The body is a bulky thing, and has to be removed from the hotel. How was that to be done? How could it be done without somebody knowing? That is where I am at fault."

"It could be done in this way," Mark said. "The body might have been removed to a bedroom close by and packed in a large trunk by somebody who ostensibly was going by a very early train."

"Pardon me," the inspec

tor interrupted, "nobody went by an early train. We have gone into that most carefully. Of course a lot of people have left early to-day-as they do every day-but, so far as I can hear, nobody in the least suspicious."

"Then it was done in another manner. It is not quite clear to me how, at present, although I have my idea on the subject. Before I could speak definitely on that point I should like to see the night watchman and the hall porter."

But neither of these officials was present. They had gone off duty at seven o'clock, and they did not return again till late in the afternoon. It seemed a pity to disturb their rest, but Field decided that they must be sent for-and indeed he had already dispatched a messenger for that purpose. Till the two men came to the hotel, nothing further could be done in that direction. There was a little pause here.

"I fancy I can throw some light on this," Beatrice said. "In the first place, will somebody ascertain for me whether the Countess de la Moray and General Gastang are still staying in the hotel? I feel pretty sure they are gone, but it is just possible that such may not be the case. Let this inquiry be made delicately, please."

Inspector Field departed to ask the question himself. He came back presently with the information that the General and the Countess had already gone, in fact they had not really been staying in the hotel at all-their luggage was elsewhere, as the hotel they generally favoured was full-they had only come to the Royal Palace Hotel for the night, and it had been their intention to proceed to Paris in the morning.

"Then it is General Gastang and the Countess de la Moray that we have to look after," Beatrice cried. "The Countess came to me last night in the drawing-room. She professed to be an old friend of my father, and, indeed, I must confess that she knew a great deal about the family. She was very nice indeed, and asked me to go and stay with her near Paris. Being a little lonely just at present, I quite took to her. Subsequently the General was introduced to me. He brought a message to the Countess, who excused herself. Then some stranger came in and the General vanished. He was quite taken aback for a moment, and evidently went in deadly fear of being recognized. Of course this aroused my suspicions. I had heard of these well-dressed, good-class swindlers in hotels before, and immediately I thought of my jewels. I went straight to my room and the door was locked. People were talking inside and I waited. Then the door opened and a man came out and walked away."

"Would you recognize that man again, Miss?" Field asked eagerly.

"I should certainly be able to recognize him again," Beatrice said quietly. She passed the point over rapidly. Something prevented her-shame, perhaps-from saying it was the man who called himself her husband. "After that I entered my room. The Countess was taken aback, but very quickly she recovered herself. Then I noticed that there was a thread of silk sticking to her hands, and after that I further noticed that her hand was covered with wax. Even then the truth did not dawn upon me till I saw a similar thread sticking to the seal on the door leading to my father's room. And then I knew that the Countess had taken an impression of the seal. They did not dare to take the impression in the corridor, I suppose, and that was why they hit upon the clever expedient of using the privacy of my room for the purpose."

"Excellent!" Field said. "Nothing could be better. Beyond the shadow of a doubt these people are at the bottom of the whole business. Did you frighten the lady, Miss?"

"Not in the least," Beatrice replied. "I was particularly careful not to arouse suspicions that I had noticed anything out of the common. But I knew perfectly well that I was just in time to save my diamonds. However, that has nothing to do with the question. The Countess came back very late, under the pretence that she required my services as her maid. She managed to drug me with some very powerful scent, I presume, with a view of using my room whilst I was unconscious, if any hitch took place. But you may be sure that these people are under the impression that nobody could possibly identify them with the outrage. There will not be any great difficulty in tracing them."

"Thanks to your skill and courage," Field said admiringly. "We can do nothing further till we hear from the night porter and his colleague. I will make a few inquiries in the hotel, and I shall be very glad, Miss, if you will write down for me as clear and as accurate a description as possible of the General and the Countess."

A little time later Beatrice found herself alone with Mark. Colonel Berrington was waiting down in the hall. Mark looked tenderly into Beatrice's pallid, beautiful face, and he gently stroked her head.

"This is a very dreadful business for you, darling," he said. "Your courage--"

"My courage can stand any strain so long as I know that I am free of my husband," the girl said. "When I think of my troubles, and they begin to overcome me, I always go back to that reflection. It seems to lift me up and strengthen me. Mark, I believe I should have died, or killed myself, had I been compelled to be with that man."

"You have not seen any more of him, I suppose?" Mark asked.

"Last night," Beatrice whispered. "Mark, I did not tell the detective one thing-I felt that I really could not. I spoke of the man who was closeted in my room with the Countess. I said I would recognize him again. It was my husband, Stephen Richford."

Mark's face expressed his amazement. Before he could reply the door opened and Inspector Field came in again. His face was grave and stern.

"This is a fouler business than ever I imagined," he said. "Both hall porter and night watchman are missing. Neither has been seen at their lodgings since they left duty to-day."

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