Read CHAPTER THIRTY THREE - A horrible Suggestion of Witness to the Deed , free online book, by George Manville Fenn, on ReadCentral.com.

Only a few frowns from the admiral and a severe shake of the head over their wine a day or two later, as, in obedience to a summons more than an invitation, Guest dined with him and his sister, Edie having her dinner with her cousin in Myra’s room.

“I felt as if I ought to say a deal to you, young man,” growled the admiral; “but poor Myra has given me my orders, and I must be mum.  Take some more wine.”

Guest took some more claret with pleasure, and thought that the subject was to be changed, but it was not, for Sir Mark suddenly turned to him: 

“I say:  look here, my lad,” he said.  “This Stratton:  is he mad?”

“No,” said Guest sharply:  “certainly not.”

“Then what the deuce is the matter with him?”

“That’s what I’m going to find out, Sir Mark.”

But the days went by, and Guest appeared to get no farther, save only that Stratton, in a despairing way, ceased to resent his friend’s determination to be with him.  He even went so far, one evening in his room in Sarum Street, as to show some return of his old confidence, for he tossed a letter across the table.

“Read that,” he said.

Guest took it, and saw that it was from the governors of the great institution, suggesting that Stratton should resign his post for a twelvemonth, and go away on half salary to recoup his health.

“Humph!  Can’t say I’m surprised,” said Guest.  “Have you written?”

“Yes, and resigned entirely.”

“Where’s the letter?” said Guest eagerly.  “Gone?”

“No; it is here.”

“Let’s look.”

Stratton handed him the letter, and Guest tore it up.

“Write that you accept their considerate proposal.”

“I cannot.”

“But you shall.”

“If I wrote so, I should feel bound to leave town.”

“Very good.  I’ll go with you ­to the South Pole if you like.”

“I shall never leave London,” said Stratton gravely.

“Then stop here and get well.  Write.”

The weaker will obeyed the stronger, and, with a sigh of satisfaction, Guest pocketed the letter to post.

“By the way,” he said, “I came through the inn to-night on the chance of finding you there.”

Stratton’s face grew stony.

“And old Mother Brade got hold of me to practice her tongue upon.”

Stratton was silent, and sat gazing straight before him.

“Hadn’t you better let the old woman have a general clean up?”

“I pay the rent of those chambers,” said Stratton almost fiercely, “to do with them as I please.  No!”

“All right; tell her to go to Jericho, then.  But look here, she was asking me about Mr Brettison.”

Stratton’s countenance changed a little, either from excitement or interest in his friend’s words.

“Isn’t it strange that he doesn’t come back?”

“I don’t know.  No.  He is peculiar in his ways.  Sometimes I have not seen him for months together.”

“Oh,” said Guest quietly; and soon after he left.

It was about a week later that, on going to the inn one evening, Guest was caught again by the porter’s wife.

“Which I won’t keep you a minute, sir, but would you mind answering me one question?”

“If I can,” said Guest, knocking the ashes from his cigar.

“Then is Mr Stratton coming back soon to the inn, sir?”

“I can’t tell you, Mrs Brade.”

“Then can you tell me where Mr Brettison is, sir?”

“That’s two questions, Mrs Brade.”

“Well, yes, sir, it is; but if you only knew the agony I suffer from the thought of those two sets of chambers being allowed to go to rack and ruin, you’d pity me.”

“Well, it does seem tiresome to any lady of orderly mind, of course.”

“It’s ’orrid, sir.  There’s the dust, and the soot falling down the chimbleys without a bit of fire, and the mice, and, for aught I know, the rats.  Really, sir, there are times when I almost wish the chambers was empty, that I do.”

“Well, have patience, Mrs Brade,” said Guest.  “I think I can see an improvement in Mr Stratton, and I hope soon to get him to come back ­ but I don’t know when it’s likely to be,” he muttered as he crossed the square on the chance of seeing a light in his friend’s window, and this time it was there.

He hurried up to find, after knocking several times, that Stratton had evidently only just come, for he was standing there in overcoat and hat, and he would have stepped out at once had not Guest shown so decided an intention of coming in.

“Do you want me?” said Stratton uneasily; and Guest’s heart sank, for his friend looked more careworn than ever.

“Yes,” he said; “I wanted to talk to you about something particular.”

“Yes ­what?” said Stratton sharply.

“Surely you were not coming away, and about to leave that lamp burning?”

“Was I going to leave the lamp burning?” said Stratton absently.  “I suppose I forgot.”

“Well, don’t do that, then.  This house is so full of wood that if it caught fire it would burn like tinder.”

“You think so?” said Stratton with a curious look in his eyes.

“That I do.  In half an hour there wouldn’t be one of your preparations left.  They, your furniture, the bric-a-brac, and your specimens in spirits, would be consumed and in ashes in no time.”

The strange look in Stratton’s eyes intensified, but Guest did not notice it, nor yet that his companion was letting his eyes wander around the old carved panelling with its oaken architraves and heavy plinths and mouldings.

For Guest was intent upon his own thoughts.

“Look here,” he said suddenly; “about Brettison?”

Stratton turned upon him uneasily.

“This is a rum world, Mal, old fellow.”

“What do you mean?” said Stratton.

“Only this:  Brettison’s rich ­a man worth a good deal, and men of that stamp generally have people who take a good deal of notice of them.”

“Naturally,” said Stratton, with a curious laugh.

“Suppose, then, he has come to grief.  I mean, suppose some gang have got hold of him on his way back here and made an end of him.”

“Absurd!” said Stratton, with a curious laugh.  “Nonsense!”

“Such things have been done.  When did he go out?”

“I do not know.”

“Don’t be huffy with your devoted servant, Mal.  Tell me this ­has he been back since ­er ­that day?”

“Perhaps.  I don’t know.  He is a man who goes in and out as silently as a cat.”

“But he used to come in and see you often?”

Stratton coughed to clear a huskiness from his throat.

“Yes; but he has not been to see me lately,” he said hurriedly.  “I am going home now.”

“This is home, man.”

Stratton suppressed a shudder, and Guest pitied him as he thought of two attempts made upon his life.

“It is too gloomy ­too depressing for me.”

“Give up the chambers, then, and take some more pleasant ones.”

“No, no; I should not care about the trouble of moving.  I am used to them, too.”

He laid his hand upon the lamp, and Guest was obliged to take the hint and rise to go.

“That’s right,” he said; “put the lamp out safe.  This is an ugly old place, but it would be horrible if the place were burned down.”

“Yes ­horrible ­horrible!” said Stratton, with a shudder.

“Much more horrible if anyone slept in the place, eh?”

“If anybody slept in the place?” said Stratton with a ghastly look.

“Yes ­lodgers.  There is somebody upstairs on the second floor, isn’t there?”

“Yes,” said Stratton huskily, “but only in the day time.”  He withdrew his hand from the lamp, and looked round, to Guest’s great delight; for he was taking an evident interest in the topic his friend had started, and his eyes roved from object to object in the room.

“Work of a good many years’ saving and collecting here, old chap, eh?”

“Yes; of many, many years,” said Stratton thoughtfully.

“And all your bits of antique furniture, too.  Mustn’t have a fire here, old fellow.  I say,” he continued, tapping a glass jar in which a kind of lizard was suspended in spirits, “I suppose if this grew hot the stopper would be blown out, and the spirit would blaze all over the floor in a moment?”

Stratton’s eyes contracted strangely as he nodded and watched his friend.

“Yes,” he said, “that is so.”

“And you’ve got dozens of similar bottles about.  Let’s see, you’ve got something in your bathroom too.”

Stratton made no reply, but stood gazing away from his friend.

“Wits wandering again,” thought Guest.  “Never mind, I did get him a little more like himself.”  Then aloud: 

“I say, Mal.”

Stratton turned upon him sharply.

“Wouldn’t do to have a fire; why, you’d burn up poor old Brettison too.”

Stratton’s face looked as if it had been carved in stone.

“Such a collection, too, as he has spent years of his life in getting together.”

“Come away, now,” said Stratton hoarsely, as he raised his hand once more to turn out the lamp.

“Yes; all right.  No; stop!” cried Guest excitedly.  Stratton smiled, and his hand remained as if fixed in the air.

“I have it,” continued Guest.

Stratton did not speak, but remained there with his fingers close to the button of the lamp, as if fixed in that position by his friend’s words.

“Look here, old fellow,” cried Guest excitedly.  “History does repeat itself.”

“What ­what do you mean?”

“How long is it since poor old Brettison had that terrible illness?”

“I don’t know ­years; come away.”

“Wait a moment.  Well, he was lying helpless, dying, and you suspected something was wrong, broke open the old man’s door, found him insensible, and nursed him back to life.”

Stratton did not stir, but stood bent over the table, listening to his friend’s words.

“Suppose he has come back unknown to you ­as he often did ­and gone in there.  He is old.  He may be lying there now.  Mal, old chap, this place sends quite a chill through me.  How do we know but what just on the other side yonder somebody may be lying dead?” and he pointed toward the closet door.

“Ah!”

No literary sign can give the exact sound of the hoarse sigh which escaped from Stratton as his friend said those last words excitedly:  and then, as if spurred by his imagination: 

“It’s as likely as can be.  Mal, old fellow, as I said before, history does repeat itself.  He has been missing a long time.  Mrs Brade is very uneasy.  You have been a great deal away.  I tell you what it is ­ it’s an act of duty.  I’ll fetch up the police, and we’ll break in and see.”

As the words left Guest’s lips he started, for there was a sudden flash; then, for a moment, his eyes were dazzled; the next he was in profound darkness.

Stratton’s fingers, unseen by his friend, had closed upon and turned the button of the lamp.