Read CHAPTER THE FIRST - INTRODUCES OSWALD DE GEX of The Stretton Street Affair , free online book, by William Le Queux, on

I had promised to call upon Charles Latimer, my bachelor uncle, a retired naval captain, a somewhat crusty old fellow who lived in Orchard Street, which runs between Oxford Street and Portman Square.  I usually went there twice a week.  With that intent I took a motor ’bus from Hammersmith Broadway as far as Hyde Park Corner.

As I stepped off the ’bus rain began to fall, so turning up the collar of my coat I hurried up Park Lane, at that hour half deserted.

When half-way up to Oxford Street I turned into one of the small, highly aristocratic streets leading into Park Street as a short cut to Orchard Street.  The houses were all of them fine town mansions of the aristocracy, most of them with deep pórticos and deeper areas.

Stretton Street was essentially one inhabited by the highest in London society.  I had passed through it many times ­as a Londoner does in making short cuts ­without even noticing the name.  The Londoner’s geography is usually only by the landmarks of street corners and “tube” stations.

As I hurried along through the rain, I suddenly heard a man’s voice behind me say: 

“Excuse me, sir!  But may I speak to you for just one second?”

I turned, and as I halted, a bare-headed young man-servant in livery, with waistcoat of striped black-and-yellow, faced me.

“I’m sorry, sir,” he exclaimed breathlessly, “but will you wait just a moment?”

“What do you want?” I asked, surprised at being thus accosted.

“Would you oblige my master, sir?” inquired the young man eagerly.  “He is in some very great trouble.  Only a moment, sir.  Just come in and see him.  Do.  Poor fellow! he’s in great trouble.  Do come in and see him, sir,” he begged.

Amazed at this appeal, and my curiosity aroused, I consented, and followed the man back to a great stone-built mansion about fifty yards away.  The front door in its deep portico stood open, just as the servant had left it when, apparently, he had dashed out into the street to accost the first passer-by.

“I’m sure my master will be most grateful to you, sir,” the young footman said as I crossed the threshold.

We passed through a large square hall and up a great flight of softly-carpeted stairs to the library on the first floor ­a big, sombre room, lined with books from floor to ceiling ­evidently the den of a studious man.

In the grate there burned a bright log fire, and on either side stood two deep leather arm-chairs.  It was a room possessing the acme of cosiness and comfort.  Over the fireplace was set a large circular painting of the Madonna and Child ­evidently the work of some Italian master of the seventeenth century ­while here and there stood several exquisite bronzes.

In the window on the left was set a great carved Renaissance writing-table, and upon it burned an electric lamp with an artistic shade of emerald glass.

A few moments later a man in evening-dress entered hurriedly ­almost breathlessly.  I judged him to be about forty-five, dark-haired and decidedly handsome, but his complexion was a trifle sallow, and his features had a decidedly Oriental cast.

He greeted me profusely in a quiet, highly refined voice.  Though his appearance was foreign, yet he was certainly English.

“I’m really awfully sorry to trouble you, sir,” he said in a tone of profuse apology, “but the fact is that I find myself in a state of considerable perplexity.  It is extremely good of you to consent to accompany Horton back here.  I only hope that I have not interfered with any appointment you have to keep.”

“Not at all,” I replied, wondering who my host might be, for the whole affair was so sudden and unexpected that I was bewildered.

“Do sit down, and have a cigar,” said my unknown host cheerily, and he took up a large silver box from a side table whereon was set a decanter of whisky, a syphon of soda water and four glasses upon a beautiful old tray of Georgian silver.

I selected a Corona, and sinking into the inviting chair, lit it, while he also took a cigar, and having clipped off the end, lit up as well.

We chatted affably, for my host was certainly geniality itself.

“This is quite an unexpected visit!” I remarked laughing, wondering still why I had been called in.

“Yes,” he said.  “I should not have had the pleasure of your acquaintance had it not been for the great trouble I have to-night,” and he drew a deep sigh, while across his dark face passed an expression of pain and regret.  “Some men are happy, others are ­are, well, unfortunately unhappy in their domestic life.  I, alas! am one of the latter,” he added.

“That is very regrettable,” I said sympathetically.

“My wife,” he said hoarsely after a pause, “my wife took out my little boy this evening and deliberately left him in Westbourne Grove ­just in order to spite me!  Then she rang me up from some call-office and told me what she had done.  Put yourself in my place,” he said.  “Would you not be indignant?  Would you not be filled with hatred ­and ­”

“I certainly should,” was my reply.  “I’m a bachelor, and sometimes when I see so many unhappy marriages I fear to take the matrimonial plunge myself.”

“Ah!  Take my advice and remain single as long as ever you can, my dear sir.  I ­I haven’t the pleasure of your name.”

“Garfield ­Hugh Garfield,” I said.

“Mine is De Gex ­Oswald De Gex,” he said.  “You may perhaps have heard of me.”

Heard of Oswald De Gex!  Of course I had!  He was reputed to be one of the wealthiest of men, but he lived mostly in Paris or at his magnificent villa outside Florence.  It was common knowledge that he had, during the war, invested a level million sterling in the War Loan, while he was constantly giving great donations to various charities.  Somewhat eccentric, he preferred living abroad to spending his time in England, because, it was said, of some personal quarrel with another Member of the House of Commons which had arisen over a debate soon after he had been elected.

I recollected, too, that his wife ­whose handsome pictured face so often appeared in the newspapers ­was the daughter of a sporting baronet, yet I had never heard any whisper of such matrimonial troubles as he had just revealed to me.

He seemed a most easy-going man, whose clean-shaven face under the softly shaded electric light did not now appear so sallow and foreign as at first.  His eyes were dark and rather deeply set, while his mouth was narrow and refined, with a dimple in the centre of his chin.  His cast of features was certainly foreign, and handsome withal ­a face full of strength and character.  When he spoke he slightly aspirated his c’s, and now and then he gesticulated when enthusiastic, due, of course, to his long residence abroad.

Often I had read in the newspapers of the splendid mediaeval castle which he had bought from the Earl of Weymount, a castle perched high upon the granite rocks facing the Channel, between the Lizard and St. Ruan.  He had spent a fortune in restoring it, yet he very seldom visited it.  The historic place, with its wind-swept surroundings, was given over to his agent at Truro and to a caretaker.

As a matter of fact, I had once seen it while on a summer tour in Cornwall five years before, a great square keep with four towers, storm-worn and forbidding ­one of the most perfect specimens of the mediaeval castles in England.  I had been told by the man who drove the hired car about its history, how in the early fourteenth century it had been the home of William Auberville, a favourite of Edward II.  From the Aubervilles the old fortress had passed a century later into the Weymount family, and had been their ancestral home for centuries.

I chanced to mention that I had seen the castle, whereupon the millionaire smiled, and remarked: 

“I fear that I’ve not been there lately.  I am so very seldom in England nowadays.  Besides, the old place is so cold and gloomy.  It is draughty even on a summer’s day.  My wife liked it when we were married ­liked it until somebody told her of a family legend, how Hugh de Weymount, in the fifteenth century, walled up his wife in the north tower and left her to starve to death.  Ever since she heard that story she has hated the old place.  But,” he added with a hard laugh, “it is most probably not true, and if the gallant knight actually did such a thing, perhaps, after all, the lady deserved it!”

My friend certainly seemed soured against the opposite sex.  And surely he had just cause to be if his wife, in order to spite him, had deliberately lost the heir, little Oswald De Gex, in Westbourne Grove.

It was a strange thing that the heir of one of the wealthiest men in Britain should have been abandoned in Bayswater.  As a bachelor, I wondered as to the state of mind of the mother ­a mother who could take out her child on a winter’s night, without hat or coat, and deliberately cast him adrift just to annoy her husband.

But the gentler sex in these days of drugs and dancing are, it must be admitted, strangely abnormal.  Women with crazes abound everywhere.  That women are emancipated from the almost Oriental thraldom in which they lived in the days of Victoria the Good is a bright sign of our times ­the times of discovery, refinement, and mutual happiness of all classes.  But certain circles ­those circles wherein women take drugs to enable them to dance the better, circles where opium is smoked, and where morals do not count, where religion is scoffed at and relegated to the limbo of an out-of-date fiction, and where only the possessor of money counts, there is a strange and mysterious phase of Society indescribable by the pen.  Only those who know of them by personal experience ­the experience of “fast living” ­can understand it.  And even the man-about-town stands aghast at the ultra-modern crazes.

As we sat chatting in that quiet comfortable room, I confess that I became rather fascinated by my host.  Perhaps he was a trifle too cynical at times, but his matrimonial trouble no doubt accounted for it.

Suddenly he rose and stretched himself rather wearily, I thought.  The thin, delicate hand which held his cigar was long and tapering, and upon his finger was an antique Florentine ring in the form of a small emerald moth.  I particularly noticed it as of very unusual pattern.  I recollected seeing one of the same design in the Louvre Museum in Paris several years before.

“Ah!” he sighed.  “I shall very soon leave London again ­thank goodness!  Next week I return to Fiesole for the winter.  I am no great lover of London ­are you, Mr. ­Mr. Garfield?”

“My business as an electrical engineer keeps me in London,” was my reply.  “Besides, I have recently sustained a very heavy financial loss.  If, however, I were independent I should certainly live in the country.  London has, to me, become unbearable since the war.”

“Ah!  I quite agree,” replied my host.  “All our fine British traditions seem to have gone by the board.  That, at least, is my own view.  But there ­perhaps I am getting an old fogey.”

“I don’t think so,” I replied.  “Everyone who knows you, Mr. De Gex, is well aware of your up-to-dateness, and your great generosity.”

“Are they?” he asked, smiling wearily.  “Personally I care very little.  Popularity and prosperity can be manufactured by any shrewd press-agent employed at so much a year.  Without publicity, the professional man or woman would never obtain a hearing.  These are the days when incompetency properly boomed raises the incompetent to greatness ­and even to Cabinet rank.  Neither would the society woman ever obtain a friend without her boom,” he went on.  “Bah!  I’m sick of it all!” he added with a sweep of his thin white hand.  “But it is refreshing to talk with you, a stranger.”

He was certainly frank in his criticisms, and I was not at all surprised when he commenced to question me as to my profession, where I lived, and what were my future plans.

I told him quite openly of my position, and that I lived in Rivermead Mansions with my friend Hambledon; and I also mentioned again the financial blow I had just received.

“Well,” he said lazily, “I’m greatly indebted to you, Mr. Garfield, for deigning to come in and see a much-worried man.  Ah! you do not know how I suffer from my wife’s hatred of me.  My poor little Oswald.  Fancy abandoning him in order that the police might find him.  But happily he is back.  Think of the publicity ­for the papers would have been full of my son being lost.”  Then, after a pause, he added:  “I hope we shall see each other again before I go back to Italy.”

At that moment, the butler, Horton, entered with a card upon a silver salver, whereupon I rose to leave.

“Oh! don’t go yet!” my host urged quickly, as he glanced at the card.

“Is he waiting?” asked Mr. De Gex, turning to his servant.

“Yes, sir.”

“Oh, well.  Yes, I’ll see him,” he said.  And then, excusing himself, he rose and left, followed by the man.

Why, I wondered, had I been invited there?  It seemed curious that this exceedingly rich man was bursting to confide his domestic troubles to a perfect stranger.

I glanced around the handsome, well-furnished room.

Upon the writing-table lay a number of letters, and upon the red blotting-pad was a big wad of Treasury notes, under an elastic band, cast aside heedlessly, as rich men often do.

As I sat there awaiting my host’s return, I recollected how, in the previous year, I had seen in the pictorial press photographs of the handsome Mrs. De Gex attired in jersey and breeches, with knitted cap and big woollen scarf, lying upon her stomach on a sleigh on the Cresta run.  In another photograph which I recollected she was watching some ski-ing, and still another, when she was walking in the park with a well-known Cabinet Minister and his wife.  But her husband never appeared in print.  One of his well-known idiosyncrasies was that he would never allow himself to be photographed.

At the end of the room I noticed, for the first time, a pair of heavy oaken folding-doors communicating with the adjoining apartment, and as I sat there I fancied I heard a woman’s shrill but refined voice ­the voice of a well-bred young woman, followed by a peal of light, almost hysterical, laughter, in which a man joined.

My adventure was certainly a strange one.  I had started out to visit my prosaic old uncle ­as I so often did ­and I had anticipated a very boring time.  But here I was, by a most curious circumstance, upon friendly terms with one of the richest men in England.

Further, he seemed to have taken an unusual fancy to me.  Probably because I had been sympathetic regarding the rescue of little Oswald De Gex.  But why he should have confided all this to me I failed to realize.

As I sat there by the cheerful fire I heard the voices again raised in the adjoining room ­the voices of a man and a woman.

Suddenly a sweet perfume greeted my nostrils.  At first it seemed like that of an old-fashioned pot-pourri of lavender, verbena and basalt, such as our grandmothers decocted in their punch-bowls from dried rose-leaves to give their rooms a sweet odour.  The scent reminded me of my mother’s drawing-room of long ago.

Gradually it became more and more pungent.  It seemed as though some pastille were burning somewhere, for soon it became almost sickening, an odour utterly overbearing.

At the same time I felt a curious sensation creeping over me.  Why I could not tell.

I was both agitated and annoyed.  I had only half finished my drink, and it was certainly not alcohol that was affecting me.  Rather it seemed to be that curious old-world perfume which each moment grew more pungent.

I struggled against it.  What would my newly-found friend think if he returned to find me overcome?

I gained my feet with difficulty and managed to walk across the carpet, holding my breath.

Certainly my night’s adventure was, to say the least, a curious one.

Yet in our post-war days in London the man who ventures about town after dark can easily meet with as strange occurrences and narrow escapes as ever were described by the pioneers of Central Africa.  The explorer Stanley himself declared that the African jungle was safer than the crossing of the Strand.

I suppose I must have remained in the chair into which I again sank for a further ten minutes.  My head swam.  My mental balance seemed to have become strangely upset by that highly pungent odour of lavender and verbena.  I could even taste it upon my tongue, and somehow it seemed to paralyse all my senses save two, those of sight and reason.

I had difficulty in moving my mouth, my fingers, and my shoulders, but my sense of smell seemed to have become extremely acute.  Yet my muscles seemed rigid, although my brain remained perfectly clear and unimpaired.

It was that scent of verbena ­now terrible and detestable ­a million times more potent than any bath soap ­which filled my nostrils so that it seemed to choke me.  I longed for fresh air.

By dint of persistent effort I rose, dragged myself across the room, drew aside the heavy silken curtain, and opening the window leaned out into the cold air, gasping for breath.

Where was Mr. De Gex?

For about five minutes I remained there, yet even the night air gave me little relief.  My throat had become contracted until I seemed to be choking.

By the exercise of greater effort I staggered back, aghast at the sudden and unaccountable attack, and pressed the electric bell beside the fireplace to summon my host or the estimable Horton.  Then I sank back into the arm-chair, my limbs paralysed.

How long I remained there I cannot tell for that pungent odour had, at last, dulled my brain.  I had heard of cocaine, of opium, and of other drugs, and it occurred to me that I might be under the influence of one or the other of them.  Yet the idea was absurd.  I was Mr. De Gex’s guest, and I could only suppose that my sudden seizure was due to natural causes ­to some complication of a mental nature which I had never suspected.  The human brain is a very complex composition, and its strange vagaries are only known to alienists.

I seemed stifled, and I sat clutching the arms of the big leather chair when my host at last entered, smiling serenely and full of apologies.

“I’m awfully sorry to have left you, Mr. Garfield, but my agent called to do some very urgent business.  Pray excuse me, won’t you?”

“I ­I’m awfully sorry!” I exclaimed.  “But I ­I don’t feel very well.  I must apologize, Mr. De Gex, but would you ask your man to order me a taxi?  I ­well, I’ve come over strangely queer since you’ve been out.”

“Bah! my dear fellow,” he laughed cheerily.  “You’ll surely be all right in a few minutes.  Stay here and rest.  I’m sorry you don’t feel well.  You’ll be better soon.  I’ll order my car to take you home in half an hour.”

Then he crossed to the telephone, rang up a number, and ordered his car to be at the house in half an hour.

Then he rang for Horton, who brought me a liqueur glass of old brandy, which at my host’s suggestion I swallowed.

Mr. De Gex, standing upon the thick Turkey hearthrug with his cigar between his lips, watched me closely.  Apparently he was considerably perturbed at my sudden illness, for he expressed regret, hoping that the brandy would revive me.

It, however, had the opposite effect.  The strong perfume like pot-pourri had confused my senses, but the brandy dulled them still further.  I felt inert and unable to move a muscle, or even to exercise my will power.  Yet my sense of sight was quite unimpaired.

I recollect distinctly how the dark keen-faced aristocrat-looking man stood before me alert and eager, as he gazed intently into my face as though watching the progress of my seizure which had so completely paralysed me.

Of a sudden a loud shriek sounded from the adjoining room ­a woman’s wild shriek of terror.

My host’s thin lips tightened.

The scream was repeated, and continued.

“Excuse me,” he exclaimed as he left the room hastily.

I sat with ears alert.  It was surely most strange that the well-known millionaire, whose name was on everyone’s lips, had confided in me as he had done.  Why had he done so?

The screams of terror continued for about half a minute.  Then they seemed stifled down to heavy sobbing.  They seemed to be hysterical sobs, as of someone who had suffered from some great shock.

I was full of wonderment.  It was unusual, I thought, that such noises should be heard in a sedate West End mansion.

There was a long-drawn-out sob, and then silence.  A dead silence!

A few moments later Mr. De Gex came in looking very flushed and excited.

“My troubles are ever on the increase,” he exclaimed breathlessly.  “Come, Mr. Garfield.  Come with me.”

He assisted me to my feet and led me out into the corridor and into the adjoining room.

To my surprise it was a great handsomely furnished bedroom with heavy hangings of yellow silk before the windows, and a great dressing-table with a huge mirror with side wings.  Along one side were wardrobes built into the wall, the doors being of satinwood beautifully inlaid.

In the centre stood a handsome bed, and upon it lay a young and beautiful girl wearing a dark blue serge walking dress of the latest mode.  Her hat was off, and across her dark hair was a band of black velvet.  The light, shining upon her white face ­a countenance which has ever since been photographed upon my memory ­left the remainder of the room in semi-darkness.

“My poor niece!” Mr. De Gex said breathlessly.  “She ­she has been subject to fits of hysteria.  The doctor has warned her of her heart.  You heard her cries.  I ­I believe she’s dead!”

We both moved to the bed, my host still supporting me.  I bent cautiously and listened, but I could hear no sound of breathing.  Her heart has ceased to beat!

He took a hand mirror from the dressing-table and held it over her mouth.  When he withdrew it it remained unclouded.

“She’s dead ­dead!” he exclaimed.  “And ­well, I am in despair.  First, my wife defies me ­and now poor Gabrielle is dead!  How would you feel?”

“I really don’t know,” I whispered.

“Come back with me into the library,” he urged.  “We can’t speak here.  I ­well ­I want to be perfectly frank with you.”

And he conducted me back to the room where we had been seated together.

I had resumed my seat much puzzled and excited by the tragedy that had occurred ­the sudden death of my host’s niece.

“Now, look here,” exclaimed Mr. De Gex, standing upon the hearthrug, his sallow face pale and drawn.  “Your presence here is most opportune.  You must render me assistance in this unfortunate affair, Mr. Garfield.  I feel that I can trust you, and I ­well, I hope you can trust me in return.  Will you consent to help me?”

“In what way?” I asked.

“I’m in a hole ­a desperate hole,” he said very anxiously.  “Poor Gabrielle has died, but if it gets out that her death is sudden, then there must be a coroner’s inquiry with all its publicity ­photographs in the picture-papers, and, perhaps, all sorts of mud cast at me.  I want to avoid all this ­and you alone can help me!”

“How?” I inquired, much perturbed by the tragic occurrence.

“By giving a death certificate.”

“But I’m not a doctor!”

“You can pass as one,” he said, looking very straight at me.  “Besides, it is so easy for you to write out a certificate and sign it, with a change of your Christian name.  There is a Gordon Garfield in the ‘Medical List.’  Won’t you do it for me, and help me out of a very great difficulty?  Do!  I implore you,” he urged.

“But ­I ­I ­”

“Please do not hesitate.  You have only to give the certificate.  Here is pen and paper.  And here is a blank form.  My niece died of heart disease, for which you have attended her several times during the past six months.”

“I certainly have not!”

“No,” he replied, grinning.  “I am aware of that.  But surely five thousand pounds is easily earned by writing out a certificate.  I’ll write it ­you only just copy it,” and he bent and scribbled some words upon a slip of paper.

Five thousand pounds!  It was a tempting offer in face of the fact that I had just lost practically a similar sum.

“But how do I know that Miss ­”

“Miss Engledue,” he said.

“Well, how do I know that Miss Engledue has not ­well, has not met with foul play?” I asked.

“You don’t, my dear sir.  That I admit.  Yet you surely do not suspect me of murdering my niece ­the girl I have brought up as my own daughter,” and he laughed grimly.  “Five thousand pounds is a decent sum,” he added.  “And in this case you can very easily earn it.”

“By posing as a medical man,” I remarked.  “A very serious offence!”

Again my host smiled, and shrugged his shoulders.

“Well,” he said, after a pause.  “Here is the certificate for you to copy.  Reject my offer if you like; but I think you must agree that it is a most generous one.  To me, money is but little object.  My only concern is the annoying publicity which a coroner’s inquiry must bring.”

I confess that I was wavering.  The shrewd, clever man at once realized the position, and again he conducted me to the chamber where the young girl was lying cold and still.

I shall ever recollect that beautiful face, white and cold like chiselled marble it seemed, for rigor mortis was apparently already setting in.

Back again in the library Oswald De Gex took from his safe a bundle of hundred-pound Bank of England notes, and counted them out ­fifty of them.

He held them in his hand with a sheet of blank notepaper bearing an address in Queen Anne Street, Cavendish Square, and a blank form.  Thus he tempted me ­and ­and at last I fell!

When I had written and signed the certificate, he handed me the bundle of notes.

I now remember that, at that moment, he took some pastilles from his pocket and placed one in his mouth.  I thought perhaps they were throat lozenges.  Of a sudden, however, the atmosphere seemed to be overpoweringly oppressive with the odour of heliotrope.  It seemed a house of subtle perfumes!

The effect upon me was that of delirious intoxication.  I could hear nothing and I could think of nothing.

My senses were entirely confused, and I became utterly dazed.

What did it all mean?

I only know that I placed the wad of bank notes in the inner pocket of my waistcoat, and that I was talking to the millionaire when, of a sudden, my brain felt as though it had suddenly become frozen.

The scent of verbena became nauseating ­even intoxicating.  But upon Oswald De Gex, who was still munching his pastille, the odour apparently had no effect.

All I recollect further is that I sank suddenly into a big arm-chair, while my host’s face grinned demoniacally in complete satisfaction.  I slowly lapsed into blank unconsciousness.

Little did I at the time dream with what amazing cleverness the trap into which I had fallen had been baited.

But what happened to me further I will endeavour to describe to you.