Read CHAPTER THE THIRD - WHO WAS GABRIELLE ENGLEDUE? of The Stretton Street Affair , free online book, by William Le Queux, on ReadCentral.com.

What, I wondered, had happened during my month of unconsciousness?  I wandered into a cafe and sat pondering.  Afterwards I walked about the town aimlessly and rather hungry.  My own clothes had been returned to me, but before I assumed them I saw that every mark of identity had been purposely removed.  Even the trousers buttons ­which had borne the name of my tailor, a reputable firm in New Bond Street ­had been substituted.

But by whom?

On the following afternoon I arrived in London and drove straight to Rivermead Mansions.  I entered with my latchkey, and on glancing around saw signs that my friend Hambledon was still living there.  The fire in the sitting-room had been lit by the “Kaiserin” ready for his home-coming, and everything seemed bright and cosy.

It was then about four o’clock, and Hambledon would certainly not return till six.  Therefore after a good wash, a shave, and a clean collar, I set forth for Stretton Street to interview Oswald De Gex.

The house in the dusk was just as I recollected it on that eventful night when I was so unexpectedly called inside.

I rang the bell three times, until at last the door opened and a tall, stalwart man appeared.

I inquired for Mr. De Gex, whereupon he replied: 

“Mr. De Gex is in Italy, sir.”

“Oh!  When did he leave town?”

“About a month ago, sir,” the man answered.

“You are, I suppose, the caretaker?” I asked.  “Now, I wonder if you will do me a very great favour.  You may think me a thief or a burglar,” I laughed, “but the fact is I have a great desire to see Mr. De Gex’s house.  I’ve heard so much about its beauties.  I wonder if you would show me the drawing-room and the library?”

The man hesitated, saying: 

“Well, sir, I’ve no orders to show anyone over.  Have you a card?”

I at once produced one from my cigarette-case, and added that I was a personal friend of the millionaire’s.  He read my name and looked again at me.  I assured him that I was not prospecting with a view to burglary.

“I’m only asking you to do me a favour,” I went on, and I put a couple of Treasury notes into his hand.  “You can inquire about me at my office to-morrow, if you like.  They will tell you, I expect, that I have been away on a month’s leave.”

The little palm-oil no doubt propitiated him, for he invited me in.  Then he switched on the light in the hall, and as he did so, said: 

“I don’t know what trouble I’d get into with the master.  He’s a very eccentric man ­as you, of course, know.”

I laughed as we ascended the soft carpeted stairs.  I recollected the pattern.

A few moments later we were in the library.  Yes.  It was just as I remembered it.  Nothing had been altered.  There was the writing-table whereon I had copied out the death certificate; the big fireplace, now empty, and the deep chair in which I had sat.

There was the window, too ­the window which I had opened in order to gasp for air after that suffocating odour of pot-pourri.

As I stood there ­the watchful caretaker with his eye upon me, wondering no doubt ­I again took in every detail.  My return held me more than ever puzzled.

“What is the room beyond?” I asked.

“Oh!  That’s the mistress’s bedroom,” he replied.  “A curious fancy to have her room next to the library.  But it’s one of the best rooms in the house.  The master hates London.  He lives all the time in Italy, and is only over here just for a week or two in spring, and a week or so before Christmas.”

“I’d like to see that room,” I said, affecting ignorance.

He took me in.

In a second I saw that nothing had been changed since I had stood there at the death-bed of Gabrielle Engledue a little over a month ago.

There was the handsome bed-chamber with its inlaid cupboards, its great dressing-table, and its fine bed ­the bed upon which the beautiful young woman had been lying dead.  But now the bed had been re-made and its quilted coverlet of pale pink silk was undisturbed.

The corpse had been removed and buried upon my certificate!

I sniffed to see whether I could detect that curious odour of pot-pourri, but in vain.  The air seemed fresh and not stifling as it had been on that well-remembered night.

Upon a side table stood a large photograph in a silver frame.  I bent to look at it, whereupon the caretaker said: 

“That’s a good photograph of Mr. De Gex, isn’t it, sir?”

“Excellent,” I said, for it was a really fine portrait.  “Does your mistress come over from Italy often?”

“Oh, yes, and she brings the little boy over with her.  She is frequently here, while her husband stays at Fiesole.  I send on his correspondence every day to Mr. Henderson, his secretary.”

I stood gazing around the room.  Upon that bed the beautiful girl lay dead, and I had certified the cause of her death!  Yet I had, later on, been the victim of some devil’s trick of which I knew nothing.

I was there to investigate.  Yet though I questioned the caretaker very closely, I confess that I met with little success.  He was an old and trusted servant of the family.  Hence to many of my inquiries he remained dumb.

“When do you expect your master back?” I asked at last.

“Oh, not for another six months or so.”

“Where is Mrs. De Gex?”

“Ah!  That I can’t quite make out,” he replied.  “It’s a bit of a mystery.  One night she went away quite unexpectedly and, as a matter of fact, nobody knows where she is.  Her husband doesn’t know ­or pretends he doesn’t,” he said with a knowing grin.

“Then she has disappeared!” I exclaimed.

“That’s just it.  And they were always such a devoted pair.  Little Oswald was the only thing she lived for.”

“Lived!” I echoed.  “Then do you think she’s dead?” I asked quickly.

“Dead!  Why should we think so?  If she were, we should surely have seen it in the papers?”

“But your master has very funny fits sometimes,” I said.  “I’ve heard about his eccentric ways.”

“Of course he has.  He’s overburdened with money ­that’s what it is.  Mr. Henderson looks after all his affairs.  Mr. De Gex has no regard for money.  Mr. Henderson attends to everything.  Phew!  I wish I were a millionaire!  I find it hard enough nowadays to pay the butcher and baker and make both ends meet.”

“And so do I,” I said, laughing.  “But, tell me, where is the young lady who used to live here ­Mr. De Gex’s niece?”

“His niece!  I don’t think he has a niece.”

“Miss Gabrielle Engledue.”

“Who’s she?  I’ve never heard of her,” was the man’s reply.

I described her, but he shook his head.

“To my knowledge Mr. De Gex hasn’t got a niece,” he said.

“Were you here five weeks ago?” I inquired.

“Five weeks ago?  No.  I and my wife went away down to Swanage to see her sister.  The master gave us a fortnight’s holiday.  Why?”

“Oh ­nothing,” I replied.  “I merely inquired as I want to clear up a mystery ­that’s all.”

“What mystery?”

“The mystery of Miss Engledue ­your master’s niece,” I answered.

“But I’ve never heard of any niece,” he said.

“A young lady of about twenty-one with dark hair and eyes, and a beautiful complexion,” I said.

But the old servant’s mind was a blank.

“Of course, sir, many people come to visit Mr. De Gex.  Horton would know them, but I don’t.  When the master is in town the servants are here, and I’m down in Cornwall at the castle.”

“Then you are only here as caretaker when the family is away?”

“That’s it, sir,” he said.  “But what is the mystery about this young lady?  You said you knew Mr. De Gex, and yet you wanted to look over the house.”

“Yes,” I responded with a laugh.  “I have my own object ­to clear up the mystery of Mr. De Gex’s niece.”

“Well, as far as I know, he has no niece!  But you could easily find out, I suppose!”

The man was evidently no fool.

“Of course I don’t know who comes here, or who stays here when the family is in town,” he went on.  “I simply come up and look after the place with my wife.”

“Then you were away in Swanage during the first week of November?” I asked very seriously.

“Yes, we went down on the last day of October, and we were back here in the middle of November.  My wife’s sister was very ill, and her husband didn’t expect her to live.  So I remember the dates only too well.”

“Then the family were in town on the date I mention.”

He considered a moment.

“Oh!  Of course they were.  They must have been.”

I glanced again around the room, full of amazement and wonder.

The man’s failure to give me any details regarding the extremely attractive girl who had died upon his mistress’s bed held me gripped in uncertainty.  The mystery was even more puzzling now that I had started to investigate.

As I stood in that room a thousand strange reflections flashed across my mind.

Why had I, a mere passer-by, been called in so suddenly to be taken into the intimacy of the millionaire’s household?  Was it by mere accident that I had been invited in, or was it by careful design?  I had lost five thousand pounds by foolish speculation, and yet I had regained it by being party to a criminal offence.

Again, who was the pretty, dark-haired girl who had first uttered those hysterical screams, and then, while fully dressed, had died upon Mrs. De Gex’s bed?  Further, if the mysterious dead girl had been niece of the millionaire surely my friend the caretaker would have known her?

I confess that I now became more bewildered than ever.

That a girl named Gabrielle Engledue ­whoever she might have been ­had died, and that I had forged a certificate showing the cause of death were hard, solid facts.  But the mystery of it all was complete.

That I had been the victim of some very carefully prepared and subtle plot was apparent, and it had become my own affair to investigate it and bring to justice those who were responsible for the poor girl’s death.

Time after time I questioned the caretaker regarding the existence of the millionaire’s niece, Miss Engledue, but it was plain to me that he had no knowledge of any such person.

“Was there not a death in this house ­about five weeks ago?” I asked.

“Death?” he echoed.  “Why, no, sir.  You must be dreaming.  If there had been a death while I was away, either my wife or I would certainly have heard about it.”  And he looked suspiciously at me as though he believed I had taken leave of my senses.

An hour later I was back at Rivermead Mansions, where Harry, for whom I had left a note, was awaiting me.

As we sat together before a cheerful fire I told him of my lapse into unconsciousness, of my loss of memory, but I did not explain all that had happened, for, as a matter of fact, I had no desire that anyone should know of my guilt in posing as a medical man and thus becoming implicated in the mysterious death of Gabrielle Engledue.

My friend sat and heard me, smoking his pipe in silence.

“Extraordinary!” he said.  “You ought to go to the police, Garfield.  You were doped ­without a doubt.  But what was the motive?  I’ve been very worried about you.  When you had been missing a week they sent over from your office, and I then went to the police at Hammersmith.  They made every inquiry and circulated your description.  But they could discover no trace of you.  I’ll have to report that you’ve been found.”

“Yes, do so to-morrow morning,” I urged.  “I don’t want the police following me about ­thank you,” and I laughed, rather grimly perhaps.

During the hours that I lay awake that night a thought suddenly crossed my mind ­an idea which next day I promptly put into execution.

I went to Somerset House, and there searched the register of deaths.  At first my efforts were in vain, but at last I discovered what I sought, namely an entry that a young woman named Gabrielle Engledue, single, aged twenty-one, of unknown parentage, had died of heart trouble at N Stretton Street, Park Lane, on the night of November the Seventh, the body having been cremated five days later!

I pursued my inquiries in various quarters that day, and further discovered that the funeral expenses had been defrayed by some person named Moroni.  There had been only two mourners, of whom Moroni had been one.

Still feeling very ill, I was compelled ­after reporting to the office ­to remain at home for the three days which followed.

To the two heads of the firm I fear the story that I told must have appeared somewhat lame, yet they exhibited no disbelief, but on the contrary sympathized with me in my strange and unaccountable affliction.

In a drawer in my bedroom lay the five thousand pounds in bank notes just as Oswald De Gex had given to me.  I, of course, said nothing of them to Harry.  But once or twice I drew them from the old envelope in which I had placed them, and turned them over in wonder.

I decided that they would be safer in the bank, but I hesitated to place them to my credit, so I at last put them away in the bottom of an old writing-case which had belonged to my father, resolving to try to forget their existence.

Though perhaps I did at last manage to forget the bribe, yet I could not put from myself the memory of that beautiful girl, the cause of whose death I had certified.  The perfect countenance haunted me constantly.  In my dreams I often saw her alive and well.  The marvellous face was turned towards me, with merry, dancing dark eyes and a tantalizing smile ­an enticing smile of mystery.

At last I resolved to go and face Oswald De Gex, so with that object I one morning left Charing Cross for Florence.  Travelling by the Rome express from the Gare de Lyon, in Paris, I changed at Pisa, and at last, as the “snail train,” as it is known in Italy on account of its slowness, wound slowly up the beautiful valley of the Arno, the old red roofs and domes of Firenze La Bella came into view.

The winter morning was sunny and brilliant with a clear blue sky, and as I drove through the streets, past the marble-built Duomo with its wonderful campanile, the city was agog, for it happened to be the Festa of the Befana.

I had left my bag at the station, and the taxi took me to Fiesole, the high-up little town outside which lived the “rich Inglese” ­Oswald De Gex.

Long before we arrived the driver pointed out the huge, mediaeval country house situated among the olives and vines, and commanding extensive views over Florence and the Arno, with the blue mountains beyond.  It was a great white house with red tiles and overhanging eaves, palatial indeed in its dimensions, and for centuries the summer residence of the head of the great family of Clementini, from whom the English millionaire had bought it fifteen years before, together with all its pictures, tapestries, and antiques, with the farms adjoining.

On entering the great gates of seventeenth century wrought iron, we found ourselves in a glorious old-world Italian garden, with a wonderful marble fountain, and a good deal of antique statuary, and then driving through the extensive grounds ­past a lake ­I at last rang the bell.

Quickly the great iron-studded door was opened by an elderly Englishman in livery, to whom I gave my card, and asked to see his master.

The man, without hesitation, ushered me through a huge marble-built hall, with a wonderfully frescoed ceiling, into a large room hung with priceless tapestry, and furnished with old gilt chairs covered with faded green silk damask.

I, however, took very little note of my surroundings, so anxious was I to again meet my host of Stretton Street face to face.

Not long did I have to wait before the door opened, and he stood before me.

“Well, Mr. Garfield?” he asked quietly, as he advanced.  “To what do I owe the honour of this visit?”

“Ah!” I cried.  “Then you recollect me, I see!  You know my name?”

“Yes.  It was upon your card,” was his quiet reply.  “But, forgive me, I do not recollect ever having met you before!”

I held my breath.  I tried to speak, but for the moment words failed me, so angry was I at his cleverly pretended ignorance and flat denial.