Read CHAPTER THE FIFTH - THE CITY OF THE LILY of The Stretton Street Affair , free online book, by William Le Queux, on ReadCentral.com.

Full of indignation I remained for a few further moments in that wonderful old room, the room of faded tapestries with the marvellous painted ceiling.

From the window was afforded a glorious view over the gardens where, even in winter, tangled masses of flowers ran riot, while beyond lay the picturesque old red-roofed Tuscan city.  Fiesole is distinctly a village of the wealthy, for the several colossal villas, built in the days of the Medici and even before, are now owned by rich foreigners, many of them English.

Oswald De Gex was one of them.

He had certainly foiled me.  I gritted my teeth and vowed that, come what might, I would compel him to accept the inevitable and reveal to me the truth.  I left the room and found my way alone across the great marble entrance hall, and out to where my taxi awaited me.

I drove back to Florence, where, at the station, I obtained my bag, and then went to the Savoy Hotel in the Piazza Vittorio Emanuele, where I engaged a room.

For a long time I sat at my window gazing down upon the busy square below, one of the centres of Florentine life.  The bell of the Duomo was ringing, the shops were mostly closed, and all Florence was out in the streets, it being the Festa of the Befana, one of the greatest of all the ever-recurring festas of Florence.  Street urchins were parading the thoroughfares with horns and wildly shouting, and there was an exchange of presents on every hand.  At the Befana everyone in Firenze goes mad with good intentions.

The artistic side of the ancient Lily City did not interest me.  I knew it of old.  I had strolled on the Lung Arno, I had long ago with my father on a winter tour looked into the little shops of the coral and pearl merchants on the Ponte Vecchio, and I had taken my aperatif at Doney’s or at Giacosa’s.  I was no stranger in Florence.  My mind was fully occupied by the deep mystery of Gabrielle Engledue’s death, and of the millionaire’s flat denial that we had ever met before.

As I sat gazing across the square my anger and indignation increased.  That De Gex should have dared to affect such entire ignorance surpassed belief.

I tried to form a scheme for further action, but could think of no way by which to force him to acknowledge our previous meeting.  That the beautiful girl had died, and that her body had been cremated upon the false certificate I had given, was beyond all doubt.  But what had been the rich man’s motive?

How very perturbed and anxious he was I had noticed, though he put such a very brave face upon it and appeared so imperturbable.  That he could treat such a serious matter as a joke utterly amazed me.  Nevertheless, I recollected that he had long earned the reputation of being highly eccentric.

That afternoon I spent in wandering about the sunny streets of Florence.  In the evening I dined at Bonciani’s, in the Via Panzani, an unpretentious place at which I well remembered having eaten famously when on my last visit to Florence.  Afterwards, having nothing to do, I went to a variety show at the Alhambra.

Florence was full of French and English visitors, as it always is in winter, so next day I formed a plan, and in pretence of desiring to rent a furnished flat, I called at the office of a well-known English house-agent in the Via Tornabuoni.  My real object was to ascertain some facts concerning Oswald De Gex.

The English clerk became quite enthusiastic when I mentioned him.

“Mr. De Gex is greatly respected here,” he hastened to tell me.  “Since he bought the Villa Clementini outside Fiesole he has lived here for about eight months out of the twelve.  Italians love rich people, and because of his wealth he is most popular.  I see a good deal of him, for we act as agents for his property in Italy.  He has quite a large estate ­mostly wine-growing.”

I mentioned that I had met him in London, and then asked in curiosity: 

“Do you happen to know anything of his niece, a tall, very handsome, dark-haired girl, Miss Engledue?”

For a moment he reflected.  Then he said: 

“I recollect when up at the villa just before he went to London ­that was about three months ago ­seeing a tall, dark-haired young lady.  She came into the library while I was chatting with him.  But I don’t know her name.”

“Was she about twenty-one?” I asked eagerly.

“Yes ­about that age,” was his reply.  “But, of course, I have no idea whether it is the young lady you mean.”

“Had you seen her before?”

“I think so ­once before.  She was in the car in the Cascine with Mrs. De Gex.”

“I wonder how I could discover more about her?” I asked.  “Who would know?”

“Robertson, the butler, or Mr. Henderson, the secretary.”

“The butler would be best,” I said.  “How could I approach him, do you think?  I don’t want to go up to the villa.”

“It would be easy.  He’s often down at the Gambrinus in the afternoon.  I frequently meet him there, and we have a drink and a chat.”

“Would he be there this afternoon?  I do wish you would introduce me,” I urged.  “The matter is an important personal one concerning myself.”

“He might be down this afternoon ­about four o’clock,” replied the alert young Englishman who spoke Italian so well.  “I’ll look in there at four, if you will be about.”

“I certainly will be there,” I said, and then we went along to Giacosa’s, where we each had that cocktail-like speciality known as a “piccolo.”

At five minutes to four that afternoon I entered the big Gambrinus Cafe, which was nearly opposite my hotel on the other side of the piazza, and I took a seat just inside the door.  The orchestra was playing, and the place was well filled with a gay cosmopolitan crowd, many of them winter idlers.

I looked around, wondering if the butler, Robertson, had arrived, and waited in patience for the coming of my friend.

Punctually at four he appeared, and greeting me, cast his eyes over the many small tables, until suddenly he exclaimed: 

“Ah!  There he is!”

We walked to a table some distance away, where a stoutish, grey-haired, clean-shaven Englishman was smoking a cigarette and reading a newspaper, with a glass of vermouth and seltzer before him.

“Hallo, Arthur!” he exclaimed as he raised his eyes to my friend.

“This is a friend of mine, Mr. Garfield,” my companion said, introducing me, and then we sat down and began to chat.  At last I could possess myself in patience no longer, and addressing the millionaire’s butler, told him frankly that I was in search of information concerning the dark-haired young lady who had been guest up at the villa about three months ago.

“Oh!  I suppose you mean Miss Thurston ­the young American lady, don’t you?  But she’s fair-haired!”

“The lady I mean is named Engledue,” I replied.

“Oh!  I don’t know anyone of that name,” was his reply.  “Miss Thurston has stayed with us in London and down in Cornwall, and has been here several times.  I fancy she’s some relation of the mistress’s.  She first came to stay about three years ago, when she left school in Paris.  Then she went home to America, and after six months came back again to us.”

“You haven’t any idea who her parents are ­or where she lived in America?”

“She lived somewhere near Detroit, I believe.  That’s all I know about her.  I believe her people are motor-car makers and extremely wealthy.  At least, somebody said so ­and she’s very free with tips to the under-servants.”

“When did she leave here?”

“When the master went to London.  I was to go too, but I had influenza and had to remain here.”

“And where was Mrs. De Gex?” I inquired.

“She was already at Stretton Street.  She and the little boy went to London early in October, but came back at the end of the month.”

Then I questioned the estimable Robertson concerning the domestic happiness of his master.  I said I had heard rumours in London of matrimonial differences.

“Well, that’s a lie,” he replied quickly.  “There isn’t a pair in the whole of London Society who are more devoted to each other.”

This greatly surprised me after the words that had fallen from the millionaire’s lips.

Again I referred to the mysterious Gabrielle whom I described as minutely as I was able, and apparently my description fitted that of Rose Thurston, save for the colour of her hair.

“You have no idea where she is, I suppose?”

“Not the slightest.  Back in America, perhaps.  She seems to come over every year.”

“I wonder if you could find out her address?” I asked.  “If you could, it would be of very great service to me,” and I handed him my card, expressing a hope that he would refrain from mentioning the matter to his master.

“I’ll try,” he said.  “But I fear I shan’t succeed.  Mr. Henderson, the master’s secretary, would know, of course.”

The point at issue now was whether the young American girl, who had been the millionaire’s guest at the villa, and Gabrielle Engledue were actually one and the same person.  If they were, then I had made one step towards the solution of the enigma.

I confess to utter bewilderment.  My brain was still confused.  Sometimes my skull seemed wrapped in cotton wool.  From a mere unimportant person in the world of electrical engineering I had suddenly become a man upon whom rested a great and criminal responsibility!

In that huge, garish cafe, with its great arc lamps glowing though night had not yet fallen, and with a noisy orchestra playing selections from the latest crazes of music from the revues in London, I sat with a perfectly open mind.  I had been the victim of some extremely clever plot.  But of its motive, of its ramifications, or of its conception, I had no knowledge.  Even my wildest imagination was at fault.

All I knew was that the sallow-faced De Gex ­the millionaire who lived up at the huge Villa Clementini ­had plotted against the handsome girl, and she had died in his wife’s bedroom in Stretton Street.

“Well, Mr. Robertson, how can I find out anything more about Miss Thurston?  Give me your advice.”

“I’ll try and see what I can do,” he said.  “Perhaps I may be able to get a glance at the mistress’s address book.  I have seen it.  I’ll try.”

“Yes ­do!” I said very anxiously.  “It means so very much to me.”

“Why?”

I hesitated.  My intention was to mislead both of my companions.

“Well,” I said with a laugh, “the fact is, I ­I’m very fond of her!”

Both men exchanged glances.  Then they smiled, almost imperceptibly, I know, but it struck them as humorous that I had fallen in love with the daughter of a wealthy American.

“Of course I’m not yet certain whether she is the same lady,” I went on.  “She may not be.  But on calm consideration I believe she is.  The description you give of her is exact.”

“Well,” exclaimed the butler, “I’ll see if I can get at the address book.  She keeps it in a drawer in her boudoir, which is usually locked.  But sometimes she leaves it open.  At any rate, I’ll see what I can do and let you know.”

I thanked him and told him that I was staying at the Savoy.  Then I was compelled to discuss with the estate-agent’s clerk the pretended renting of an apartment out by the Porta Romana, which, he said, was vacant.

On the following day, in order to still sustain the deception, I went and viewed the place, and found it really quite comfortable and very reasonable.  But, of course, I was compelled to express dislike of it.  Whereupon my friend promised to find me another.

Day after day I waited in Florence, hoping against hope that Robertson would be able to furnish me with Miss Thurston’s address.  But though I saw him several times he reported that the drawer containing the address book was still locked.

Mr. De Gex had gone to Rome, and was away for three days.  The British Ambassador was giving some official function and the millionaire had been invited.  Indeed, I read all about it in the Nazione.

On the fourth day he returned, for I saw him in his big yellow car driving along the Via Calzajoli.  An elegant Italian, the young Marchese Cerretani, was seated at his side, and both were laughing together.

Twice I had been up to the Villa Clementini, and wandered around its high white walls which hid the beautiful gardens from the public gaze.  Surely there was no fairer spot in all sunny Italy than that chosen by the rich man as his abode.  To the hundreds of visitors of all nations, who came up by train to Fiesole from Florence to lunch or dine at the various pleasant little restaurants, the great imposing place was pointed out as the residence of the rich “Inglese” ­the man who possessed more money than any of the most wealthy in the kingdom of Italy.

When I thought of that fateful night in Stretton Street, I waxed furious.  Was it possible, that, by the possession of great riches, a man could commit crime with impunity?  Perhaps what goaded me to desperation more than anything was the foul trick that had been played upon me ­the administration of that drug which had caused me to lose all sense of my own being.

That subtle odour of pot-pourri had gripped me until I felt faint and inert beneath its perfume, and it often returned to me ­but in fancy, of course.

In the winter sunshine I wandered about the busy, old-world streets of Florence, idling in the cafes, gazing into the many shop-windows of the dealers in faked pictures and faked antiques, while often my wandering footsteps led me into one or other of the “sights” of the city, all of which I had visited before ­the National Museum at the Bargello, the Laurenziana Library, with its rows of priceless chained manuscripts, the Chiostro dello Scalzo, where Andrea del Sarto’s wonderful frescoes adorn the walls, or into the Palazzo Vecchio, or the galleries of the Pitti, or the Uffizi.  I was merely killing time in the faint hope that the good-natured Robertson might get for me the information which, in the circumstances, I was naturally most eager to obtain.

In the course of my erratic wanderings through the grand old city, with its host of monuments of a glorious past, I was one morning passing the great marble-built cathedral and noticed a number of people entering.  There seemed to be an unusual number of visitors, so having nothing to do I passed through the narrow door into the sombre gloom of the magnificent old place ­one of the most noteworthy and most beautiful sacred buildings in the world.

At first, entering from the bright sunshine of the piazza, I could scarcely see, so dim was the huge interior, but slowly my vision, rather bad since my strange adventure, grew accustomed to the half-darkness, and I saw that upon the high altar there were many long candles burning in their brass sconces and before the high altar three priests in gorgeous vestments were kneeling.

In the great cavernous place, with its choir beneath the dome, I heard low prayers in Latin.  Men and women who passed me bowed and crossed themselves while many knelt.

The glorious cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore, so called from the Lily which figures in the Arms of Florence ­hence “the Lily City” ­had always an attraction for me, as it has for every visitor to the ancient Tuscan capital.  The stained glass of Ghiberti, the wonderful mosaics of Gaddo Gaddi, the frescoes of angels by Santi di Tito, and the beautiful pictures by the great mediaeval masters, all are marvellous, and worth crossing the world to see.

From before the altar a long spiral mist of incense was rising, and about me as I stood in the centre of the enormous interior, many visitors were passing out from the dim religious gloom into the light of the open doorway.

Suddenly my eyes caught sight of a countenance.

I held my breath, standing rooted to the spot.  What I saw staggered belief.  Was it only a chimera of my unbalanced imagination ­or was it actual fact?

For a few seconds I remained undecided.  Then, aghast and amazed, I became convinced that it was a stern reality.

The mystery of the affair at Stretton Street became in that single moment a problem even more than ever bewildering.