Read CHAPTER THE SIXTH - ANOTHER PUZZLE of The Stretton Street Affair , free online book, by William Le Queux, on ReadCentral.com.

Kneeling before Donatello’s magnificent picture of the Virgin over one of the side altars, her outline dimly illuminated by the light of many candles, was a slim, dark-haired young woman in deep mourning.  Her head was bowed in an attitude of great devotion, but a few moments later, when she raised her face, I stood rooted to the spot.

The countenance was that of the dead girl Gabrielle Engledue!

An involuntary exclamation left my lips, and a woman standing near me heard me, and wondered.

Kneeling beside the girl in black was a thin-faced, black-haired Italian of about forty-five.  He was somewhat handsome, though a sinister expression played about his lips.

I watched the pair for several minutes, wondering whether in my brain, unbalanced as it had been, the scene was a mere chimera on my part and that, after all, the girl only slightly resembled the victim at Stretton Street.

The latter I had not seen in life, and death always alters the features.  Nevertheless, the sudden encounter was most startling, and from where I stood behind a great marble column I watched them.

At last both rose and crossing themselves piously, walked slowly to the door.  I followed them.  It surely could not be that the girl whose death certificate I had forged, and whose body had been reduced to ashes, was actually alive and well!  I recollected that sum of five thousand pounds, and the strange adventures which had befallen me after I had accepted the bribe to pose as a doctor, and certify that death had been due to natural causes.

Outside in the bright sunlight of the Piazza, I obtained a full view of her.  Her rather shabby black was evidently of good material, but her face struck me as distinctly strange.  The expression in her dark luminous eyes was fixed, as though she were fascinated and utterly unconscious of all about her.  She walked mechanically, without interest, and utterly heedless of where she went.  Her companion’s hand was upon her arm as she crossed to the Via Calzajoli, and I wondered if she were blind.

I had never before seen such a blank, hopeless expression in a woman’s eyes.

The man, on the contrary, was shrewd and alert.  His close-set eyes shot shrewd glances from beneath black bushy eyebrows with a keen, penetrating gaze, as though nothing escaped him.  He seemed to be trying to hurry her, in fear of being recognized.  He had not noticed me, hence in the bustle of the busy street I managed to get up close behind them, when of a sudden, I heard her exclaim: 

“Not so fast!  Really I can’t walk so fast!”

She spoke in English!

Her companion, uncouth and heedless, still had his hand upon her arm, hurrying her along without slackening his pace.  She seemed like a girl in a dream.  Truly, she was very handsome, a strange tragic figure amid all the hubbub of Florence, the old-world city of noise and of narrow streets, where Counts and contadini rub shoulders, and the tradesmen are ever on the look out to profit ­if only a few soldi ­upon the innocent foreigner.

Firenze la Bella ­or Florence as the average Englishman knows it ­is surely a city of strange people and of strange moods.  By the discordant clanging of its church bells the laughter-loving Florentines are moved to gaiety, or to piety, and by the daily articles in the local journals, the Nazione or the Fieramosca, they can be incited to riot or violence.  The Tuscans, fine aristocratic nobles with ten centuries of lineage behind them, and splendid peasants with all their glorious traditions of feudal servitude under the “nobile,” are, after all, like children, with a simplicity that is astounding, combined with a cunning that is amazing.

Along the Via Calzajoli I followed the pair in breathless eagerness.  At that hour of the morning the central thoroughfare is always crowded by business men, cooks out shopping, and open-mouthed forestieri ­the foreigners who come, guide-book in hand, to gaze at and admire the thousand wonderful monuments of the ancient city of Medici.  The girl’s face certainly resembled very closely that of the dead girl Gabrielle Engledue.  The countenance I had seen at Stretton Street was white and lifeless, while that of the girl was fresh and rosy.  Nevertheless, that blank expression upon her face, and the fact that her companion had linked his arm in hers, both pointed to the fact that either her vision was dim, or her great dark eyes were actually sightless.  The man was fairly well dressed, but the girl was very shabby.  Her rusty black, her cheap stockings, her down-at-heel shoes, and her faded hat combined to present a picture of poverty.  Indeed, the very fact of the neglect of her dress was increasing evidence that her vision was dim, for surely she would not go forth with the rent in the elbow of her blouse.  Did she know that it was torn?

Just as we were passing the ancient church of Or San Michele, with its wonderful armorial bearings by Luca della Robbia, an old man with long white hair and beard, whom I took to be one of the mangy painters who copy the masterpieces in the Uffizi or the Pitti, passed by, and raising his hat, wished the pair:  "Buon giorno!"

The girl’s companion returned the salute with a slight expression of annoyance, perhaps at being recognized, but the girl took no notice, and did not acknowledge him.

The man uttered some words in the girl’s ear, and then hurried her on more quickly, at the same time glancing furtively around.  It was quite plain that he had no wish to be seen there, hence my curiosity became increased.

Every moment I, however, feared that he might realize I was following them; but I did not mean that they should escape me.

In the Piazza della Signorina they halted opposite that great old prison-like building, the Palazzo Vecchio, where several people were awaiting an omnibus, and as they stood there the girl, who bore such a striking resemblance to the dead niece of the millionaire, stared straight before her, taking no notice of anything about her, a strange, statuesque, pathetic figure, inert and entirely guided by the ferret-eyed man at her side.

I was compelled to draw back and watch them from a distance, hoping that I might be successful in following them to their destination.  It certainly was strange that the girl who was so much like Gabrielle Engledue should be there in Florence, within a mile or two of De Gex’s villa!

As I watched, yet another person ­a well-dressed woman of about forty ­recognizing the girl’s companion, smiled as she passed, while he, on his part, raised his hat.  The woman who had passed struck me as being either English or American, for there are many English-speaking residents in Florence.  For a second I debated within myself, and then a moment later I followed her until she turned a corner in the Via di Porta Rossa.  Then I hurried, and overtaking her politely raised my hat.

“I trust you will pardon me, Madame,” I exclaimed in English, as she started and looked at me askance.  “I presume you are either English or American?”

“I am American,” she replied with a pronounced drawl.

“Please forgive my inquisitiveness, but I seek your aid in a little matter which is of greatest consequence to me,” I went on.  “A moment ago, as you crossed the Piazza, you encountered an Italian gentleman and a girl.  Could you tell me the gentleman’s name?”

“What, the person I bowed to a moment ago?” she exclaimed.  “Oh! that’s Doctor Moroni.”

Moroni!  I recollected the name.  He was one of the mourners!

“And the girl?” I asked.

“Ah!  I do not know.  I saw her out with an old woman the other day.  But I have no idea who she is.”

“Is Doctor Moroni a doctor of medicine?” I inquired.

“Yes.  The people at the pension of the Lung Arno where I live, always call him in.  I was ill six months ago, and he attended me.  He lives in the Via Cavezzo, near the Porta Romona ­number six, I believe.”

“I am sure I am extremely obliged to you,” I replied very gratefully.  “I have a very strong reason for asking these questions ­reasons which concern the young lady,” I added.

The American woman smiled, and then, reiterating my thanks, I raised my hat and left her.

At least I had discovered the identity of the girl’s companion.  He was a doctor, hence it was most probable that she was under his charge.  Nevertheless, it was strange that he should take her to the Duomo and pray at her side.  Doctors do not usually act in that manner with their patients.

When I returned to the Piazza the pair were nowhere to be seen, therefore I strolled to the nearest cafe, and sat down with a cigarette to think out the remarkable affair.

One or two features of the problem now became more than ever puzzling.  First, in view of the fact that I had seen Gabrielle Engledue lying dead and had, for a bribe of five thousand pounds, signed a death certificate purporting to be from Doctor Gordon Garfield, of Queen Anne Street, Cavendish Square, it seemed beyond credence that the girl who had died and been cremated should be led about the streets of Florence by this Italian, Doctor Moroni.  Oswald De Gex’s denials were, in themselves, only thin, and yet they were all very clever and carefully prepared.  The story of how his wife had left his little son in Westbourne Grove to be discovered by the police was no doubt well thought out.  De Gex and his wife were actually on most affectionate terms, hence the tale he had told had been purposely concocted, in order to mislead me.  Besides, his pretence that the dead girl had been his niece was, of course, a similarly concocted story to mislead me, and also to discredit me if perchance I made any unwelcome inquiries.

That I had been half asphyxiated and then drugged until my mental balance had been upset, was quite plain.  And it was equally plain that De Gex did not intend that I should be capable of making inquiries concerning the events of that memorable November night.  When I had been thrown out of the motor-car on that French highway, near St. Malo, the bank-notes had been purposely left in my pocket.  I had already copied the numbers, and had called upon the millionaire’s bankers in Pall Mall, but there was no record that any of them had been issued to him.  That payment had evidently been very well concealed.

On every hand it appeared quite plain that I had been the victim of some strange and remarkable conspiracy, the motive of which was entirely obscure.  Surely I must have been watched, and my habits noted.  De Gex had known that I frequently passed his door on my way to visit my uncle, and further, he must have known that I should pass on that fateful night in November when Horton was sent out to entice me within.

But the chief point of that complex puzzle was the fact that there, in Florence, within a mile or two of the millionaire’s almost regal residence, I had encountered a living girl who, in every feature, was the exact counterpart of the poor girl whose death and cremation stood recorded in the official registry at Somerset House!

When in London I had been half inclined to call upon Doctor Gordon Garfield and explain the situation.  But such confession must, I knew, lead to my prosecution and inevitable imprisonment.  I had taken a false step while under the baneful influence of some drug which had stultified my own volition and held me powerless to resist the temptation.  I was now endeavouring to seek the truth.

That the amazing adventure in Stretton Street was not the outcome of imagination was proved by the entry in the register at Somerset House, and also by the evidence of the cremation of the body.  But that the beautiful girl I had seen lying dead could now be walking about the streets of Florence was, of course, utterly absurd.

Was my memory, in my rather weak state of health, playing tricks with me?  I began to fear that such was the case.

As I sat over my “bock” watching the tide of Florentine life pass and repass across the great piazza, I began to laugh at myself, and felt half inclined to abandon the inquiry.  Still it was all most mysterious and mystifying.  Why had I been marked down as a tool to further the millionaire’s ends?  And who, after all, was the victim?

I tried to dismiss the apparently sightless girl from my mind, but somehow the affair obsessed me.  I seemed impelled to go farther and try to elucidate the mystery.  I endeavoured to make up my mind to forget it all and return to England and to my work at Francis and Goldsmith’s ­but all to no avail.  My duty, I felt, was to leave no stone unturned until I had discovered whether Gabrielle Engledue had died from natural causes, or as a result of foul play.

The pale, tragic face of the girl I had encountered in the Duomo haunted me.  Towards the narrow-eyed Doctor Moroni I felt an instinctive dislike, even though I had no cause to distrust him.

I think it was the strange intuition I experienced at that moment which caused me to decide to act with discretion and caution, and to discover all that I could concerning the doctor and his tragic-faced companion.

With a fixed plan I returned to my hotel, ate my luncheon in the big salle a manger, which was crowded with foreigners wintering in Florence.  Then, after lunch, I complained to the manager of feeling unwell, and asked him to telephone to Doctor Moroni, in the Via Cavezzo.

“Ah! a most excellent doctor!” remarked the hotel manager.  “He has a very large practice among the English and Americans.  And he is quite popular.  I suppose you know him?”

“No.  I have only heard of him, and of his cleverness,” I said with affected carelessness.

Ten minutes later the manager sent me a message by a page that the doctor would call at three o’clock.  So, in my pretended illness, I went to my room and feigned the symptoms of acute indigestion.

Punctually the doctor arrived, and greeted me in his most professional manner.  I at once explained that an American lady of my acquaintance had recommended him, whereupon he bowed, smiled, and seating himself before me inquired my symptoms.

His looks were certainly not an index to his character, for though he appeared so stern and taciturn yet at heart he was, I saw, a very humorous, easy-going man, a true Tuscan who showed his white teeth when he laughed, gesticulated violently, and spoke English with a refined accent that was particularly charming.

“It is probably the change of diet,” he declared at last, after diagnosing my symptoms.  “I see many such cases among foreigners who are unused to some of our rather indigestible dishes.  The latter are very toothsome, and they eat heartily ­with dire results,” and he smiled.

So well indeed did I describe my supposed ailment that before he left he wrote me out a prescription.  Afterwards I made pretence of being a perfect stranger in Florence.  I longed to speak of Oswald De Gex, but feared to do so because his suspicions might by that become aroused.  If so, then all hope of discovering the true facts would instantly vanish.

“I hope you will soon be all right and that you will enjoy your visit to our Tuscany,” he said very pleasantly.  “Florence is very full of visitors just now.  Are you remaining long?”

“I really can’t tell,” was my reply.  “My business in London may recall me at any time.”

Then I thanked him for his visit, and remarked that if the mixture gave me no relief I would probably call upon him.

Indeed, it was for this latter reason that I had called him in.  By making his acquaintance in that manner I would, I saw, excite no suspicion, and I hoped to be able to meet the girl who was apparently under his charge.

While I had been consulting him I noticed that he seemed a man of curious moods.  At one moment his dark countenance was sullen and sinister, while at the next his face broadened into an expression of easy-going bonhomie.  He spoke English extremely well, and was apparently a man of considerable taste and refinement.  Truly, the situation was so puzzling that I was bewildered.

After he had gone, I re-dressed myself and went across to the Gambrinus, where I had an appointment with Robertson.

I found him seated alone at a table in the corner awaiting me.

“Well?” he said, “I’ve got that address for you, Mr. Garfield ­the address of Miss Thurston,” and he handed me a slip of paper upon which was written:  Miss Rose Thurston, Cedar Cottage, Overstrand, Norfolk.

“But I thought you said she lived near Detroit?” I remarked.

“She and her mother did live in America, but I have discovered that they now have a house near Cromer,” was the butler’s reply.  So in acknowledgment of his services I passed him a couple of Italian notes, and we then had a drink together.

While doing so a strange thought crossed my mind.

Could it be possible that the girl I had seen with Doctor Moroni and
Rose Thurston were one and the same!