Read CHAPTER THE SEVENTH - THE MILLIONAIRE’S APPREHENSIONS of The Stretton Street Affair , free online book, by William Le Queux, on ReadCentral.com.

That same evening I made a number of inquiries concerning Doctor Moroni.  On every hand I heard high praise of his skill.  He was one of the principal physicians at the great hospital at Gelsomino, and among other of his illustrious patients there had been a Russian Grand Duke and an Austrian princess who lived in a magnificent villa upon the Viale dei Colli.

I went about the wonderful city of art collecting information concerning the doctor, where and when I could, because a startling fact had been revealed to me by Robertson, namely, that Moroni was De Gex’s medical attendant.

In the night-time when the narrow ancient side-streets of Florence, with their ponderous prison-like palaces with iron-barred windows are so ill-lit and cavernous, the place seems a city of evil deeds, as indeed it was in the days of the Medici and of the Borgias.

As I trod those streets between the Porta Romana and Santa Maria Novella, I confess that I became apprehensive of a nervous breakdown.

That a girl had been wilfully done to death in that West End mansion, and that I had accepted a bribe to aid and abet the assassin, were undeniable facts.  The wealthy man evidently believed that, for my own sake and in order to escape prosecution, I would not seek to solve the enigma.  Now, as I reflected upon my interview at the Villa Clementini, I realized how artful he was in denying everything, and yet allowing me a loophole for escape.  He had mentioned blackmail ­an ugly word with ugly consequences ­well-knowing that I dare not go to the Metropolitan Police and make any statement of what I had witnessed or of how I had acted.

I still held that five thousand pounds bribe intact.  The accursed notes were at the flat at Rivermead Mansions.  My position was now untenable.  When that night I retired to my room I realized that the situation was hopeless.  How could I support any charge against a man who, being a millionaire, could purchase manufactured evidence ­as is done every day ­just as easily as he could purchase a cigar?

The evidence given in judicial courts in every European capital in cases where the party, either plaintiff or defendant, is well possessed of this world’s goods, is usually tainted.  In no place on earth can money work more marvels than in a court of law.  Witnesses who make testimony a profession for big fees appear in every Assize court in the world.  And some of them are, alas! experts.  True it is that every man has his price, and the more so in these hard, post-war days of riot and ruin.  Justice and brotherly love departed with the Victorian era.  The old game of “Beat-your-neighbour-out-of-doors,” played by our grandfathers, seems to be the only one practised in our modern times.

With such thoughts I fell asleep.

Next day I spent in again wandering the old-world streets of Florence, hoping to obtain another glimpse of Moroni and his fair charge.  I went to the Duomo and waited near that side-chapel where I had first seen them.  Then, as they did not come, I idled before a cafe in the Via Calzajoli, and again in the Piazza della Signorina.  But I saw nothing of them.  That afternoon I spent the winter sunshine in the Cascine, the beautiful wood beside the Arno where the Florentines go each day for the passeggiata, either in their old-fashioned landaus with armorial bearings upon the panels, in modern motor-cars, or on foot.  The afternoon, though it was winter, was glorious, even though the cold wind from the snow-tipped Apennines swept sharply down the valley.  Yet everyone was wrapped up warmly, and the fresh air was invigorating.

Though I kept my eyes open everywhere, I failed to detect that slim figure in rusty black.

I allowed the following day to pass.  Then, at four o’clock in the afternoon, I called at the house of Doctor Moroni in pretence of again consulting him.

Upon the door of the great old house, now converted into spacious flats, was a small, rather tarnished brass plate with the words:  “Dr. Moroni, Primo Piano.”

So I climbed the wide stone stairs to the first floor, and rang the bell.  My summons was answered by a tall, swarthy, dark-eyed Italian maid, who wore a dainty muslin apron, but no cap ­as is the custom in Italy.  She was a Piedmontese, for in her hair she wore several of those large pins with round heads of silver filigree placed in a semicircle at the back of her head, until they formed a kind of halo.

“The Signore Dottore is at home,” was her reply in Italian.  “Be pleased to enter.”

And she showed me along a narrow hall to what was evidently Moroni’s waiting-room.  The atmosphere of the place was close on account of the charcoal stove, and the barely-furnished room smelt of some disinfectant.

I had sat there for some moments when I heard a door open, and men’s voices sounded speaking in English: 

“Very well, signore,” I heard the doctor say.  “I will be up at the villa at eleven o’clock.”

“Good,” replied the other.  “You will not be troubled by Robertson this time.  He will be away.  I am sending him on a message to Pisa, as I do not want him about; he is too inquisitive.  Besides, you will not come to the house.  You quite understand where we shall meet?”

“Quite, signore,” replied Moroni.

By the mode in which the doctor addressed his visitor, and the mention of Robertson, it was plain that he was speaking with Oswald De Gex.  Why was the butler to be sent to Pisa?  I wondered.

I sat breathless, listening to the footsteps along the hall, and to Moroni wishing his visitor good afternoon.

A few moments later he opened the door brusquely and with a pleasant smile apologized for keeping me waiting.  Then he conducted me to his consulting-room, a gloomy, frowsy little apartment much over-heated, as is usual in Florentine houses in winter.

“Well?” he asked.  “And how do you feel now, Mr. Garfield?”

My reply was the reverse of satisfactory.  The mixture had done me good, I said, but I still felt excruciating pains after eating.  In consequence, he felt my pulse and took my temperature, while I, on my part, strained my ears listening for any feminine voice.  Was the girl whose secret I sought still there?

Once I heard a woman’s voice, but she cried in Italian to a fellow-servant named Enrichetta, hence she was probably the maid who had admitted me.

Moroni, after he had concluded his examination, seemed a little puzzled.  No doubt I had, in my ignorance, described some imaginary symptom which was not in accordance with what he expected to find.  He, however, gave me another prescription, and as he wrote it I wondered how he would act if he knew that my object in becoming his patient was to probe the mystery of the affair in Stretton Street.

I had at least gained knowledge of his intended visit to the Villa Clementini unknown to the butler, Robertson.  He was to be there either at eleven o’clock that night or at eleven next morning.  It occurred to me that I might possibly learn something of interest if I watched the doctor’s movements at the hours indicated.

“Your symptoms rather puzzle me,” said the doctor at last, eyeing me from beneath his bushy black brows.  “To tell the truth, I fancy you must have eaten something poisonous at one of the restaurants.  They sometimes use tinned food which is not quite good, and it sets up irritant poisoning.  I had a case very similar to yours last week.  The climate here did not suit him, and he has returned to England.”

“Oh!  I hope to be better in a few days, doctor,” I said cheerfully, for I was anxious for another opportunity to visit him.  I wanted to see, and if possible speak in secret with the girl who bore such a striking resemblance to the dead Gabrielle Engledue.

On returning to the hotel I rang up the Villa Clementini and inquired for Robertson.  In a few moments I spoke to him, asking if he were coming down to the Gambrinus.

“I’m sorry,” he replied.  “I have to go to Pisa by the eight o’clock train.  But I shall be back to-morrow morning.”

By that I established the fact that Oswald De Gex had an appointment with Moroni at eleven o’clock that night, and not on the following morning.

I ate my dinner at Bonciani’s, near the station, a place little patronized by foreigners, but where one obtains the best Tuscan cooking ­and after an hour or so over coffee at the Bottegone, I took a taxi up to Fiesole.  The night was cold but dry and moonlit.  As we ascended the steep hill a glorious panorama spread before us, for below lay the valley of the Arno with the twinkling lights of the ancient city, and the great pale moon upon the shimmering river rendering it like a scene from fairyland.  And as we went up beyond San Domenico, through those lands which in spring and summer are so fruitful with their vines and olives, two peasant swains passed, chanting one of the old stornelli, those quaint love-songs of the Tuscan contadini ­the same which have been sung for centuries in and about old Firenze: 

          Acqua di rio
          Teco sarò di luglio e di gennaio
          Dove tu muori te, morirò anch’io.

Tuscany is essentially a land of love, where the fierce flame of affection burns in the hearts of all the people, and where a hot word is quickly followed by a knife-thrust, and jealousy is ever cruel and unrelenting.

Arriving at last in the little piazza, at Fiesole, where a number of people were awaiting the last tram to take them back into Florence, I alighted, paid the man, and continued my journey on foot, still climbing the high road which led through the chestnut woods of Ricorbico, until at last I found myself at the corner of the grounds of the Villa Clementini, close to a pair of gates of mediaeval wrought-iron which closed the south entrance to the magnificent domain.

On either side of the road were high walls with tall cypresses behind which cast their deep shadows over the highway, rendering it dark around the entrance.  I glanced at my luminous wristwatch ­a relic of my war service ­and found that it still wanted ten minutes to eleven.

Therefore I drew back beneath the wall, and in the black shadow awaited the millionaire’s visitor to pass on to the main entrance.

I suppose I had been there ten minutes or so when I detected approaching footsteps in the darkness, and presently the doctor’s familiar figure appeared in the patch of moonlight, only to be swallowed up in the black shadows a moment later.  Approaching the great iron gates which were a side entrance to the grounds, he drew a key from his pocket, unlocked them easily, and passed in without, however, re-locking them after him.  His visit there was undoubtedly a secret one, or De Gex would not have given him the key of the entrance he used himself, nor would he have sent away his butler, Robertson.

The visitor’s footsteps suddenly ceased, for he was undoubtedly crossing the grass.  In consequence, I stole on tiptoe up to the gates, and entering, saw in the moonlight that Moroni was stealing along in the opposite direction to the great country mansion, many of the windows of which were illuminated.  As I halted my ears caught the strains of orchestral music.  A waltz was being played, for, as I afterwards knew, a gay ball was in progress, the cars entering and leaving by the main carriage road.

A few seconds later I crept on in the direction the doctor had taken.  At first I feared that, as is so often the case in Italy, savage dogs might be kept there at night to attack any thief or intruder.  But as Moroni had entered so boldly, it was evident that if any were kept there they were that evening locked up.  Hence, I went forward in confidence until I came to the edge of a beautiful lake lying unruffled in the moonlight, and surrounded by many pieces of ancient statuary, most of them moss-grown and lichen-covered.

As I turned a corner there came into view a large white summer-house with a domed roof, supported by columns ­a kind of temple such as one often finds in the gardens of ancient Italian villas.  The marble-built summer-house, with carved escutcheons, was a fashion of the seventeenth century.  As I peered forward I saw Moroni walking in the full light, approaching the place, from which a dark figure emerged and came forth to meet him.

Instantly I again halted, and straining my eyes recognized that the man who was in evening dress was the owner of that palatial home.

They retired into the summer-house together.  What, I wondered, was the object of that secret meeting?

It struck me that perhaps if I succeeded in approaching the spot I might overhear some of their confidential conversation, therefore I stole forward, always keeping in the shadow, and treading upon the grass, my eyes ever upon my goal.

The stillness of the night was unbroken, save by the harsh clanging of the convent bell down at San Domenico, and the howl of a distant dog, while ever and anon bursts of dance music from the villa reached my ears.

At last, by skirting a shrubbery in almost pitch darkness, and scratching my hands and face badly, I succeeded in gaining the rear of the little marble temple, and on hearing De Gex’s voice I drew back and waited, scarce daring to breathe.  I could hear my own heart beat as I listened intently to certain words distinctly audible.

“Then you think he has suspicions ­eh, Moroni?  What you tell me is interesting, but also alarming.”

“I feel certain he has.  He would not have consulted me for an imaginary ailment were it not so.”

“Then he must have seen her somewhere in Florence and recognized her!  I was a fool to suggest that she should be brought here ­so near to me!  I was a fool to allow him to slip through my fingers!”

“I pointed that out to you at the time,” remarked the Italian doctor with a sigh.  “But what you have just shown to me is amazing.  I never dreamed of that!”

He had evidently shown him something in the moonlight.

“Well, I don’t intend that this fellow shall pry into my affairs,” snapped the millionaire.  I recognized that hard metallic voice of his, and it recalled to me all those strange happenings on that November night.

“I do not really see, if we act boldly, what we have to fear,” said the doctor in his very fair English.

We!  Then they were both implicated in the plot, whatever its nature.

“Fear!” echoed De Gex.  “Suppose he made some very compromising statement to the London police.”

“And in doing so he would compromise himself!  He posed as a medical man, and gave the death certificate in return for payment ­five thousand pounds.  Beyond, he committed forgery by signing the name of Gordon Garfield.  No, Mr. De Gex, I feel sure he will never court prosecution.  He may busy himself in trying to solve what no doubt appears to him a complete enigma ­as indeed it is to us.  But he will never expose us ­never!”

The millionaire grunted dubiously.

“Well, what are we to do now?  What do you suggest, Moroni?  Your brain is always so fertile where crooked business is concerned.”

“I have no suggestion.  I came here to learn yours.”

“Yes.  I called you here to show you what I have shown you, and also because I have a certain person here as guest at my wife’s dance to-night ­you know whom I mean.”

“Certainly.  She is equally dangerous.  You asked me to bring the little tube.  Here it is.  But I urge you to use it with extreme caution.  When you break the glass be certain that none of the jelly inside touches your fingers.  If it does, wash them instantly in carbolic.  It is highly contagious.”

De Gex gave vent to a queer laugh of satisfaction, as, no doubt, he took the mysterious glass tube in his hand.

“I am not yet certain whether to try the experiment ­or not,” he remarked with hesitation.

“It is, to say the least, a highly dangerous one.”

“You mean dangerous from the point of view of discovery ­eh?”

“No, not at all.  Your act cannot be discovered, but it may be dangerous for yourself and those about you ­highly dangerous.  I have obeyed your orders, signore, as I always do, and I have brought it.  But my suggestion is that you should not break that tube and disperse its contents.”

“You seem to be growing unusually apprehensive, my dear Moroni.  The appearance in Florence of this young electrical engineer seems to have quite upset you!” he laughed harshly.  I could hear every word.

“I confess his presence here has not inspired me with confidence.  We do not know the extent of his knowledge, or what he has discovered,” replied the doctor.  “If he establishes one fact ­you know to what I refer ­then he will become a very grave menace to us both.”

“But surely he won’t dare to reveal anything for his own sake.  That is why I made the bribe a substantial one.”

“If he established that one fact to which I have referred, then it would be quite within the bounds of possibility that he might face the music, and lay bare the whole facts of the mystery of Stretton Street,” Moroni remarked in a rather lower tone.  “At present I think he will keep a still tongue.”

“Then one thing is quite plain,” said the millionaire.  “He must not be allowed to prosecute his inquiries any further.  And it is for you, Moroni, to rid us of this ever-growing menace.  If he is allowed to go on, then we shall one day awake to find our secret revealed.”

“I quite agree.  But how shall we act?”

“Ah!  I leave that to you,” replied De Gex.  “You have many ways and means within your power.  He is a patient of yours,” he added grimly.

“Yes.  But I happen to know that he is sufficiently wide awake not to take any of my mixtures.”

“Ah!  Then he suspects you!  You must act with greatest caution, Moroni.  Act as you will, but we must, at all costs, get rid of this fellow.”

“I suggested that after the affair at Stretton Street.  It would then have been so very easy.”

“I know!  I was a fool!  I did not foresee the consequences if he met and recognized the girl.  Even now we do not know where and how he met her.  But the menace to us is the same.  We must get rid of him ­and quickly, too!  The trap must be baited ­and what better bait than the girl herself?”