Read CHAPTER THE EIGHTH - LITTLE MRS. CULLERTON of The Stretton Street Affair , free online book, by William Le Queux, on ReadCentral.com.

For nearly half an hour Oswald De Gex and the Italian doctor, Moroni, sat chatting in the darkness.

De Gex apologized to his visitor for not offering him a cigarette, remarking that the striking of a match might reveal their presence to anyone strolling in the grounds, for guests at dances frequently have that habit.

“Indeed, after you have gone, Moroni, I am meeting the lady whom I mentioned, and shall walk with her outside here.  I want to speak with her in private.”

“But surely that is dangerous!” exclaimed the doctor instantly.

“Why?”

“If you intend to act as you say you should not hold any clandestine meeting with her,” Moroni suggested.

“I shall take your advice and preserve this little tube intact,” and he paused, “intact at least for the present,” he added.  “Hence there can be no harm in leaving the ballroom and coming out into the fresh air ­eh?”

“In that case I see no risk.”

“The only risk we run is in allowing young Garfield to make inquiries here, in Florence.  When he saw me, I, of course, denied everything.  But I know that he must have noticed how upset I was at his reappearance.”

“Well, we have decided to suppress him, have we not?” said Moroni briefly.  “And now it is getting late and my taxi is awaiting me down in Fiesole.  So I had better be going.”

“Have a care that the fellow does not meet her ­not until you are quite prepared,” the millionaire urged.  “And lose no time in making ready.  Each day’s delay is increasingly dangerous.”

“I do not disregard the fact, signore,” replied the Italian, and next moment they emerged from the little Greek temple, and having walked a short distance, they parted, De Gex returning to the house, while Moroni made his way back past the lake to the gate.

When the mysterious millionaire had disappeared, I approached the broad terrace which ran along the side of the house from which such a wonderful panorama of the Apennines was to be obtained.  If he brought his lady guest out, as was his intention, then he no doubt would descend from the terrace, for I saw two couples walking there as I approached.

Beneath a tree I took cover and waited ­waited to establish the identity of the person whom he had marked down as his next victim.

That night I had gained much knowledge of intense interest, yet it all served to puzzle me the more.

That Tito Moroni was his accomplice I had established beyond doubt, and equally that there had been a grave and deep-laid conspiracy against me.  And further, it seemed to be intended that I should again meet the mysterious pale-faced girl in black, and that the meeting was meant to be fatal to me.

Fortune had certainly been upon my side that night, otherwise I might have acted in good faith and fallen into some cleverly-baited trap.  That the doctor of the Via Cavezzo was a dangerous malefactor was proved by the airy manner in which he had brought to his rich client that little glass tube which I, of course, had not seen, but which he had no doubt put into the hands of his wealthy and unscrupulous host.

The more I reflected as I stood beneath the great oleander, the more puzzled did I become.  What was it that De Gex had shown the doctor beneath the pale light of the moon?  It was evidently something which greatly surprised Moroni, and yet he had made but little comment concerning it.

But the chief mystery of all was the whereabouts of that poor inert girl Gabrielle Engledue.  I waited, eager for the return of the tall, well-set-up man in evening clothes, the man who so much in the public eye was engaged in such a strange career of wickedness and crime.

It seemed incredible that the immensely rich man whose name was so constantly in the papers as a generous patron of the arts, and a pious philanthropist, should be implicated in such devil’s doings as those of which I had already proved him to be the author.

The discordant clanging of that convent-bell again aroused me to a sense of my surroundings.  I saw upon the terrace before me several men strolling, smoking cigarettes, and with them their fair partners wrapped in rich cloaks and furs.  They had come out after supper to admire the wonderful moonlit scene, for before them rose the snow-tipped mountains in a long serrated range, the high Apennines which divide the Adriatic from the Mediterranean.

Suddenly, almost before I was aware of it, a man and a woman passed close to me.  The figure revealed by the cold bright moon was that of De Gex, who had now put on a light coat, while at his side walked a slim, tall young woman wrapped warmly in a rich fur coat.  The diamonds in her fair hair gleamed in the moonlight, but unfortunately she had passed into the shadow before I could gain a glimpse of her features.

So that was the intended victim ­the woman to whom the dangerous contents of that tiny glass tube was one day, sooner or later, to be administered.

They went forward towards the edge of the placid lake, hence I sprang upon the grass and followed them as noiseless as a cat.  Little did the owner of the great Villa Clementini dream that I was lurking in such close vicinity.

They halted beside one of the ancient statues of yellow marble, a heavy-limbed representation of Bacchus crowned with vine leaves, where they admired the fairy-like scene.  It was indeed glorious.  Beneath the pale moonlight lay the placid lake like a mirror, for no breath stirred from the mountains, and beyond in the mystic light rose the snow-capped peaks far away beyond the chestnut forests of Vallombrosa.

There is a charm in all seasons and at all hours about those ancient villas of Tuscany; those country mansions of the nobles which have seen the tramp of men in armour and in plush, and bear upon them the crumbling escutcheons of races which have been rulers for five centuries, and whose present descendants are perhaps waiters in Paris, London, or New York.

The English visitors to Florence see outside the Florence Club effeminate elegants in English-made suits of blue serge, and brown boots, and they sigh to think that such specimens of humanity are the representatives of a noble race.  Disguise it as you may, poor Italy is sadly decadent.  Her glory has passed, her nobile are ruined and her labour enemies are, alas! bent upon putting her into the melting-pot.  The gallant Italian army fought valiantly against the Tedesci.  It saved Venice from the heel of the invader and it protected Dalmatia, where the population are Italians.  But Italy to-day is not Italy of pre-war days, thanks to its paid agitators and its political scandals.

With the bright moon shining across the huge oleander beneath which I had again taken cover, I listened intently.  But De Gex speaking with his guest was too far off for me to distinguish anything he said.

That he treated her with the greatest courtesy was apparent.  And that he spoke to her with the most entire confidence I realized by my own observation.

At once I stole noiselessly forward from one bush to another until I was close to where the pair stood.  I trod softly upon the grass, my ears strained to catch any word.

The words I at last caught were few and uncertain, for De Gex was speaking in a low and highly confidential tone.

At last, however, on approaching a little nearer, I heard him exclaim: 

“Jack, your husband, is a young fool!  He has no discretion.  He gambles on the Stock Exchange without any expert knowledge.  He came up here to me yesterday afternoon and told me that he must have ten thousand pounds to tide him over, and prevent him being hammered.  I sent him away, but I shall see that he has the money.”

“How really good of you, Mr. De Gex!” exclaimed the girl ­for as far as I could see she was hardly a woman.  “I don’t know how to thank you sufficiently.  I know Jack is a born gambler.  His father was on the Stock Exchange before him, and I suppose games of chance are in the breed of the Cullertons.”

“Not in you, I hope, Dorothy,” replied the millionaire.  “You have had the misfortune to marry a gambler, and ­well, my dear girl ­I pity you.  Gambling is worse than drink.  The drunkard can be sickened and put off, but the gambler never.  Now I want you to promise me one thing.”

“What is that?” she asked.

“I shall see that he has the money.  But it will come through a second party, not through me.  I do not wish to appear to lend him money, otherwise he will still continue his speculations, feeling that he has me behind him.  Now you know the truth, Dorothy.  But you must promise me to say nothing.  Nobody must know ­not even my wife.”

“Oh! how very good of you to help Jack out of a hole!” she exclaimed.  “Of course I’ll remain silent.  But it really is awfully kind of you.  I don’t know how to thank you.”

“I will do it for your sake, Dorothy,” said De Gex, bending to her in confidence.  “I am indebted to you ­remember!”

“Ah! no!” cried the young woman, whose name apparently was Cullerton.  “No!  Please don’t refer to that terrible affair!”

Her voice betrayed emotion and apprehension, while at that moment, as she turned her face to the light of the moon, I was able to get a full view of it.  It was that of a very beautiful young woman of about twenty-three, rather petite, with fair bobbed hair, regular features, and sweet lips.  But the expression upon her countenance was one of fear and apprehension.

“I have no desire to remember it,” said her host.  “We agreed at the time that it should be silence for silence.  It was a bargain which we have kept ever since.  You have married Jack Cullerton, and you are happy except that your husband is a born gambler.  And of that he must be cured.”

“I know.  I know!” she said hastily.  “But earlier this evening you promised to tell me about Gabrielle.  I must see her.  She seems to have disappeared.  Where is she?”

“In London, I believe.”

“In London!  Yet the last time you spoke of her you said she was in Turin, on her way here, to Florence.”

Oswald De Gex laughed lightly.

“Yes.  She came to Florence for a few days, but she has returned to London.  Why are you so anxious to see her?”

“I want to see her about a matter which concerns Jack and myself ­that’s all,” replied young Mrs. Cullerton.

“May I not know?” asked her host.

“It is a purely private matter,” was her reply.

Then from the conversation that followed, it seemed as though the millionaire was apprehensive lest she should meet the mysterious Gabrielle, and I wondered whether it was in order to prevent them meeting that he entertained designs upon her life.

I recollected that little glass tube which he was carrying in secret in his pocket, and which the scoundrelly Italian had urged him to refrain from using because he might place his own life in jeopardy.

I listened to every word.  De Gex was evidently most anxious to know why she sought Gabrielle so eagerly.  And Gabrielle, I could only surmise, was the girl I had seen stark and dead in that handsome room in Stretton Street.

That night of watchfulness had borne fruit.  I had learnt from De Gex’s own lips that another deep and subtle trap was to be laid for me ­a trap baited with the tragic-faced girl herself.  Further, I had established that he intended that, sooner or later, an accident should befall the dainty little woman in that rich ermine cloak, the woman with whom he was chatting so affably.  Also I had learned her identity, and it now remained for me to forewarn her of what was intended.

The rich Englishman had talked for about a quarter of an hour with Dorothy Cullerton, when at last they returned to the house, while I made my way in the darkness back to the gate.  When I arrived, however, I found that Moroni had locked it after him.  I was therefore compelled to climb the wrought ironwork, and after several unsuccessful attempts succeeded in regaining the road.

It was long past midnight ere I found myself back in Fiesole, but I discovered a belated cab, and in it I drove back to Florence, full of grave reflections.

On the following day I bought in the Via Tornabuoni an English newspaper which publishes weekly a list of visitors to Florence, and from it discovered that Mr. and Mrs. Cullerton were living at the Villa Tassi, out at Montaguto, about three miles from the Porta Romana, on the opposite side of Florence.  That same morning I took the steam tram from the Piazza della Signorina, and after three miles of dusty road, alighted at a spot beyond the little village of Galluzzo in the Val d’Ema.  Crossing the brook I soon began to ascend the hill of Montaguto ­a pretty eminence clothed with cypresses and olives ­and was not long in discovering the neat, newly-built little villa, one of a number which are let furnished each season to wealthy foreigners.  I noted as I passed that it was well-kept, that the garden was bright with flowers, even though it was winter, and that in the garage was a small light car which at the moment was being washed by an English chauffeur.

I longed to have some excuse to call upon Mrs. Cullerton, but could think of none.  Therefore I returned to Florence and pursued fresh tactics.  The afternoon I spent making inquiries regarding the Cullertons, and soon discovered that they were intimate friends of Monsieur Rameil, the French Consul, and his wife.

With this knowledge I lost no time in obtaining an introduction to the French Consul, and three days later received a card for one of Madame’s Friday afternoons.  Naturally I went, and to my delight Mrs. Cullerton was there also.  She was a strikingly pretty young woman, and apparently extremely popular, judging by the manner in which two or three young Italian elegants danced attendance upon her.  Shortly before I left my hostess introduced me to her, and naturally I endeavoured to make myself extremely agreeable.  But was not the situation a strange one?  And this pretty woman had been marked down for destruction by the mysterious millionaire, just as I had been!

Yet had I told anyone of the knowledge I had gained I would not have been believed, any more than would credence have been given to the story of my strange adventure in Stretton Street.

We chatted for perhaps ten minutes.  She asked me where I was staying and how long I should be in Florence, and then, expressing a hope that we should meet again, I bowed and left her.

I had accomplished one step towards ascertaining the identity of the girl I had seen dead in London.

Several days passed, during which I kept a good look out in the streets for sight of Doctor Moroni’s fair companion.  But I was not successful.  Perhaps she had gone to London, as my host of Stretton Street had asserted!

One afternoon, while haunting the streets, I suddenly encountered Mrs. Cullerton walking in the Via Tornabuoni, and, raising my hat, stopped to speak.

After a few seconds she recognized me, and I walked at her side chatting.  Her car was waiting in the Piazza Santa Trinità, but before she entered it she had promised to send me a card for a little “at home” she was giving on the following Thursday.

Now, not until we had parted did it occur to me that De Gex might be also going there.  In that case he certainly should not meet me.  So I sought Robertson’s aid concerning his master’s engagements, and discovered that on Thursday morning the millionaire was going to Leghorn to join his yacht for a week’s cruise across to Algiers.

Therefore I accepted Mrs. Cullerton’s invitation, and found at the villa a number of pleasant, cosmopolitan people, whom I had already met at the French Consul’s.  I was introduced by my hostess to her husband, Jack, a smartly-dressed man, and a typical young member of the Stock Exchange.  Afterwards I succeeded in having quite a long conversation with his wife.

Quite casually I mentioned the Villa Clementini, and its owner.

“Do you know him?” she asked with interest.  “He is such a dear, generous old thing.”

“I have met him once,” I replied with affected unconcern.  “They say he’s a little eccentric ­don’t they?”

“His enemies say that,” she replied, “but his friends are full of praise of him.  He’s the most charming and generous of men, and his great wealth allows him to perform all sorts of kind actions.  They say that he can’t refuse anybody who asks for his influence or help.”

I reflected that his influence was certainly a baneful one.

“Ah!  I see you are one of his friends, Mrs. Cullerton!” I said, laughing.

“Yes ­I confess I am.”

“Then would you be surprised if I told you in strictest confidence that he is not your friend, but one of your bitterest enemies!” I said, lowering my voice, and looking straight into her wide-open blue eyes.

“I don’t understand you, Mr. Garfield!” she said, also lowering her voice.

“I will explain one day, Mrs. Cullerton ­one day when we are alone.”

“When?” she whispered, for Madame Rameil was approaching at the moment.

“Whenever you like to make an appointment,” I replied.  “Only I must first hold you to absolute secrecy.”

“That’s agreed,” whispered the pretty young woman.  “To-morrow.  I will be here alone at three o’clock,” and then she held out her hand, and aloud said: 

“Good-bye, Mr. Garfield.  So sorry you have to run away so early.  Good-bye!”