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

On the ground, close to my bed, were three brass-headed carpet pins which had apparently spilt accidentally out of a box.

The sharp point of each was upturned, and it was a marvel that during the night I had not stepped upon them.

How had they come there?  Was it by accident or design that they were beside my bed?

At first I wondered whether the hotel upholsterer had been at work on the previous day and had left them behind.  He might have used them for pinning down my carpet.

I took one up and examined it.  Next second I stood aghast.

The others I also took up, handling them very gingerly, for around the points of each was some colourless transparent substance which looked like vaseline.  Such a substance was not ordinarily upon the points of carpet pins.

A horrible thought flashed across my mind.  Therefore I carefully placed the three pins upon the small glass tray upon the dressing-table, and dressed as quickly as I could, reflecting the while upon my adventure with the stranger whom I had taken to be a thief.

I shaved, swallowed the coffee which the young waiter brought me, and at once descended to the bureau; when in French I inquired of the clerk for Senor Salavera.  He examined the register and replied politely: 

“We have no one of that name staying here, senor.”

“What?” I cried.  “He was in Room 175 last night!”

“Number 175 was Senor Solier,” replied the smart young clerk.  “He paid his bill and left just after seven o’clock this morning.”

“But I saw his identification papers ­his passport ­letters addressed to him as Senor Salavera!”

“That may be so, senor,” was the suave reply.  “But he registered here as Senor Solier.”  And then he dropped into English, which he spoke very fairly.  “Of course people who stay at hotels do not always give their correct names.  They do not wish them published in visitors’ lists in the newspapers.  Perhaps it is only natural,” and he smiled.

“Have you any one named Pedro Espada in the hotel?” I inquired.

Again he consulted his register, but shook his head.

“Nobody of that name,” he replied.

I hesitated.  Then I asked: 

“Did the gentleman who spent the night in Room 175 depart alone?”

The reception-clerk called the uniformed concierge, and asked: 

“Did Number 175 leave alone?”

“Yes,” was the reply.  “He caught the early express for Zaragoza.  He was going on to Barcelona, he told me.  He went in the omnibus.”

“No one with him?”

“Nobody.”

“When did he arrive?” I asked.

“The night before last.  He was alone ­with only a handbag.  I charged him with a deposit for his room.”

“Have you ever seen him before?” I asked.

“Never to my recollection.”

“Neither have I,” remarked the concierge.  “He seemed very afraid of being seen.  I noticed him in the lounge last night.  He left this morning quite suddenly, and without taking anything ­even a cup of coffee.”

“He left in a violent hurry ­eh?” I exclaimed, well knowing the reason.  “Well,” I added, “I wish to see the manager.”

“I will inform him,” the clerk replied, and he went to the telephone.  A minute later, after exchanging a few words in Spanish, he turned to me, saying: 

“You will find the manager’s office on the first floor.  If you take the lift the man will direct you, senor.”

A few minutes later I was seated in the office of an elderly bald-headed man, a typical hotelier, courteous, smiling, and eager to hear any complaint that I might have to make.

At once I told him of my curious adventure of the previous night, and of the sudden flight of the mysterious stranger whom I had discovered in my room.

“That is certainly strange, sir,” he replied in English.  “His excuse was a very ingenious one, to say the least.  I think we ought to inform the police.  Do you not agree?”

I told him of my discovery of the carpet pins, and asked his advice as to whom I might send them for chemical analysis.

At once he suggested Professor Vega, of the Princesa Hospital in the Calle Alberto Aguilera, adding: 

“The Professor often dines here.  If you wish, I will take you to him.”

So still leaving the three carpet pins upon the little glass tray I wrapped it in paper and together we went round to the hospital, where I was introduced to a tall, narrow-faced, grey-haired man in a long linen coat.  To him I explained how I had found the pins on the carpet beside my bed, and asking whether he would submit them to examination.

He looked at them critically, first with the naked eye and afterwards by means of a large reading-glass.  Then he grunted in dissatisfaction and promised that next day, or the day after, he would tell me the result of his analysis.

As we drove back to the hotel the manager remarked: 

“It is a very curious affair, sir, to say the least.  One does not scatter carpet pins about a bedroom, and particularly when the points are smeared with some mysterious substance.  If they had been there before you retired to bed the chambermaid must certainly have seen them.  She makes a round of the rooms each night at ten o’clock.  Besides, the facts that the bolt had been tampered with, and also that the man who occupied 175 left so early and so hurriedly, are additionally suspicious.  Yes,” he added, “I think we ought to see the police.”

With that object he took me at once to Senor Andrade, the Chief of Police, a short, stout, alert little man, who heard me with keen interest and seemed very puzzled.

“The intruder’s explanation was certainly a very clever one,” he remarked in French.  “It is a pity you did not demand to see his friend, Pedro Espada.  If you had, you would have discovered him to be nonexistent.”

“But he was so clever,” I answered.  “He told me that at that hour he could not discover in which room his friend was really sleeping.”

“But the night-porter was on duty,” exclaimed the hotel manager.  “He had the register and would have been able at once to tell you the number of the room.”

The fellow seemed so frank in revealing to me his money, the portraits of his family, and his private letters, that I had taken his statement as the truth.

Yet, even now, I could not believe that he had any sinister design ­not until the Professor had examined those three carpet pins.

In response to close questions put to me by Senor Andrade, with whom was Senor Rivero, the head of the Detective Branch, I gave a description of my midnight visitor as accurately as I could.  I told them how I had covered him with my automatic pistol, and how afterwards we had laughed together at our mental fear of each other.

Senor Rivero, the bald-headed, black-bearded chief of the branch of criminal investigation, suddenly stopped me when I mentioned the scar upon the neck of the advocate from Burgos.

“Did you notice that there was any deformity of his hands?” he asked quickly.

In an instant I recollected that the little finger of his right hand had been amputated at the first joint, and I told him so.

“Ah!” exclaimed the shrewd, dark-bearded official.  “Perhaps we may here find something of interest.  Just a few moments,” and he rose and left us.

We chatted with Senor Andrade for about a quarter of an hour when the detective returned with a bundle of papers and four photographs of a man taken in police style upon one negative, full face, three-quarter, half and profile.

The instant he placed it before me, I exclaimed: 

“Why, that is Salavera!”

“I thought as much,” remarked the famous detective with a grim smile.  “He is not Salavera, but Rodriquez Despujol, one of the most dangerous criminals in Spain!”

“Despujol!” cried Senor Andrade.  “And he was in Madrid last night!” Then he added:  “Ah! if we had but known.”

“True.  But why was he in the English gentleman’s room?” queried the detective.  “He is a dangerous character, and one would have thought that instead of being covered he would, on being cornered, have drawn his knife and attacked his adversary.”

“Despujol is no amateur,” the Chief of Police agreed.  “We’ve wanted him for the last five years for the assassination of the banker, Monteros, in the train between Cordova and Malaga, and yet he always evades us, even though he is one of the most audacious thieves in Europe.”

“But his friend Pedro?” I remarked, startled at what I had now learned.

“He does not exist,” replied the detective.  “You no doubt had a lucky escape.  Had you demanded to see his friend he would no doubt have killed you.  He is a man of colossal strength ­a veritable tiger, they say.”

“But what was the motive?” I asked.  “I have no valuables, save my watch and tie pin, and fifty pounds in English money.  Surely it was not worth while to kill me for that!”

“No.  That’s just it,” replied the dark-eyed detective, whose chagrin was so apparent that Despujol had slipped through his fingers.  “The game was not worth the candle.  So he returned after proving to you his bona fides.  And these bona fides he always carries in order to extricate himself from any ugly situation.”

“But the carpet pins?” asked the hotel manager.

The director of the Spanish secret police shrugged his shoulders, and said: 

“Until Professor Vega can make a report we can do nothing.  It is no use basing theories upon mere surmises.  So we can only wait for Senor Vega to tell us what he discovers.  Meanwhile, we will try and secure Despujol ­though I fear he has too long a start of us.”

He crossed the room to the telephone, and a few minutes later spoke in Spanish into the instrument in sharp, authoritative tones.

I understood him to be speaking to the police commissary at Zaragoza, explaining that the much-wanted criminal Despujol had left Madrid for that city, and giving the train by which he was supposed to be travelling.  Then, in turn, he spoke to the commissaries of Alcazar, Salamanca, Valladolid and Arroyo, thus informing the police along all the lines of railway leading from the capital.

It was evident that what I had told them caused considerable excitement.  Indeed, after the head of the detective department had concluded giving his instructions over the telephone, he turned to me and translated into French the black record of the stranger whom I had discovered in my room.

That he was a bold and audacious criminal was quickly apparent.  In the Sud express travelling between Madrid and Paris he had drugged and robbed an Italian jeweller of a wallet containing a quantity of diamonds, which he took to London at once and disposed of to a receiver of stolen property at Kilburn.

Another of his daring exploits was the theft of the famous Murillo from the Castle of Setefillas, near Seville.  This he sold to a dealer in Brussels, who afterwards smuggled it to New York, where it was bought by a private collector for a very large sum.

Yet again, a few months later he enticed a bank messenger in Barcelona into a house he had taken for the purpose, and having knocked him down robbed him of his wallet containing a quantity of English bank notes and negotiable securities.

Up to five years before he had been convicted many times, but he now seemed to be able to commit robberies with impunity, and always get off free.  It was believed that he lived in secret somewhere abroad and only came to Spain to commit thefts.  Probably he passed to and fro to France by one of the obscure mountain tracks through the Pyrénées known only to those who dealt in contraband ­and there are many in that chain of mountains.

In any case the police were now hot again upon his track.

Suddenly the head of the Detective Department had another inspiration and rang up both Jaca and Pamplona, which are at the end of each railway line towards the barrier of mountains which form the French frontier.

“If he is on his way to France he will go to either one place or the other,” he said.

“But have they his photograph?” I asked.

“A copy of this photograph taken at the prison of Barcelona, is in every detective office in Spain,” was his reply.  “Rodriquez Despujol is the most dangerous and elusive criminal at large,” he went on.  “He never leaves anything to chance.  No doubt he believed that you were in possession of something valuable, and his intention was to drug you and get it.  But you were too quick for him.  My chief surprise is why, when he found himself cornered as he was, that he did not draw his knife and attack you.”

“But I had a pistol!” I said.

“Despujol does not fear pistols.  Before you could pull the trigger he could have pounced upon you like a cat!” replied the police official.

“Well, he certainly entirely misled me,” I exclaimed.  “I even offered him an apology for my attitude towards him.”

The three men laughed heartily.

“An apology to Despujol!” cried the Chief of Police.  “How very amusing!”

“I consider that I was very lucky,” I said.  “He seems to be a most desperate character.”

“He is,” answered Senor Andrade.  “We have had inquiries for him from all over Europe.  During the war it seems that he served as a spy of Germany in France, hence the military authorities there are very anxious to get him.”

“But you think he lives in France and crosses the frontier every now and then.”

“Yes.  We received information to that effect about a year ago.  He probably lives as a poor, but perfectly honest man in one of the remote villages in the Pyrénées, and is perhaps held in high esteem by all around him.  It was the case of the notorious Maurice Tricoche who escaped us for years and lived near Luchon until he was betrayed by a woman whose husband he had maltreated.  Perhaps Despujol will also be betrayed.  We hope so!”

“I cannot understand why the fellow dared to put foot into Madrid when he knows how active we are in search of him,” remarked Senor Rivero, turning to me.  “He must have followed you with evil intent.  The explanation of mistaking your room was, of course, a good one, but entirely false.”

I longed to tell the police all about the mystery of Stretton Street, and the grave suspicions concerning the great international financier who was at that moment at the Ritz.  Yet I hesitated for two reasons, the first being that I feared lest my story should be disbelieved, and secondly, because I had, on behalf of the beautiful girl with whom I had fallen in love, set out to solve the enigma by myself, and bring the culprit to justice.

“If Despujol is arrested I will willingly come forward and give evidence ­that is, if I am still in Spain,” I promised.

But both police officials shrugged their shoulders, and the detective remarked: 

“Despujol is a will o’ the wisp.  There seems little hope of our ever securing him.  Nevertheless we shall continue to do our best to allow you to face him again one day.  And then, senor, you will realize what a miraculous escape you have had!”