Read CHAPTER THE TWENTY-FOURTH - YET ANOTHER MYSTERY of The Stretton Street Affair , free online book, by William Le Queux, on ReadCentral.com.

The first week in August was unusually hot and dry in London.

Gabrielle and Mrs. Tennison had remained in Lyons, for Professor Gourbeil had suggested that his patient should, as a desperate resource, remain under his treatment for a few weeks.  He gave practically no hope of her recovery.  The dose of orosin that had been administered was, he declared, a larger one than that which De Gex had introduced into my drink on that night of horrors.

The effect upon me had been to muddle my brain so that I had accepted those Bank of England notes as bribe to assist the mystery-man of Europe in his foul and mysterious plot.

My companion Harry Hambledon was still earning his guineas at Hammersmith Police Court, gradually establishing a reputation.  He had bought a small two-seater car, and each Sunday he took Norah out for runs to the Hut at Wisley, to the Burford Bridge Hotel, where the genial Mr. Hunt ­one of the last remaining Bohemians of the days of the Junior Garrick Club ­welcomed them; to the Wooton Hatch, or up to those more pretentious and less comfortable hostelries on Hindhead.

Motoring had roused a new interest in my friend.  I loved the open road, but with the heavy expenses I had recently sustained I could not afford it.  Besides, my firm had just secured a big electric lighting contract with the corporation of Chichester, and I was constantly travelling between that city and London, sometimes by rail and sometimes in Mr. Francis’s car.

I suppose I must have carried on my work satisfactorily after the generous leave the firm ­one of those stately old-fashioned ones which have still survived the war ­had accorded me.  But my thoughts were ever of my beloved Gabrielle, the beautiful girl whom, though her mind was so strongly unbalanced, I yet loved with all the strength of my being.

Every few days we exchanged letters.  Sometimes Mrs. Tennison wrote to me from the quiet little pension in the Rue Paul Bert, in Lyons, but her letters were always despairing.  Poor Gabrielle was just the same.  She still had no other vista in life than her immediate one, and she still in her reflective moments gave vent to that strange ejaculation of those mysterious words:  “Red, green and gold!  Red, green and gold!”

I confess that I went about my business in a low-spirited, despairing mood.  More than once I passed by that dark forbidding house in Stretton Street, the blinds of which were drawn, for ever since the winter it had been closed with the caretaker in charge.  Pass along Park Lane and the Mayfair neighbourhood in August and you will see the Holland blinds drawn everywhere.  The window-boxes filled with geraniums and marguerites are drooping, for they have served their turn and “the families” are out of town, enjoying themselves in Scotland, in Norway, or at the French Spas.  Honest Londoners may sweat and toil with their begrudged fourteen days at the sea or in the country, but Society, caring nothing for unhealthy trades or ill-paid labour, unless a strike perchance affects their pockets or their comforts, drifts to where it can flirt, dance or gamble amid gay surroundings denied in London by our sanctimonious kill-joys.

Whenever I passed along Stretton Street there spread over my mind the strange and inexplicable events of that night when De Gex’s man-servant Horton had dashed out after me, and suddenly implored me to see his master.  Ah!  I saw the amazing cleverness of the whole plot ­a plot such as could only be conceived by a master brain.

De Gex’s dark, sinister, half-Oriental countenance haunted me in my dreams.  True, he was a man who swayed the finances of Europe, suave, smiling, and with an extremely polished and refined exterior.  But why Suzor had purposely become acquainted with me, and why I had afterwards been enticed into that house of tragedy were, in themselves, two points, the motive of which I failed to grasp.

Late one evening I passed the house, going out of my way purposely to do so, when, to my amazement, I saw standing upon the doorstep, and about to enter his car, no other person than Oswald De Gex himself.  Behind him stood a strange man-servant, who at the moment seemed to be taking some instructions.

In the darkness De Gex could not distinguish me.  Therefore I drew back and watched the world-famous financier enter the car and drive away.

So Oswald De Gex was back in London ­and in August!  I had passed the house on the previous afternoon and seen that as usual the faded Holland blinds were drawn, just as they had been for months, an indication to callers that the owner was away.  I looked again.  The blinds were still down!

Next day being Sunday I watched, and though at four o’clock in the afternoon De Gex came forth and strolled round to his club in St. James’s Street, the blinds were still drawn, it being evident that the unscrupulous man who juggled with European dynasties was living there in obscurity ­and in pretence of absence.

Why?

My watchfulness was increased; my thoughts being ever upon the avenging of the injury done to the sweet girl I so dearly loved ­that poor unfortunate creature whose brain had been destroyed by the dastardly administration of that poison only known to students of toxicology.  In my waking hours I conjured up scenes of how mother and daughter, living in that obscure pension in busy Lyons, went each day to the Professor’s house, and how the kindly old savant did his best to restore her brain to its normal activity.

One hot day I had been to Reading on business for the firm, and on arrival at Paddington I bought an evening paper and took it home to Rivermead Mansions.  As usual Harry and I had dinner together, and after he had gone out to Richmond, I sat by the open window which looked upon the towing-path beside the Thames, and with my pipe in my mouth, scanned the day’s news.

Of a sudden I came across a heading which attracted me, and read as follows: 

“The sudden death is announced, at his house outside Amsterdam, of Baron Harte van Veltrup, the well-known Dutch financier, who for some years was in active association with the Spanish banker, the late Count de Chamartin.  The Count died recently in San Sebastian just after he, with van Veltrup, had promoted a great railway scheme in Central Spain.  The circumstances of the Baron’s death appear to be somewhat mysterious, says our Amsterdam correspondent.  Three days ago the banker, who is a widower, went to The Hague, where in a private room in an obscure hotel, he met a man on business.  The meeting was apparently in secret, for he told his valet that he did not wish anyone to know of the mysterious visitor for a certain financial reason.  The man remained with the Baron for nearly an hour, after which the financier went home in his car to Amsterdam, his valet driving.  On the way the servant noticed that his master seemed very perturbed, once or twice muttering threats beneath his breath.

“On arrival at his house facing Vondel Park, he dressed, ate his dinner alone, and was about to re-enter his car to drive to the Park Schouwburg, where opera was being given that night, when he staggered and fell just outside the gate, and expired in a few moments.

“Though a medical examination proved that death was due to heart failure, some comment has been caused by the valet’s story of his master’s mysterious visitor at The Hague.  The latter he describes as middle-aged, with a small dark moustache, a ruddy complexion, wearing round horn-rimmed spectacles.  He thinks the latter were worn for purposes of disguise.

“Three doctors have, however, declared that death ensued from natural causes, hence the police discredit the valet’s story.  Baron van Veltrup, who was well known in international finance, was a frequent visitor to London, where he had permanent chambers in Jermyn Street.  He was in the habit of receiving strange callers ­persons who probably gave him secret information regarding Government concessions and other such matters.  Therefore it is not believed that the man whom he met in secret has any connexion with his sudden and lamented death.  The Baron contributed most generously to Dutch charities, especially to the Blinden Institution, of which he was one of the governors.

“Some of his financial deals were of outstanding magnitude.  The last loan to Peru was made through his house, in combination with that of Chamartin, in Madrid, while he negotiated a big loan to Serbia immediately before the war, as well as obtaining the concessions for two new railways in Northern Italy and in Portugal.  The reputation of the house of Veltrup was one of the highest standing, and the Baron’s untimely death has cast a gloom over financial circles in all the European capitals.”

I raised my eyes from the paper and gazed across the Thames now growing grey in the evening light.  Outside, the soft wind whispered in the trees and across the long suspension bridge ran an endless stream of motor traffic into and out of London.

The affair in Amsterdam was certainly curious, but what attracted me most was the fact that the dead Baron had been a partner with the late Count Chamartin, whose widow I knew by sight.  The Count had also died very suddenly.  So within a short time of each other two men whose names were ones to conjure with in international finance had both died!

The valet’s story I did not doubt.  I knew that such men as the late Baron were often compelled, in their own interests, to receive visits from mysterious and often undesirable persons, most of whom were paid for their information.  Every giant of finance employs his secret agents, whose duty it is to keep his principal informed of the various political and other secrets in Europe.  Indeed, the great financiers know more of the underground currents of foreign politics than they do at any Embassy or Ministry of Foreign Affairs.  It is their duty to know the secrets of nations ­and they profit upon their knowledge.

I sat ruminating.  The sudden deaths of the two pillars of finance was, to say the least, a curious coincidence.  I recollected that Chamartin had been associated with De Gex, and the object of the latter’s journey to Madrid had apparently been to interview his dead friend’s widow.  I also remembered Professor Vega’s description of the deadly effect of that secret poison orosin ­that it might cause almost instant death, and that all doctors would attribute the cause to heart failure.

This caused me to ponder for a long time.  I read and re-read the report of the Baron’s death, and when I retired to bed ­Harry not having yet returned ­I could not sleep, so haunted was I by vague suspicions.

Next day I found that I could not apply myself to work at the office, so gave it up and once more wandered towards Hyde Park Corner and up Park Lane where again I passed through Stretton Street.  The blinds of the big dark mansion were all lowered, indicating that its owner was still out of town.  Yet I knew that he was living in the half darkness of that closed house.

Why?

Several days passed when, unable to rest, I at last asked leave of absence from old Mr. Francis, and crossed by the night-boat from Harwich to the Hook of Holland.  On the following day I found myself in quaint old Amsterdam, that city built upon the sand in defiance of a certain text in St. Matthew, the city with its great network of canals, and its many gaudily-painted barges.  As I left my hotel and walked to the Dam, the central square of the city, my nostrils were saluted upon one side by the perfume of the flowers adorning the windows and the odour of cook-shops, while on the other was the smell of tar and the fumes of the humble kitchens of sailing vessels.

I happened to know an Englishman employed as clerk to a firm of Dutch forwarding agents whose offices were in the Dam, and this man, whose name was Graham, I at once sought.

We went out to a cafe together, and I explained the object of my visit, namely, the investigation of the death of Baron van Veltrup.  Graham at once regarded me with considerable astonishment, for very naturally he could not make out why I should take such a keen interest in the death of one of the richest men in Holland.

“The Baron died of heart failure,” my friend said.  “The doctors are agreed upon that.  His valet told some extraordinary story, but no credence has been placed in it.  There has been a good deal in the papers concerning the unfortunate affair, but the excitement has now all died down.  The Baron was, I believe, buried yesterday.”

“I know that there is no suspicion that death was due to foul play, Graham,” I said.  “But I confess that in face of certain knowledge I possess I am not altogether satisfied with the doctor’s conclusion.”

My friend smiled incredulously.

“At first, the police were, I heard, inclined to suspect foul play.  But after full investigation they are now quite satisfied as to the cause of death.”

“Be that as it may, I intend to make a few discreet inquiries,” I replied resolutely.  “I want you, if you will, to assist me.”

He smiled again in undisguised disbelief.

“Of course you are at liberty to express your own opinion,” he said with some reluctance.  “And if you wish, I will assist you.  But I really think, Garfield, that you will be only wasting your time ­and mine.”

“I hope not,” I assured him.  “Were I not in possession of certain exclusive information I should not venture to come here from London and trouble you, as I am doing.”

Graham, whom I had known for a number of years, looked very straight at me.

“What is the nature of this exclusive information?” he inquired.  “You are concealing something, Hugh.”

“Yes.  I know I am,” was my reply as I smiled at him.  “I am here to discover the truth regarding the death of Baron van Veltrup.”

“Then you suspect foul play ­eh?” asked my friend.

“Yes, I do,” I replied in a low voice, “and I want you, Graham, to put me in touch with the Baron’s valet.”

“He is a man named Folcker, a Swede, according to the newspapers.  I dare say I could find him.”

“If you can, you will assist me very much.  I must have a chat with him,” I said.  “I feel somehow that in face of the strange facts within my knowledge that he can give me the clue to the cause of his master’s death.”

Graham smiled.  He seemed to regard me as a person whose mind was not quite sound.  But I will give him his due.  He propitiated me, and promised to get into touch with Oscar Folcker.  By virtue of the wide ramifications of the firm by which Graham was employed, I knew that it would be an easy matter, hence I was not surprised when next day he rang me up on the telephone to my hotel and told me that he had been able to find the valet Folcker who would call upon me at six o’clock that evening.