Read CHAPTER THE TWENTY-FIFTH - WHAT THE VALET KNEW of The Stretton Street Affair , free online book, by William Le Queux, on ReadCentral.com.

At the time appointed, as I stood in the hall, a tall, clean-shaven, rather spruce young man entered and spoke to the concierge, who at once brought him over to me.

I took him into a corner of the lounge, and when we were seated I told him of my suspicions and my quest.

Like many Swedes he spoke English, and in reply said: 

“Well, sir, I was in the Baron’s service for five years, and I knew his habits very well.  He was an excellent master ­most kind and generous, and with him I have travelled Europe up and down.  We were very often in London, where the Baron had bachelor chambers in Jermyn Street.”

“I know that,” I said.  “But tell me what you know, and what you suspect concerning his untimely end.”

“There was foul play, sir!” he said unhesitatingly.  “The Baron was a strong healthy man who lived frugally, and though he dealt in millions of francs, yet he was most quiet in his habits, and his boast was that he was never out of bed after half-past ten.  Though very rich he devoted nearly half his income yearly to charitable institutions.  I know the extent of his contributions to the needy, for I have often seen him draw the cheques.”

“Well ­tell me exactly what happened,” I asked.

“The affair presents some very puzzling features, sir,” he replied.  “One morning, while dressing, my master told me that he had to motor to The Hague as he wished to meet in strict secrecy a man who would call to see him at a little hotel called the Rhijn, in the Oranje Straat.  He asked me to drive him there so that Mullard, the chauffeur, should have no knowledge of the visit.  This I promised to do, for I can drive a car.  We arrived early in the afternoon, and the Baron, who was unknown at the obscure little place, ordered lunch for us both.  He ate his in the private room he had engaged, and at about three o’clock the visitor arrived.  He inquired of the proprietor and was shown into the Baron’s private room.  I judged him to be about forty, of middle height, well-dressed, and wearing big round tortoiseshell glasses, like those Americans so often wear.  He was red-faced and walked with a slight limp.”

“And what happened while your master was with the stranger?”

“The Baron came out and told me to go to the garage with the car, and I was telephoned for an hour later.  When I met him again he seemed to be in an ill and petulant mood, for he told me to drive back to Amsterdam with all speed.  He also again made me promise to tell nobody of the secret meeting.”

“And then?” I asked anxiously.

“On arrival home he washed, dressed, and dined alone.  Afterwards he put on his gloves, grey suede ones, ready to go, but exchanged them for a pair of white ones, as he recollected that he was going to the opera.  Then he walked out to the car, but suddenly cried, ’Oh!  My head!  My head!’ and fell on to the pavement.  I was just behind him when he did so, and hurried to get him up.  But he was already unconscious, and scarcely before we could get him into the house he expired.”

“And why do you suspect foul play?” I asked.

“I feel certain that my master did not die from natural causes,” declared the thin-faced man-servant.

“You suspect that the individual in round spectacles had a hand in it ­eh?”

“I do.  But how, I have no idea.  The police pooh-pooh my suspicions.  But if my suspicions are unfounded, why has not the stranger come forward?  There has been a lot about the affair in the papers.”

“Yes,” I said.  “It certainly appears strange, for there can be no cause for secrecy now that the Baron is dead, even if some great financial transaction had been involved.”

“My master often received very queer visitors,” said Folcker.  “Once he entertained two very strange-looking shabby individuals when he was at Aix-les-Bains with Mr. De Gex.”

“With Mr. De Gex!” I echoed.  “Was the Baron a friend of his?”

“Yes, an intimate friend.  They often had big deals together in which Count Chamartin, who lived in Madrid, participated.”

“Ah!  That is distinctly interesting,” I said.  “Did the Baron, when in London, visit Mr. De Gex at Stretton Street?”

“Frequently.  They were mutually interested in the great Netherlands Shipping Combine about a year ago,” replied the valet.

“And you usually travelled with your master, I suppose?”

“Nearly always.  We were frequently in Paris, Berlin, Rome, or Madrid, and naturally I learnt a good deal about his business.  His most intimate friend was Mr. De Gex.  Do you happen to know him?”

I gritted my teeth, and replied in the affirmative.

“A very charming man,” the valet declared.  “He was always very good to the servants.  I used to look after him when he visited us here in Amsterdam.”

“Did you ever meet a friend of his ­a Frenchman named Suzor?” I asked.

“Yes, once.  When we stayed with Mr. De Gex at Florence.  He was a fellow guest with my master.”

“And an Italian doctor named Moroni?”

Folcker shook his head, as he replied: 

“I have no recollection of an Italian doctor.  We were in Florence only two weeks.”

“Of course you know Mr. De Gex’s butler, a man named Horton?” I asked.

“No, the man I know is named Farmer.  I haven’t been to Stretton Street for over a year.”

It would therefore appear that Horton was a new servant.

“But have you any idea how your master died?” was my next query.

“None ­only something tells me that he fell victim to a plot for his assassination.”

“Why?”

“Because he more than once told me that if he died certain persons would derive great benefits.”

“Who?  His friends?”

“I suppose so.”

“Including De Gex?”

The thin-faced man shook his head, saying: 

“Ah!  That I cannot tell, sir.  But I know that Mr. De Gex owed the Baron a very considerable sum over a financial deal regarding some oil wells in Roumania.  Only a few months ago he mentioned to Mr. Grant, one of his friends, in my presence, that he hoped De Gex would very soon settle with him.  In fact he seemed annoyed at the delay in the payment.”

This statement caused me to reflect deeply.

Was it really possible that the Dutch Baron’s death had been due to the machinations of this mystery-man of Europe?  The fact that he owed the dead man money would serve as sufficient motive!  I did not overlook the deeply-laid plot against myself, one that must have sent me swiftly into my grave had it not been for my providential escape.

The whole amazing facts, my meeting with Suzor in the express between York and King’s Cross, the trap set for me at Stretton Street, and my astounding adventures afterwards, all flashed through my mind.  Oswald De Gex was a most unscrupulous person who had climbed to fame and fortune over the ruined homes and bodies of his victims.  I was now out to obtain direct and undeniable evidence of his crimes.

Yet up to the present I could not go much further than mere surmise.  Two of his business friends, Count Chamartin and Baron van Veltrup, had died quite suddenly.  In the case of the latter, the valet expressed a positive belief that his master had not died of natural causes.  This was supported by the fact that the Baron received a mysterious visitor at an obscure hotel at The Hague, a man who was apparently disguised by big horn spectacles, and was certainly not a Dutchman.

And above all that, I held most conclusive evidence that both De Gex himself and the dead bandit, Despujol, had used that deadly drug orosin to secure their nefarious ends.

But the most irritating feature of the affair was that I was as far off as ever from solving the mystery of what happened on that memorable night in Stretton Street, or with what motive I had been induced to give a death certificate that had enabled the body of an unknown girl to be cremated.

I questioned the valet, Folcker, still further, telling him that I had come especially from London to endeavour to elucidate the truth concerning his master’s death.  He was devoted to the Baron, and was highly incensed at the attitude taken by the Dutch police.

“I will give you every assistance, sir,” he replied.

“Excellent,” I said.  “I would very much like to go to the Baron’s house.  Could you take me there?”

“Most certainly, sir,” was his response, and with willingness he accompanied me in a horse cab up the cobbled Leidwche Straat with its many canals to the pleasant Vondel Park, just outside the city.  We stopped before a great white house, square and rather inartistic, standing back behind very high iron railings, to which we were admitted by an elderly man-servant who was in charge of the place now that its owner was dead.

Folcker showed me his master’s handsome dressing-room which had been left practically as it was on the night of his tragic end.  He showed me how the Baron had put on his evening clothes and descended to dine.

He took me into the fine, handsomely-furnished dining-room, with big long carved table in the centre, and showed me the small round table set in the big bow window looking out upon the garden, at which the Baron always ate his meals when alone.

“After finishing his dinner the Baron smoked one of his Petroff cigarettes which were especially made for him in Odessa, and then calling me, he asked for his coat and told me to ring up for the car,” Folcker said.  “He finished his cigarette and a glass of kuemmel, at the same time scanning the evening newspaper.  All the time he had been eating, however, he seemed in a very angry mood.  The interview with the stranger at The Hague had somehow upset him, for once or twice he muttered angrily to himself.”

“Now tell me, Folcker,” I asked seriously, “when he entered that little hotel at The Hague he waited for his mysterious visitor ­did he not?”

“Yes, sir.”

“The visitor arrived and you saw him.  I understand that your master came out and saw you during the interview?”

“Yes.  About ten minutes after the stranger’s arrival the Baron came into the little hall of the hotel and told me that he would not require me for an hour, or perhaps more.  Apparently he did not wish the car to stand outside the place for so long, lest it should be recognized.  So he sent me to a garage.”

I hesitated.

“Then the stranger was left inside the hotel alone?”

“Yes, sir, for two or three minutes.  Why?”

We were standing out in the well-furnished hall and I glanced around.

“Your master was in quite good health as he ate his dinner and smoked his cigarette?” I remarked.

“Quite.  He came out of the room and standing here I gave him his hat, coat, gloves and stick.  After he had put on his coat he drew on his left-hand glove.  Suddenly he tore it off again, and rubbing his fingers together impatiently, said:  ’I forgot, Folcker!  I’m going to the opera, give me some white gloves.’  They were in the drawer yonder,” the valet said, pointing to a great old carved Flemish cupboard.  “So I got them out and handed them to him.  He drew one of them on and walked down to the gate to enter the car, when he suddenly fell upon the pavement outside.  You see, just yonder,” and he pointed through the open door.

“Why did he rub his fingers together, I wonder?” I remarked.  “Was it a habit of his?”

“Not at all, sir.  He seemed to have a sudden pain in his fingers.”

“A pain.  Why?”

“I don’t know, sir.  It has only this moment occurred to me.  He flung off the glove and tossed it upon the table.  It’s still there ­as you see.  Then he put on the white gloves and went down the steps and collapsed.”

“His head was affected?”

“Yes, he cried out twice that his head hurt him.  The doctors attribute his death to heart failure.  But, personally, I doubt it, sir!  I’m certain that there was foul play somewhere.”

I crossed to the great carved table which stood on the opposite side of the wide hall, tiled as it was with ancient blue and white Dutch tiles, and from the table took up a pair of well-worn grey suede gloves.  They interested me, because after putting one on the Baron had torn it off and rubbed his fingers.

“Is this the glove your master wore when he went to The Hague?” I asked, selecting the left-hand one.

“Yes, sir.”

I examined it closely and very gingerly.  The exterior presented nothing out of the ordinary, but on turning it inside out, I found in the index finger a tiny piece of steel which tumbled out upon the table.

It was apparently a piece clipped from the blade of a safety razor, and keenly sharp.  Anyone inserting a finger into the glove would certainly be cut by the razor edge of that sharp scrap of steel.  As it lay upon the polished oak I bent to look at it, the valet also standing near and bending down in curiosity.

Upon it something had apparently been smeared ­some colourless jelly, it seemed.

Had Baron van Veltrup fallen victim to orosin, wilfully administered?

That was my instant suspicion, one that was afterwards verified by the great Dutch pathologist Doctor Obelt, who lived in the Amstel Straat, and to whom I carried the mysterious but incriminating scrap of steel.

“Without a doubt this piece of razor-blade has been impregnated with a new and most deadly poison, orosin,” he declared to me on the following evening as I sat in his consulting room.  “The police have seen no mysterious circumstances in the unfortunate death of the Baron, who, by the way, was a very dear friend of mine.  But now you have brought me this piece of steel which you took from his glove, and which no doubt must have caused a slight cut to his finger and, in consequence, almost instant death, I feel it my duty to take up the matter with the authorities.”

“I shall be much gratified, doctor, if you will,” I urged, speaking in French.  “The valet’s suspicions of foul play are entirely proved.”

“Yes, foul play, committed by somebody who possesses expert toxicological knowledge.  I confess that this is the first time I have discovered orosin.  The hint you gave me caused me to search for it, and that I have found it is undoubted.”

Later that day I accompanied the doctor to the Bureau of Police, where we were met by a very stolid official who smoked a long thin cigar all the time he talked to us.

At first he treated the affair as of no importance.  The medical evidence had pronounced the Baron’s death as having been due to natural causes.  The police could not interfere further, he declared.

“Ah! but thanks to the Baron’s valet we now have evidence of a most subtle and deadly poison,” declared the Dutch pathologist.  “I certify that I have found upon a small piece of sharp steel, which has been discovered in the dead man’s glove, traces of orosin, one of the least known but most dangerous poisons.”

The heavy-jowled Dutch police official straightened himself in his chair.

“Is that really so, doctor?” he asked in surprise, holding his cigar between his fingers.

“Yes, it is,” Doctor Obelt replied.  “The body must be exhumed, and an examination made to ascertain if there is a small cut in the first finger of the left hand.  If there is ­then the Baron has been secretly murdered!”

“The valet has alleged this all along, but there being no evidence we disbelieved him,” said the official at once.

“There is now evidence ­direct evidence,” said the Dutch doctor.  “This Englishman here is interested in some way in the Baron’s death, and after discovering the scrap of razor-blade he brought it to me.”

The Dutch police official knit his brows, and turning to me, asked: 

“Did you yourself discover this piece of steel?”

“I did.  From certain facts within my knowledge I suspected that the Baron had been deliberately killed.  The allegations of the valet, Folcker, strengthened my suspicions, hence I travelled from London and pursued my own independent inquiries, which have resulted in the discovery of the little piece of blade inside the glove which the Baron wore when he went to interview his mysterious visitor at The Hague.”

“But what evidence have we that the mysterious visitor ­the individual who has been referred to in the report as the man with the round horn glasses ­had anything to do with the affair?”

“According to the Baron’s servant the visitor was left alone for a few moments in the room where van Veltrup had put down his gloves in order to go out and speak to his valet, who on that day was acting as his chauffeur.  It was in those moments of his absence that the unknown visitor put the infected scrap of steel into the Baron’s glove.”

“Did he not wear the gloves on his way back to Amsterdam?” asked the police official, as he laid down his thin cigar.

“No,” I replied.  “The valet is certain that instead of putting on his gloves he thrust them into the pocket of his linen dust-coat.  Folcker says that when his master returned he took the gloves from the pocket of the linen coat and placed them on the table in the hall ­as was his habit.  It was only when the Baron was going out again that he put on the left-hand one, and then suddenly drew it off and rubbed his fingers.  The first finger of his left hand had undoubtedly been cut, and hence infected with that substance which causes almost instant death and the exact symptoms of heart disease.”

“Orosin ­did you say?” asked the head of the Amsterdam police.

“Yes,” I replied.  “Orosin ­the most dangerous, subtle and easily administered poison known to our modern toxicologists.  And your great financier Baron van Veltrup has died by the hand of one who has wilfully administered it!”

“Well,” said the stolid man with the scraggy beard, rather reluctantly, “I confess that this has come to me as a perfect revelation.”

“You have only to order the exhumation of the Baron’s body, and an examination of the left hand, to be convinced that what this Englishman, Mr. Garfield, has discovered is the actual truth!” declared Doctor Obelt, whose reputation as a pathologist was the highest in the Netherlands, and against whose opinion even the Chief of Police of Amsterdam could raise no word.

“It shall be done, gentlemen,” the stolid official assured us.  “It shall be done in secret ­and at once.”

He was true to his word, for at noon next day I received an invitation to call again at the Police Bureau, and was there informed that a small superficial cut upon the first finger of the left hand had been discovered.

Therefore there was no doubt that death had resulted from foul play.

If such were the case, it seemed more than probable that to Count de Chamartin, the intimate associate of Oswald De Gex, a similar dose of orosin had been administered!