Read CHAPTER THE TWENTY-EIGHTH - LOVE THE CONQUEROR of The Stretton Street Affair , free online book, by William Le Queux, on ReadCentral.com.

The sudden revelation of the motive of the crime at Stretton Street staggered me.

An hour later I saw the Count’s lawyer, Senor Serrano, at his hotel in Russell Square, and from him learned much more regarding his late client’s disposition of his property.  The Count had apparently not been on very affectionate terms with his second wife, which accounted for him leaving the bulk of his fortune to his daughter Gabrielle, and in case of her death, to his partner De Gex, whom he had, of course, believed to be an honest man.

The Count had died suddenly several months before his daughter.  He had died from orosin, no doubt administered by someone in De Gex’s pay.  Then almost before the will could be proved in the girl’s favour, Senor Serrano learned that the girl herself had died in England.  Since then he had been constantly occupied in straightening out his late client’s affairs, and had now come to London for the first time in order to see Oswald De Gex, who had been constantly pressing for a settlement of the estate.  He had seen him on the previous day, when he appeared to be anxious that the affair should be cleared up.

“As he spoke of his late partner, and of his daughter, tears came to his eyes,” said the Spanish lawyer, speaking in French.

Tears in the eyes of Oswald De Gex!  I smiled at the thought.

As for Rivero he now became just as puzzled as I was myself.

To me the motive of poor Gabrielle Engledue’s death was now quite apparent, and, moreover, it seemed that the reason De Gex required a forged death certificate was because he was not exactly certain whether by a post-mortem examination any trace of the drug could be found.  He was not quite sure that one or other of the great London pathologists might not identify orosin.  With the Count’s death on the Continent he had taken the risk, well knowing that any ordinary doctor would pronounce death as being due to heart failure, as indeed it was.  In London, however, he felt impelled to take precautions, and they were very elaborate and cunning ones, as I now knew.

With the motive thus apparent, I felt myself on the verge of triumph.  Yet without full knowledge of what occurred to my poor beloved on that night how could I denounce the arch-criminal whose favours were now being sought by the great ones of the land.

I was still in a quandary.  I had established to my own satisfaction that Tito Moroni, the doctor of the Via Cavezzo, was the person who had distilled the orosin, and who had no doubt introduced it to his wealthy but unscrupulous patient as a means of ridding himself of unwanted persons and enriching himself at the same time.  Indeed, these facts were eventually proved up to the hilt.

The motives for the deaths of the Conde de Chamartin, his daughter, and the philanthropic Dutch financier, were all quite plain, but, of course, I had said nothing to Rivero, or to anybody else, regarding my acceptance of a bribe to assist De Gex in the committal of a crime.

I confess that on that night of horror I had no suspicion of foul play, for knowing the great financier as a person of very high standing, I naturally believed the story of his niece’s sudden death.  It was not until I found myself in the hospital at St. Malo that I realized how cleverly I had been tricked.  The drug had been administered to me in just sufficient dose to ensure that my brain should be affected, and that any story I might afterwards tell should be discredited.

Happily, however, I had now nearly completely recovered.  I was the third person known to return to their normal senses after a dose of orosin.  Would there be a fourth?

Three further days went past, watchful, anxious days.  De Gex was still at Stretton Street, apparently quite unconscious that his hireling Sanz was being kept under close surveillance.  Another plot was in progress, without a doubt.  Twice again had the elusive Spaniard, who was such a close friend of the notorious Despujol, visited Stretton Street.

It seemed, too, that De Gex, though anxious to return to Italy, still remained in London in the hope that Senor Serrano would arrange for the immediate transfer of the Count’s property.

One could scarcely take up a newspaper without finding that Oswald De Gex had attended this function or that, for he was apparently courting the favours of certain high political personages, no doubt with a view to a place in the next Honours List.

I smiled within myself as I read of all the great man’s doings, of his vast financial interests, of his estates in England and in Italy, and his assistance to the Ministry of Finance of Spain.  Often indeed when at home I discussed the situation with Hambledon, yet without the evidence of Gabrielle Tennison we could not act.

Nearly a week had passed since my first meeting with the Spanish lawyer Serrano.  Tito Moroni had apparently returned to Italy, for he had not been again to Stretton Street.  His last visit there had no doubt resulted in a quarrel with his wealthy client, whom I had suspicions he was blackmailing, for such would undoubtedly be the procedure of a blackguard of his calibre.  More than once Rivero seemed anxious to secure the arrest of Mateo Sanz, but I constantly urged him to remain patient.  He frequently begged me to reveal the true extent of my knowledge, but I always evaded his questions because I was not yet in a position to make a triumphant coup, and avenge poor Gabrielle.

Daily, hourly indeed, was she in my thoughts.  The letters I received from Lyons were the reverse of hopeful.  The last one indeed reported that little or no progress had been noted during the weeks she had been under the care of the kindly old professor.

One evening, on returning from the office, I found upon the hall-table a note in Mrs. Tennison’s well-known hand.  It had been written from Longridge Road a few hours before, and in it she asked me to call that evening as they had returned from France.

Naturally I lost no time in dashing over to Earl’s Court, and with failing heart I entered the well-remembered artistic little drawing-room where Gabrielle herself, in a cool frock of cream washing silk trimmed with narrow edgings of jade green, rose smiling to greet me.

Her face was changed, for her countenance was now bright and vivacious, and her eyes merry and sparkling.  The hard set expression had gone, and she looked very alert and indescribably sweet.

“Well, Mr. Garfield!” she cried merrily, shaking my hand in warm welcome, so different from her usual apathetic attitude towards me.  “You see we’re back again!  Mother has just gone round to Aunt Alice’s in Cromwell Road, but she told me that you would call.”

“Well, Miss Tennison!” I exclaimed, holding her soft little hand in mine, and looking into her eyes.  “I hope ­I hope that you feel better.  Indeed, you look quite changed!”

“Yes.  I can recollect everything now!  All the past has come back to me, thanks to the old Professor.  He was so very kind, and so patient that I can never thank him sufficiently ­or you, Mr. Garfield, for discovering him.  I feel quite myself again.  And it was all so sudden.  At first, the treatment gave me no relief, my brain seemed so muddled, but quite suddenly one day I found that I could recollect the past ­all that happened to me on that terrible night.  And in three days the Professor announced that I had quite recovered!”

My heart leapt with joy!  She was cured! ­cured!

“Tell me all that you recollect regarding the events of that night,” I urged breathlessly as we sat together in the little London drawing-room.  I looked at her countenance and realized now that it was full of life and animation, how very beautiful she was.  How different from when I had seen her half dragged along the streets of Florence by her pretended friend Moroni.

But justice was at hand.  So I urged her to tell me exactly what happened.  I give it to you, my reader, in my love’s own words, just as she related it to me.

“Well,” she said, drawing a long breath.  “One night about twelve months ago I was at a private dance at the house of a friend in Holland Park, when I was introduced to a young married woman named Cullerton, the wife of a man on the Stock Exchange.  I rather liked her, and as she invited me to a small dance which she gave a week later we soon became friends.  One day, while we were walking together in Bond Street we met Mr. De Gex, the great financier, to whom she introduced me.  His car was standing at the kerb, so he took us back to tea at his house in Stretton Street.  While we were at tea a tall, dark Spanish-looking girl came in and was introduced to us as Gabrielle Engledue.  As we sat at tea we laughed over the similarity of our names, and she told me that though her mother had been English she had lived all her life in Madrid, and had been over here for the purpose of studying English.  She had been staying with a family somewhere in Essex, but was now at an hotel in London, for she was returning to Madrid in a few days.  I rather liked her, and as Mr. De Gex was charming to us both, I accepted his invitation to dine there a few days later.  I did not tell mother about this, for I feared that being rather old-fashioned she might disapprove of my new friendships.  We had a delightful dinner, and Mr. De Gex took us all three to the theatre afterwards, and drove each of us home.  I was the first, and he put me down at the corner of Earl’s Court Road.

“On the night of November the seventh at very short notice Mr. De Gex had again invited Miss Engledue and myself through Mrs. Cullerton to dinner, for she was leaving for Madrid next day, her luggage having already been sent to the station cloak-room, she told me.  We understood that Mr. and Mrs. Cullerton were also coming.  We did not put on dinner-dresses as Mr. De Gex said he intended to take us to a show at Olympia afterwards.  I was, I know, foolish not to tell mother where I was going, but the reason for it I have already explained.  When I arrived at Stretton Street, after my dancing lesson, Gabrielle Engledue was already there chatting with Mr. De Gex in the library.  He told me that he had just received a telephone message from Mr. Cullerton saying that his wife had been taken rather unwell and therefore could not come.  So we three sat down, the only other guest being a man I now recollect as one who afterwards proved my friend, Doctor Moroni.

“The meal was quite a merry one for Mr. De Gex was quite a lady’s man when his wife was absent.  At that time I understood that Mrs. De Gex was remaining in Italy.  The meal was served by a man whom the great financier addressed as Horton, and just before coffee was brought in I recollect that Moroni left the table and went to the telephone.  Then, on his return, the man Horton brought in the cups which were already filled.  The man put down a cup before me, but De Gex noticing that it was a little too full, politely exchanged his for mine.

“We were chatting, and Mr. De Gex had just said that it was about time we were off to Olympia, when I sipped my coffee.  I noticed that both Doctor Moroni and our host glanced at me curiously.  The coffee tasted unusually sweet, and also it seemed to be slightly perfumed, I remember, almost like pot-pourri.  I had just replaced the cup upon the table when I felt a most violent pain in my head, and cried out.  Miss Engledue was at my side in an instant, but I felt a sensation of giddiness, and next moment I knew nothing more.”

I remained silent for a few seconds, thinking deeply over her remarkable story.

“Then Miss Engledue was quite well at the time?” I asked.

“Quite, she sprang to my assistance.”

“Then you were taken ill before she became similarly affected?”

“Was she?  I did not know that!” said my beloved in surprise.

“Yes.  You were rendered unconscious by a drug which produced all the symptoms of death, but Miss Engledue was afterwards deliberately killed.”

Gabrielle stared at me as though she believed that I was bereft of my senses.

“Was Gabrielle Engledue killed?” she gasped.  “Surely she was not!”

“She was,” I replied.  “And her body was afterwards cremated!”

My beloved gave vent to a shriek of horror ­and what more natural?  She now realized, for the first time, that she had been the victim of a clever and amazing plot.

“I recollect,” she said, “that just at the moment of my sudden seizure I seemed to become fascinated by the gorgeous Spanish shawl which Gabrielle Engledue had around her shoulders.  It was a most beautifully embroidered silk shawl with long, heavy fringe, and flowers worked in red, green and gold upon a silk fabric.  I had been admiring it all the time I sat at the table, but the colours seemed so dazzling as to bewilder me, to muddle my senses ­red, green and gold.”

How often had those words of hers puzzled me!  Now I knew the truth!  That magnificent Spanish shawl had stood out in her recollection as the last object she had seen before the deadly orosin had done its work.

Then I told her my own story.

“I was inveigled by a specious story into that house soon after you had sipped your coffee ­perhaps even before,” I said.  “The library was filled with a curious, overpowering perfume of pot-pourri which overcame me, and then De Gex gave me a liqueur glass of brandy into which there had been introduced that most baneful of all drugs orosin!  It took immediate effect upon me, and a few moments later I was shown you lying upon the bed, as though you were dead!  Indeed, I believed you to be dead, and in the muddled state of my brain I actually gave a certificate with which that fiend De Gex had already provided himself.  I declared that you had died of heart disease, a malady for which I had for some months treated you!”

“But I knew nothing more until I was found on the road in Hampshire,” she said.

“And I knew nothing more until I found myself in a hospital over at St. Malo,” I went on.  “The drug orosin in small doses destroys the memory; in large doses it produces an effect of death, and in still larger ones ­like that administered to your friend the Anglo-Spanish girl Miss Engledue ­causes instant death, with no symptoms that the post-mortem can distinguish other than the natural cause of sudden heart failure.”

“Was I given the drug deliberately?” asked Gabrielle, looking at me with her wonderful wide-open eyes ­eyes so different from those dulled fixed ones which I had seen in the Duomo in old Florence, when she had raised herself from praying in her half-demented state while the sinister Italian doctor stood behind her.

“Yes,” I said.  “De Gex passed his coffee cup to you, smiling and without compunction, well knowing the effect it must have upon you, at the same time his intention being to kill your friend Miss Engledue by administering a stronger dose.  This must have been accomplished by the infection of some wound or slight abrasion of the skin so that the drug should be introduced directly into the system and not by the mouth.  Such a method would cause almost instant death.”

“But did Gabrielle Engledue die?” she asked excitedly.

“Yes.  She did.  And by her death De Gex inherits the fortune of her father, a rich Spaniard, the Conde de Chamartin.”

She looked at me utterly bewildered, and well the poor girl might be.  She now realized that she had been the victim of an amazing plot conceived by a master criminal, who was at the same time immensely wealthy, yet who cared nothing for human life so long as he amassed a colossal fortune.

“All this, Mr. Garfield, is most astounding!” she declared, gazing with bewilderment around the room.  “It seems incredible!”

“Yes, Miss Tennison, I know it does,” I replied.  “But have patience, and I will prove to you the true depth of the villainy of our mutual enemy and his well-paid sycophants.”

Then, of a sudden, I grasped her soft hand in mine and for a few seconds held it.  I looked steadily into her wonderful eyes, and then slowly I raised her hand to my lips and kissed it.

“Gabrielle,” I whispered, bending to her in deep earnestness.  “My triumph over your enemies is yours ­yours!  Wait, and I will reveal to you the whole facts ­facts more astounding than have ever been conceived in the most sensational pages of modern fiction.”

She did not withdraw her hand, and by her inert attitude, I realized with indescribable joy that she really reciprocated my love!

I am not an emotional man, neither am I an ideal lover.  I am only a mere man-of-the-world.  Hence perhaps the reader will forgive me if I fail to describe all the ecstasy of affection which I experienced at that moment.

I loved Gabrielle Tennison with all my soul, and I now knew that she loved me.  That surely was all-sufficient!

With Gabrielle I had been a fellow-victim of a deeply laid and most foul plot.  That I had been purposely marked down with the aid of De Gex’s accomplice and sycophant, Gaston Suzor, was made more than plain as I pursued my inquiries.

The plot by which De Gex had hoped to secure his partner’s fortune was indeed worthy the evil ever-scheming mind of the mystery-man of Europe; the man whose unseen influence made itself felt in every great political move on the Continent ­the man whose hundred agents were ready in secret to do his bidding and perform any dirty work for payment.

After the Conde de Chamartin had been secretly attacked in the train on his way to Paris and had died in the hospital at San Sebastian, Oswald De Gex suddenly found to his dismay that whatever claim he made upon his late partner’s estate, practically the whole would go to his daughter.  Therefore, while being a little apprehensive lest orosin could be detected in a body after death by an expert pathologist, he resorted to that elaborate and remarkable plot in order to exhibit to me what I presumed to be the body of Gabrielle Engledue, and induce me to forge a death certificate in the name of a doctor whose surname was the same as my own.

The fact that he had actually provided himself with a genuine sheet of the doctor’s notepaper, and that ­as I now learnt for the first time ­Moroni was actually in the house when the drug was given to Gabrielle and myself prior to the death of the chief victim, showed the utter callousness of the crime.  Indeed, Gabrielle Engledue was actually witness of my beloved’s mysterious seizure, little dreaming that in a short hour she herself would fall victim to the cupidity of that relentless poisoner who, by his crimes, hoped to amass one of the most colossal fortunes in the world.

I sat with Gabrielle discussing the amazing affair until darkness slowly fell.  I told her of my own astounding adventures, and my narrow escape from death in Madrid, to all of which she listened with breathless interest.

Then, rising, I took her hand again, and with whispered words I pressed my lips to hers for the first time in a long but sacred caress.

She sighed.  I felt her quiver as I pressed her to me, and then to my delight I felt her sweet warm lips cling at last affectionately to mine.