Mr. Ashley's Failure
MR. ASHLEY'S FAILURE.
By E. PHILLIPS OPPENHEIM.
SOMEWHAT short, precise-looking young man stood on the steps of a mansion in Hyde Park Gardens, deliberately scraping his boots; for the weather was showery, and he had walked from the Foreign Office. Having concluded that operation, he turned to the opened door, and instantly perceived, from the disturbed expression of the usually most impassive of doorkeepers, that something was wrong.
"Is anything the matter, Burditt?" he asked condescendingly, as he stepped into the hall. "Mrs. Tregarron and Miss Alice are quite well, I hope?"
The man first carefully secured the door, then turned round and bowed.
"The ladies are quite well, my lord," he said gravely; "but we are all a good deal upset this afternoon. Mrs. Tregarron will see you at once in the morning-room, if your Lordship will be so good as to come this way," and he ushered the visitor down the hall into a small room on the left-hand side.
Curiosity was not one of Lord Maclenie's failings, neither was impatience; so he did not question the man further, merely desiring him to at once inform Mrs. Tregarron of his arrival.
In less than a minute his prospective mother-in-law—a tall, aristocratic-looking woman, wearing a widow's cap and looking about fifty years old—swept into the room.
"My dear Robert," she exclaimed, holding out her hand, "how good of you to come so soon! Of course you have had my note?"
His Lordship shook his head. "I have had no note from you to-day," he answered. "Alice is——"
"But I wrote you to Cadogan Place nearly two hours ago," interrupted Mrs. Tregarron.
"Which note I have not yet had the pleasure of receiving," he returned. "We are busy at the Foreign Office, and I have not been home to lunch. Alice is——"
"Then you don't know anything about it?" broke in Mrs. Tregarron. "Dear me! I——"
"If you were to tell me——" he ventured to suggest.
Mrs. Tregarron became all impressiveness.
Of course he remembered it. Had he not spent nearly the whole of the previous afternoon at Filmoy and Morton's, undecided whether a less magnificent present would not be deemed a more suitable offering to a portionless fiancée? and had he not, after finally deciding upon its acquisition, then and there written out a cheque for fifteen hundred guineas, and left the shop with the little morocco case in his breast-pocket? Certainly he remembered that diamond necklace.
"Well, what about it?" he inquired almost impatiently. He was proud of his self-control, this rising young diplomatist, but Mrs. Tregarron's manner was irritating.
"It has been stolen," she said impressively, and then leaned back in her chair, waiting anxiously to see what effect her communication would have upon him.
It was instantaneous. Lord Maclenie was self -controlled, but parsimonious; and fifteen hundred guineas is a good deal of money.
"Stolen!" he exclaimed, starting from his seat. "Stolen!"
"Yes, stolen," repeated Mrs. Tregarron, gently pressing a little lace handkerchief to her eyes, and watching all the time with deep anxiety his disturbed expression. "Sit still, and I will tell you all about it. You have no idea how upset we have all been."
"Upset! I should think so!" exclaimed bis Lordship vigorously. "Have you any idea what that necklace was worth, I wonder?"
Mrs. Tregarron knew quite well (her future son-in-law had taken care that she should not remain in ignorance), but she shook her head.
"Don't tell me, please," she pleaded. "I really cannot bear it just now. Let me tell you how it happened."
"Just what I want to get at," he exclaimed impatiently. "Do you suspect anyone?"
"At present, no one; but I think, when you hear the circumstances, you will agree with me that the theft must have been carried out by someone resident in the house; and, if so, they can have had no opportunity of disposing of it, for I have allowed no one to go out on any pretext whatever. I look upon it as somewhat a suspicious circumstance that Ann (Alice's maid) has twice asked for leave to absent herself this afternoon. Of course I refused it."
"Of course. But please tell me exactly how it happened," entreated Lord Maclenie. Mrs. Tregarron cleared her throat and proceeded in her recital of the affair. Told in her own way and in her own words it took some time; but, briefly, the facts—very simple facts they were—appeared to be as follows:—
Directly after breakfast that morning, Alice (Mrs. Tregarron's only daughter and Lord Maclenie's betrothed) had left the room, and, a few minutes later, had summoned her mother into the apartment in which they now were to look at the diamonds by daylight. After admiring them for some time, Mrs. Tregarron was called away for her morning's interview with the cook, and about half an hour later Alice had come to her and announced her intention of visiting old Lady Somerville, her godmother. She did not return for luncheon—she very seldom did when she went to visit Lady Somerville—but got back early in the afternoon. She met her mother in the hall, and explained that she had hurried away immediately after lunch as it had suddenly occurred to her during that meal that she had left her necklace on the mantelpiece of the morning-room. Mrs. Tregarron and her daughter then entered the morning-room together and found that the necklace had disappeared. They searched everywhere, high and low, and then questioned the servants, who one and all denied having even entered that particular room during the whole morning.
"You can imagine what a state Alice and I were in then," concluded Mrs. Tregarron. "Poor girl! it made her quite ill, and she has gone to lie down for a while. Of course, I forbade any of the servants to leave the house, and sent round to you, and also a note to Scotland Yard. Did I do right?"
"I don't see that anything else could have been done," replied Lord Maclenie thoughtfully. "It seems a strange affair altogether. Could the room be entered from outside, I wonder?" and he crossed the room and looked out.
"Easily; but the window does not appear to have been tampered with, and you must remember it was in the middle of the day. Anyone getting through the window would certainly have been seen."
Once more the interior of the room was carefully examined. Nothing was to be discovered. All was in order. Neither could the sagacious officer from Scotland Yard, who arrived a quarter of an hour later, find anything at all suspicious in the entrance to or general appearance of the room. The servants one by one were had in and examined, and the trunks of all of them, from the newly installed scullery-maid to the grey-haired butler, thoroughly ransacked, but nothing affording the faintest shadow of a clue was discovered.
"Would you like to see my daughter herself?" inquired Mrs. Tregarron of the astute-looking detective, who stood sucking his pencil and looking thoroughly bewildered.
"Quite unnecessary," he declared. "I should be sorry to have her disturbed. There is really nothing to ask her beyond what you have told me. It's not a pleasant thing to say, ma'am," he continued, "but the thief must be one of your servants. I should like the name and address of each of them, and also, if you can oblige me with it, particulars of their last place; and I must ask you to let me know at once if one of them leaves your service or gives notice."
"I suppose a reward had better be offered?" remarked Lord Maclenie.
The officer assented.
"Decidedly it would be better that there should be a reward."
"Then you can make it £250."
"Very good, your Lordship." And, after making a few more notes, the detective departed, with the usual promise that, should he discover a clue, etc.
A fortnight elapsed and nothing was heard from him. At the end of that time Lord Maclenie had a conversation at the club with an acquaintance concerning the mysterious robbery.
"In the hands of Scotland Yard, is it?" remarked the latter. "Well, I don't want to revile any of our institutions, but I really do think that, so far as our established detective force is concerned, we are a long way behind the other countries of Europe. Scotland Yard very seldom discovers anything more than clues nowadays. Now, look here, Maclenie," he continued in a lower tone, "I could introduce you to a man—he's not regularly in the profession, but he'd do anything for me—who would find out all about this little affair for you, if anyone could. He's a regular sharp fellow, is Ashley; and only say the word, and I'll tell him to call and see you."
Lord Maclenie shook his head doubtfully.
"I don't believe in amateur detectives much," he remarked disparagingly. "I'm afraid if Scotland Yard can't make anything of it, that it would be waste of time and money trying anyone else. Of course, if he likes to take it up on the chance of the reward—I've offered £250 reward, you know—well, then I don't mind helping him with any information. If he likes to come down to Hyde Park Gardens to-night, I shall be there."
"Well, I'll tell him," replied his friend. "Detective business of any sort is his hobby, and I dare say he'll come."
The surmise was a correct one. About nine o'clock on the same evening a respectable-looking, middle-aged man, who gave his name as Mr. Ashley, called at Mrs. Tregarron's house in Hyde Park Gardens and asked for Lord Maclenie, who was spending the evening with his betrothed. His Lordship immediately explained the circumstance to Mrs. Tregarron, and begged leave to have the man shown in.
"You really must excuse me, then," pleaded Miss Tregarron, rising from her chair with a languid gesture and a slight frown of annoyance. "I'm perfectly sick of the whole matter, and shall go to my room until the man's gone."
"As you please," and Lord Maclenie rose and opened the door.
"Ask Mr. Ashley to step this way," he said to the servant, who had remained in the room. And, accordingly, Mr. Ashley was shown in.
The simple story of the theft was repeated to him in a few words. He listened attentively and grew thoughtful.
"I should rather like to see Miss Tregarron," he remarked, after a long pause, "if not inconvenient."
Mrs. Tregarron looked rather doubtful.
"Is it necessary?" she inquired, with her hand on the bell.
Mr. Ashley bowed in a deprecating manner.
"If she is engaged, pray don't disturb her," he said suavely. "Any time will do; but I should like to see her."
Mrs. Tregarron rang the bell, and, through the servant, conveyed Mr. Ashley's request to her daughter. In a minute or two he returned. Miss Tregarron was suffering from headache and had retired. She was sorry that she could not see Mr. Ashley.
The detective did not seem in the least disappointed; in fact, his eyes brightened as he received this message.
"It is of no consequence," he declared. "No doubt I have all the information available. I should like just a word with the coachman, though. May I step downstairs and speak to him?"
Mrs. Tregarron would have had him summoned, but the detective seemed bent on descending to the lower quarters, and, accordingly, he was ushered into the servants' hall, and the coachman brought to him; but when he arrived, Mr. Ashley seemed to have lost interest in him, and merely asked him carelessly a desultory question or two.
"Miss Tregarron kept you a good time waiting at Lady Somerville's?" he remarked.
"We didn't wait for her, sir,; we had orders to come back and fetch her again in an hour and a half's time, which we did."
The detective seemed mildly surprised.
"I should have thought," he said reflectively, "that it would have been scarcely worth while for you to have come back again. It must have taken you all your time."
"It did that, sir, and no mistake," assented the coachman; "but young ladies never think of the 'osses. Anyways, them were her orders, and, of course, I was bound to obey them."
"Just so; and then she kept you a good time waiting, I expect, when you got back?"
"Not so very long, sir—not more than a quarter of an hour."
"Ah! well, good evening," said Mr. Ashley, turning away. "I am much obliged to you. Sorry to have disturbed you, though. I ought to have remembered that you were away during the time that the jewels were stolen."
"Seems a very mysterious affair, madam," he admitted, on his return to the upper regions. "If anything occurs to me, however, I will, of course, let you know. Good-night, ma'am; good-night, my lord," and Mr. Ashley bowed himself out of the room.
"Clear as daylight," he murmured to himself, as he walked slowly homewards; "but a nasty job to tackle."
Nevertheless, the quiet smile on his lips did not denote any great distaste in his task. Early on the following morning he took the 'bus up to Highgate, and alighted at the road at which Lady Somerville resided. There was a cab-stand near, and he entered the shelter and made a few inquiries, the result of which appeared to be perfectly satisfactory. Then he took down a name and address, after which a certain coin of the realm found its way into the dirty but eager palm of one of the Jehus.
He seemed to be getting on. He set off, after leaving the shelter, for a very different part of the town, and entered a low, dirty-looking little shop, from behind the counter of which a somewhat dirty-looking Jew bowed to him obsequiously.
"A few words with you, Jacob," said the detective shortly; and, in obedience to a gesture, he followed the man into a little back room.
The few words lasted fully an hour, at the end of which time Mr. Ashley emerged from the shop with a confident smile upon his lips.
His morning's work was not yet finished, though. He made some more calls; but chiefly now upon his most distinguished patrons, including Lord Maclenie's friend, who had recommended him. As a rule. Society doings possessed no manner of interest for him, but to-day he was incessantly asking questions about different people, and at the end of the morning his satisfied smile had not decreased.
The next day he called again at Hyde Park Gardens. Mrs. Tregarron was out; but the announcement of her absence did not appear to be an overwhelming shock to him. In fact, he had just watched her drive away. He would see Miss Tregarron.
The servant to whom he conveyed his request was not at all sanguine as to the young lady's willingness to see him, but he was shown into the morning-room, and his message taken. In a very few minutes a tall, handsome girl swept into the room and confronted him. The detective rose and bowed.
"You wish to speak to me, Mr.—Mr. Ashley, I believe?" she said, slightly acknowledging his salutation. "Be as quick as you can, please, as I'm particularly engaged."
"I will not detain you a moment longer than is necessary. Miss Tregarron," he said quietly. "Permit me to offer you a chair."
She sat down and fixed her dark eyes upon him, full of impatient inquiry. Mr. Ashley hesitated. He had a delicate task before him, and he knew nothing of this young lady's disposition.
"Will you permit me," he said slowly, "to tell you a short story which has come under my notice lately? It will not detain you long, and you will, perhaps, find it interesting."
She arched her magnificent eyebrows, as if somewhat surprised at his presumption, but motioned him to proceed.
"We detectives come across some strange incidents sometimes," he began, "and unravel some curious tangles. Listen to this story, for instance, none the less interesting, perhaps, since it is strictly true. There was a young lady and young gentleman who fell in love with one another. Both were poor, both were in Society, and the young lady was everywhere expected to make a brilliant match, for she was beautiful and her mother ambitious. This young gentleman with whom she had unfortunately fallen in love, although of excellent family, was not only poor, but was also hopelessly in debt; and so, seeing the utter impossibility of ever being married to the man she loved, the young lady yields to her mother's solicitations and becomes engaged to a rich young nobleman.
"She had resolved to see no more of her unhappy lover, nor does she; but she hears of him often, for it happens that her maid and his manservant are brother and sister. She hears of his despair at the news of her engagement, of the terrible worry of his debts, and of his unsuccessful attempts to raise a certain sum of money to enable him to leave the country and start life afresh. Her pity for him is great, and she resolves anonymously to help him. At first, however, she is powerless, for she, too, is of a poor family, and the sum is an impossibility to her. Whilst she is striving hard to think of some means whereby to raise the money, her betrothed, a very rich but somewhat stingy young nobleman, makes her his first present—a diamond necklace of great value. An idea occurs to her. She cares nothing for the stones, and they are her own. Can she not secretly realise them, and thus obtain the money for her desperate lover? She resolves to do so, and lays her plans with considerable shrewdness. The necklace is believed by everyone to have been stolen; her lover receives the money in such a fashion that he imagines it to come from someone else from whom he has no hesitation in accepting it, and joyfully carries out his plans. Only two persons know the true facts of the case—the young lady and myself."
"A very romantic story, Mr. Ashley," said the young lady quietly, with her eyes fixed upon the carpet. "I should like to know the end."
The detective smiled and cleared his throat.
"Well, the fact of—er—the second party becoming acquainted with this little story was most annoying to the young lady, as, of course, his disclosure of it would mean the breaking off of her marriage and social ruin. Fortunately, however, this second party was quite amenable to reason, and had not the slightest wish to ruin the young lady's prospects. He suggested to her, therefore, that she should promise him (on paper) to pay him twice the amount of the reward after her marriage and give him a small sum down to cover expenses. She, being a sensible girl, at once agreed to this."
Miss Tregarron rose and moved towards the door.
"You will excuse me for a moment?"
"Certainly," and during her brief absence Mr. Ashley occupied himself in drawing up a little document.
She was not long gone, and re-entered the room with a roll of notes in her hand.
"To continue your story, Mr. Ashley," she said, with a levity in her tones which scarcely harmonised with her pallor-stricken face, "the young lady handed over fifty pounds in notes—all she could spare before her marriage, for she was, as you observed, very poor—and signed the document which the second party had prepared for her," and, sitting down at the little table, she signed with a firm hand the slip of paper which lay before her.
"That ends the story, I think, Mr. Ashley," she added, rising.
"That ends the story. Miss Tregarron," the detective replied. "I wish you a very good-morning," and he bowled himself out of the room.
"Your detective didn't turn up trumps, after all," remarked Lord Maclenie to his friend in the smoking-room of the club, about a fortnight after his return from his honeymoon. "A regular duffer, I thought him."
"I can't make it out," replied his friend thoughtfully. "Ashley doesn't often fail."
Perhaps Mr. Ashley, after all, does not reckon this little affair as amongst his failures.