The Lightning Conductor/Chapter 16


Grand Hotel, Rome, December 27.

Dear Mr. Randolph,

I find myself in a difficult position, but I am going to take the bull by the horns and write to you of certain things which seem to me of importance. I trust to your friendship and your knowledge of my feelings and desires towards Molly to excuse me if you consider that I am being officious. You will understand when I have explained that I cannot hope to make her see the matter in its true light; but you, as a man and her father, will do so, and will comprehend that my motive is for her protection.

I have thanked you already for answering my letter, in which I begged that you would let me know in which part of Europe Molly was travelling, and she has told me that she wrote you of our meeting at Pau. I reached there a couple of days sooner than she and Miss Kedison did. In fact, I saw their arrival in the famous automobile of whose adventures you must have heard much. The minute my eyes lighted upon the chauffeur I felt an instinctive distrust of the man, and I have learned through experience not to disregard the warnings of my instinct. It has served me more than one good turn in the street when the markets were wobbling. Now I have been a good deal chaffed about a resemblance to Sherlock Holmes, the great detective of fiction, but I acknowledge and am proud of that resemblance. I venture to think that it is not wholly confined to externals. A certain detective instinct was born in me. It began to show itself when I was a little boy at school, and since then I have trained and cultivated it, as a kind of higher education of the brain. In several instances I have been able to expose frauds, which, but for the purely impersonal, scientific interest I took in the affairs, might have remained undetected. In these experiments I have made enemies of course; but what matter?

The interest I feel in the case I am about to lay bare to you is not, I confess, purely impersonal. But I hope under the circumstances you will think none the less of me for that.

My first distant glimpse of the man Brown created, as I have said, an unfavourable impression upon my mind. I thought that he had a swaggering air of conceit and self-importance extremely unbecoming in a man of his class. He had the air of thinking himself equal to his betters, which is a dangerous thing in a person entrusted with the care of ladies. My impression was confirmed by some of the tales which Molly told me of her automobile experiences, not only quite unconscious that they militated against her chauffeur, but apparently believing them to his credit. I began to fear that the fellow was one
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to take advantage of the trust placed in him by two unprotected women, whom he doubtless has guessed to be well provided with money. My definite suspicions went at first no further than this, though there was a kind of detective premonition in my mind that more might remain to be found out. I might have confined myself to tacit disapproval, however, or a word of advice to Molly, and perhaps one stern warning to the man, had I not gone into the golf club at Pau on our last day there. To my intense astonishment I saw Brown on the links attempting to get members to play with him by passing himself off as a gentleman. He wore good clothes, and acted his part fairly well—well enough, perhaps to deceive the unobservant. But he is not the sort of person I should ever mistake for a gentleman. I went up to him, and very quietly ordered him off the links, threatening to expose him publicly. But he whined for mercy, and I, in a moment of weak good nature, let him off, on his promise to go at once. I inquired, however, of the steward what name he had given on seeking admittance, and was startled to find that he had passed himself off as the Honourable John Winston, his late master and the owner of the car which Molly is now using. As I had bound myself to keep silence, I did not betray him, but the fact just discovered confirmed my distrust of the man as a dangerous and unscrupulous person.

For Molly's sake 1 felt that I must begin investigation, so as to be able in the end to expose Brown ad let her see him in his real character; but for several reasons not necessary to trouble you with it was essential to proceed with extreme caution.

It was unbearable to me, knowing even the little I did know at that time of the man's character to allow Molly and Miss Kedison to go wandering over the country alone with him. I feared that he might compromise them in some way, or even resort to blackmail, and with this danger before my mind, I offered to accompany the ladies on their car to the Riviera. I made the suggestion to Miss Kedison, not to Molly, and hinted to her something concerning my motives, cautioning her at the same time that silence was vitally important until I could give her leave to speak. You may think that I was taking a good deal on myself; but I have a great regard for you, as well as an unfortunately deep affection for Molly, and as I have made many intimate friends among the highest in the land, all over the Continent, as in England, I felt that my presence in the car might be especially helpful.

During the first day or two of our journey I caught Brown in several audacious lies. He was insolent to me, evidently afraid that I meant to lose him his berth, and inclined to be so familiar with the ladies, Molly particularly, that my suspicions of him were roused to fever heat. I began to see that his ambitions tended higher than I had at first supposed, and—I hope you will forgive my frankness—I should not be surprised if some day before long Molly should have a startling awakening.

I questioned her carefully as to what Brown had said to her of his late master's movements, and it appeared that, according to the chauffeur, the Honourable John Winston had returned to England, leaving Brown to hire out and drive his automobile. This seemed strange to me, and I asked myself if it were possible that the fellow could have contrived to steal the car, and be using it for his own purposes, taking the money derived from its hire for himself. One thing which encouraged this deduction was the extremely low rent asked for the vehicle and the small wages demanded by Brown. But it was at Toulon that a still more sinister idea was forced into my mind by a startling incident to which I will draw your attention.

You will very likely have heard from Molly that owing to a side-slip which might have happened to anyone in driving an automobile, we had an upset by the roadside, and in common politeness I was compelled to obey Miss Kedison's request to remain with her at a small village, some miles from Toulon, while Molly went on to see a doctor about an injury to her wrist, Brown being her attendant. When Miss Kedison and I arrived at Toulon on the car next day, it was decided to stay the night there rather than go on so late. I saw Brown, who was working outside the hotel at the automobile, take money out of his pocket to pay a man who had been helping him with the repairs. Something small dropped on the ground as he did so, unknown to Brown. When he had moved away, I stooped and picked it up. It was a French pawn-ticket for a pledged watch, dated the previous night. I determined, in the interest of my investigations, to visit the pawnbroker's, which I did; and giving up the ticket, said I had called to redeem the pledge. Imagine my sensations when I saw a magnificent gold repeater, with the monogram "J. W." upon it in small diamonds. The conclusion was obvious, for the watch was not one which would be given by a master even to the most valued servant. I paid something like two hundred and sixty francs to redeem the repeater, and justified such a proceeding to myself by the argument that the watch had assuredly been stolen, and that my action was the most certain way of preserving it for the owner and earning that owner's gratitude, if he still existed. Those last four words, which I have underscored, will enlighten you as to the doubts now materialising in my mind. In fact, I believe this chauffeur a man capable of anything.

On returning to the hotel, with the Honourable Mr. Winston's watch in my pocket, I made a few inquiries as to Brown's behaviour the night before; I learned that he had appeared in the salle à manger for dinner, in an irreproachable evening suit which in some way he must have obtained from his master. Perhaps I ought not to repeat what else I learned, as I do not like to tell tales out of school, but I think it is only right you should know that Molly allowed this impostor to sit at the table with her, as if he had been an equal instead of a servant.

I positively dared not let Miss Kedison into the secret of what had happened, but I hinted to her that I had had good reason to think less well of Brown even than before. It was arranged that we should induce Molly to hurry on to Cannes, where Lady Brighthelmston (pronounced "Brighton"), the mother of my friend the Honourable John Winston, was supposed to be staying. I wished to find out from her when she had last heard from her son, and if she were absolutely assured of his present safety. I also intended to show her the watch, and put her in possession of all the deductions and details I had been able to pick up. This once done, Brown's exposure by Lady Brighthelmston and subsequent dismissal by Molly would be only a question of hours.

Unfortunately, however, Lady Brighthelmston had left Cannes for Rome when we arrived; nevertheless, one more proof of the chauffeur's duplicity came into my hands there. A letter which had been left in the rack for the Honourable John Winston, by his mother, was secretly taken out by Brown. And the fact that Lady Brighthelmston was expecting her son to join her on his automobile does not look as if poor Jack were in England and had voluntarily left his car with the chauffeur.

Altogether the affair appears ominous for my friend, and the thought that Molly and Miss Kedison are perpetually at the mercy of this unscrupulous wretch, in a strange country, is maddening to me as it will be to you when you receive this letter. When they left the Riviera for Italy, I was obliged to remain behind for a day with a sick friend, but followed as soon as possible on my Panhard. Owing, however, to unforeseen events and one or two small accidents, I was delayed, and unable to catch them up as I had intended. Finally, as Brown was probably hurrying on with the express intention of making it impossible for me to overtake the party, I determined to abandon my car and proceed by rail to Rome, their destination. My idea was to reach that city before they could do so, and see Lady Brighthelmston as I had planned to do at Cannes, so that the police could be ready if necessary to arrest Brown immediately on his arrival. I arrived on the day expected and called at the hotel to which Lady Brighthelmston's letters were to be forwarded from Cannes. But on account of the unusual cold and bad weather, she had suffered from neuralgia, and had gone on with her friends, after less than a week's stay, to Naples, with the idea that she might visit Sicily later.

Having gone so far, I am not to be turned back. I love Molly far too well to desert her, and some day, when she finds out all I have done for her sake, perhaps she will appreciate me better than she has up to the present. I cannot tell her myself, but it may be that you will think fit to let her know. I mean to follow Lady Brighthelmston to Naples, or even farther if it be necessary, for writing the information I have to give might do more harm than good to everyone concerned. I must be on the spot; but very unluckily I cannot be there for some days to come. The weather in Rome is really awful, and I have contracted something which I am afraid is influenza. With the best intentions, I cannot go to the rescue until the doctor gives me leave. I shall probably still be here when Molly arrives. Meanwhile, my dear Mr. Randolph, I have thought best to put you on your guard.

Yours faithfully and sincerely,
J. F. Payne.