The Silent Houseby Fergus Hume / Mystery & Detective
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New YorkC. H. DOSCHER
Copyright, 1907, byC. H. DOSCHER
I have ample time at my command, and I shall only betoo happy to place it and myself at your service]
I--The Tenant of the Silent House 1
II--Shadows on the Blind 10
III--An Unsatisfactory Explanation 20
IV--Mrs. Kebby's Discovery 29
V--The Talk of the Town 38
VI--Mrs. Vrain's Story 47
VII--The Assurance Money 56
VIII--Diana Vrain 65
IX--A Marriage That Was a Failure 74
X--The Parti-Coloured Ribbon 83
XI--Further Discoveries 93
XII--The Veil and Its Owner 101
XIV--The House in Jersey Street 121
XV--Rhoda and the Cloak 131
XVI--Mrs. Vrain at Bay 141
XVII--A Denial 151
XVIII--Who Bought the Cloak? 160
XIX--The Defence of Count Ferruci 169
XX--A New Development 179
XXI--Two Months Pass 187
XXII--At Berwin Manor 196
XXIII--A Startling Theory 206
XXIV--Lucian Is Surprised 215
XXV--A Dark Plot 224
XXVI--The Other Man's Wife 233
XXVII--A Confession 241
XXVIII--The Name of the Assassin 252
XXIX--Link Sets a Trap 262
XXX--Who Fell into the Trap 272
XXXI--A Strange Confession 282
XXXII--The Confession (_continued_) 291
XXXIII--What Rhoda Had to Say 301
XXXIV--The End of It All 310
THE SILENT HOUSE
THE TENANT OF THE SILENT HOUSE
Lucian Denzil was a briefless barrister, who so far departed from thetraditions of his brethren of the long robe as not to dwell within thepurlieus of the Temple. For certain private reasons, not unconnectedwith economy, he occupied rooms in Geneva Square, Pimlico; and, for thepurposes of his profession, repaired daily, from ten to four, toSerjeant's Inn, where he shared an office with a friend equallybriefless and poor.
This state of things sounds hardly enviable, but Lucian, being young andindependent to the extent of L300 a year, was not dissatisfied with hisposition. As his age was only twenty-five, there was ample time, hethought, to succeed in his profession; and, pending that desirableconsummation, he cultivated the muses on a little oatmeal, after thefashion of his kind. There have been lives less happily circumstanced.
Geneva Square was a kind of backwater of the great river of town lifewhich swept past its entrance with speed and clamour without disturbingthe peace within. One long, narrow street led from a roaringthoroughfare into a silent quadrangle of tall grey houses, occupied bylodging-house keepers, city clerks and two or three artists, whorepresented the Bohemian element of the place. In the centre there wasan oasis of green lawn, surrounded by rusty iron railings the height ofa man, dotted with elms of considerable age, and streaked with narrowpaths of yellow gravel.
The surrounding houses represented an eminently respectable appearance,with their immaculately clean steps, white-curtained windows, and neatboxes of flowers. The windows glittered like diamonds, the door-knobsand plates shone with a yellow lustre, and there were no sticks, orstraws, or waste paper lying about to mar the tidy look of the square.
With one exception, Geneva Square was a pattern of all that wasdesirable in the way of cleanliness and order. One might hope to findsuch a haven in some somnolent cathedral town, but scarcely in thegrimy, smoky, restless metropolis of London.
The exception to the notable spotlessness of the neighborhood was No.13, a house in the centre of the side opposite to the entrance. Itswindows were dusty, and without blinds or curtains, there were noflower-boxes on the ledges, the steps lacked whitewash, and the ironrailings looked rusty for want of paint. Stray straws and scraps ofpaper found their way down the area, where the cracked pavement was dampwith green slime. Such beggars as occasionally wandered into the square,to the scandal of its inhabitants, camped on the doorstep; and the verydoor itself presented a battered, dissolute appearance.
Yet, for all its ill looks and disreputable suggestions, those who dweltin Geneva Square would not have seen it furbished up and occupied forany money. They spoke about it in whispers, with ostentatioustremblings, and daunted looks, for No. 13 was supposed to be haunted,and had been empty for over twenty years. By reason of its legend, itsloneliness and grim appearance, it was known as the Silent House, andformed quite a feature of the place. Murder had been done long ago inone of its empty, dusty rooms, and it was since then that the victimwalked. Lights, said the ghost-seers, had been seen flitting from windowto window, groans were sometimes heard, and the apparition of a littleold woman in brocaded silk and high-heeled shoes appeared on occasions.Hence the Silent House bore an uncanny reputation.
How much truth there was in these stories it is impossible to say; butsure enough, in spite of a low rental, no tenant would take No. 13 andface its ghostly terrors. House and apparition and legend had becomequite a tradition, when the whole fantasy was ended in the summer of '95by the unexpected occupation of the mansion. Mr. Mark Berwin, agentleman of mature age, who came from nobody knew where, rented No. 13,and established himself therein to lead a strange and lonely life.
At first, the gossips, strong in ghostly tradition, declared that thenew tenant would not remain a week in the house; but as the weekextended into six months, and Mr. Berwin showed no signs of leaving,they left off speaking of the ghost and took to discussing the manhimself. In a short space of time quite a collection of stories weretold about the newcomer and his strange ways.
Lucian heard many of these tales from his landlady. How Mr. Berwin livedall alone in the Silent House without servant or companion; how he spoketo none, and admitted no one into the mansion; how he appeared to haveplenty of money, and was frequently seen coming home more or lessintoxicated; and how Mrs. Kebby, the deaf charwoman who cleaned out Mr.Berwin's rooms, declined to sleep in the house because she consideredthat there was something wrong about her employer.
To such gossip Denzil paid little attention, until his skein of lifebecame unexpectedly entangled with that of the strange gentleman. Themanner of their meeting was unforeseen and peculiar.
One foggy November night, Lucian, returning from the theatre, shortlyafter eleven o'clock, dismissed his hansom at the entrance to the squareand walked thereinto through the thick mist, trusting to find his wayhome by reason of two years' familiarity with the precincts. As it wasimpossible to see even the glare of the near gas lamp in the murky air,Lucian felt his way cautiously along the railings. The square was filledwith fog, dense to the eye and cold to the feel, so that Lucian shiveredwith the chill, in spite of the fur coat over his evening clothes.
As he edged gingerly along, and thought longingly of the fire and supperawaiting him in his comfortable rooms, he was startled by hearing adeep, rich voice boom out almost at his feet. To make the phenomenonstill more remarkable, the voice shaped itself into certain well-knownwords of Shakespeare:
Oh! boomed this _vox et praeterea nihil_ in rather husky tones, Oh!that a man should put an enemy in his mouth to steal away his brains!And then through the mist and darkness came the unmistakable sound ofsobs.
God bless me! cried Lucian, leaping back, with shaken nerves. Who isthis? Who are you?
A lost soul! wailed the deep voice, which God will not bless! Andthen came the sobbing again.
It made Denzil's blood run cold to hear this unseen creature weeping inthe gloom. Moving cautiously in the direction of the sound, he stumbledagainst a man with his folded arms resting on the railings, and his facebent down on his arms. He made no attempt to turn when Lucian touchedhim, but with downcast head continued to weep and moan in a very frenzyof self-pity.
Here! said the young barrister, shaking the stranger by the shoulder,what is the matter with you?
Drink! stuttered the man, suddenly turning with a dramatic gesture. Iam an object lesson to teetotalers; a warning to topers; a modern helotmade shameful to disgust youth with vice.
You had better go home, sir, said Lucian sharply.
I can't find home. It is somewhere hereabout, but where, I don't know.
You are in Geneva Square, said Denzil, trying to sharpen the dulledwits of the man.
I wish I was in No. 13 of it, sighed the stranger. Where the deuce isNo. 13? Not in this Cloudcuckooland, anyhow.
Oh! cried Lucian, taking the man's arm. Come with me. I'll lead youhome, Mr. Berwin.
Scarcely had the name passed his lips than the stranger drew backsuddenly, with a hasty exclamation. Some suspicion seemed to engender amixture of terror and defiance which placed him on his guard againstundue intimacy, even when some undefined fear was knocking at his heart.Who are you? he demanded in a steadier tone. How do you know myname?
My name is Denzil, Mr. Berwin, and I live in one of the houses of thissquare. As you mention No. 13, I know you can be none other than Mr.Mark Berwin, the tenant of the Silent House.
The dweller in the haunted house, sneered Berwin, evidently relieved,who stays there with ghosts, and worse than ghosts.
Worse than ghosts?
The phantoms of my own sins, young man. I have sowed folly, and now Iam reaping the crop. I am---- Here his further speech was interruptedby a fit of coughing, which shook his lean figure severely. At itsconclusion he was so exhausted that he was forced to support himselfagainst the railings. A portion of the crop, he murmured.
Lucian was sorry for the man, who seemed scarcely capable of lookingafter himself, and he thought it unwise to leave him in such a plight.At the same time, he was impatient of lingering in the heart of theclammy fog at such a late hour; so, as his companion seemed indisposedto move, he caught him again by the arm without ceremony. The abruptaction seemed to waken again the fears of Berwin.
Where would you take me? he asked, resisting the gentle force used byLucian.
To your own house. You will be ill if you stay here.
You are not one of them? asked the man suddenly.
One of whom?
One of those who wish to harm me?
Denzil began to think he had to do with a madman, and to gain his endshe spoke to him in a soothing manner, as he would to a child: I wish todo you good, Mr. Berwin, said he gently. Come to your home.
Home! home! Ah, God, I have no home!
Nevertheless, he gathered himself together, and with his arm in that ofhis guide, stumbled along in the thick, chill mist. Lucian knew theposition of No. 13 well, as it almost faced the lodgings occupied byhimself, and by skirting the railings with due caution, he managed tohalf lead, half drag his companion to the house. When they stood beforethe door, and Berwin had assured himself that he was actually home bythe use of his latch-key, Denzil wished him a curt good-night. And Ishould advise you to go to bed at once, he concluded, turning todescend the steps.
Don't go! Don't go! cried Berwin, seizing the young man by the arm. Iam afraid to go in by myself--all is so dark and cold! Wait until I geta light!
As the creature's nerves seemed to be unhinged by over-indulgence inalcohol, and he stood gasping and shivering on the threshold like somebeaten animal, Lucian took compassion on him.
I'll see you indoors, said he, and striking a match, stepped into thedarkness after the man. The hall of No. 13 seemed to be almost as coldas the world without, and the trifling glimmer of the lucifer servedrather to reveal than dispel the surrounding darkness. The light, as itwere, hollowed a gulf out of the tremendous gloom and made the housetenfold more ghostly than before. The footsteps of Denzil and Berwinsounding on the bare boards--for the hall was uncarpeted--waked hollowechoes, and when they paused the silence which ensued seemed almostmenacing. The grim reputation of the mansion, its gloom and silence,appealed powerfully to the latent superstition of Lucian. How much morenearly, then, would it touch the shaken and excited nerves of the tragicdrunkard who dwelt continually amid its terrors!
Berwin opened a door on the right-hand side of the hall and turned upthe light of a handsome oil-lamp which had been screwed down pending hisarrival. This lamp was placed on a small square table covered with awhite cloth and a dainty cold supper. The young barrister noted that thenapery, cutlery, and crystal were all of the finest; that the viandswere choice; that champagne and claret were the beverages. EvidentlyBerwin was a luxurious gentleman and indulgent to his appetites.
Lucian tried to gain a long look at him in the mellow light, but Berwinkept his face turned away, and seemed as anxious now for his visitor togo as he had been for him to enter. Denzil, quick in comprehension, tookthe hint at once.
I'll go now, as you have the light burning, said he. Good-night.
Good-night, replied Berwin shortly, and added to his discourtesy byletting Lucian find his way out alone.
And so ended the barrister's first meeting with the strange tenant ofthe Silent House.