Dangerous Ground: or, The Rival Detectivesñêà÷àòü êíèãó áåñïëàòíî
“I shall not weary you with a long story,” began Leslie Warburton; “this is not the time for it, and I am not in the mood. My husband lies above us, hopelessly ill. My little step-daughter is lost, and in Heaven only knows what danger. My brother-in-law is a hunted man, accused of the most atrocious of crimes. And I feel that I am the unhappy cause of all these calamities. If I have erred, I am doubly punished. Let me give you the bare facts, Mr. Stanhope; such details as you may wish can be supplied hereafter.
“I am, as you have been told, the adopted child of Thomas Uliman, of the late firm of Uliman & French. Until his death, I had supposed myself to be his own child. During the last year of my adopted father’s life, it was his dearest wish that I should marry his friend, Archibald Warburton, and we became affianced. After the death of my adopted father, Mr. Warburton urged a speedy marriage, and we fixed a day for the ceremony.
“Less than a week later, it became necessary to overlook my father’s papers, in the search for some missing document. After looking through his secretary, and examining a great many papers without finding the one for which I searched, I remembered that my mother’s desk contained many papers. As the missing document referred to some property held by them jointly, I made a search there. She had been dead for more than a year, and all her keys were in my possession, but until that day I had never had the courage to approach her desk.
“Searching among her papers, I found one which had never been intended for my eyes. It was folded tightly, and crowded into a tiny space behind a little drawer. My mother’s death was quite sudden; had she died of a lingering sickness, the paper would doubtless have been destroyed, for it furnished proof that I was not the child of Thomas Uliman and his wife, Mathilde, but an adopted daughter, while I was represented in the will as their only child. The paper I found was in my father’s writing, and by it, Franz Francoise and his wife, Martha – ”
“What!” The exclamation fell involuntarily from Stanhope’s lips. Then checking himself, he said quietly: “I beg your pardon; proceed.”
“Franz Francoise and his wife, Martha, by this paper resigned all claim to the child, Leschen, for a pecuniary consideration. The child was to be rechristened Leslie Uliman, and legally adopted by the Ulimans, the two Francoises agreeing never to approach or claim her.
“Imagine my consternation and grief! With this paper in my hand, I went straight to Mr. Follingsbee. He had known the truth from the first, but assured me that the Ulimans had never intended that I should learn it. I had been legally adopted, and the little fortune they had left me was lawfully mine.
“Then I told the story to my intended husband, and, knowing his pride, offered him a release. He only laughed at my Quixotism, and hastened the marriage preparations, bidding me never, under any circumstances, allude to the subject again.
Soon after that, I was approached by the Francoises – you have seen them?” lifting her eyes to his face.
“Then I need not tell you the miseries of my various interviews with them. They had learned that I was alone in the world, and they came to claim me; I was their child. Holding, as I did, the proofs of adoption, many women would have accepted their claim; I could not. My soul arose in revolt; every throb of my heart beat against them. If nature’s voice ever speaks, it spoke in me against their claim. Not against their age, their poverty, or their ignorance; but against the greed, the selfishness, the vileness that was too much a part of them to remain hidden. Sooner than acknowledge their claim, I would have died by my own hand. They wanted money, and with that I purchased a respite. Then my great temptation came.
“Archibald Warburton had bidden me never to speak again on the subject of my parentage – why not take him at his word? If I broke off my marriage with him, I must give a reason; and the true reason I would never give. Not even to Mr. Follingsbee would I tell the truth. I kept my secret; and after much hesitation, the Francoises accepted the larger share of my little fortune, and swore never to approach me again, – to leave the city forever. I believed myself safe then, and married Mr. Warburton.
“The rest you can guess. Finding that I had married a wealthy man, disregarding their oaths, the Francoises came back, and renewed their persecutions. And I was more than ever in their power. They forced me to visit them when they would. Their demands for money increased. I grew desperate at last, and on the night of the masquerade, I went in obedience to an imperative summons, resolved that it should be the last time.”
She paused here and looked, for the first time since the beginning of her recital, straight into the face of the detective, who, sitting with his body bent forward and his eyes fixed upon her, seemed yet to be listening after her words had ceased, so intent was his gaze, so absorbed his manner.
Thus a moment of silence passed. Then Stanhope, withdrawing his eyes, and leaning back in his seat, asked suddenly:
“Is that all?”
“It is not all, Mr. Stanhope. On the night of the masquerade, while I was absent from the house no doubt, my little step-daughter disappeared.”
“You have heard it, of course. I believe that I know why, and by whom, she was abducted.”
“I suspect the Francoises.”
“I love the child, and they know it. She will be another weapon in their hands. Besides, if I cannot, or will not reclaim her, there is the reward.”
Richard Stanhope leaned forward, and slightly lifted his right hand.
“Is there any one else who would be benefited by the death or disappearance of the child?” he asked.
Leslie started, and the hot blood rushed to her face.
“I – I don’t understand,” she faltered.
“Do you know the purport of your husband’s will.”
“How does he dispose of his large property?”
“One third to me; the rest to little Daisy.”
“And his brother?”
“Alan possesses an independent fortune.”
“Are there no contingencies?”
“In case of my death, all comes to Daisy, Alan becoming her guardian. In case of Daisy’s death, Alan and I share equally.”
“Then by the loss of this child, both you and the young man become richer.”
“Ah!” she gasped, “I had never thought of that!”
“Mrs. Warburton, beginning at the moment when you left this house to visit the Francoises, will you tell me all that transpired, up to the time of your escape from their house?”
With cheeks flushing and paling, and voice tremulous with the excitement of some new, strange thought, she described to him the scene in the Francoises’ house.
“So,” thought Stanhope, when all was told, “Mr. Alan Warburton’s presence at that special moment was strangely opportune. Why was he there? What does he know of the Francoises? The plot thickens, and I would not be in Alan Warburton’s shoes for all the Warburton wealth.”
But, aloud, he only said:
“Thanks, Mrs. Warburton. If you are correct in your suspicions, and the Francoises have stolen the child, they will approach you sooner or later. Should they do so, make no terms with them, but communicate with me at once.”
“No; through the morning papers. Use this form.”
Taking from his pocket a note-book, he wrote upon a leaf a few words, tore it from the book, and put it into her hand.
“That is safer than a letter,” he said, rising. “One word more, madam. Tell Alan Warburton to be doubly guarded against Van Vernet. His danger increases at every step. Now we will call Mr. Follingsbee.”
“One moment, Mr. Stanhope. Alan has employed detectives to search for Daisy, but none of them know what you know. Will you find her for me?” She held out her hands appealingly.
The detective looked at her in silence for a moment, then, striding forward, he took the outstretched hands in both his own, and gazing down into her face said, gently:
“I will serve you to the extent of my power, dear lady. I will find the little one, if I can.”
Mr. Follingsbee had passed his hour of waiting in the most comfortable manner possible, fast asleep in a big lounging-chair. Being aroused, he departed with Stanhope, manifesting no curiosity concerning the outcome of the detective’s visit.
While their footsteps yet lingered on the outer threshold, Winnie French came flying down the stairway.
“Come quick!” she cried to Leslie. “Archibald is worse; he is dying!”
“I will serve you to the extent of my power,” Richard Stanhope had said, holding Leslie Warburton’s hands in his, and looking straight into her appealing eyes. “I will find the little one, if I can.”
Nevertheless he went straight to the Agency, and, standing before his Chief, said:
“I am ready to begin work for Mr. Parks, sir. I shall quit the Agency to-day. Give Vernet my compliments, and tell him I wish him success. It may be a matter of days, weeks, or months, but you will not see me here again until I can tell you who killed Arthur Pearson.”
VERNET ON THE TRAIL
The discovery made by Van Vernet, on the day of his visit to the Warburton mansion, aroused him to wonderful activity, and made him more than ever eager to ferret out the hiding-place of Papa Francoise, who, he felt assured, could throw much light upon the mystery surrounding the midnight murder.
He set a constant watch upon the deserted Francoise house, and kept the dwelling of the Warburtons under surveillance, while he, in person, gravitated between these two points of interest, during the time when he was not employed in collecting items of information concerning the Warburton family. Little by little he gathered his bits of family history, and was now familiar with many facts concerning the invalid master of the house and his second marriage, and the travelled and aristocratic brother, who, so rumor said, was proud as a crown-prince, and blameless as Sir Galahad.
“These immaculate fellows are not to my taste,” muttered Van Vernet, on the morning following the day when Stanhope held his last interview with Leslie, as he took his station at a convenient point of observation, prepared to pass the forenoon in watching the Warburton mansion.
His first glance toward the massive street-door caused him to start and mutter an imprecation. The bell was muffled, and the door-plate hidden beneath heavy folds of crape.
Archibald Warburton was dead. The hand that stole his little one had struck his death-blow, as surely as if by a dagger thrust. His feeble frame, unable to endure those long days of suspense, had given his soul back to its origin, his body back to nature.
Within was a household doubly stricken; without, a two-fold danger menaced.
“So,” muttered Van Vernet, as he gazed upon this insignia of death; “so my patron is dead; that stately, haughty aristocrat has lost all interest in his wife’s secrets. Well, so have I – but I have transferred my interest to his brother, Alan Warburton. Death caused by shock following loss of his little daughter, no doubt. That tall, straight seigneur looked like a man able to outlive a shock, too.”
He was not at all ruffled by the sudden taking-off of the man he supposed to be his patron. He had not made a single step toward the clearing-up of the mystery surrounding the goings and comings of Mrs. Archibald Warburton. His discovery of Stanhope at the masked ball, and his machinations consequent upon that discovery, together with the fiasco of the Raid and all its after-results, had made it impossible that he could interest himself in what he considered “merely a bit of domestic intrigue.”
He was not sorry that Archibald Warburton was dead, and he resolved to profit by that death.
Since the discovery of Alan Warburton’s picture, Van Vernet’s mind had been drifting toward dangerous conclusions.
Suppose this wealthy aristocrat and the Sailor assassin should prove the same, what would follow? Might he not naturally conclude that a secret existed between Alan Warburton and the Francoises, and, if so, what was the nature of that secret? Why was Alan Warburton, if it were he, absent from his house on a night of festivity, a night when he should have been making merry with his brother’s guests?
If he were in league with those outlaws of the slums, it was not for plunder; surely the Warburtons were rich enough. What, then, was the secret which that stately mansion concealed?
“A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush,” quoted Vernet, grimly. “That Sailor assassin first – the Warburton skeleton first. They are almost under my hand, and once I grasp them, my clutch is upon the Warburton millions, too.”
The morning was yet early, there was quiet in the street and Van Vernet, wearing for convenience sake the uniform of a policeman, paced slowly down toward the house of mourning. As he neared the street-corner, two women, beggars evidently, came hurrying around the corner straight toward him.
At sight of his uniform the larger and elder of the two, a stout woman with a vicious face, a sharp eye, and head closely muffled in a ragged shawl, started slightly. Then with a furtive glance and a fawning obeisance, she hurried her companion past him, and down the street.
This companion, a younger woman, her face covered with bruises and red with dissipation, walked with a painful limp, and the hesitating air of the blind, her eyes tightly shut and the lids quivering.
“Playing blind,” muttered Vernet, as they hastened past him. “If I were the regular officer here, I’d have them out of this; as it is – ”
He gave a shrug of indifference and glanced back over his shoulder.
The two women had halted before the Warburton mansion, and the elder one was looking up at the crape-adorned door.
Then she glanced backward toward the officer, who seemed busy contemplating the antics of a pair of restive horses that were coming down the street. Seeing him thus employed, she darted down the basement-stairs, dragging her stumbling companion after her.
Suddenly losing his interest in the prancing horses, Van Vernet turned and hastily approached the mansion, screened from the view of the two women by the massive stone steps.
Even a beggar, of the ordinary type, respects the house of mourning. And as he drew near them, Vernet mentally assured himself that these were no ordinary mendicants.
They were standing close to the basement-entrance. And as he stealthily approached, he saw that the elder woman put into the hand of the servant, who had opened the door, a folded paper which she took reluctantly, glanced down at, and with a sullen nod put into the pocket of her apron. Then, without a word to the two beggars, she closed and locked the door, while they, seeming not in the least disconcerted, turned and moved leisurely up the basement-stairs.
They would have passed Vernet hurriedly, but he put out his hand and said:
“Look here, my good souls, don’t you know that this is no place for beggars? You can’t be very old in the business or you’d never trouble a house where you see that on the door.” And pointing to the badge of mourning, he concluded his oration: “Be off, now, and thank fortune that I’m a good-natured fellow.”
The woman muttered something after the usual mendicant fashion, and hastened away down the street.
At the same moment the prancing horses, held to a walk by the firm hand of their stout driver, came opposite the mansion, and a face muffled in folds of crape looked out from the carriage.
But Van Vernet had now no eyes for the horses, the carriage, or its occupant.
Noting, with a hasty glance, the direction taken by the two women, he sprang down the basement-steps and rang the bell.
The servant who had opened to the women, again appeared at the door.
“What do you want?” she asked, crossly; for being an honest servant she had no fear of the blue coat and brass buttons of the law.
The bogus policeman touched his hat and greeted her with an affable smile.
“I beg your pardon,” he said; “I thought you might be annoyed by those beggars. I can remove them if you enter a complaint. I saw that they gave you some kind of a paper; a begging letter, probably. Just give it to me, and I will see that they don’t intrude again upon people who are in trouble enough.”
He extended his hand for the letter; but the servant drew back, and answered hastily:
“Don’t bother yourself. I’ve had my orders, and I guess when I don’t want beggars around, I know how to send them to the right-about.”
And without waiting to note the effect of her speech, she shut the door in his face, leaving him to retreat as the two beggars had done.
Hastening up the steps he looked after the women, who were already nearly two blocks away. Then, with one backward glance, he started off in the same direction, keeping at a safe distance, but always in sight of them.
“So,” he mused, as he walked along, “the Warburton servant has had her orders. That was precisely the information I wanted. These women were not beggars, but messengers, and they brought no message of the ordinary kind.”
Suddenly he uttered a sharp ejaculation, and quickened his pace.
“That old woman – why, she answers perfectly the description given of Mother Francoise! And if it is Mother Francoise, she has undoubtedly brought a message to Alan Warburton. If it is that old woman, I will soon know it, for I shall not take my two eyes off her until I have tracked her home.”
WHO KILLED JOSEF SIEBEL
While Van Vernet was following after the two women, the carriage with the restless horses moved slowly past the Warburton dwelling.
An observer might have noted that the face of the crape-draped occupant was pressed close against the oval window, in the rear of the vehicle, watching the direction taken by Van Vernet. Then, suddenly, this individual leaned forward and said to the driver:
“Around the corner, Jim, and turn.”
The order was promptly obeyed.
“Now back, Jim,” said this fickle-minded person. Then as the carriage again rounded the corner: “You see that fellow in policeman’s uniform, Jim?”
Slowly the carriage moved along, picking its way across crowded thoroughfares, for many blocks, the occupant keeping a close watch upon the movements of Van Vernet, this time through the window in front.
Finally, leaning back in the carriage with a muttered, “That settles it; he’s going to track them home,” he again addressed the driver:
“Turn back, Jim.”
“All right, sir.”
“Drive to Warburton Place, side entrance.”
Leslie Warburton, her vigil being over, was alone in her room, pacing restlessly up and down, a look of dire foreboding on her face, and in her hand a crumpled note.
At the sound of an opening door she turned to confront her maid, who proffered her a card.
Leslie took it mechanically and then started as she read thereon:
And written in the corner of the card, the underlined word, Imperative.
There was a look of relief upon the face she turned to the servant.
“Where is the – lady?”
“In the little drawing-room, madam.”
Holding the card in her hand, Leslie hastened to the little drawing-room.
A tall, veiled woman advanced to meet her; it was the occupant of the carriage.
Leslie came close to this sombre-robed figure and said, almost in a whisper: “Mr. Stanhope?”
“It is I, Mrs. Warburton. Need I say that only the most urgent necessity could have brought me here at such a time?”
“It is the right time, sir.”
She held up before him the crumpled note.
“It is from them?” he asked.
“It contains the secret of their present whereabouts, and bids you come to them?”
“You will not go?”
“How can I, now?” – her voice almost a wail – “and yet – ”
“You are safe to refuse, Mrs. Warburton. You need not comply with any instructions they may give you henceforth. Let me have that note.”
“But – ”
“I must have it, in order to save you. I must know where to find these people.”
She looked at him inquiringly, and put the note into his hand.
“Thank you,” he said. “Has Van Vernet visited this house, to your knowledge?”
“And he saw – ”
“No one. I obtained my information from a servant. He sent up his card to Alan, who refused to meet him.”
“Ah!” Stanhope turned toward the door, putting the note in his pocket as he did so. Suddenly he paused, his eyes resting upon the portrait of Alan Warburton.
“That is very imprudent,” he said.
“I – I don’t understand.”
“That picture. It must be removed.” Then turning sharply toward her: “Are there other pictures of Mr. Alan Warburton in this house?”
“No; this is the only recent portrait.”
He sat down and looked at the picture intently.
“Van Vernet has been here, you tell me. Can he have seen that?”
Fully alive now to the delicacy and danger of the situation, Leslie lifted her hand and turned toward the door. “Wait,” she said, and went swiftly out.
“So,” muttered Stanhope, as he again contemplated the picture, “a square foot of canvas can spoil all my plans. If Van has seen this, my work becomes doubly hard, and Warburton’s case a desperate one.”ñêà÷àòü êíèãó áåñïëàòíî