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The Red Room

William Le Queux

  Produced by Nick Hodson of London, England

  The Red Room, by William Le Queux.


  ________________________________________________________________________THE RED ROOM, BY WILLIAM LE QUEUX.



  The fifteenth of January, 1907, fell on a Tuesday. I have good cause toremember it.

  In this narrative of startling fact there is little that concernsmyself. It is mostly of the doings of others--strange doings thoughthey were, and stranger still, perhaps, that I should be theirchronicler.

  On that Tuesday morning, just after eleven o'clock, I was busy takingdown the engine of one of the cars at my garage in the High Road,Chiswick. Dick, one of my men, had had trouble with the "forty-eight"while bringing home two young gentlemen from Oxford on the previousnight, and I was trying to locate the fault.

  Suddenly, as I looked up, I saw standing at my side a man who lived afew doors from me in Bath Road, Bedford Park--a man who was a mystery.

  He greeted me pleasantly, standing with his hands thrust into thepockets of his shabby black overcoat, while, returning his salutation, Istraightened myself, wondering what had brought him there, and whetherhe wished to hire a car.

  I had known him by sight for a couple of years or more as he passed upand down before my house, but we had not often spoken. Truth to tell,his movements seemed rather erratic and his shabbiness very marked, yetat times he appeared quite spruce and smart, and his absences were sofrequent that my wife and I had grown to regard him with considerablesuspicion. In the suburbs of London one doesn't mix easily with one'sneighbours.

  "Can I speak to you privately, Mr. Holford?" he asked, with a slighthesitancy and a glance at my chauffeur Dick, who at that moment had hishand in the gear-box.

  "Certainly," I said. "Will you step into my office?" And I led the waythrough the long garage to my private room beyond, through the glasswindows of which I could see all the work in progress.

  My visitor was, I judged, about fifty, or perhaps fifty-five, ananxious, slight, intellectual-looking man, with hair and moustacheturning grey, a pair of keen, dark, troubled eyes, a protruding,well-shaven chin, an aquiline face, sniffing dimly the uncertain future,a complexion somewhat sallow, yet a sinewy, athletic person whosevocation I had on many occasions tried to guess in vain.

  Sometimes he dressed quite smartly in clothes undoubtedly cut by aWest-End tailor. At others, he slouched along shabby and apparentlyhard up, as he now was.

  My wife--for I had married three years before, just after I had enteredthe motor business--had from the first put him down as an adventurer,and a person to be avoided. Her woman's instinct generally led tocorrect conclusions. Indeed, one night, when out with her sister, shehad seen him in evening dress, seated in a box at a theatre with a lady,in pale blue and diamonds, and another man; and on a second occasion shehad witnessed him at Charing Cross Station registering luggage to theContinent. He had with him two smartly-dressed men, who were seeing himoff.

  I myself had more than once seen him arrive in a hansom with well-wornsuit-cases and travelling kit, and on several occasions, when driving acar through the London traffic, I had caught sight of him in silk hatand frock-coat walking in the West End with his smart friends.

  Women are generally inquisitive regarding their neighbours, and my wifewas no exception. She had discovered that this Mr. Kershaw Kirk was abachelor, whose home was kept by an unmarried sister, Miss Judith, aboutnine years his junior. They employed a charwoman every Friday, but, asMiss Kirk's brother was absent so frequently, they preferred not toemploy a general servant.

  Now, I was rather suspicious of this fact. The man Kirk was a mystery,and servants are always prone to pry into their master's affairs.

  My visitor was silent for a few moments after he had taken the chair Ihad offered. His dark eyes were fixed upon me with a strange, intenselook, until, with some hesitation, he at last said:

  "I believe, Mr. Holford, you are agent for a new German tyre--theEckhardt it is called, is it not?"

  "I am," I replied. "I am sole agent in London."

  "Well, I want to examine one," he exclaimed, "but in strict confidence.Other persons will probably come to you and beg to see this particulartyre, but I wish you to regard the fact that I have seen it as entirelybetween ourselves. Will you do so? A very serious issue depends uponyour discretion--how serious you will one day realise."

  I looked at him in surprise. His request for secrecy struck me asdistinctly peculiar.

  "Well, of course, if you wish," I replied, "I'll regard the fact thatyou have seen the Eckhardt non-skid as confidential. Is it inconnection with any new invention?" I asked suspiciously.

  "Not at all," he laughed. "I have nothing whatever to do withmotor-cars or the motor trade. I merely wish to satisfy myself bylooking at one of the new tyres."

  So I went upstairs, and brought down one of the German covers for hisinspection.

  He took it in his hands, and, very careful that Dick should not observehim from the outside, closely examined the triangular steel studs withwhich the cover was fitted.

  From his pocket he took a piece of paper, and, folding it, measured thewidth of the tyre, making a break in the edge of the folded paper. Thenhe felt the edges of the studs, and began to ask questions regarding thelife of the new tyre.

  "The inventor, who lives at Cologne, was over here three months ago, andclaimed for it that it lasted out three tyres of any of the presentwell-known makes," I replied. "But, as a matter of fact, I must admitthat I've never tried it myself."

  "You've sold some, of course?"

  "Yes, several sets--and I believe they've given satisfaction."

  "You are, I take it, the only agent in this country?"

  "No; Farmer and Payne, in Glasgow, have the agency for Scotland," Ireplied, greatly wondering why this tyre should attract him if he had nopersonal interest in cars.

  A second time he examined the cover, again very closely; then, placingit aside, he thanked me, apologising for taking up my time.

  "Mind," he said, "not a word to a soul that you have shown me this."

  "I have promised, Mr. Kirk, to say nothing," I said; "but yourinjunctions as to secrecy have, I must confess, somewhat aroused mycuriosity."

  "Probably so." And a good-humoured smile overspread his thin, rathermelancholy face. "But our acquaintance is not very intimate, is it?I've often been on the point of asking you to run in and have a smokewith me. I'm a trifle lonely, and would be so delighted if you'd spendan hour with me."

  My natural curiosity to discover more about this man, who was such amystery, prompted me to express a mutual desire for a chat.

  So it was arranged that I should look in and see him after dinner thatsame evening.

  "I travel a good deal," he explained, in a careless way, "therefore Inever like to make engagements far ahead. I always believe in livingfor to-day and allowing to-morrow to take care of itself."

  He spoke with refinement, and, though presenting such a shabby exterior,was undoubtedly a gentleman and well bred.

  He looked around the garage, and I showed him the dozen or so cars whichI let out on hire, as well as the number of private cars whose ownersplace them in my care. But by the manner he examined them I saw that,whatever ignorance he might feign regarding motors, he was no novice.He seemed to know almost as much about ignition, timing, and lubricationas I did.

  And when I remarked upon it his face only relaxed into a smile that wassphinx-like.

  "Well, Mr. Holford," he exclaimed at last, "I'm hindering you, no doubt,so I'll clear out. Remember, I'll expect you for a chat at nine thisevening."
And, buttoning his frayed overcoat, he left, and walked inthe direction of Turnham Green.

  Half an hour later I was called on the telephone to the other side ofLondon, where I had a customer buying a new car, and it was not beforesix o'clock that I was back again at the garage, where I found mymanager, Pelham, who during the morning had been out trying a car on theRipley road.

  "Funny thing happened this afternoon, sir," he said as I entered. "Twomen, both mysterious persons, have come in, one after the other, to seean Eckhardt non-skid. They had no idea of buying one--merely wanted tosee it. The second man wanted me to roll one along in the mud outsideto show him the track it makes! Fancy me doing that with a new tyre!"

  His announcement puzzled me. These were the persons whose visit hadbeen predicted by Kirk!

  What could it