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The Hunchback of Westminster

William Le Queux

  Produced by Nick Hodson of London, England

  The Hunchback of WestminsterBy William Le QueuxPublished by Methuen & Co, 36 Essex Street, London WC.This edition dated 1904.

  The Hunchback of Westminster, by William Le Queux.


  ________________________________________________________________________THE HUNCHBACK OF WESTMINSTER, BY WILLIAM LE QUEUX.


  A Word Before Reading.

  For many years I have busied myself making a collection of rare andvaluable historical documents, and strange indeed are some of thestories and scandals which these ancient, crinkled parchments whisper tome in my hours of leisure.

  In France, in Italy, in Russia, in Germany, in Belgium, in all cornersof England, this craze of mine has led me, through many adventures, freebut captive; and, looking back now, I realise that it has been reallythrough this little-known hobby of mine, the hobby of palaeography, thatthere have come some of the most suggestive and magical hours I haveever spent in a wandering, erratic life that has never been wholly freefrom movement, but has often held its time of danger and its resistless,restless passion for change, romance, and adventure.

  Perhaps, then, it is not really wonderful that this love of mine for therecords of the dead-and-gone ages colours my later stories. Yet, in asense, it would be strangely odd if it did not, for when an author hearsso weird and thrilling a narrative of hidden treasure as this I havehere striven to recount it would surely be more than human of him tofail to put it into print.

  This "Hunchback of Westminster" is really no idle fiction spun for theentertainment of an idle hour. In many ways, indeed, it is tragicallytrue--particularly that portion which tells how men only a few monthsago in this prosaic London of ours fought for a certain treasure worthseveral millions of pounds.

  William Le Queux.



  It was in the second year of my practice as a private detective thatyoung Jose Casteno came to my office in Stanton Street, WC, andentrusted me with that strange and terrible mission in regard to which Ihave really hesitated, in all sincerity, for some days before I couldactually nerve myself to take the public into my confidence.

  Up to that time, I remember, my big brass plate, with the legend "MrHugh Glynn, Secret Investigator," had only succeeded in drawing a veryaverage and ordinary amount of business. True, I had had severalprofitable cases in which wives wanted to know what happened to theirhusbands when they didn't come home at the usual hours, and employerswere anxious to discover certain leakages through which had disappeareda percentage of their cash; but for the most part my work had beenshockingly humdrum, and already I had begun to regret the whim that hadprompted me, after reading certain latter-day romances, to throw up mycareer as a barrister in Gray's Inn to emulate the romancer's heroes inreal life.

  Indeed, at the rate of progress I was making then, I calculated that itwould be exactly forty-seven and a half years before I could save 1000pounds out of my expenses, and, with that as a nest-egg, dare to askpretty Doris Napier to marry me; and hence, as such long engagementswere no more fashionable then than they are now, I can assure you Ioften felt a trifle despondent about my future.

  Still, that was before Jose Casteno appeared on the scene in StantonStreet, WC. Afterwards things, as you will see, were different.

  Now, of course, there are always plenty of people who do not believethat the great and wonderful things that happen in life come heralded bya sky angry with the glow of blood or by a storm in which the wind seemsto range from end to end of the gamut of all human emotion, and to soband shriek and sigh as though it were possessed by some fugitive spiritstricken with mortal pain. On the contrary, they argue, the biggestthings have the smallest beginnings, and hence one never knows what tinyaffair betokens crisis. As a matter of fact, I hadn't noticed, I own,any peculiar association of sympathy between Man and Nature until thisparticular night I write of, but then I do recollect very well it did sohappen that I was very late indeed at the office, that there was a mostterrifying thunderstorm in London, and that, just about midnight, thedarkness was both cavernous and oppressive.

  As I close my eyes I can recall the whole scene again--that black,deserted street, the flickering gaslights, the vague suggestion, in theswirl of the rain, of a mighty, impalpable presence that was sweepingthrough the metropolis rent by passion and terrors which no humanimagination could ever give shape to. Then, all at once, a great calmseemed to fall over the night, and as I swung my chair round from thefireplace to see what had happened I became suddenly conscious of awhite, haggard face pressed to the window-pane staring at me with wide,dilated eyes that dogged my every movement and seemed to hypnotise allmy senses.

  For a moment, I admit, I paused, paralysed by a nameless horror.Immediately afterwards the utter absurdity of any serious cause forfright on a ground floor in a thoroughfare not a dozen yards from thenever-dying turmoil of the Strand broke upon me. With one bound Isprang to my office door, which I instantly flung far open, and thereimmediately entered to me, without a word being uttered on either side,a tall, thin, foreign-looking man of about twenty-five. His was theface which I had seen staring at me so eagerly through the window-pane!

  "Pardon me coming at this unseasonable hour," he said, with a profoundgesture of humility, yet in a gentle, refined accent that suggested thestudent and the scholar. "Permit me to introduce myself," and, with aflourish, he handed me a large-sized card, on which was engraved thename, in a distinctly foreign hand, "Don Jose Casteno," but the addresswas scratched out.

  For an instant his eyes met mine in one long, keen, lingering gaze ofscrutiny--in that fatal instant, indeed, which follows the comingtogether of all men destined to do much in common, and which I havealways found, in my experience, invariably decides whether we trust orwe hate. Strange as his arrival had been, I will say, frankly, I took aliking to him even in that ghostly glare of the firelight; and,motioning him to a chair opposite to my desk, I turned up the gas. Thenas he removed a wide-brimmed felt hat and unfastened a shabby black coatwith a kind of Inverness cape, most often seen in use by foreignpriests, I noticed his pale, intellectual-looking, clean-shaven face,with a mouth as tender and expressive as a girl's.

  "My business," he began in a low voice of explanation as soon as he sawme seat myself and take up a pen to follow him, "is by no means a pieceof common detective work which I am anxious that you should undertake inmy behalf. On the contrary, it deals, Mr Glynn," and now his voicebecame very grave, "with much that is startling and mysterious--muchthat spells ugly words like `treachery' even in London--striking, as itdoes, at the root of at least one far-reaching unprincipled, foreignintrigue. First of all, then, I must ask you to tell me quite openlyand frankly, are you free and prepared to undertake a series ofdifficult and dangerous missions?"

  "I am," I replied after a moment's pause; "but it must be on terms."

  "And what are those terms?"

  "First, that I am well and punctually paid," and, in spite of myself, Ismiled, for I found quite suddenly I had grown quite mercenary after mybitter reflections about Doris.

  "Certainly, you shall be promptly remunerated," he returned, and,thrusting a hand into a breast pocket, he withdrew a letter case stuffedwith bank notes. "Pray let me put you right on that point at once byplacing that in your safe," he added. "Take from it as the workprogresses any sums you may reasonably require. When all is over I willcall on you to account for the amount. To-night it stands at 750pounds."

  I counted the notes. They were quite new, but perfectly genuine, and ofthe amount he had stated,
and I promptly locked them up in the smallstrong room that adjoined my office, which, alas! had hitherto seen toolittle of all such valuables. Then I faced Don Jose again.

  "My next condition," I said slowly, "is that you give me your entireconfidence. There must be nothing kept from me. You must tell me all--absolutely all."

  "Ah, but--that is impossible," he replied gently. "I simply dare notreveal the details of the secret, which I want you to work on, to anysingle soul. If I did, my life would be taken within the following fourand twenty hours." And all at once he shivered, as though he hadhimself caught instinctively some eerie presentiment of his doom.

  "But how can I hope to work successfully in the dark?" I cried,throwing up my hands.

  "Easily enough," he returned. "All you have to do is to carry out myinstructions, then nothing need be feared. For instance, here is thefirst