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The Mysterious Three

William Le Queux

  Produced by Nick Hodson of London, England

  The Mysterious Three, by William Le Queux.


  ________________________________________________________________________THE MYSTERIOUS THREE, BY WILLIAM LE QUEUX.



  "Do you know a Mr. Smithson, Gwen?" Sir Charles Thorold asked his wifeabruptly as he stood astride before the big fire in the hall.

  "Smithson?" Lady Thorold answered as she poured out the tea. "No. Whois he?"

  "I have no idea. Never heard of him."

  Then, addressing the butler, Sir Charles asked anxiously--

  "Did he leave a card, James?"

  "No, Sir Charles. He asked to see you--or her ladyship."

  "Or me?" Lady Thorold exclaimed. "Why, how very mysterious. What washe like?"

  "A tall, powerfully-built man, m'lady."

  "A gentleman?"

  "M'yes, m'lady. He came in a car."

  As James said this in his grave, solemn way, I saw Vera Thorold's eyestwinkle with amusement. For Sir Charles's only child possessed thatgift rare in a woman--a sense of humour.

  "You are sure you have the name right?" Thorold said, after a moment'spause.

  "Quite, Sir Charles. I think he was not going to give his name, as youwere out. I asked him what name, and he seemed to hesitate, then hesaid: `Oh, say Mr. Smithson called, Sir Charles knows me,' and then heseemed to smile, Sir Charles."

  "He seemed to smile. I wonder why?"

  His master turned to Lady Thorold.

  "What do you make of it, Gwen?"

  "I make nothing of it," replied his wife. "Is it some friend of yours,Vera?"

  "Mother, how ridiculous," the girl exclaimed; "as if I should have afriend called `Smithson'!"

  "Pardon me, Sir Charles, but--" broke in the butler.

  "Well, what?"

  "There is a portrait of him in the morning-room."

  "A portrait?" gasped his master. "A portrait of Smithson! Then why thedeuce didn't you say so before! Which is it? I should really like toknow."

  "There are so many portraits in the morning-room," Lady Thoroldinterrupted, "we had better go in, and James will show us which it is.He may have mistaken the name, after all."

  We all got up from tea in the hall, made our way to the drawing-room,and thence into the morning-room, which opened out of it. There wasplenty of daylight still. James came in after us, and went straight upto a framed panel portrait which stood with others on a small table in aremote corner. It showed a tall handsome, clean-shaved man of three orfour and thirty, of fine physique, seated astride a chair, his armsfolded across the back of the chair as he faced the camera.

  "This is the one, Sir Charles," the butler said, pointing to it.

  I distinctly saw Lady Thorold give a start. Sir Charles, tanned thoughhis face was by wind and sun, turned quite pale. Vera, who was standingby me at the moment, suddenly gripped my arm, I think unconsciously. AsI glanced down at her I noticed that her eyes were set upon her mother.They had in them an expression of deep anxiety, almost of terror. SirCharles was the first to recover his composure.

  "Oh--that one," he exclaimed slowly, with a forced laugh. "Then thereis no mystery at all. His giving the name `Smithson' was of course hisjoke. Now we know why he smiled. Thank you, James. You can go."

  I confess that I was puzzled. Indeed, I felt greatly mystified, and tosome extent perturbed. I knew quite well by my host's tone and mannerand by the look in Lady Thorold's eyes, perhaps most of all by thatsqueeze Vera had unconsciously given my arm, that all three had receivedsome very unpleasant, apparently some terrible shock. But why? Andwhat could have caused it? Who was that big man whose portrait stoodframed there? What was his name? Why had he called himself "Smithson"?What was the mystery concerning him in relation to my hosts, or themystery concerning my hosts in relation to him? My curiosity was keenlyaroused.

  I don't think I am likely ever to forget that date--Wednesday, February5, 1911, for it marks the beginning of a train of events so remarkable,I would call it amazing only I am not addicted to talking insuperlatives. Yet I do assure you that I in no way exaggerate, and thatthe story I am about to tell is but a record of bare facts.

  That February morning was quite bright and balmy, I remember it becauseit was the first day of the Waterloo Cup meeting. Rather warm, indeed,for hunting, and at the meet and the coverside the scraps ofconversation one overheard referred chiefly to a big ball at Oakham.

  Hounds had not been thrown into Colly Weston Wood more than a quarter ofan hour when a piercing "View Holloa" echoed through the wood, and along, lean, yellow-bodied fox broke away not two hundred yards from thespot where the majority of the field sat waiting on their impatient,fidgety mounts, and with a single glance behind him at the mottled packstreaming out of the cover in full cry, crossed a ploughed field, poppedthrough a hedge and disappeared.

  A few moments later came the usual wild stampede, and in less than aminute hounds and horses were fast disappearing in the distance, themusic of the flying pack growing rapidly fainter in the distance.

  By a singular stroke of ill-luck--or so I thought it then--I had gotleft. I had set my horse at a treacherous stake-and-wattle fence,hoping thus to steal a march on the rest of the field galloping wildlyfor a couple of open gates. My horse had blundered, I daresay partlythrough my fault, and had staked himself, though only slightly. To cuta long story short, my day's amusement was over, for, after doing what Icould to staunch the bleeding, I had to lead the poor beast all the wayhome to Houghton Park, a distance of at least eight miles.

  Naturally I expected to be home long before my host, Sir CharlesThorold, and his wife and daughter, for as I entered the Park gates,with my lame animal crawling slowly after me, it was barely threeo'clock. I was a good deal surprised, therefore to see Sir Charles andthe two coming along another of the Park roads, and not a hundred yardsaway from me. They had entered by another gate.

  "Hello, Ashton!" Thorold called out to me cheerily. "Why, where haveyou been, and what is amiss?"

  I explained as soon as we were all together, and he sympathised. So didMiss Thorold. She was genuinely sorry I had missed the really splendidrun.

  "We all missed our second horses," she added, "and our animals were sodead beat that we decided to come home, though hounds were, I believe,going to draw again."

  Her sympathy soothed me a good deal, for I think that even then I was inlove with the tall, graceful, fair-haired girl who, on horseback, lookedso perfectly bewitching. The exercise, the fresh air and the excitementof the morning's sport had combined to give a colour to her cheeks andto impart a singular brightness to her eyes that together enhanced herquite exceptional loveliness.

  Though I could remember her as a child, I had not seen her for elevenyears until a fortnight previously, her father had invited me toHoughton Park, in Rutland. He had invited me the previous year, but onthat occasion Vera had been away in Switzerland.

  We had got rid of our muddy hunting kit, indulged in hot baths, and,feeling delightfully clean and comfortable and at peace with all theworld, were at tea in the great hall of Houghton, a fine, many-gabledcountry mansion, with rows of twisted chimneys said to date back to aperiod of Elizabeth, when James the butler, calm and stately--I can seehim still--had walked in his slow, dignified manner into the hall, totell Sir Charles that "a gentleman had called shortly before hereturned," a gentleman named Smithson.

  We went back to the big oak-panelled hall to finish our tea, and thoughSir Charles and Lady Thorold made light of the incident, and quicklychanged the subject of conversation, the
entire "atmosphere" seemedsomehow different. Our relations appeared suddenly to have become quitestrained.

  Half an hour later I found Vera in the library. I had noticed that,since our return downstairs, my presence had been distasteful to her--orat least I thought so.

  She was seated on a big settee, near the fire, pretending to read anewspaper, but her fingers twitched nervously, and presently I saw onehand squeeze the paper convulsively.

  I tossed away my cigarette, and crossed over to her.

  "Vera," I said in a low tone, "tell me what is amiss. What hashappened? why do you look so worried?"

  We were alone, and the door was closed.

  She looked up, and her eyes met mine. Her lips parted as if she wereabout to speak, then they shut tightly.