The Mystery Queen, by Fergus Hume

Chapter 1

A Strange Visitor

“A penny for your thoughts, Dad,” cried Lillian, suppressing a school-girl desire to throw one of the nuts on her plate at her father and rouse him from his brown study.

Sir Charles Moon looked up with a start, and drew his bushy grey eye-brows together. “Some people would give more than that to know them, my dear.”

“What sort of people?” asked the young man who sat beside Lillian, industriously cracking filberts for her consumption.

“Dangerous people,” replied Sir Charles grimly, “very dangerous, Dan.”

Mrs. Bolstreath, fat, fair, and fifty, Lillian’s paid companion and chaperon, leaned back complacently. She had enjoyed an excellent dinner: she was beautifully dressed: and shortly she would witness the newest musical comedy; three very good reasons for her amiable expression. “All people are dangerous to millionaires,” she remarked, pointing the compliment at her employer, ‘since all people enjoy life with wealth, and wish to get the millionaire’s money honestly or dishonestly.”

“The people you mention have failed to get mine, Mrs. Bolstreath,” was the millionaire’s dry response.

“Of course I speak generally and not of any particular person, Sir Charles.”

“I am aware of it,” he answered, nodding; and showed a tendency to relapse into his meditation, but that his daughter raised her price for confession.

“A sixpence for your thoughts, Dad, a shilling — ten shillings — then one pound, you insatiable person.”

“My kingdom for an explicit statement,” murmured Dan, laying aside the crackers. “Lillian, my child, you must not eat any more nuts, or you will be having indigestion.”

“I believe Dad has indigestion already.”

“Some people will have it very badly before I am done with them,” said Sir Charles, not echoing his daughter’s laughter: then, to prevent further questions being asked, he addressed himself to the young man. “How are things going with you, Halliday?”

When Sir Charles asked questions thus stiffly, Dan knew that he was not too well pleased, and guessed the reason, which had to do with Lillian, and with Lillian’s friendly attitude to a swain not overburdened with money — to wit, his very own self — who replied diplomatically. “Things are going up with me, sir, if you mean aeroplanes.”

“Frivolous! Frivolous!” muttered the big man seriously; “as a well-educated young man who wants money, you should aim at higher things.”

“He aims at the sun,” said Lillian gaily, “how much higher do you expect him to aim, Dad?”

“Aiming at the sun is he,” said Moon heavily; “h’m! he’ll be like that classical chap, who flew too high and came smash.”

“Do you mean Icarus or Phaeton, Sir Charles?” asked Mrs. Bolstreath, who, having been a governess, prided herself upon exceptional knowledge.

“I don’t know which of the two; perhaps one, perhaps both. But he flew in an aeroplane like Dan here, and came to grief.”

“Oh!” Lillian turned distinctly pale. “I hope, Dan, you won’t come to grief.”

Before the guest could reply, Sir Charles reassured his daughter. “Naught was never in danger,” he said, still grim and unsmiling, “don’t trouble, Lillian, my dear. Dan won’t come to grief in that way, although he may in another.”

Lillian opened her blue eyes and stared while young Halliday grew crimson and fiddled with the nutshells. “I don’t know what you mean, Dad?” said the girl after a puzzled pause.

“I think Dan does,” rejoined her father, rising and pushing back his chair slowly. He looked at his watch. “Seven-thirty; you have plenty of time to see your play, which does not begin until nine,” he added, walking towards the door. “Mrs. Bolstreath, I should like to speak with you.”

“But, Dad —”

“My dear Lillian, I have no time to wait. There is an important appointment at nine o’clock here, and afterwards I must go to the House. Go and enjoy yourself, but don’t —” here his stern grey eyes rested on Dan’s bent head in a significant way —“don’t be foolish. Mrs. Bolstreath,” he beckoned, and left the room.

“Oh!” sighed the chaperon-governess-companion, for she was all three, a kind of modern Cerberus, guarding the millionaire’s child. “I thought it would come to this!” and she also looked significantly at Halliday before she vanished to join her employer.

Lillian stared at the closed door through which both her father and Mrs. Bolstreath had passed, and then looked at Dan, sitting somewhat disconsolately at the disordered dinner-table. She was a delicately pretty girl of a fair fragile type, not yet twenty years of age, and resembled a shepherdess of Dresden china in her dainty perfection. With her pale golden hair, and rose-leaf complexion; arrayed in a simple white silk frock with snowy pearls round her slender neck, she looked like a wreath of faint mist. At least Dan fancifully thought so, as he stole a glance at her frail beauty, or perhaps she was more like a silver-point drawing, exquisitely fine. But whatever image love might find to express her loveliness, Dan knew in his hot passion that she was the one girl in the world for him. Lillian Halliday was a much better name for her than Lillian Moon.

Dan himself was tall and slim, dark and virile, with a clear-cut, clean-shaven face suggestive of strength and activity. His bronzed complexion suggested an open-air life, while the eagle look in his dark eyes was that new vast-distance expression rapidly being acquired by those who devote themselves to aviation. No one could deny Dan’s good looks or clean life or daring nature, and he was all that a girl could desire in the way of a fairy prince. But fathers do not approve of fairy princes unless they come laden with jewels and gold. To bring such to Lillian was rather like taking coals to Newcastle since her father was so wealthy; but much desires more, and Sir Charles wanted a rich son-inlaw. Dan could not supply this particular adjective, and therefore — as he would have put it in the newest slang of the newest profession — was out of the fly. Not that he intended to be, in spite of Sir Charles, since love can laugh at stern fathers as easily as at bolts and bars.

And all this time Lillian stared at the door, and then at Dan, and then at her plate, putting two and two together. But in spite of her feminine intuition, she could not make four, and turned to her lover — for that Dan was, and a declared lover too — for an explanation. “What does Dad mean?”

Dan raised his handsome head and laughed as grimly as Sir Charles had done earlier. “He means that I shan’t be asked to dinner any more.”

“Why? You have done nothing.”

“No; but I intend to do something.”

“What’s that?”

Dan glanced at the closed door and seeing that there was no immediate chance of butler or footmen entering took her in his arms. “Marry you,” he whispered between two kisses.

“There’s no intention about that,” pouted the girl; “we have settled that ever so long ago.”

“So your father suspects, and for that reason he is warning Mrs. Bolstreath.”

“Warning the dragon,” said Miss Moon, who used the term quite in an affectionate way, “why, the dragon is on our side.”

“I dare say your father guesses as much. For that reason I’ll stake my life that he is telling her at this moment she must never let us be together alone after this evening. After all, my dear, I don’t see why you should look at me in such a puzzled way. You know well enough that Sir Charles wants you to marry Curberry.”

“Marry Lord Curberry,” cried Lillian, her pale skin colouring a deep rose hue; “why I told Dad I wouldn’t do that.”

“Did you tell Dad that you loved me?”

“No. There’s no need to,” said the girl promptly.

Dan coughed drily. “I quite agree with you,” he said rising, “there’s no need to, since every time I look at you, I give myself away. But you surely understand, darling, that as I haven’t a title and I haven’t money I can’t have you. Hothouse grapes are for the rich and not for a poor devil like me.”

“You might find a prettier simile,” laughed Lillian, not at all discomposed, although she now thoroughly understood the meaning of her father’s abrupt departure with Mrs. Bolstreath. Then she rose and took Dan by the lapels of his coat, upon which he promptly linked her to himself by placing both arms round her waist. “Dearest,” she said earnestly, “I shall marry you and you only. We have been brought up more or less together, and we have always loved one another. Dad was your guardian: you have five hundred a year of your own, and if we marry Dad can give us plenty, and —”

“I know all that,” interrupted Halliday, placing her arms round his neck, “and it is just because Sir Charles knows also, that he will never consent to our marriage. I guessed what was in the wind weeks ago, darling heart, and every day I have been expecting what has occurred to-night. For that reason, I have come here as often as possible and have arranged for you and the dragon to go to the theatre to-night. But, believe me, Lillian, it will be for the last time. To-morrow I shall receive a note saying that I am to stay away from Lord Curberry’s bride.”

“I’m not his bride and I never shall be!” stamped Lillian, and the tears came into her pretty eyes, whereupon Dan, as a loyal lover, wiped them away with his pocket-handkerchief tenderly, “and — and —” she faltered.

“And — and —” he mocked, knowing her requirements, which led him to console her with a long and lingering kiss. “Oh!” he sighed and Lillian, nestling in his arms, echoed the sigh. The moment of perfect understanding and perfect love held them until the sudden opening of the door placed Dan on one side of the table and Lillian on the other.

“It won’t do, my dears,” said the new-comer, who was none other than Mrs. Bolstreath, flaming with wrath, but not, as the lovers found later, at them. “I know quite well that Dan hasn’t wasted his time in this league-divided wooing.”

“We thought that one of the servants —” began the young man, when Mrs. Bolstreath interrupted.

“Well, and am I not one of the servants? Sir Charles has reminded me of the fact three times with information that I am not worth my salt, much less the good table he keeps.”

“Oh! Bolly dear,” and Lillian ran to the stout chaperon to embrace her with many kisses, “was Dad nasty?”

“He wasn’t agreeable,” assented Mrs. Bolstreath, fanning herself with her handkerchief, for the interview had heated her. “You can’t expect him to be, my sweet, when his daughter loves a pauper.”

“Thank you,” murmured Dan bowing, “but don’t you think it is time we went to the theatre, Bolly dear.”

“You must not be so familiar, young man,” said the chaperon, broadly smiling at the dark handsome face. “Sir Charles wants Lillian to marry —”

“Then I shan’t!” Lillian stamped again. “I hate Lord Curberry.”

“And you love Dan!”

“Don’t be so familiar, young woman,” said Halliday, in a joking way, “unless you are on our side, that is.”

“If I were not on your side,” rejoined Mrs. Bolstreath, majestically, “I should be the very dragon Lillian calls me. After all, Dan, you are poor.”

“Poor, but honest.”

“Worse and worse. Honest people never grow rich. And then you have such a dangerous profession; taking people flying trips in those aeroplanes. One never can be sure if you will be home to supper. I’m sure Lillian would not care to marry a husband who was uncertain about being home for supper.”

“I’ll marry Dan,” said Lillian, and embraced Dan, who returned the embrace.

“Children! Children!” Mrs. Bolstreath raised her hands in horror, “think of what you are doing. The servants may be in at any moment. Come to the drawing-room and have coffee. The motor-car is waiting and — hush, separate, separate,” cried the chaperon, “someone is coming!”

She spoke truly, for the lovers had just time to fly asunder when Sir Charles’s secretary entered swiftly. He was a lean, tall, haggard-looking young fellow of thirty with a pallid complexion and scanty light hair. A thin moustache half concealed a weak mouth, and he blinked his eyes in a nervous manner when he bowed to the ladies and excused his presence. “Sir Charles left his spectacles here,” he said in a soft and rather unsteady voice, “he sent me for them and —” he had glided to the other side of the table by this time —“oh, here they are! The motor-car waits, Miss Moon.”

“Where is my father?” asked Lillian irrelevantly. “Tell me, Mr. Penn.”

“In the library, Miss Moon,” said the secretary glibly, “but he cannot see anyone just now — not even you, Miss Moon.”

“Why not?”

“He is waiting to interview an official from Scotland Yard — a Mr. Durwin on important business.”

“You see,” murmured Dan to Lillian in an undertone, “your father intends to lock me up for daring to love you.”

Miss Moon took no notice. “What is the business?” she asked sharply.

“Indeed I don’t know, Miss Moon. It is strictly private. Sir Charles has related nothing to me. And if you will excuse me — if you don’t mind — these spectacles are wanted and —” he babbled himself out of the room, while Mrs. Bolstreath turned on her charge.

“You don’t mean to say, you foolish child, that you were going to see your father about this,” she indicated Halliday.

“I don’t care about being called a ‘this’!” said Dan, stiffly.

Neither lady noticed the protest. “I want to make it clear to my father as soon as possible, that I shall marry Dan and no one else,” declared Lillian, pursing up her pretty mouth obstinately.

“Then take him at the right moment,” retorted Mrs. Bolstreath crossly, for the late interview had tried even her amiable temper. “Just now he is seething with indignation that an aviator should dare to raise his eyes to you.”

“Aviators generally look down,” said Dan flippantly; “am I to be allowed to take you and Lillian to the theatre this evening?”

“Yes. Although Sir Charles mentioned that you would do better to spend your money on other things than mere frivolity.”

“Oh!” said Halliday with a shrug, “as to that, this particular frivolity is costing me nothing. I got the box from Freddy Laurance, who is on that very up-to-date newspaper ‘The Moment’ as a reporter. I have dined at my future father-inlaw’s expense, and now I go in his motor-car without paying for the trip. I don’t see that my pleasures could cost me less. Even Sir Charles must be satisfied with such strict economy.”

“Sir Charles will be satisfied with nothing save a promise for you to go away and leave Lillian alone,” said Mrs. Bolstreath, sadly; “he has no feeling of romance such as makes me foolish enough to encourage a pauper.”

“You called me that before,” said Dan, coolly; “well, there’s no getting over facts. I am a pauper, but I love Lillian.”

“And I—” began Lillian, advancing, only to be waved back and prevented from speaking further by Mrs. Bolstreath.

“Don’t make love before my very eyes,” she said crossly; “after all I am paid to keep you two apart, and — and — well, there’s no time for coffee, so we had better finish the discussion in the car. There is plenty of time between Hampstead and the Strand to allow of a long argument. And remember, Dan,” Mrs. Bolstreath turned at the door to shake her finger, “this is your last chance of uninterrupted conversation with Lillian.”

“Let us make honey while the flowers bloom,” whispered Halliday, poetically, and stole a final and hasty kiss before he led the girl after the amiable dragon, who had already left the room.

The lovers found her talking to a poorly-dressed and rather stout female clothed in rusty mourning, who looked the picture of decent but respectable poverty. The entrance door stood open, and the waiting motor-car could be seen at the steps, while the footman stood near Mrs. Bolstreath, watching her chatting to the stranger and wearing an injured expression. It seemed that the decent woman wished to see Sir Charles, and the footman had refused her admission since his master was not to be disturbed. The woman — she called herself Mrs. Brown and was extremely tearful — had therefore appealed to the dragon, who was explaining that she could do nothing.

“Oh, but I am sure you can get Sir Charles Moon to see me, my lady,” wailed Mrs. Brown with a dingy handkerchief to her red eyes, “my son has been lost overboard off one of those steamers Sir Charles owns, and I want to ask him to give me some money. My son was my only support, and now I am starving.”

Lillian knew that her father owned a number of tramp steamers, which picked up cargoes all over the world, and saw no reason why the woman should not have the interview since her son had been drowned while in Moon’s service. The hour was certainly awkward, since Sir Charles had an appointment before he went down to the House. But a starving woman and a sorrowful woman required some consideration, so she stepped forward hastily and touched Mrs. Brown’s rusty cloak.

“I shall ask my father to see you,” she said quickly; “wait here!” and without consulting Mrs. Bolstreath she went impulsively to her father’s study, while Mrs. Brown dabbed her eyes with the handkerchief and called down blessings on her young head.

Dan believed the story of the lost son, but doubted the tale of starvation, as Mrs. Brown looked too stout to have been without food for any length of time. He looked hard at her face, which was more wrinkled than a fat woman’s should be; although such lines might be ascribed to grief. She wept profusely and was so overcome with sorrow that she let down a ragged veil when she saw Dan’s eager gaze. The young gentleman, she observed, could not understand a mother’s feelings, or he would not make a show of her by inquisitive glances. The remark was somewhat irrelevant, and the action of letting down the veil unnecessary, but much might be pardoned to a woman so obviously afflicted.

Dan was about to excuse his inquiring looks, when Lillian danced back with the joyful information that her father would see Mrs. Brown for a few minutes if she went in at once. “And I have asked him to help you,” said the girl, patting the fearful woman’s shoulder, as she passed to the motor-car. “Oh! it’s past eight o’clock. Dan, we’ll never be in time.”

“The musical comedy doesn’t begin until nine,” Halliday assured her, and in a few minutes the three of them were comfortably seated in the luxurious car, which whirled at break-neck speed towards the Strand.

Of course Lillian and Dan took every advantage of the opportunity, seeing that Mrs. Bolstreath was sympathetic enough to close her eyes to their philanderings. They talked all the way to the Curtain Theatre; they talked all through the musical comedy; and talked all the way back to the house at Hampstead. Mrs. Bolstreath, knowing that the young couple would not have another opportunity for uninterrupted love-making, and being entirely in favour of the match, attended to the stage and left them to whisper unreproved. She could not see why Dan, whom Lillian had loved since the pair had played together as children, should be set aside in favour of a dry-as-dust barrister, even though he had lately come into a fortune and a title. “But of course,” said Mrs. Bolstreath between the acts, “if you could only invent a perfect flying-machine, they would make you a duke or something and give you a large income. Then you could marry.”

“What are you talking about, Bolly darling?” asked Lillian, much puzzled, as she could not be supposed to know what was going on inside her friend’s head.

“About you and Dan, dear. He has no money and —”

“I shall make heaps and heaps of money,” said Dan, sturdily; “aviation is full of paying possibilities, and the nation that first obtains command of the air will rule the world. I’m no fool!”

“You’re a commoner,” snapped Mrs. Bolstreath quickly, “and unless, as I said, you are made a duke for inventing a perfect aeroplane, Lord Curberry is certainly a better match for Lillian.”

“He’s as dull as tombs,” said Miss Moon with her pretty nose in the air.

“You can’t expect to have everything, my dear child.”

“I can expect to have Dan,” retorted Lillian decidedly, whereat Dan whispered sweet words and squeezed his darling’s gloved hand.

“Well,” said Mrs. Bolstreath, as the curtain rose on the second act, “I’ll do my best to help you since I believe in young love and true love. Hush, children, people are looking! Attend to the stage.”

Dan and Lillian did their best to follow her advice and sat demurely in the box side by side, watching the heroine flirt in a duet with the hero, both giving vent to their feelings in a lively musical number. But they really took little interest in “The Happy Bachelor!” as the piece was called, in spite of the pretty girls and the picturesque scenery. They were together and that was all they cared about, and although a dark cloud of parental opposition hovered over them, they were not yet enveloped in its gloom. And after all, since Mrs. Bolstreath was strongly prejudiced in their favour, Lillian hoped that she might induce Sir Charles to change his mind concerning Lord Curberry. He loved his daughter dearly and would not like to see her unhappy, as she certainly would be if compelled to marry any one but The One. Lillian said this to Mrs. Bolstreath and to Dan several times on the way home, and they entirely agreed with her.

“Although I haven’t much influence with Sir Charles,” Mrs. Bolstreath warned them, “and he is fond of having his own way.”

“He always does what I ask,” said Lillian confidently. “Why, although he was so busy this evening, he saw Mrs. Brown when I pleaded for her.”

“He couldn’t resist you,” whispered Dan fondly; “no one could.”

Mrs. Bolstreath argued this point, saying that Lillian was Sir Charles’s daughter, and fathers could not be expected to feel like lovers. She also mentioned that she was jeopardising her situation by advocating the match, which was certainly a bad one from a financial point of view, and would probably be turned out of doors as an old romantic fool. The lovers assured her she was the most sensible of women and that if she was turned out of doors they would take her into the cottage where they proposed to reside like two turtle doves. Then came laughter and kisses and the feeling that the world was not such a bad place after all. It was a very merry trio that alighted at the door of Moon’s great Hampstead mansion.

Then came a shock, the worse for being wholly unexpected. At the door the three were met by Marcus Penn, who was Moon’s secretary. He looked leaner and more haggard than ever, and his general attitude was that of the bearer of evil news. Dan and Lillian and Mrs. Bolstreath stared at him in amazement. “You may as well know the worst at once, Miss Moon,” said Penn, his lips quivering with nervousness, “your father is dead. He has been murdered.”

http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/h/hume/fergus/h93mq/chapter1.html

Last updated Monday, March 17, 2014 at 16:42