The Mystery Queen, by Fergus Hume

Chapter 7

The Hermit Ladies

Dan was not naturally of a suspicious nature, but since taking up the profession of a detective, he had become so. Slight matters that formerly he would not have noticed, now attracted his attention, and, as the saying goes, he saw a bird in every bush. For this reason while returning slowly to the cottage, he considered Vincent’s backward glance, which hinted at nervousness, and his unnecessarily angry reply to the question as to whether he was rich. Usually dreamy and absent-minded, the turn taken by the conversation had awakened the tiger in the man, and apparently he regarded Halliday as over-inquisitive. Yet why the inventor should take this view, Dan could not conjecture. But after musing for a few minutes, the young man began to think that he was making a mountain our of a mole-hill. And whatever secret Vincent had in his life, as his suddenly aggressive attitude showed, it could have nothing to do with the particular quest upon which Dan was bent. Halliday therefore dismissed the matter from his mind with a shrug, and went into the cottage to disturb the lovers.

“Well, Mr. Halliday,” remarked Mildred, whose cheeks were flushed and whose eyes were bright, “what did my uncle say?”

“Very little, but what he did say was to the point. He refuses to let me have a machine.”

“How like him,” ejaculated Laurance quickly; “but upon what grounds?”

Dan scratched his chin. “Really, I don’t know. He seems to think that I am a spy desirous of learning his trade secrets. He called you a meddling fool, Freddy.”

“Ah, that is because I wish to marry Mildred,” replied Freddy, drily; “it is very natural that Mr. Vincent should object to a man, who comes to rob him of his treasure, so I don’t mind his abuse.”

“I am not a treasure,” cried Mildred, becoming pink.

“You are. Who knows that better than I, my darling.”

“You think too well of me.”

“Impossible. You are the best and dearest —”

“Stop! Stop!” Mildred covered her face. “Remember we are not alone.”

“Oh, don’t mind me,” said Dan, phlegmatically. “I’m in love myself, Miss Vincent.”

She nodded comprehendingly. “With Miss Moon. Freddy has told me.”

“Has he told you that my marriage depends upon my finding out who murdered her father?” questioned the young man dismally.

“Yes, and that you need money for the search.”

“Which money,” continued Laurance determinedly, “must be obtained by Dan winning this London to York race. That can be done, I am certain, with one of your uncle’s aeroplanes, Mildred, as he has made wonderful improvements in their structure, and —”

“But he declines to furnish me with a machine,” interrupted Halliday in a vexed tone, “not even my offer to share the £2,000 prize tempts him. He is too rich, I suppose?” he cast an inquiring glance at the girl.

Mildred shook her head. “Uncle Solomon is not rich,” she replied quietly.

“He must be,” insisted Dan sharply; “he could not indulge in such an expensive hobby otherwise.”

“Mrs. Jarsell helps him with money, though, to be sure, he has a little of his own. Still, unless she supplied money, Uncle Solomon could not go on building aeroplanes, especially as he rarely sells one, and wishes to keep all his inventions to himself. His idea is to invent a perfect machine and then sell it to the Government, and he fancies that if he allows anyone else to handle his aeroplanes, his secrets may be prematurely discovered.”

“Well, I can see his objection in that way,” assented Dan, “since more ideas are stolen than pocket handkerchiefs, as Balzac says. But Mrs. Jarsell?”

“She is a rich and rather eccentric lady, who lives at The Grange,” said Mr. Laurance, before Mildred could reply.

“I am as wise as I was before, Freddy. It’s an odd thing for a lady to finance an inventor of flying machines. She must be large-minded and have a very great deal of money.”

“She is large-minded and she has plenty of money,” admitted Mildred vivaciously; “her influence with my uncle is extraordinary.”

“Not at all if she supplies the cash,” said Dan cynically; “but I have an idea, Miss Vincent. Suppose we enlist Mrs. Jarsell’s sympathies.”

“About the murder?”

“No,” said Halliday, after thinking for a moment or so. “I don’t see the use of talking too much about that. The more secret Freddy and I keep our hunt, the better prospect have we of success, since the gang will not be on guard, as it were. No, Miss Vincent, introduce me to Mrs. Jarsell as a young and ardent lover who wishes to make money in order to marry the girl of his heart. If she is romantic — and nine old ladies out of ten are romantic — she will induce your uncle to give me his newest aeroplane.”

“If she decides to help you, Uncle Solomon certainly will give you what you want,” Mildred assured him, “since Mrs. Jarsell has supplied him with so much money for his experiments.” She thought for a second, then raised her head cheerfully. “We shall see Mrs. Jarsell and Miss Armour this afternoon.”

“Who is Miss Armour?”

“Mrs. Jarsell’s companion and relative and confidential friend. She’s a dear old thing, and is sure to sympathise with your romance.”

“All the better, so long as she can influence Mrs. Jarsell.”

“She can influence her, as Mrs. Jarsell swears by her,” put in Freddy. “Oh, I think you’ll pull it off, Dan! It’s a good idea to work old Vincent through the hermit ladies.”

“The hermit ladies,” echoed Dan wonderingly, “an odd reputation. Hermits are usually masculine.”

“Mrs. Jarsell and Miss Armour are an exception,” said Laurance laughing; “in fact they are modern representatives of that eccentric couple of ladies who lived at Llangollen. You remember them.”

“I have heard the names,” murmured Dan reflectively. “The Old Ladies of Llangollen, who eloped together and lived in Wales. I should rather like to see this pair that follow so strange an example. When are we to go?”

“This afternoon,” repeated Mildred, nodding brightly, “I really think something may come of the visit, Mr. Halliday. You and Freddy go back to ‘The Peacock’ for dinner and then call for me later — say at three o’clock. I am a favourite with the hermit ladies and have leave to bring anyone to afternoon tea — especially nice young men. Mrs. Jarsell and Miss Armour are fond of young men.”

“Giddy old things,” said Dan gaily. “I hope they will take a fancy to me; I shall do my best to charm them. Well?”

“You must go now, Mr. Halliday, as I have much to do before taking an hour off.”

“Vincent works you too hard, Mildred,” said Laurance impatiently, as he took up his cap, “you can’t call a moment your own.”

“I shall call two hours or so my own this afternoon,” replied Mildred amiably, and sent the young men away quite happy, since there was a promising chance that Dan would gain his ends.

“That’s a delightful girl,” said Dan, when the two were seated at dinner. “I should like to marry her if Lillian were not in existence.”

“I’m glad that Lillian is, Dan, since I want to marry Mildred myself. Don’t poach, you animal.”

“I won’t,” promised Halliday generously, “I don’t like dark hair. But it’s no use arguing. Let us eat and drink, for I have to fascinate Mrs. Jarsell and her bosom friend. I’ll get hold of that aeroplane somehow.”

“We are here for that purpose,” said Laurance, determined to have the last word, and as Dan was hungry he let him have it.

The Grange — at which they arrived late in the afternoon, the two men escorting the one girl — was a large, rambling mansion built of yellowish stone, its original colour more or less washed out by rain and burnt out by sunshine. The surface of the massive walls was grimy with black and rough with lichens, while the broad, flat stones of the roof were covered with damp green moss. The house, although in two storeys, was of no great height, and stood on the uttermost verge of the hill, which sloped abruptly down into the valley. The view should have been very fine, but sundry tall houses had been built round The Grange, which prevented the owner from enjoying the magnificent aspect. This shutting-in-according to legend — was due to the malice of a disinherited brother of Jacobean times, who had created quite a village round about the estate so as to block out the view. But the present inhabitants did not mind much, for, as Mildred explained, both Miss Armour and Mrs. Jarsell stayed within doors a great deal.

“In fact, Miss Armour is more or less paralysed, and sits in a big chair all day, reading and knitting, and talking and playing Patience,” said Mildred, as the trio turned into a small courtyard, and found themselves facing a squat door, set in a porch sufficiently massive to serve for the entrance to a mausoleum.

An elderly maid, in an incongruous dress of brilliant scarlet, admitted them into a darkish hall, whose atmosphere, suggestive of a Turkish bath in a mild way, hinted that the house was heated by steam pipes, as was indeed the case. There were some carved boxes of black oak in the hall and three or four uncomfortable high-backed chairs, but the walls and floor were bare, and the general aspect was somewhat bleak. However, when the visitors were conducted along a narrow passage, ill-lighted and dismal, they were introduced to a large low-ceilinged room, richly and luxuriously and picturesquely furnished. The brilliant garb of the maid-servant suited this room much better than it did hall or passage, and there was a suggestion of tropical splendour about the woman and the sitting-room which revealed in Mrs. Jarsell a strong love of colour, warmth, and light. Indeed, although there were three large windows looking out on to a garden, and immediately facing the door by which they had entered, yet the light which was admitted being insufficient — perhaps because of the wintry gloom — the apartment was brilliantly illuminated by six lamps. Three of these stood at one end of the room, and three at the other, on tall brass stands, and the light, radiating through opaque globes, filled the place with mellow splendour. The vivid scene it revealed was a strange and unexpected one to find in these barren wilds.

What impressed Dan straight away, was the prevalence of scarlet. The walls were covered with brightly toned paper, the floor with a carpet of violently brilliant hue, and even the ceiling was splashed with arabesque designs, blood-red against the white background. The furniture was of black oak upholstered in satin of the same fiery tint, while the draperies were of a dense black, funereal in aspect. A large fire glowed on a wide hearth in a vermilion-tiled alcove, and the poker, tongs, shovel, and pincers were of brass. Also there were brass candlesticks, a tripod of the same alloy in which incense slowly smouldered and even brazen warming-pans of antique pattern were ranged on either side of the fire-place. Thus, the general colour-scheme was of black, scarlet, and yellow. What with the barbaric hues, the warm atmosphere, and the faint scent of incense, Dan felt as though he had stumbled on the den of a magician, malicious and dangerous. But this may have only been an impression caused by coming suddenly into this tropical room out of the chill air and neutral-tinted landscape.

Neither Mrs. Jarsell nor Miss Armour, however, carried their love of violent colour into their personal attire, as both were arrayed — somewhat incongruously, considering the season — in unrelieved white. The former lady was tall and bulky and somewhat assertive in manner, with a masculine cast of countenance and watchful dark eyes. From the smooth olive texture of her skin, she had probably possessed jet-black hair, before age turned her still plentiful locks completely white. She was not, Dan concluded, more that fifty, as she possessed great vitality, and gripped his hand in a vigorous, manly way, quite in keeping with her commanding looks. Her white gown was made perfectly plain; she did not display even a ribbon, and wore no jewellery whatsoever, yet her whole appearance was distinguished and dignified. Indeed, when she welcomed the young people she assumed something of a motherly air, but if the hint conveyed by the barbarically decorated room was to be taken, she was anything but maternal. Mrs. Jarsell, as Dan mentally confessed, was something of a puzzle; he could not place her, as the saying goes.

Miss Armour had also an unusual personality, being the antithesis of her friend in looks and manner. To Mrs. Jarsell’s massive assertiveness she opposed a fragile timidity, and was as small of body as the other was large. Her oval, many-wrinkled face was the hue of old ivory, her features were delicate, and her small head drooped in a rather pensive manner. Her white hair, not so plentiful as that of Mrs. Jarsell, was smoothly arranged under a dainty cap of white lace, decorated, oddly enough, with diamond ornaments. And, indeed, she wore enough jewellery for both ladies; rings on her slender fingers, and chains round her neck, and bracelets on her wrists, with a belt of turquoise stones, a ruby brooch, and earrings of pearls. On a less refined person, this overloading of ornaments would have looked vulgar, but Miss Armour, although she glittered at all points like a heathen idol, preserved a calm dignity, which caused her sumptuous display to appear perfectly natural. It was very strange that so mild-looking a woman should deck herself out in this manner; so she, also, was a puzzle to Halliday’s intelligence. Indeed, the two ladies, in their splendid room, suggested dreams of the Arabian Nights to Dan, and gave him the impression of being concerned in some gorgeous romance.

Miss Armour, seated in the big chair which Mildred had mentioned, looked over Dan with mild, brown eyes, and evidently approved of his good looks.

“I am glad to see you, Mr. Halliday,” she said in a soft and musical voice, quite silvery in its sound. “To an old person, such as I am, the young are always welcome.”

Dan felt called upon to pay a compliment. “You don’t look old,” he said bluntly.

“Well, now-a-days, sixty cannot be called old,” said Miss Armour with a pretty laugh, “as I am assured that women of that age actually dance in London.”

“The age-limit has been extended since Victorian times,” laughed Laurance, who had seated himself near one of the windows beside Mildred.

“Yes,” assented Mrs. Jarsell, in deep tones suggestive of a mellow-sounding bell. “In those times, women went on the shelf at thirty-five, and lived again in their children. Now-a-days, there are no old people.”

“Certainly not in this room,” said Dan courteously.

“You are Irish, I should say, Mr. Halliday,” remarked Miss Armour, smiling, as she resumed her knitting of a red and white striped shawl; “only an Irishman could pay such a pretty compliment.”

“My mother was Irish,” admitted Dan, amiably, “and I made a special journey to kiss the Blarney stone in the hope that it might oil my tongue.”

Mrs. Jarsell in her heavy way seemed amused. “You have certainly accomplished your purpose, Mr. Halliday. But what does a gay young man, as I see you are, do in this solitary neighbourhood?” and her keen black eyes swept over him from head to foot inquiringly.

“Ah,” put in Freddy quickly, “that question brings out the reason of our visit to you, Mrs. Jarsell. Behold in my friend a lover.”

“Delightful,” cried Miss Armour with great animation, “and the lady?”

“Miss Moon, the daughter of Sir Charles Moon.”

“Moon? Moon?” murmured Miss Armour, as though she were invoking the planet. “I seem to have heard that name somewhere. Eliza?” she glanced at her friend.

“Don’t you remember the murder we read about some months ago?” replied Mrs. Jarsell heavily. “It was much talked about.”

“It would need to be to reach my ears, Eliza; you know that I don’t like hearing about crime. In this neighbourhood,” she addressed herself to Dan, “we live a quiet and uneventful life, and although we take one London newspaper daily, we know little of what is going on in the world. My friend reads to me about the theatres and dresses, and sometimes politics, but rarely does she inflict murder cases on me. I don’t like to hear of crime.”

“I read that particular case because it caused so great a sensation,” said Mrs. Jarsell, in a deprecating tone. “You remember Sir Charles was poisoned by some unknown woman. And now I recall the case, Mr. Halliday, your name was mentioned in connection with it.”

“Probably,” said Dan, lightly, “I am engaged to Miss Moon.”

“Have the police discovered who murdered Sir Charles?”

“No. Nor is there any chance that the police will make the discovery. The woman came and the woman went after doing her work, but she has vanished into thin air, like Macbeth’s witches.”

“I wonder why she murdered Sir Charles?” asked Mrs. Jarsell, after a pause.

Halliday glanced at Laurance, and it was the latter who replied in a most cautious manner, wishing to say as little as possible about the quest. “The reason is not known, Mrs. Jarsell.”

“But, why —” began Mildred, only to be cut short somewhat impatiently by Miss Armour, who had been moving uneasily.

“Don’t talk any more about the horrid thing,” she broke out impetuously, “I don’t want to hear. Tell me of your love affair, Mr. Halliday.”

“There is little to tell,” said Dan, relieved that the conversation was changed in this manner, since he did not desire to say too much of his business in connection with the crime, “and I would not tell you that little, but that I wish to enlist your sympathies and those of Mrs. Jarsell.”

“You have mine already,” declared the old lady vivaciously, “but why Eliza’s?”

“Mrs. Jarsell can help me.”

“Indeed,” said that lady, looking at him hard, “in what way?”

“Let me explain,” chimed in Freddy, impatient of Dan’s slower methods, “Mr. Halliday wishes to marry Miss Moon and wants money.”

“But she has plenty, Mr. Laurance. The papers said that the late Sir Charles was a millionaire.”

“So he was, and Miss Moon is his heiress,” cried Dan, quickly; “all the same, I don’t wish to live on my wife, and so desire to be in a position to offer her a home, however humble. Now I am an aviator, Miss Armour, and there is to be a race for £2,000 between London and York. I wish to compete and desire one of Mr. Vincent’s machines, as they are the most improved kind on the market.”

“They are not on the market,” said Mrs. Jarsell, frowning. “Mr. Vincent will not part with his machines until he perfects a masterpiece, and then hopes to sell it to the Government. I don’t wonder that you failed to get an aeroplane from him.”

“I did not say that,” said Dan swiftly.

“Not in so many words,” rejoined Mrs. Jarsell deliberately, “but I can guess why you want my assistance. Mr. Vincent will give you a machine if I ask him.”

“And you will?” said Halliday, eagerly.

“Oh, Eliza, you must,” put in Miss Armour quickly. “Vincent will do anything for you, since you have helped him so much with money.”

“I shall be delighted to help,” said Mrs. Jarsell, in her quiet, slow manner; “you shall have the machine, Mr. Halliday, and I hope you will win the race and marry Miss Moon. But you are a bold man to offer to wed an heiress on £2,000. Don’t you want more money?”

“I want heaps and heaps,” said Dan laughing, “but I have no chance of getting it. However, two thousand will do to start with. Lillian — Miss Moon, that is — loves me well enough to marry me at once, even on the prize given by ‘The Moment’.”

“Well, Eliza will get you the machine, that is certain, Mr. Halliday. As to the rest, I have no doubt you will be successful and win the money; but you must have much more in order to marry Miss Moon, since I can see that you are much too honourable a man to live on her millions. The cards”— Miss Armour hastily put away her knitting and took a small box from a drawer in the tiny table which stood at her elbow —“my Patience cards, Mr. Halliday, for you know, having few amusements, I am devoted to the game. Also I can tell fortunes. I shall tell yours,” and she opened the box to take out two packs of cards.

“Dan isn’t superstitious,” laughed Freddy, and approached with Mildred.

“I don’t know,” said Halliday gravely. “I have known cases —”

“Well, have your fortune told now,” broke in Mrs. Jarsell, going to the door, “it will amuse Miss Armour to reveal your future while I see about the tea. I am sure you young people must be hungry.”

“But I haven’t thanked you for your promise to get me the machine.”

Mrs. Jarsell nodded in a friendly manner. “When you win the race and marry the young lady, you can thank me,” she said with ponderous playfulness. “Miss Armour will tell you if the Fates will be kind to you in both respects,” and she disappeared to get the tea, or rather to instruct the red-robed servant to bring it in.

Meanwhile, Miss Armour, her mild face quite flushed with excitement, was spreading out the cards after Dan had shuffled them. She used only one pack, and Freddy looked on at the disposition of the coloured oblongs with the deepest interest. Dan idly took up the unused pack, and the moment he brought them near his eyes to examine them, he became aware that there clung to them the same mysterious scent which Penn had stated came from Sumatra. New as he was to the detective business, he yet had enough sense to suppress his excitement at this discovery. Seeing that the exsecretary had stated very positively that no one but himself in England possessed the perfume, it was strange, indeed, that Dan should come across it in these wilds, and connected with the personal possessions of a harmless old lady, confined to her chair by partial paralysis. In spite of his coolness, he was so thunderstruck that he could scarcely stammer a reply to Miss Armour, when she asked him if his colour-card was clubs or spades. She saw his confusion immediately.

“What is the matter?” she demanded sharply, and her face grew peaked.

“The heat of the room, the scents, make me feel rather faint,” said Dan haltingly.

“Remove the incense burner to the end of the room, Mr. Laurance,” said Miss Armour, and when the young man did so, she turned to Halliday. “Are you, then, so susceptible to scents?”

“Yes. I don’t like strong perfumes. You do apparently, Miss Armour. Why, even your cards are scented,” and he held out the odd pack.

The lady took the cards and smelt them, but showed no sign of emotion. “I expect it’s some scent Eliza gave me a few weeks ago. I had it on my handkerchief, and it must have got on to the cards. Have you ever smelt a perfume like it before?” she asked, suddenly.

“No,” said Dan, lying promptly, as he thought it best to be on the safe side, “and I hope I shan’t again. It’s too rich for my taste.”

“And was for mine,” said Miss Armour indifferently. “I only used it once or twice. Strange that you should be so susceptible to scents. However, you feel better now. That’s right. And the cards? See! There is great good fortune coming to you.”

“That’s jolly,” said Dan, now quite recovered.

“In a few weeks,” said Miss Armour impressively, “a wonderful chance will be offered to you. If you take it, a large amount of money will be yours within the year. You will marry Miss Moon if you seize this chance. If you do not, she will marry another person,” and the fortune-teller gathered her pack.

“In that case, I shall take the chance at once,” said Dan promptly.

Miss Armour looked at him hard. “I advise you to do so,” she said briefly.

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