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The Mystery of the Four Fingers





































Considering it was nearly the height of the London winter season, the
Great Empire Hotel was not unusually crowded. This might perhaps have
been owing to the fact that two or three of the finest suites of rooms in
the building had been engaged by Mark Fenwick, who was popularly supposed
to be the last thing in the way of American multi-millionaires. No one
knew precisely who Fenwick was, or how he had made his money; but during
the last few months his name had bulked largely in the financial Press
and the daily periodicals of a sensational character. So far, the man had
hardly been seen, it being understood that he was suffering from a chill,
contracted on his voyage to Europe. Up to the present moment he had taken
all his meals in his rooms, but it was whispered now that the great man
was coming down to dinner. There was quite a flutter of excitement in the
Venetian dining-room about eight o'clock.

The beautifully decorated saloon had a sprinkling of well-dressed men
and women already dining decorously there. Everything was decorous about
the Great Empire Hotel. No thought had been spared in the effort to keep
the place quiet and select. The carpets were extra thick, and the waiters
more than usually soft-footed. On the whole, it was a restful place,
though, perhaps, the decorative scheme of its lighting erred just a
trifle on the side of the sombre. Still, flowers and ferns were soft and
feathery. The band played just loudly enough to stimulate conversation
instead of drowning it. At one of the little tables near the door two men
were dining. One had the alertness and vigor which bespeaks the dweller
in towns. He was neatly groomed, with just the slight suspicion of the
dandy in his dress, though it was obvious at the merest glance that he
was a gentleman. His short, sleek hair gave to his head a certain
suggestion of strength. The eyes which gleamed behind his gold-rimmed
glasses were keen and steady. Most men about town were acquainted with
the name of Jim Gurdon, as a generation before had been acquainted with
his prowess in the athletic field. Now he was a successful barrister,
though his ample private means rendered professional work quite

The other man was taller, and more loose-limbed, though his spare frame
suggested great physical strength. He was dark in a hawk-like way,
though the suggestion of the adventurer about him was softened by a pair
of frank and pleasant grey eyes. Gerald Venner was tanned to a fine,
healthy bronze by many years of wandering all over the world; in fact, he
was one of those restless Englishmen who cannot for long be satisfied
without risking his life in some adventure or other.

The two friends sat there quietly over their dinner, criticising from
time to time those about them.

"After all," Gurdon said presently, "you must admit that there is
something in our civilization. Now, isn't this better than starving under
a thin blanket, with a chance of being murdered before morning?"

Venner shrugged his shoulders indifferently.

"I don't know," he said. "There is something in danger that stimulates
me; in fact, it is the only thing that makes life worth living, I dare
say you have wondered why it is that I have never settled down and
become respectable like the rest of you. If you heard my story, you
would not be surprised at my eccentric mode of living; at any rate, it
enables me to forget."

Venner uttered the last words slowly and sadly, as if he were talking
to himself, and had forgotten the presence of his companion. There
was a speculative look in his eyes, much as if London had vanished
and he could see the orchids on the table before him growing in their
native forests.

"I suppose I don't look much like a man with a past," he went on; "like
a man who is the victim of a great sorrow. I'll tell you the story
presently, but not here; I really could not do it in surroundings like
these. I've tried everything, even to money-making, but that is the
worst and most unsatisfactory process of the lot. There is nothing so
sordid as that."

"Oh, I don't know," Gurdon laughed. "It is better to be a
multi-millionaire than a king today. Take the case of this man Fenwick,
for instance; the papers are making more fuss of him than if he were the
President of the United States or royalty travelling incognito."

Venner smiled more or less contemptuously. He turned to take a casual
glance at a noisy party who had just come into the dining room, for the
frivolous note jarred upon him. Almost immediately the little party sat
down, and the decorous air of the room seemed to subdue them. Immediately
behind them followed a man who came dragging his limbs behind him,
supported on either side by a servant. He was quite a young man, with a
wonderfully handsome, clean-shaven face. Indeed, so handsome was he, that
Venner could think of no more fitting simile for his beauty than the
trite old comparison of the Greek god. The man's features were perfectly
chiselled, slightly melancholy and romantic, and strongly suggestive of
the early portraits of Lord Byron. Yet, all the same, the almost perfect
face was from time to time twisted and distorted with pain, and from time
to time there came into the dark, melancholy eyes a look of almost
malignant fury. It was evident that the newcomer suffered from racking
pain, for his lips were twitching, and Venner could see that his even,
white teeth were clenched together. On the whole, it was a striking
figure to intrude upon the smooth gaiety of the dining-room, for it
seemed to Venner that death and the stranger were more than casual
acquaintances. He had an idea that it was only a strong will which kept
the invalid on this side of the grave.

The sufferer sank at length with a sigh of relief into a large armchair,
which had been specially placed for him. He waved the servants aside as
if he had no further use for them, and commenced to study his _menu_, as
if he had no thought for anything else. Venner did not fail to note that
the man had the full use of his arms, and his eye dwelt with critical
approval on the strong, muscular hands and wrists.

"I wonder who that fellow is?" he said. "What a magnificent frame his
must have been before he got so terribly broken up."

"He is certainly a fascinating personality," Gurdon admitted. "Somehow,
he strikes me not so much as the victim of an accident as an unfortunate
being who is suffering from the result of some terrible form of
vengeance. What a character he would make for a story! I am ready to bet
anything in reason that if we could get to the bottom of his history it
would be a most dramatic one. It regularly appeals to the imagination. I
can quite believe our friend yonder has dragged himself out of bed by
sheer force of will to keep some appointment whereby he can wreak his
long nursed revenge."

"Not in a place like this," Venner smiled.

"Why not? In the old days these things used to be played out to the
accompaniment of thunder and lightning on a blasted heath. Now we are
much more quiet and gentle in our methods. It is quite evident that our
handsome friend is expecting someone to dine with him. He gives a most
excellent dinner to his enemy, points out to him his faults in the most
gentlemanly fashion, and then proceeds to poison him with a specially
prepared cigar. I can see the whole thing in the form of a short story."

Venner smiled at the conceit of his companion. He was more than half
inclined to take a sentimental view of the thing himself. He turned to
the waiter to give some order, and as he did so, his eyes encountered two
more people, a man and a woman, who, at that moment, entered the
dining-room. The man was somewhat past middle age, with a large bald
head, covered with a shining dome of yellow skin, and a yellow face
lighted by a pair of deep-sunk dark eyes. The whole was set off and
rendered sinister by a small hook nose and a little black moustache. For
the rest, the man was short and inclined to be stout. He walked with a
wonderfully light and agile step for a man of his weight; in fact he
seemed to reach his seat much as a cat might have done. Indeed, despite
his bulk, there was something strangely feline about the stranger.

Venner gave a peculiar gasp and gurgle. His eyes started. All the blood
receded from his brown face, leaving him ghastly white under his tan. It
was no aspect of fear - rather one of surprise, - of strong and
unconquerable emotion. At the same moment Venner's hand snapped the stem
of his wine glass, and the champagne frothed upon the table.

"Who is that man?" Venner asked of the waiter. His tone was so strained
and harsh that he hardly recognised his own voice. "Who is the man, I
say? No, no; I don't mean him. I mean that stout man, with the lady in
white, over there."

The waiter stared at the speaker in astonishment. He seemed to wonder
where he had been all these years.

"That, sir, is Mr. Mark Fenwick, the American millionaire."

Venner waved the speaker aside. He was recovering from his emotion now
and the blood had returned once more to his cheeks. He became conscious
of the fact that Gurdon was regarding him with a polite, yet none the
less critical, wonder.

"What is the matter?" the latter asked. "Really, the air seems full of
mystery. Do you know that for the last two minutes you have been
regarding that obese capitalist with a look that was absolutely
murderous? Do you mean to tell me that you have ever seen him before?"

"Indeed, I have," Venner replied. "But on the last occasion of our
meeting, he did not call himself Mark Fenwick, or by any other name so
distinctly British. Look at him now; look at his yellow skin with the
deep patches of purple at the roots of the little hair he has. Mark the
shape of his face and the peculiar oblique slit of his eyelids. Would you
take that man for an Englishman?"

"No, I shouldn't," Gurdon said frankly. "If I had to hazard a guess, I
should say he is either Portuguese or perhaps something of the Mexican
half caste."

"You would not be far wrong," Venner said quietly. "I suppose you thought
that the appearance of that man here tonight was something of a shock to
me. You can little guess what sort of a shock it has been. I promise to
tell you my story presently, so it will have to keep. In the meantime,
it is my mood to sit here and watch that man."

"Personally, I am much more interested in his companion," Gurdon laughed.
"A daughter of the gods, if ever there was one. What a face, and what a
figure! Do you mean to say that you didn't notice her as she came in?"

"Positively I didn't," Venner confessed. "My whole attention was rivetted
on the man. I tell you I can see absolutely nothing but his great,
yellow, wicked face, and for the background the romantic spot where we
last met."

It was Gurdon's turn now to listen. He leant forward in his chair, his
whole attention concentrated upon the figure of the stranger, huddled up
in the armchair at the little table opposite. He touched Venner on the
arm, and indicated the figure of the man who had suffered so cruelly in
some form or other.

"The plot thickens," Venner murmured. "Upon my word, he seems to know
this Mark Fenwick as well as I do."

The maimed crippled figure in the armchair had dragged himself almost to
his feet, with his powerful, muscular arm propping him against the table.
His unusually handsome face was all broken and twisted up with an
expression of malignant fury. He stood there for a moment or two like a
statue of uncontrollable passion, rigid, fixed, and motionless, save for
the twitching of his face. Then, gradually he dropped back into his chair
again, a broken and huddled heap, quivering from head to foot with the
pain caused by his recent exertion. A moment later he took from his
breast pocket a silk shade, which he proceeded to tie over his eyes, as
if the light hurt him. Watching his every movement with intense
eagerness, the two friends saw that he had also taken from his pocket a
small silver case, about the same size as an ordinary box of safety
matches. Indeed, the case looked not unlike the silver coverings for wood
matches, which are generally to be seen in well-appointed households.
Then, as if nothing interested him further, he leaned back in his chair,
and appeared to give himself over entirely to his enjoyment of the
orchestra. In all probability no diner there besides Venner and Gurdon
had noticed anything in the least out of the common.

"This is very dramatic," Gurdon said. "Here is a melo-drama actually
taking place in a comedy 'set' like this. I am glad you will be in a
position later on to gratify my curiosity. I confess I should like to
learn something more about this Mark Fenwick, who does not appear to be
in the least like one's idea of the prosaic money spinner."

"He isn't," Venner said grimly. "Anything but that. Why, three years ago
that man was as poor and desperate as the most wretched outcast who
walks the streets of London to-night. And one thing you may be certain
of - wherever you dine from now to your dying day, you will be under the
roof of no more diabolical scoundrel than the creature who calls himself
Mark Fenwick."

There was a deep note in Venner's voice that did not fail to stimulate
Gurdon's curiosity. He glanced again at the millionaire, who appeared to
be talking in some foreign tongue with his companion. The tall, fair girl
with the shining hair had her back to the friends, so they could not see
her face, and when she spoke it was in a tone so low that it was not
possible to catch anything more than the sweetness of her voice.

"I wonder what she is doing with him?" Gurdon said. "At any rate, she is
English enough. I never saw a woman with a more thoroughbred air. She is
looking this way."

Just for a moment the girl turned her head, and Venner caught a full
sight of her face. It was only for an instant; then the fair head was
turned again, and the girl appeared to resume her dinner. Venner jumped
from his chair and took three strides across the room. He paused there as
if struggling to regain possession of himself; then he dropped into his
chair again, shielding his face from the light with his hands. Gurdon
could see that his companion's face had turned to a ghastly grey.
Veritably it was a night of surprises, quick, dramatic surprises,
following close upon one another's heels.

"What, do you mean to say you know her, too?" Gurdon whispered.

Venner looked up with a strange, unsteady smile on his face. He appeared
to be fighting hard to regain his self-control.

"Indeed, I do know her," he said. "My friend, you are going to have all
the surprises you want. What will you say when I tell you that the girl
who sits there, utterly unconscious of my presence, and deeming me to be
at the other end of the world, is no less a person than - my own wife?"



Gurdon waited for his companion to go on. It was a boast of his that he
had exhausted most of the sensations of life, and that he never allowed
anything to astonish him. All the same, he was astonished now, and
surprised beyond words. For the last twenty-five years, on and off, he
had known Venner. Indeed, there had been few secrets between them since
the day when they had come down from Oxford together. From time to time,
during his wanderings, Venner had written to his old chum a fairly
complete account of his adventures. During the last three years the
letters had been meagre and far between; and at their meeting a few days
ago, Gurdon had noticed a reticence in the manner of his old chum that he
had not seen before.

He waited now, naturally enough, for the other to give some explanation
of his extraordinary statement, but Venner appeared to have forgotten all
about Gurdon. He sat there shielding one side of his face, heedless of
the attentions of the waiter, who proffered him food from time to time.

"Is that all you are going to tell me?" Gurdon asked at length.

"Upon my word, I am very sorry," Venner said. "But you will excuse me
if I say nothing more at present. You can imagine what a shock this has
been to me."

"Of course. I don't wish to be impertinent, old chap, but I presume that
there has been some little misunderstanding - "

"Not in the least. There has been no misunderstanding whatever. I
honestly believe that the woman over yonder is still just as passionately
fond of me as I am of her. As you know, Gurdon, I never was much of a
ladies' man; in fact, you fellows at Oxford used to chaff me because I
was so ill at ease in the society of women. Usually a man like myself
falls in love but once in his lifetime, and then never changes. At any
rate, that is my case. I worship the ground that girl walks upon. I would
have given up my life cheerfully for her; I would do so now if I could
save her a moment's pain. You think, perhaps, that she saw me when she
came in here to-night. That is where you have got the impression that
there is some misunderstanding between us. You talked just now of
dramatic surprises. I could show you one even beyond your powers of
imagination if I chose. What would you say if I told you that three years
ago I became the husband of that beautiful girl yonder, and that from
half-an-hour after the ceremony till the present moment I have never set
eyes on her again?"

"It seems almost incredible," Gurdon exclaimed.

"Yes, I suppose it does. But it is absolutely a fact all the same. I
can't tell you here the romance of my life. I couldn't do it in
surroundings like these. We will go on to your rooms presently, and then
I will make a clean breast of the whole thing to you. You may be disposed
to laugh at me for a sentimentalist, but I should like to stay here a
little longer, if it is only now and again to hear a word or two from her
lips. If you will push those flowers across between me and the light I
shall be quite secure from observation. I think that will do."

"But you don't mean to tell me," Gurdon murmured, "that the lady in
question is the daughter of that picturesque-looking old ruffian,
Mark Fenwick?"

"Of course, she isn't," Venner said, with great contempt. "What the
connection is between them, I cannot say. What strange fate links them
together is as much a mystery to me as it is to you. I do not like it,
but I let it pass, feeling so sure of Vera's innocence and integrity. But
the waiter will tell us. Here, waiter, is the lady dining over there with
Mr. Fenwick his daughter or not?"

"Certainly, sir," the waiter responded. "That is Miss Fenwick."

There was silence for a moment or two between the two friends. Venner
appeared to be deeply immersed in his own thoughts, while Gurdon's eyes
travelled quickly between the table where the millionaire sat and the
deep armchair, in which the invalid lay huddled; and Venner now saw that
the cripple on the opposite side of the room was regarding Fenwick and
his companion with the intentness of a cat watching a mouse.

Dinner had now come pretty well to an end, and the coffee and liqueurs
were going round. A cup was placed before Fenwick, who turned to one of
the waiters with a quick order which the latter hastened to obey. The
order was given so clearly that Gurdon could hear distinctly what it was.
He had asked for a light, wherewith to burn the glass of Curacoa which he
intended to take, foreign fashion, in his coffee.

"And don't forget to bring me a wooden match," he commanded. "Household
matches. Last night one of your men brought me a vesta."

The waiter hurried off to execute his commission, but his intention was
anticipated by another waiter who had apparently been doing nothing and
hanging about in the background. The second waiter was a small, lithe
man, with beady, black eyes and curly hair. For some reason or other,
Gurdon noticed him particularly; then he saw a strange thing happen. The
little waiter with the snaky hair glanced swiftly across the room in the
direction of the cripple huddled up in the armchair. Just as if he had
been waiting for a signal, the invalid stretched out one of his long
arms, and laid his fingers significantly on the tiny silver box he had
deposited on the table some little time before. The small waiter went
across the room and deliberately lifted the silver box from the table. He
then walked briskly across to where the millionaire was seated, placed
the box close to his elbow, and vanished. He seemed to fairly race down
the room until he was lost in a pile of palms which masked the door.
Gurdon had followed all this with the deepest possible interest. Venner
sat there, apparently lost to all sense of his surroundings. His head was
on his hands, and his mind was apparently far away. Therefore, Gurdon was
left entirely to himself, to study the strange things that were going on
around him. His whole attention was now concentrated upon Fenwick, who
presently tilted his glass of Curacoa dexterously into his coffee cup,
and then stretched out his hand for the silver match box by his side. He
was still talking to his companion while he fumbled for a match without
looking at the little case in his hand. Suddenly he ceased to speak, his
black eyes rivetted on the box. It fell from his fingers as if it had
contained some poisonous insect, and he rose to his feet with a sudden
scream that could be heard all over the room.

There was a quick hush in the conversation, and every head was turned in
the direction of the millionaire's table. Practically every diner there
knew who the man with the yellow head was, so that the startling
interruption was all the more unexpected. Once again the frightened cry
rang out, and then Fenwick stood, gazing with horrified eyes and white,
ghastly face at the innocent looking little box on the table.

"Who brought this here?" he screamed. "Bring that waiter here. Find him
at once. Find him at once, I say. A little man with beady eyes and hair
like rats' tails."

The head waiter bustled up, full of importance; but it was in vain that
he asked for some explanation of what had happened. All Fenwick could do
was to stand there gesticulating and calling aloud for the production of
the erring waiter.

"But I assure you, sir," the head waiter said, "we have no waiter here
who answers to the description of the man you mention. They are all here
now, every waiter who has entered the room to-night. If you will be so
good as to pick out the one who has offended you - "

Fenwick's startled, bloodshot eyes ranged slowly over the array of
waiters which had been gathered for his inspection round his table.
Presently he shook his head with an impatient gesture.

"I tell you, he is not here," he cried. "The man is not here. He is quite
small, with very queer, black hair."

The head waiter was equally positive in his assurance. Louder rose the
angry voice of the millionaire, till at length Venner was aroused from
his reverie and looked up to Gurdon to know what was going on. The latter
explained as far as possible, not omitting to describe the strange matter
of the silver box. Venner smiled with the air of a man who could say a
great deal if he chose.

"It is all part of the programme," he said. "That will come in my story
later on. But what puzzles me is where that handsome cripple comes in.
The mystery deepens."

By this time Fenwick's protestations had grown weaker. He seemed to
ramble on in a mixture of English and Portuguese which was exceedingly

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Online LibraryFred M. WhiteThe Mystery of the Four Fingers → online text (page 1 of 18)