The Girl in the Train By Agatha Christie
‘The Girl in the Train’ was first published in Grand
Magazine, February 1924.
‘And that’s that!’ observed George Rowland ruefully, as he gazed up at the imposing smoke-grimed facade of the building he had just quitted.
It might be said to represent very aptly the power of Money – and Money, in the person of William Rowland, uncle to the aforementioned George, had just spoken its mind very freely. In the course of a brief ten minutes, from being the apple of his uncle’s eye, the heir to his wealth, and a young man with a promising business career in front of him, George had suddenly become one of the vast army of the unemployed.
‘And in these clothes they won’t even give me the dole,’ reflected Mr Rowland gloomily, ‘and as for writing poems and selling them at the door at twopence (or “what you care to give, lydy”) I simply haven’t got the brains.’
It was true that George embodied a veritable triumph of the tailor’s art. He was exquisitely and beautifully arrayed. Solomon and the lilies of the field were simply not in it with George. But man cannot live by clothes alone – unless he has had some considerable training in the art – and Mr Rowland was painfully aware of the fact.
‘And all because of that rotten show last night,’ he reflected sadly.
The rotten show last night had been a Covent Garden Ball. Mr Rowland had returned from it at a somewhat late – or rather early – hour – as a matter of fact, he could not strictly say that he remembered returning at all. Rogers, his uncle’s butler, was a helpful fellow, and could doubtless give more details on the matter. A splitting head, a cup of strong tea, and an arrival at the office at five minutes to twelve instead of half-past nine had precipitated the catastrophe. Mr Rowland, senior, who for twenty-four years had condoned and paid up as a tactful relative should, had suddenly abandoned these tactics and revealed himself in a totally new light. The inconsequence of George’s replies (the young man’s head was still opening and shutting like some mediaeval instrument of the Inquisition) had displeased him still further. William Rowland was nothing if not thorough. He cast his nephew adrift upon the world in a few short succinct words, and then settled down to his interrupted survey of some oilfields in Peru.
George Rowland shook the dust of his uncle’s office from off his feet and stepped out into the City of London. George was a practical fellow. A good lunch, he considered, was essential to a review of the situation. He had it. Then he retraced his steps to the family mansion. Rogers opened the door. His well- trained face expressed no surprise at seeing George at this unusual hour.
‘Good afternoon, Rogers. Just pack up my things for me, will you? I’m leaving here.’
‘Yes, sir. Just for a short visit, sir?’
‘For good, Rogers. I am going to the colonies this afternoon.’
‘Yes. That is, if there is a suitable boat. Do you know anything about the boats, Rogers?’
‘Which colony were you thinking of visiting, sir?’
‘I’m not particular. Any of ’em will do. Let’s say Australia. What do you think of the idea, Rogers?’
Rogers coughed discreetly.
‘Well, sir, I’ve certainly heard it said that there’s room out there for anyone who really wants to work.’
Mr Rowland gazed at him with interest and admiration.
‘Very neatly put, Rogers. Just what I was thinking myself. I shan’t go to Australia – not today, at any rate. Fetch me an A.B.C., will you? We will select something nearer at hand.’
Rogers brought the required volume. George opened it at random and turned the pages with a rapid hand.
‘Perth – too far away – Putney Bridge – too near at hand. Ramsgate? I think not. Reigate also leaves me cold. Why – what an extraordinary thing! There’s actually a place called Rowland’s Castle. Ever heard of it, Rogers?’
‘I fancy, sir, that you go there from Waterloo.’
‘What an extraordinary fellow you are, Rogers. You know everything. Well, well, Rowland’s Castle! I wonder what sort of a place it is.’
‘Not much of a place, I should say, sir.’
‘All the better; there’ll be less competition. These quiet little country hamlets have a lot of the old feudal spirit knocking about. The last of the original Rowlands ought to meet with instant appreciation. I shouldn’t wonder if they elected me mayor in a week.’
He shut up the A.B.C. with a bang.
‘The die is cast. Pack me a small suit-case, will you, Rogers? Also, my compliments to the cook, and will she oblige me with the loan of the cat. Dick Whittington, you know. When you set out to become a Lord Mayor, a cat is essential.’
‘I’m sorry, sir, but the cat is not available at the present moment.’
‘How is that?’
‘A family of eight, sir. Arrived this morning.’
‘You don’t say so. I thought its name was Peter.’
‘So it is, sir. A great surprise to all of us.’
‘A case of careless christening and the deceitful sex, eh? Well, well, I shall have to go coatless. Pack up those things at once, will you?’
‘Very good, sir.’
Rogers hesitated, then advanced a little farther into the room.
‘You’ll excuse the liberty, sir, but if I was you, I shouldn’t take too much notice of anything Mr Rowland said this morning. He was at one of those city dinners last night, and -‘
‘Say no more,’ said George. ‘I understand.’
‘And being inclined to gout -‘
‘I know, I know. Rather a strenuous evening for you, Rogers, with two of us, eh? But I’ve set my heart on distinguishing myself at Rowland’s Castle – the cradle of my historic race – that would go well in a speech, wouldn’t it? A wire to me there, or a discreet advertisement in the morning papers, will recall me at any time if a fricassee of veal is in preparation. And now – to Waterloo! – as Wellington said on the eve of the historic battle.’
Waterloo Station was not at its brightest and best that afternoon. Mr Rowland eventually discovered a train that would take him to his destination, but it was an undistinguished train, an unimposing train – a train that nobody seemed anxious to travel by. Mr Rowland had a first-class carriage to himself, up in the front of the train. A fog was descending in an indeterminate way over the metropolis, now it lifted, now it descended. The platform was deserted, and only the asthmatic breathing of the engine broke the silence.
And then, all of a sudden, things began to happen with bewildering rapidity.
A girl happened first. She wrenched open the door and jumped in, rousing Mr Rowland from something perilously near a nap, exclaiming as she did so: ‘Oh! hide me – oh! please hide me.’
George was essentially a man of action – his not to reason why, his but to do and die, etc. There is only one place to hide in a railway carriage – under the seat. In seven seconds, the girl was bestowed there, and George’s suit-case, negligently standing on end, covered her retreat. None too soon. An infuriated face appeared at the carriage window.
‘My niece! You have her here. I want my niece.’
George, a little breathless, was reclining in the corner, deep in the sporting column of the evening paper, one-thirty edition. He laid it aside with the air of a man recalling himself from far away.
‘I beg your pardon, sir?’ he said politely.
‘My niece – what have you done with her?’
Acting on the policy that attack is always better than defence, George leaped into action.
‘What the devil do you mean?’ he cried, with a very creditable imitation of his own uncle’s manner.
The other paused a minute, taken aback by this sudden fierceness. He was a fat man, still panting a little as though he had run some way. His hair was cut en brosse, and he had a moustache of the Hohenzollern persuasion. His accents were decidedly guttural, and the stiffness of his carriage denoted that he was more at home in uniform than out of it. George had the true-born Briton’s prejudice against foreigners – and an especial distaste for German-looking foreigners.
‘What the devil do you mean, sir?’ he repeated angrily.
‘She came in here,’ said the other. ‘I saw her. What have you done with her?’
George flung aside the paper and thrust his head and shoulders through the window.
‘So that’s it, is it?’ he roared. ‘Blackmail. But you’ve tried it on the wrong person. I read all about you in the Daily Mail this morning. Here, guard, guard!’
Already attracted from afar by the altercation, that functionary came hurrying up.
‘Here, guard,’ said Mr Rowland, with that air of authority which the lower classes so adore. ‘This fellow is annoying me. I’ll give him in charge for attempted blackmail if necessary. Pretends I’ve got his niece hidden in here. There’s a regular gang of these foreigners trying this sort of thing on. It ought to be stopped. Take him away, will you? Here’s my card if you want it.’
The guard looked from one to the other. His mind was soon made up. His training led him to despise foreigners, and to respect and admire well-dressed gentlemen who travelled first class.
He laid his hand on the shoulder of the intruder.
‘Here,’ he said, ‘you come out of this.’
At this crisis the stranger’s English failed him, and he plunged into passionate profanity in his native tongue.
‘That’s enough of that,’ said the guard. ‘Stand away, will you? She’s due out.’
Flags were waved and whistles were blown. With an unwilling jerk the train drew out of the station.
George remained at his observation post until they were clear of the platform. Then he drew in his head and picking up the suit-case tossed it into the rack.
‘It’s quite all right. You can come out,’ he said reassuringly.
The girl crawled out.
‘Oh!’ she gasped. ‘How can I thank you?’
‘That’s quite all right. It’s been a pleasure, I assure you,’ returned George nonchalantly.
He smiled at her reassuringly. There was a slightly puzzled look in her eyes. She seemed to be missing something to which she was accustomed. At that moment, she caught sight of herself in the narrow glass opposite and gave a heartfelt gasp.
Whether the carriage cleaners do, or do not, sweep under the seats every day is doubtful. Appearances were against their doing so, but it may be that every particle of dirt and smoke finds its way there like a homing bird. George had hardly had time to take in the girl’s appearance, so sudden had been her arrival, and so brief the space of time before she crawled into hiding, but it was certainly a trim and well-dressed young woman who had disappeared under the seat. Now her little red hat was crushed and dented, and her face was disfigured with long streaks of dirt.
‘Oh!’ said the girl.
She fumbled for her bag. George, with the tact of a true gentleman, looked fixedly out of the window and admired the streets of London south of the Thames.
‘How can I thank you?’ said the girl again.
Taking this as a hint that conversation might now be resumed, George withdrew his gaze, and made another polite disclaimer, but this time with a good deal of added warmth in his manner.
The girl was absolutely lovely! Never before, George told himself, had he seen such a lovely girl. The empressement of his manner became even more marked.
‘I think it was simply splendid of you,’ said the girl with enthusiasm.
‘Not at all. Easiest thing in the world. Only too pleased been of use,’ mumbled George.
‘Splendid,’ she reiterated emphatically.
It is undoubtedly pleasant to have the loveliest girl you have even seen gazing into your eyes and telling you how splendid you are. George enjoyed it as much as anyone could.
Then there came a rather difficult silence. It seemed to dawn upon the girl that further explanation might be expected. She flushed a little.
‘The awkward part of it is,’ she said nervously, ‘that I’m afraid I can’t explain.’
She looked at him with a piteous air of uncertainty.
‘You can’t explain?’
‘How perfectly splendid!’ said Mr Rowland with enthusiasm.
‘I beg your pardon?’
‘I said, How perfectly splendid. Just like one of those books that keep you up all night. The heroine always says “I can’t explain” in the first chapter. She explains in the last, of course, and there’s never any real reason why she shouldn’t have done so in the beginning – except that it would spoil the story. I can’t tell you how pleased I am to be mixed up in a real mystery – I didn’t know there were such things. I hope it’s got something to do with secret documents of immense importance, and the Balkan express. I dote upon the Balkan express.’
The girl stared at him with wide, suspicious eyes.
‘What makes you say the Balkan express?’ she asked sharply.
‘I hope I haven’t been indiscreet,’ George hastened to put in. ‘Your uncle travelled by it, perhaps.’
‘My uncle -‘ She paused, then began again. ‘My uncle -‘
‘Quite so,’ said George sympathetically. ‘I’ve got an uncle myself. Nobody should be held responsible for their uncles. Nature’s little throw-backs – that’s how I look at it.’
The girl began to laugh suddenly. When she spoke, George was aware of the slight foreign inflection in her voice. At first, he had taken her to be English.
‘What a refreshing and unusual person you are, Mr -‘
‘Rowland. George to my friends.’
‘My name is Elizabeth -‘
She stopped abruptly.
‘I like the name of Elizabeth,’ said George, to cover her momentary confusion. ‘They don’t call you Bessie, or anything horrible like that, I hope?’
She shook her head.
‘Well,’ said George, ‘now that we know each other, we’d better get down to business. If you’ll stand up, Elizabeth, I’ll brush down the back of your coat.’
She stood up obediently, and George was as good as his word.
‘Thank you, Mr Rowland.’
‘George. George to my friends, remember. And you can’t come into my nice empty carriage, roll under the seat, induce me to tell lies to your uncle, and then refuse to be friends, can you?’
‘Thank you, George.’
‘Do I look quite all right now?’ asked Elizabeth, trying to see over her left shoulder.
‘You look – oh! you look – you look all right,’ said George, curbing himself sternly.
‘It was all so sudden, you see,’ explained the girl.
‘It must have been.’
‘He saw us in the taxi, and then at the station I just bolted in here knowing he was close behind me. Where is this train going to, by the way?’
‘Rowland’s Castle,’ said George firmly.
The girl looked puzzled. ‘Rowland’s Castle?’
‘Not at once, of course. Only after a good deal of stopping and slow going. But I confidently expect to be there before midnight. The old South-Western was a very reliable line – slow but sure – and I’m sure the Southern Railway is keeping up the old traditions.’
‘I don’t know that I want to go to Rowland’s Castle,’ said Elizabeth doubtfully.
‘You hurt me. It’s a delightful spot.’
‘Have you ever been there?’
‘Not exactly. But there are lots of other places you can go to, if you don’t fancy Rowland’s Castle. There’s Woking, and Weybridge, and Wimbledon. The train is sure to stop at one or other of them.’
‘I see,’ said the girl. ‘Yes, I can get out there, and perhaps motor back to London. That would be the best plan, I think.’
Even as she spoke, the train began to slow up. Mr Rowland gazed at her with appealing eyes.
‘If I can do anything -‘
‘No, indeed. You’ve done a lot already.’
There was a pause, then the girl broke out suddenly:
‘I – I wish I could explain. I -‘
‘For heaven’s sake don’t do that! It would spoil everything. But look here, isn’t there anything that I could do? Carry the secret papers to Vienna – or something of that kind? There always are secret papers. Do give me a chance.’
The train had stopped. Elizabeth jumped quickly out on to the platform. She turned and spoke to him through the window.
‘Are you in earnest? Would you really do something for us – for me?’
‘I’d do anything in the world for you, Elizabeth.’
‘Even if I could give you no reasons?’
‘Rotten things, reasons!’
‘Even if it were – dangerous?’
‘The more danger, the better.’
She hesitated a minute then seemed to make up her mind.
‘Lean out of the window. Look down the platform as though you weren’t really looking.’ Mr Rowland endeavoured to comply with this somewhat difficult recommendation. ‘Do you see that man getting in – with a small dark beard – light overcoat? Follow him, see what he does and where he goes.’
‘Is that all?’ asked Mr Rowland. ‘What do I -?’
She interrupted him.
‘Further instructions will be sent to you. Watch him – and guard this.’ She thrust a small, sealed packet into his hand. ‘Guard it with your life. It’s the key to everything.’
The train went on. Mr Rowland remained staring out of the window, watching Elizabeth’s tall, graceful figure threading its way down the platform. In his hand he clutched the small, sealed packet.
The rest of his journey was both monotonous and uneventful. The train was a slow one. It stopped everywhere. At every station, George’s head shot out of the window, in case his quarry should alight. Occasionally he strolled up and down the platform when the wait promised to be a long one and reassured himself that the man was still there.
The eventual destination of the train was Portsmouth, and it was there that the black-bearded traveller alighted. He made his way to a small second-class hotel where he booked a room. Mr Rowland also booked a room.
The rooms were in the same corridor, two doors from each other. The arrangement seemed satisfactory to George. He was a complete novice in the art of shadowing, but was anxious to acquit himself well, and justify Elizabeth’s trust in him.
At dinner George was given a table not far from that of his quarry. The room was not full, and the majority of the diners George put down as commercial travellers, quiet respectable men who ate their food with appetite. Only one man attracted his special notice, a small man with ginger hair and moustache and a suggestion of horsiness in his apparel. He seemed to be interested in George also, and suggested a drink and a game of billiards when the meal had come to a close. But George had just espied the black-bearded man putting on his hat and overcoat and declined politely. In another minute he was out in the street, gaining fresh insight into the difficult art of shadowing. The chase was a long and a weary one – and in the end it seemed to lead nowhere. After twisting and turning through the streets of Portsmouth for about four miles, the man returned to the hotel, George hard upon his heels. A faint doubt assailed the latter. Was it possible that the man was aware of his presence? As he debated this point, standing in the hall, the outer door was pushed open, and the little ginger man entered. Evidently, he, too, had been out for a stroll.
George was suddenly aware that the beauteous damsel in the office was addressing him.
‘Mr Rowland, isn’t it? Two gentlemen have called to see you. Two foreign gentlemen. They are in the little room at the end of the passage.’
Somewhat astonished, George sought the room in question. Two men who were sitting there, rose to their feet and bowed punctiliously.
‘Mr Rowland? I have no doubt, sir, that you can guess our identity.’
George gazed from one to the other of them. The spokesman was the elder of the two, a grey-haired, pompous gentleman who spoke excellent English. The other was a tall, somewhat pimply young man, with a blond Teutonic cast of countenance which was not rendered more attractive by the fierce scowl which he wore at the present moment.
Somewhat relieved to find that neither of his visitors was the old gentleman he had encountered at Waterloo, George assumed his most debonair manner.
‘Pray sit down, gentlemen. I’m delighted to make your acquaintance. How about a drink?’
The elder man held up a protesting hand.
‘Thank you, Lord Rowland – not for us. We have but a few brief moments – just time for you to answer a question.’
‘It’s very kind of you to elect me to the peerage,’ said George. ‘I’m sorry you won’t have a drink. And what is this momentous question?’
‘Lord Rowland, you left London in company with a certain lady. You arrived here alone. Where is the lady?’
George rose to his feet.
‘I fail to understand the question,’ he said coldly, speaking as much like the hero of a novel as he could. ‘I have the honour to wish you good-evening, gentlemen.’
‘But you do understand it. You understand it perfectly,’ cried the younger man, breaking out suddenly. ‘What have you done with Alexa?’
‘Be calm, sir,’ murmured the other. ‘I beg of you to be calm.’
‘I can assure you,’ said George, ‘that I know no lady of that name. There is some mistake.’
The older man was eyeing him keenly.
‘That can hardly be,’ he said drily. ‘I took the liberty of examining the hotel register. You entered yourself as Mr G Rowland of Rowland’s Castle.’
George was forced to blush.
‘A – a little joke of mine,’ he explained feebly. ‘A somewhat poor subterfuge. Come, let us not beat about the bush. Where is Her Highness?’
‘If you mean Elizabeth -‘
With a howl of rage the young man flung himself forward again.
‘Insolent pig-dog! To speak of her thus.’
‘I am referring,’ said the other slowly, ‘as you very well know, to the Grand Duchess Anastasia Sophia Alexandra Marie Helena Olga Elizabeth of Catonia.’
‘Oh!’ said Mr Rowland helplessly.
He tried to recall all that he had ever known of Catonia. It was, as far as he remembered, a small Balkan kingdom, and he seemed to remember something about a revolution having occurred there. He rallied himself with an effort.
‘Evidently we mean the same person,’ he said cheerfully, ‘only I call her Elizabeth.’
‘You will give me satisfaction for that,’ snarled the younger man. ‘We will fight.’
‘I never fight duels,’ said Mr Rowland firmly.
‘Why not?’ demanded the other unpleasantly.
‘I’m too afraid of getting hurt.’
‘Aha! is that so? Then I will at least pull your nose for you.’
The younger man advanced fiercely. Exactly what happened was difficult to see, but he described a sudden semi-circle in the air and fell to the ground with a heavy thud. He picked himself up in a dazed manner. Mr Rowland was smiling pleasantly.
‘As I was saying,’ he remarked, ‘I’m always afraid of getting hurt. That’s why I thought it well to learn jujitsu.’
There was a pause. The two foreigners looked doubtfully at this amiable looking young man, as though they suddenly realized that some dangerous quality lurked behind the pleasant nonchalance of his manner. The younger Teuton was white with passion.
‘You will repent this,’ he hissed.
The older man retained his dignity.
‘That is your last word, Lord Rowland? You refuse to tell us Her Highness’s whereabouts?’
‘I am unaware of them myself.’
‘You can hardly expect me to believe that.’
‘I am afraid you are of an unbelieving nature, sir.’
The other merely shook his head, and murmuring: ‘This is not the end. You will hear from us again,’ the two men took their leave.
George passed his hand over his brow. Events were proceeding at a bewildering rate. He was evidently mixed up in a first-class European scandal.
‘It might even mean another war,’ said George hopefully, as he hunted round to see what had become of the man with the black beard.
To his great relief, he discovered him sitting in a corner of the commercial room. George sat down in another corner. In about three minutes the black- bearded man got up and went up to bed. George followed and saw him go into his room and close the door. George heaved a sigh of relief.
‘I need a night’s rest,’ he murmured. ‘Need it badly.’
Then a dire thought struck him. Supposing the black-bearded man had realized that George was on his trail? Supposing that he should slip away during the night whilst George himself was sleeping the sleep of the just? A few minutes’ reflection suggested to Mr Rowland a way of dealing with his difficulty. He unravelled one of his socks till he got a good length of neutral coloured wool, then creeping quietly out of his room, he pasted one end of the wool to the farther side of the stranger’s door with stamp paper, carrying the wool across it and along to his own room. There he hung the end with a small silver bell – a relic of last night’s entertainment. He surveyed these arrangements with a good deal of satisfaction. Should the black-bearded man attempt to leave his room George would be instantly warned by the ringing of the bell.
This matter disposed of; George lost no time in seeking his couch. The small packet he placed carefully under his pillow. As he did so, he fell into a momentary brown study. His thoughts could have been translated thus:
‘Anastasia Sophia Marie Alexandra Olga Elizabeth. Hang it all, I’ve missed out one. I wonder now -‘
He was unable to go to sleep immediately, being tantalized with his failure to grasp the situation. What was it all about? What was the connection between the escaping Grand Duchess, the sealed packet and the black-bearded man? What was the Grand Duchess escaping from? Were the foreigners aware that the sealed packet was in his possession? What was it likely to contain?
Pondering these matters, with an irritated sense that he was no nearer the solution, Mr Rowland fell asleep.
He was awakened by the faint jangle of a bell. Not one of those men who awake to instant action, it took him just a minute and a half to realize the situation. Then he jumped up, thrust on some slippers, and, opening the door with the utmost caution, slipped out into the corridor. A faint moving patch of shadow at the far end of the passage showed him the direction taken by his quarry. Moving as noiselessly as possible, Mr Rowland followed the trail. He was just in time to see the black-bearded man disappear into a bathroom. That was puzzling, particularly so as there was a bathroom just opposite his own room. Moving up close to the door, which was ajar, George peered through the crack. The man was on his knees by the side of the bath, doing something to the skirting board immediately behind it. He remained there for about five minutes, then he rose to his feet, and George beat a prudent retreat. Safe in the shadow of his own door, he watched the other pass and regain his own room.
‘Good,’ said George to himself. ‘The mystery of the bathroom will be investigated tomorrow morning.’
He got into bed and slipped his hand under the pillow to assure himself that the precious packet was still there. In another minute, he was scattering the bedclothes in a panic. The packet was gone!
It was a sadly chastened George who sat consuming eggs and bacon the following morning. He had failed Elizabeth. He had allowed the precious packet she had entrusted to his charge to be taken from him, and the ‘Mystery of the Bathroom’ was miserably inadequate. Yes, undoubtedly George had made a mutt of himself.
After breakfast he strolled upstairs again. A chambermaid was standing in the passage looking perplexed.
‘Anything wrong, my dear?’ said George kindly.
‘It’s the gentleman here, sir. He asked to be called at half-past eight, and I can’t get any answer and the door’s locked.’
‘You don’t say so,’ said George.
An uneasy feeling rose in his own breast. He hurried into his room. Whatever plans he was forming were instantly brushed aside by a most unexpected sight. There on the dressing-table was the little packet which had been stolen from him the night before!
George picked it up and examined it. Yes, it was undoubtedly the same. But the seals had been broken. After a minute’s hesitation, he unwrapped it. If other people had seen its contents, there was no reason why he should not see them also. Besides, it was possible that the contents had been abstracted. The unwound paper revealed a small cardboard box, such as jewellers use. George opened it. Inside, nestling on a bed of cotton wool, was a plain gold wedding ring.
He picked it up and examined it. There was no inscription inside – nothing whatever to make it out from any other wedding ring. George dropped his head into his hands with a groan.
‘Lunacy,’ he murmured. ‘That’s what it is. Stark staring lunacy. There’s no sense anywhere.’
Suddenly he remembered the chambermaid’s statement, and at the same time he observed that there was a broad parapet outside the window. It was not a feat he would ordinarily have attempted, but he was so aflame with curiosity and anger that he was in the mood to make light of difficulties. He sprang upon the windowsill. A few seconds later he was peering in at the window of the room occupied by the black-bearded man. The window was open, and the room was empty. A little further along was a fire escape. It was clear how the quarry had taken his departure.
George jumped in through the window. The missing man’s effects were still scattered about. There might be some clue amongst them to shed light on George’s perplexities. He began to hunt about, starting with the contents of a battered kit-bag.
It was a sound that arrested his search – a very slight sound, but a sound indubitably in the room. George’s glance leapt to the big wardrobe. He sprang up and wrenched open the door. As he did so, a man jumped out from it and went rolling over the floor locked in George’s embrace. He was no mean antagonist. All George’s special tricks availed very little. They fell apart at length in sheer exhaustion, and for the first time George saw who his adversary was. It was the little man with the ginger moustache.
‘Who the devil are you?’ demanded George.
For answer the other drew out a card and handed it to him. George read it aloud.
‘Detective-Inspector Jarrold, Scotland Yard.’
‘That’s right, sir. And you’d do well to tell me all you know about this business.’
‘I would, would I?’ said George thoughtfully. ‘Do you know, Inspector, I believe you’re right. Shall we adjourn to a more cheerful spot?’
In a quiet corner of the bar George unfolded his soul. Inspector Jarrold listened sympathetically.
‘Very puzzling, as you say, sir,’ he remarked when George had finished. ‘There’s a lot as I can’t make head or tail of myself, but there’s one or two points I can clear up for you. I was here after Mardenberg (your black-bearded friend) and your turning up and watching him the way you did made me suspicious. I couldn’t place you. I slipped into your room last night when you were out of it, and it was I who sneaked the little packet from under your pillow. When I opened it and found it wasn’t what I was after, I took the first opportunity of returning it to your room.’
‘That makes things a little clearer certainly,’ said George thoughtfully. ‘I seem to have made rather an ass of myself all through.’
‘I wouldn’t say that, sir. You did uncommon well for a beginner. You say you visited the bathroom this morning and took away what was concealed behind the skirting board?’
‘Yes. But it’s only a rotten love letter,’ said George gloomily. ‘Dash it all, I didn’t mean to go nosing out the poor fellow’s private life.’
‘Would you mind letting me see it, sir?’
George took a folded letter from his pocket and passed it to the inspector. The latter unfolded it.
‘As you say, sir. But I rather fancy that if you drew lines from one dotted i to another, you’d get a different result. Why, bless you, sir, this is a plan of the Portsmouth harbour defences.’
‘Yes. We’ve had our eye on the gentleman for some time. But he was too sharp for us. Got a woman to do most of the dirty work.’
‘A woman?’ said George, in a faint voice. ‘What was her name?’
‘She goes by a good many, sir. Most usually known as Betty Brighteyes. A remarkably good-looking young woman she is.’
‘Betty – Brighteyes,’ said George. ‘Thank you, Inspector.’
‘Excuse me, sir, but you’re not looking well.’
‘I’m not well. I’m very ill. In fact, I think I’d better take the first train back to town.’
The Inspector looked at his watch.
‘That will be a slow train, I’m afraid, sir. Better wait for the express.’
‘It doesn’t matter,’ said George gloomily. ‘No train could be slower than the one I came down by yesterday.’
Seated once more in a first-class carriage, George leisurely perused the day’s news. Suddenly he sat bolt upright and stared at the sheet in front of him.
‘A romantic wedding took place yesterday in London when Lord Roland Gaigh, second son of the Marquis of Axminster, was married to the Grand Duchess Anastasia of Catonia. The ceremony was kept a profound secret. The Grand Duchess has been living in Paris with her uncle since the upheaval in Catonia. She met Lord Roland when he was secretary to the British Embassy in Catonia and their attachment dates from that time.’
‘Well, I’m -‘
Mr Rowland could not think of anything strong enough to express his feelings. He continued to stare into space. The train stopped at a small station and a lady got in. She sat down opposite him.
‘Good-morning, George,’ she said sweetly.
‘Good heavens!’ cried George. ‘Elizabeth!’
She smiled at him. She was, if possible, lovelier than ever. ‘Look here,’ cried George, clutching his head. ‘For God’s sake tell me. Are you the Grand Duchess Anastasia, or are you Betty Brighteyes?’
She stared at him.
‘I’m not either. I’m Elizabeth Gaigh. I can tell you all about it now. And I’ve got to apologize too. You see, Roland (that’s my brother) has always been in love with Alexa -‘
‘Meaning the Grand Duchess?’
‘Yes, that’s what the family call her. Well, as I say, Roland was always in love with her, and she with him. And then the revolution came, and Alexa was in Paris, and they were just going to fix it up when old Sturm, the chancellor, came along and insisted on carrying off Alexa and forcing her to marry Prince Karl, her cousin, a horrid pimply person -‘
‘I fancy I’ve met him,’ said George.
‘Whom she simply hates. And old Prince Usric, her uncle, forbade her to see Roland again. So, she ran away to England, and I came up to town and met her, and we wired to Roland who was in Scotland. And just at the very last minute, when we were driving to the Registry Office in a taxi, whom should we meet in another taxi face to face, but old Prince Usric. Of course, he followed us, and we were at our wits’ end what to do because he’d have made the most fearful scene, and, anyway, he is her guardian. Then I had the brilliant idea of changing places. You can practically see nothing of a girl nowadays but the tip of her nose. I put on Alexa’s red hat and brown wrap coat, and she put on my grey. Then we told the taxi to go to Waterloo, and I skipped out there and hurried into the station. Old Osric followed the red hat all right, without a thought for the other occupant of the taxi sitting huddled up inside, but of course it wouldn’t do for him to see my face. So, I just bolted into your carriage and threw myself on your mercy.’
‘I’ve got that all right,’ said George. ‘It’s the rest of it.’
‘I know. That’s what I’ve got to apologize about. I hope you won’t be awfully cross. You see, you looked so keen on its being a real mystery – like in books, that I really couldn’t resist the temptation. I picked out a rather sinister looking man on the platform and told you to follow him. And then I thrust the parcel on you.’
‘Containing a wedding ring.’
‘Yes. Alexa and I bought that, because Roland wasn’t due to arrive from Scotland until just before the wedding. And of course, I knew that by the time I got to London they wouldn’t want it – they would have had to use a curtain ring or something.’
‘I see,’ said George. ‘It’s like all these things – so simple when you know! Allow me, Elizabeth.’
He stripped off her left glove and uttered a sigh of relief at the sight of the bare third finger.
‘That’s all right,’ he remarked. ‘That ring won’t be wasted after all.’
‘Oh!’ cried Elizabeth; ‘but I don’t know anything about you.’
‘You know how nice I am,’ said George. ‘By the way, it has just occurred to me, you are the Lady Elizabeth Gaigh, of course.’
‘Oh! George, are you a snob?’
‘As a matter of fact, I am, rather. My best dream was one where King George borrowed half a crown from me to see him over the weekend. But I was thinking of my uncle – the one from whom I am estranged. He’s a frightful snob. When he knows I’m going to marry you, and that we’ll have a title in the family, he’ll make me a partner at once!’
‘Oh! George, is he very rich?’
‘Elizabeth, are you mercenary?’
‘Very. I adore spending money. But I was thinking of Father. Five daughters, full of beauty and blue blood. He’s just yearning for a rich son-in-law.’
‘H’m,’ said George. ‘It will be one of those marriages made in Heaven and approved on earth. Shall we live at Rowland’s Castle? They’d be sure to make me Lord Mayor with you for a wife. Oh! Elizabeth, darling, it’s probably contravening the company’s by-laws, but I simply must kiss you!’