The Ashiel mystery: A Detective Story

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THE ASHIEL MYSTERY
A DETECTIVE STORY

BY MRS. CHARLES BRYCE

“It is the difficulty of the Police Romance, that the reader is always a
man of such vastly greater ingenuity than the writer.

ROBERT LOUIS STEVENSON.

CHAPTER I

When Sir Arthur Byrne fell ill, after three summers at his post in the
little consulate that overlooked the lonely waters of the Black Sea, he
applied for sick leave. Having obtained it, he hurried home to scatter
guineas in Harley Street; for he felt all the uneasy doubts as to his
future which a strong man who has never in his life known what it is to
have a headache is apt to experience at the first symptom that all is not
well. Outwardly, he pretended to make light of the matter.

“Drains, that’s what it is,” he would say to some of the passengers to
whom he confided the altered state of his health on board the boat which
carried him to Constantinople. “As soon as I get back to a civilized
sewage system I shall be myself again. These Eastern towns are all right
for Orientals; and what is your Muscovite but an Oriental, in all
essentials of hygiene? But they play the deuce with a European who has
grown up in a country where people still indulge in a sense of smell.”

And if anyone ventured to sympathize with him, or to express regret at
his illness, he would snub him fiercely. But for all that he felt
convinced, in his own mind, that he had been attacked by some fatal
disease. He became melancholy and depressed; and, if he did not spend his
days in drawing up his last will and testament, it was because such a
proceeding—in view of the state of his banking account—would have
partaken of the nature of a farce. Having a sense of humour, he was
little disposed, just then, to any action whose comic side he could not
conveniently ignore.

When he arrived in London, however, he was relieved to find that the
specialists whom he consulted, while they mostly gave him his money’s
worth of polite interest, did not display any anxiety as to his
condition. One of them, indeed, went so far as to mention a long name,
and to suggest that an operation for appendicitis would be likely to do
no harm; but, on being cross-examined, confessed that he saw no reason to
suspect anything wrong with Sir Arthur’s appendix; so that the young man
left the consulting-room in some indignation.

He remembered, as soon as the door had closed behind him, that he had
forgotten to ask the meaning of the long name; and, being reluctant to
set eyes again on the doctor who had mystified him with it, went to
another and demanded to know what such a term might signify.

“Is—is it—dangerous?” he stammered, trying in vain to appear
indifferent.

Sir Ronald Tompkins, F.R.C.S., etc. etc., let slip a smile; and then,
remembering his reputation, changed it to a look of grave sympathy.

“No,” he murmured, “no, no. There is no danger. I should say, no
immediate danger. Still you did right, quite right, in coming to me.
Taken in time, and in the proper way, this delicacy of yours will, I have
no hesitation in saying, give way to treatment. I assure you, my dear Sir
Arthur, that I have cured many worse cases than yours. I will write you
out a little prescription. Just a little pill, perfectly pleasant to the
taste, which you must swallow when you feel this alarming depression and
lack of appetite of which you complain; and I am confident that we shall
soon notice an improvement. Above all, my dear Sir, no worry; no anxiety.
Lead a quiet, open-air life; play golf; avoid bathing in cold water;
avoid soup, potatoes, puddings and alcohol; and come and see me again
this day fortnight. Thank you, yes, two guineas. Good-bye.”

He pressed Sir Arthur’s hand, and shepherded him out of the room.

His patient departed, impressed, soothed and comforted.

After the two weeks had passed, and feeling decidedly better, he
returned.

Sir Ronald on this occasion was absolutely cheerful. He expressed himself
astonished at the improvement, and enthusiastic on the subject of the
excellence of his own advice. He then broke to Sir Arthur the fact that
he was about to take his annual holiday. He was starting for Norway the
next day, and should not be back for six weeks.

“But what shall I do while you are away?” cried his patient, aghast.

“You have advanced beyond my utmost expectations,” replied the doctor,
“and the best thing for you now will be to go out to Vichy, and take a
course of the waters there. I should have recommended this in any case.
My intended departure makes no difference. Let me earnestly advise you to
start for France to-morrow.”

Sir Arthur had by this time developed a blind faith in Sir Ronald
Tompkins and did not dream of ignoring his suggestion. He threw over all
the engagements he had made since arriving in England; packed his trunks
once more; and, if he did not actually leave the country until two or
three days later, it was only because he was not able to get a sleeping
berth on the night express at such short notice.

The end of the week saw him installed at Vichy, the most assiduous and
conscientious of all the water drinkers assembled there.

It was on the veranda of his hotel that he made the acquaintance of

Mrs. Meredith.

She was twenty-five, rich, beautiful and a widow, her husband having been
accidentally killed within a few months of their marriage. After a year
or so of mourning she had recovered her spirits, and led a gay life in
English society, where she was very much in request.

Sir Arthur had seen few attractive women of late, the ladies of Baku
being inclined to run to fat and diamonds, and he thought Lena Meredith
the most lovely and the most wonderful creature that ever stepped out of
a fairy tale.

From the very moment he set eyes on her he was her devoted slave, and
after the first few days a more constant attendant than any shadow—for
shadows at best are mere fair-weather comrades. He seldom saw the lady
alone, for she had with her a small child, not yet a year old, of which
she was, as it seemed to Sir Arthur, inordinately fond; and whether she
were sitting under the trees in the garden of the hotel, or driving
slowly along the dusty roads—as was her habit each afternoon—the baby
and its nurse were always with her, and by their presence put an
effective check to the personalities in which he was longing to indulge.
It would have taken more than a baby to discourage Sir Arthur, however:
he cheerfully included the little girl in his attentions; and, as time
went on, became known to the other invalids in the place by the nickname
of “the Nursemaid.”

Mrs. Meredith took his homage as a matter of course. She was used to
admiration, though she was not one of those women to whom it is
indispensable. She considered it one of the luxuries of life, and held
that it is more becoming than diamonds and a better protection against
the weather than the most expensive furs. At first she looked upon the
obviously stricken state of Sir Arthur with amusement, combined with a
good deal of gratification that some one should have arisen to entertain
her in this dull health resort; but gradually, as the weeks passed, her
point of view underwent a change. Whether it was the boredom of the cure,
or whether she was touched by the unselfish devotion of her admirer, or
whether it was due merely to the accident that Sir Arthur was an
uncommonly good-looking young man and so little conscious of the fact,
from one cause or another she began to feel for him a friendliness which
grew quickly more pronounced; so that at the end of a month, when he
found her, for the first time walking alone by the lake, and proposed to
her inside the first two minutes of their encounter, she accepted him
almost as promptly, and with very nearly as much enthusiasm.

“I want to talk to you about the child, little Juliet,” she said, a day
or two later. “Or rather, though I want to talk about her, perhaps I had
better not, for I can tell you almost nothing that concerns her.”

“My dear,” said Sir Arthur, “you needn’t tell me anything, if you
don’t like.”

“But that’s just the tiresome part,” she returned, “I should like you to
know everything, and yet I must not let you know. She is not mine, of
course, but beyond that her parentage must remain a secret, even from
you. Yet this I may say: she is the child of a friend of mine, and there
is no scandal attached to her birth, but I have taken all responsibility
as to her future. Are you, Arthur, also prepared to adopt her?”

“Darling, I will adopt dozens of them, if you like,” said her infatuated
betrothed. “Juliet is a little dear, and I am very glad we shall always
have her.”

In England, the news of Lena Meredith’s engagement caused a flutter of
excitement and disappointment. It had been hoped that she would make a
great match, and she received many letters from members of her family and
friends, pointing out the deplorable manner in which she was throwing
herself away on an impecunious young baronet who occupied an obscure
position in the Consular Service. She was begged to remember that the
Duke of Dachet had seemed distinctly smitten when he was introduced to
her at the end of the last season; and told that if she would not
consider her own interests it was unnecessary that she should forget
those of her younger unmarried sisters.

At shooting lodges in the North, and in country houses in the South,

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