"Curious affair, isn't it?"
"Now, you're a bit of a mystery-monger, Vidal. What's your theory – eh?"
"I haven't one," I replied with a smile.
"I knew the old boy quite well by sight. Didn't you?" asked my friend, Major Keppell, as we stood gossiping together in the doorway of the Hôtel de Paris, high up on the cliff opposite the pier at Cromer.
"Perfectly. His habit was to go down the slope yonder, to the pier each morning at ten, and to remain there till eleven," I said. "I used to watch him every morning. He went as regularly as the clock, wet or fine."
"A bit eccentric, I thought," remarked the Major, standing astride in his rough golfing clothes, and puffing at his briar pipe. "Quite a character for a novel – eh?" and he laughed. "You'll do a book about this strange affair – what?"
I shrugged my shoulders and smiled, as I replied: "Not very likely, I think. Yet the circumstances are, to say the least, extremely curious."
"They are, from all I hear," said my friend. Then, glancing at his wristlet watch, he exclaimed: "By Jove! – nearly seven! I must get in and dress for dinner. See you later."
With this he passed through the swing-doors of the hotel, leaving me standing upon the short sweep of gravel gazing out upon the summer sea, golden in the glorious June sunset.
The Major had spoken the truth. A discovery had been made in Cromer that morning which possessed many remarkable features, and to me, an investigator of crime, it presented an extremely interesting problem – one such as I, Herbert Vidal, had never before heard of.
Briefly related, the facts were as follows. Early in February – four months before – there had arrived in Cromer a queer, wizened, little old man named Vernon Gregory. He was accompanied by his nephew, a rather dandified, overdressed young fellow of twenty-three, named Edward Craig.
Strangers are very few in Cromer in winter, and therefore Mrs. Dean, landlady of Beacon House, on the West Cliff, a few doors west of the Hôtel de Paris, where the asphalted footpath runs along the top of the cliff, was very glad to let the new-comers the first-floor front sitting-room with two bedrooms above.
In winter and spring, Cromer, high and bleak, and swept by the wild, howling winds from the grey North Sea, its beach white with the spume of storm, is practically deserted. The hotels, with the exception of the Paris, are closed, the boarding-houses are mostly shut, and the landladies who let apartments wait weeks and weeks in vain for the arrival of a chance visitor. In August, however, the place overflows with visitors, all of the best class, and for six weeks each year Cromer becomes one of the gayest little towns on the breezy East Coast.
So, all through the spring, with its grey, wet days, when the spindrift swept in a haze across the promenade, old Mr. Gregory was a familiar figure taking his daily walk, no matter how inclement the weather.
In appearance he was unusual, and seedy. His bony face was long, thin, and grey; a countenance that was broad at the brow and narrowed to a pointed chin. He had a longish white beard, yet his deep-set eyes with their big bushy brows were so dark and piercing that the fire of youth seemed still to burn within them. He was of medium height, rather round-shouldered, and walked with a decided limp, aided by a stout ash stick. Invariably he wore an old, dark grey, mackintosh cape, very greasy at the collar; black trousers, old and baggy; boots very down at heel; and on his mass of long white hair a broad-brimmed felt hat, which gave him the appearance of a musician, or an artist.
Sometimes, on rare occasions, his well-dressed nephew walked with him – but very seldom were they together.
Craig was a tall, well-set-up young fellow, who generally wore a drab golf-suit, smoked cigarettes eternally, and frequently played billiards at the Red Lion. He was also a golfer and well known on the links for the excellence of his play.
Between uncle and nephew there was nothing in common. Craig had dropped a hint that he was down there with his relative "just to look after the old boy." He undoubtedly preferred London life, and it was stated that a few years before he had succeeded to a large estate somewhere on the Welsh border.
The residents of Cromer are as inquisitive as those of most small towns. Therefore, it was not very long after the arrival of this curious couple, that everybody knew that old Mr. Gregory was concealing the fact that he was head of the famous Sheffield armour-plate making firm, Messrs. Gregory and Thorpe, though he now took but little part in the active work of the world-famed house that rolled plates for Britain's mighty "Dreadnoughts."
Cromer, on learning his identity, at once regarded old Gregory's queer figure with due reverence. His parsimonious ways, the clockwork regularity with which he took his morning walk, bought his daily paper at Munday's Library, and took his afternoon stroll up past the coast-guard station, or towards the links, or along the Overstrand or Sheringham roads, were looked upon as the eccentricities of an immensely wealthy man.
In rich men the public tolerate idiosyncrasies, that in poorer persons are declared to betoken either lunacy, or that vague excuse for the contravention of the conventionalities known as "the artistic temperament." Many men have actually earned reputations, and even popularity, by the sheer force of cultivated eccentricities. With professional men eccentricity is one of the pegs on which their astute press-agents can always hang a paragraph.
In the case of Mr. Vernon Gregory, as he limped by, the good shop-keeping public of Cromer looked after him with benevolent glances. He was the great steel magnate who ate frugally, who grumbled loudly at Mrs. Dean if his weekly bill exceeded that of the City clerk and his wife who had occupied the same rooms for a fortnight in the previous July. He was pointed at with admiration as the man of millions who eked out every scuttleful of coal as though it were gold.
Undoubtedly Mr. Gregory was a person of many eccentricities. From his secretary in Sheffield he daily received a bulky package of correspondence, and this, each morning, was attended to by his nephew. Yet the old man always made a point of posting all the letters with his own hand, putting them into the box at the post-office opposite the church.
Sometimes, but only at rare intervals – because, as he declared, "it was so very costly" – Mr. Gregory hired an open motor-car from Miller's garage. On such occasions, Craig, who was a practised motorist, would drive, and the pair would go on long day excursions towards Yarmouth, or Hunstanton, or inland to Holt or Norwich. At such times the old man would don many wraps, and a big blue muffler, and wear an unsightly pair of goggles.
Again, the old fellow preferred to do much of his shopping himself, and it was no uncommon sight to see him in the street carrying home two-pennyworth of cream in a little jug. Hence the good people of Cromer grew to regard their out-of-season visitor as a harmless, but philanthropic old buffer, for his hand was in his pocket for every local charity. His amusements were as frugal as his housekeeping. During the spring his only recreation was a visit to the cinema at the Town Hall twice a week. When, however, the orchestral concerts commenced on the pier, he became a constant attendant at them.
So small is Cromer, with its narrow streets near the sea, that in the off-season strangers are constantly running into each other. Hence, I frequently met old Gregory, and on such occasions we chatted about the weather, or upon local topics. His voice was strangely high-pitched, thin, but not unmusical. Indeed, he was a great lover of music, as was afterwards shown by his constant attendance at the pier concerts.
His nephew, Craig, was what the people of Cromer, in vulgar parlance, dubbed a "nut." He was always immaculately dressed, wore loud socks, seemed to possess a dozen styles of hats, and was never seen without perfectly clean wash-leather gloves. He laughed loudly, talked loudly, displayed money freely and put on patronizing airs which filled those who met him with an instinctive dislike.
I first made his acquaintance in April in the cosy bar of the Albion, where, after a long walk one morning, I went to quench my thirst. Craig was laughing with the barmaid and gingerly lighting a cigarette. Having passed me by many times, he now addressed a casual remark to me, to which I politely responded, and we got into conversation. But, somehow, his speech jarred upon me, and, like his personal appearance, struck an unpleasant note, for his white shoes and pale blue socks, his light green Tyrolese hat, and his suit of check tweeds distinctly marked him as being more of a cad than a gentleman.
I remarked that I had walked to Overstrand, whereupon he asked —
"Did you chance to meet my uncle? He's gone out that way, somewhere."
I replied in the negative.
"Wonderful old boy, you know," he went on. "Walks me clean right out! But oh! such a dreadful old bore! Always talking about what he did in the seventies, and how much better life was then than now. I don't believe it. Do you?"
"I hardly know," was my reply. "I wasn't old enough then to appreciate life."
"Neither was I," he responded. "But really, these eccentric old people ought all to be put in an asylum. You don't know what I have to put up with. I tell you, it's a terrible self-sacrifice to be down in this confounded hole, instead of being on the Riviera in decent sunny weather, and in decent society."
"Your uncle is always extremely pleasant to me when I meet him," I said.
"Ah, yes, but you don't know him, my dear sir," said his nephew. "He's the very Old Nick himself sometimes, and his eccentricities border upon insanity. Why, only last night, before he went to bed, he put on his bed-gown, cut two wings out of brown paper, pinned them on his back, and fancied himself the Archangel Gabriel. Last week he didn't speak to me for two days because I bought a box of sardines. He declares they are luxuries and he can't afford them – he, with an income of forty thousand a year!"
"Rich men are often rather niggardly," I remarked.
"Oh, yes. But with Uncle Vernon it's become a craze. He shivers with cold at night but won't have a fire in his bedroom because, he says, coals are so dear."
I confess I did not like this young fellow. Why should he reveal all his private grievances to me, a perfect stranger?
"Why did your uncle come to Cromer?" I asked. "This place is hardly a winter resort, except for a few golfers."
"Oh, because when he was in Egypt last winter, some fool of a woman he met at the Savoy in Cairo, told him that Cromer was so horribly healthy in the winter, and that if he spent six months each year in this God-forgotten place, he'd live to be a hundred. Bad luck to her and her words! I've had to come here with the old boy, and am their victim." Then he added warmly: "My dear sir, just put yourself in my place. I've nobody to talk to except the provincial Norfolk tradespeople, who think they can play a good game at billiards. I've got the absolute hump, I tell you frankly!"
Well, afterwards I met the loud-socked young man more frequently, but somehow I had taken a violent and unaccountable dislike to him. Why, I cannot tell, except perhaps that he had disgusted me by the way he unbosomed himself to a stranger and aired his grievances against his eccentric uncle.
To descend that asphalted slope which led, on the face of the cliff, from the roadway in front of the Hôtel de Paris, away to the Promenade, old Gregory had to pass beneath my window. Hence I saw him several times daily, and noted how the brown-bloused fishermen who lounged there hour after hour, gazing idly seaward, leaning upon the railings and gossiping, respectfully touched their caps to the limping, eccentric old gentleman who in his slouch hat and cape looked more like a poet than a steel magnate, and who so regularly took the fresh, bracing air on that breezy promenade.
On that morning – the morning of the twelfth of June – a startling rumour had spread through the town. It at once reached me through Charles, the head-waiter of the hotel, who told me the whole place was agog. The strange story was that old Mr. Gregory had at three o'clock that morning been found by a coast-guard lying near a seat on the top of the east cliff at a point near the links, from which a delightful view could be obtained westward over the town towards Rimton and Sheringham.
The coast-guard had at once summoned a doctor by telephone, and on arrival the medical man had pronounced the mysterious old gentleman dead, and, moreover, that he had been dead several hours.
More than that, nobody knew, except that the dead man's nephew could not be found.
That fact in itself was certainly extraordinary, but it was not half so curious, or startling, as certain other features of the amazing affair, which were now being carefully withheld from the public by the police – facts, which when viewed as a whole, formed one of the most inexplicable criminal problems ever presented for solution.
На этой странице вы можете прочитать онлайн книгу «The Place of Dragons: A Mystery», автора William Le Queux. Данная книга имеет возрастное ограничение 12+, относится к жанрам: «Классические детективы», «Зарубежные детективы».. Книга «The Place of Dragons: A Mystery» была издана в 2017 году. Приятного чтения!