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THE LOST LETTER.

When the Hon. Augustus Champnell

observed that he had travelled to the family seat in the Northern Highlands for the sole purpose of asking his father if he had any insuperable objection to his adopting the profession, of a detective,' the Earl of Glenlean stared. He looked as if he could scarcely believe his eyes—and ears.

'A what ?' 'A detective.' 'Do you mean a policeman ?' 'My "dear father !'

The Hon. Augustus smiled. He was a'tall, well-built, good-looking young fellow, with fair hair, a slight moustache, a manner which was apt to be all thing's to all men —and women, and a pair of light-blue eyes which were curiously keen. As the Earl continued to stare, he explained—•

'That sort of tiling is all the rage just now. There's a heap of money to be made at it—that is if you are up to the mark. And 1 flatter myself, I am. Of course, I should only take up eases of a certain kind, to which, also, there is attached, a certain fee. Whatever else have Itodo ? I have, practically, no money of my own ; you have none to give me. I have no taste for heiress-hunting. The thing is at least- as decent as the tea-trade, or the Stock Exchange. As you are aware, 1 have always had a, sleuth-hound sort of instinct ever since I was a child.'

'I am aware of nothing of the kind. I don't know if you are in earnest, but, in any case, I take leave to tell you, sir, that I never heard such nonsense in my life. Heaven knows 1 have been worried enough in my time, but that a sou of mine, a Champnell, should eve:- ask me if I had any objection to Ids becoming a common policeman — the thing is nothing else, sir, nothing else ! —is a situation I never expected to encounter.' The Hon. Augustus evinced an inclination to speak, but the Earl waved him down with both his hands. ' Not another word, sir, not another word.'

So the Hon. Augustus, who knew his father, allowed the subjectto drop —at least for the time.

But the next morning, as he was wondering if he should g-o for a stroll over the hills, or try a, cast with a fly, there came a hurried tapping at tho door of his sanctum, and Philpotts, the butler, entered.

' 'The-Ear] wishes to know, sir, if you will go to him in his study at once.'

The lion. Augustus put down hia pipe.

'Very good, Philpotts. Anything the matter ?'

'Well, sir, I think there must be something the matter. The Earl's in such a —such a —'

The servitor hesitating, the Hon. Augustus finished his sentence.

'Y(fs, 1 know—a devil of a temper. All fight. I'll be with him in a moment.'

As the Hon. Augustus was passing the Countess's own sitting-room— everybody knows that the Earl of Glenlean has been married twice, and that the present Countess is about tho age of hi.s youngest daughter—young Roland, the Countess's first-born, eaine rushing out.

•Hullo ! "Ousius, the Earl and the Countess have been going it.' That is how the Hon. Ronald Champnell spoke of: his father and of his mother. 'And ma's gone crying to her bedroom, and she said she'd help me with my kite, and nurse is not ;i bit of good, and I wish you'd come and help me.' The young gentleman was holding a large kite in his hands, which required, apparently, some finishing touches. 'Sorry, Ronald, I cannot stop just now. Possibly I may be able to place my valuable services at your disposal a little later on.' As the lion. Augustus entered the study, a moment's glance at his father showed him that it was something out of the common. The Earl of Glenlean was in a state of quite unusual excitement —■unusual, even for him. He kept getting in and out of his chair as if he was unable to either sit or stand comfortably.

Thilpotts tells me, sir, that you wish to speak to me.'

'I do, Augustus, I do. A most extraordinary thing has happened—a most extraordinary thing.'

'I hope that it is nothing unpleasant?'

'It is unpleasant—it's dashed unpleasant. A paper—to be plain to you, a letter of an extremely confidential character —has been taken from my table here.'

'Indeed, sir, when ?' 'Just now!'

'I do not quite understand you, sir.'

'You'll understand me if you'll allow me to explain. You were talking yesterday about what you called your sleuth-hound instinct, so I thought I'd give you an opportunity to put it to some practical use.' The Earl was, plainly, snappish. His son contented himself with/ bowing. 'I went upstairs to speak to the Countess, leaving this lettei- on the table, and when I came down the letter was gone.'

The Hon. Augustus scrutinised his father with his keen blue eyes. He perceived not only that the old gentleman's agitation was genuine, but also that he was endeavouring to conceal rather than to display it.

'What was in the letter?'

'Never mind! I tell you that it was of an extremely confidential character, and that I would not have it meet anybody else's eyes but my own,_ and the person's for whom it was intended, for—for a good deal.' His sou understood. He was' aware that the Earl's record was of a curious sort, and could easily believe that he might have had a finger in a good many letters which he would rather keep from publication. 'Was it a letter you had received?' 'No, it was one I was writing. In fact, I had nearly finished it when the Countess sent down to say that she wished to speak to me.' 'Who brought the message?' 'Her maid —but she could have had nothing to do with the matter, because she went upstairs in front of me, and I saw her go into the Countess' bedroom.' 'How long were you gone?' 'Certainly not more than ten minutes, probably less. It was the consciousness of havings left the letter lying- ou the table which made me hasten back.' 'Did you shut the door when you went?' 'Yes, and it was shut when I came back.' 'Wae anything taken except the letter?' 'Nothing — not a thing had been touched. To all appearances the table was exactly as it was when I left it.' 'Tell me precisely where the letter was.'' 'It was on my blotting case. When Mills—that is the maid's name—came in, I was writing it. When I went out, I turned the leaf of the blotter, so as to cover it.'

'You are sure you did cover it?' 'I am not prepared to swear to it. I nm under the impression that 1 did —I intended to, but the fact is, I was anxious to hear what the Countess had |to say.'

'Did the maid see that you were writing?'

'I take it that she did—she could scarcely have kelped it. But lam sure that she did not know what I was writing, and, as I have told you, I am convinced that she could have had no hand in the abstraction of the letter.'

'I am not suggesting that she had. Was there anybody about the house who knew that you might be writing such a letter?'

'Not a creature! Not a soul! I swear it!' The Earl's agitation became almost painful. 'I will be frank with you, Augustus. Rather than that anybody about the house should become acquainted with the contents of that letter. I would give ten years of my life. I am relying both on your honour and on your discretion.'

'In so doing you are- perfectly safe. Have you inquired if anybody entered the room during your absence?'

'That is not the least extraordinary part of the affair. I have asked Philpotts. He. says he was busy in the morning room, and he is sure that nobody did!'

'is that what Philpotts says ?' 'Yes.' The father glanced sharply at his son. 'You are not suggesting that Philpotts might have had a hand in it?'

'Not I. Philpotts dangled me in his arms when I was a baby. I have not known him all these years without taking his measure, i was only wondering if he had any particular cause for noticing.' 'If, as lie says, he was busy at the sideboard, and the morning-room door was open, as it was, he could not have helped but notice. Aren't the rooms right opposite each other?' 'Precisely. That is so. Then if no one came through the door, someone must have come through the window.'

'The window has been wide open all the time, just as you see it now. But no one could very well luive got through the window without damaging; either the roses or the flowers, and nothing of the kind has happened, because, I have looked to see.' The Hon. Augustus leaned through the open window. It was raised, perhaps five feet oil' the ground. Not only did a wide bed of flowers run along- the wall at the foot, but the waif itself was covered with climbing roses, which, just then, were a mass of blossoms. As the Earl observed, it seemed that anybody climbing through the window would have been forced to leave marks of his presence cither on the flower bed or among the roses. But, so far from anything of the kind being visible, everything was in spotless order. Not a petal lay upon the ground. The Hon. Augustus returned into the room. Tie went to the writingtable. Something on it caught his eve.

'What are these?' he asked

The writing-table, like the rest of the furniture, was of black oak. It had a leather top. On this leather top were spots of what looked like oil or grease. At these the lion Augustus pointed

'That's what I can't make out, replied the Karl. 'They weren't there when I left the ro<Jm. 'They seem to be some sticky stuff.'

Kneeling clown, the Hon. Augustus examined the spots by means of a reading-glass which was lying on the table.

'As you say, sir, it is some sticky stuff, "and something with a strong capacity for sticking, too. Something that is meant 'to stick. Anybody standing outside the window, with, say, a fishing-rod in his hand, and a float at the end of his line, smeared with this stuff, if he was to swing that float into the room, might cause it t.o adhere to a letter lying on the table, and he might make of the letter a prize.'

The. Earl stared

'Good heavens—who do you suppose would be likely to go through a performance of that kind? How could anyone, know that such a letter was lying on the table?—or, indeed, that any letter was lying there? How could lie time his appearance on the scene to fit in with the few minutes I was out of the room? How could he know that I was likely to be out of the room at all?'

'Precisely. Your questions are shrewd ones. They will have to be determined. I suppose, sir, you are sure that you did. leave the letter lying on the table?'

'Sure! Of course I'm sure! What the dickens do you mean?'

And the Earl stamped his foot on the ground in a fashion that suggested that his irritation had very far from decreased. His sor. stood up. He regarded his father with a close attention which the Earl showed signs of resenting. 'If I find this letter for you, sir, What reward will you give me?' 'if you find the letter —what do you mean?' 'If I find the letter, and return it to you, with its contents/unread, and with no one in the. world, except yourself, having an inkling of what those contents are—what reward will you give me?' The Earl glowered at his son, not only in unmistakable surprise, but with, also, something like a glimmering of suspicion. 'Do you know where the letter is?' 'I do not. I know no more about it than you do yourself. But I am prepared to take your viewr of the matter, and to accept this case as a test as to whether I do, or I do not. possess something of the instinct of a sleuth-hound. If I prove, by my success, that I do, I shall expect you to give your consent to my adopting, as my own, the profession of detective.'

.'You shall have it—gad you shall! Find out what scoundrel has laid felonious hands on that letter, and return it to me unread —unread, mind!—and I'll not only give you my consent —I'll also 'give you your first professional fee of a hundred guineas.'

.'Very good,, sir. I will do my best to earn it.'

The young man turned to go. His father stopped him. 'Where the deuce are yon off to? What are you going to do?'

'You must forgive my sayingl that this is my affair. Afterwards, if I succeed, I will explain to you, in detail, if you wish it, my method of procedure. Until then -you. must allow me to take up my course unquestioned.' The Hon. Augustus left the room. With an exclamation the Earl threw himself into a chair. 'If,' said he, 'there is an art in which the risinggeneration is proficient, it is, without any doubt whatever, the art of being cock-sure.'

The Earl of Glenlean went upstairs

to have a few words with the Countess, and so the Countess had a few words with him, which exchange of conversational sweetmeats did him so much good, that, encountering Philpotts, ad he was leaving- the lady's room, he shouted at that, fortunately, wellseasoned domestic, as if he supposed that the man had suddenly gone stonedeaf. 'Where's Augustus?' 'Mr Augustus has gone out, my lord.' 'Gone out,'—the Earl glared. 'Where to?' 'i do not know, my lord. I saw Mr Augustus a few minutes ago strolling across the lawn.'

The Earl returned to his study

'I should like to be told what idiotic nonsense he is up to now! 1 decline to allow myself t© be trifled with by such a puppy any longer. The scoundrel who has stolen the letter is miles; away by now, or, worse still, the letter is on its way to town! Good heavens! —To think of it!' The Earl threw his hands above his head, as if the mere idea of such a catastrophe was more than he could bear. 'I'll wire at once to half a dozen decent detectives to come down from town to help me search for it. Who's there?'

'Am I interrupting you, sir?' The speaker, who was holding the handle of the open door in his hand, was fSie Hon. Augustus. The sight of him did not appear to calm his father.

'By the way, Augustus, I have decided that it is altogether out of the question that I should place a matter of this paramount importance in such inexperienced hands as yours. I don't want to hurt your feelings by suggesting that you have a higher opinion of your own powers than I have, but I have resolved to telegraph to them to send me half a dozen properly qualified men from town!'

'Very good, sir. Will you telegraph before" I have returned you the hitter, or afterwards?'

'What the dickens do you mean?'

'I mean, sir, that the letter is already found.'

'Found—good gracious!' The Earl dropped into an armchair — then bounded out of it again. 'Who was the thief?'

'I fancy, sir, that you yourself were the thief.'

'I was the thief!' For a moment it almost seemed as if the Earl was about to have an apoplectic fit. 'Allow me to remind you, Augustus Champnell, that I am the unhappy individual who has the misfortune to be your father!' 'I was merely stating facts, sir.' 'Facts—and this is a son of mine!' The Earl dropped back into his armchair." 'Go on, sir, go on! Insult me further. Pray where is the letter which I have stolen?' 'Here, sir.' The Hon. Augustus opened the door wider. 'Come in, Ronald.' There entered — looking as if he would much rather have, stayed outside — the Hon. Ronald Champnell— who had nearly struck seven!' —and who was holding, with both his hands, a very large kite, which had a very long tail. Taking- it from the youngster, the Hon. Augustus held the kite up in front of the Earl.

'Here is the letter, sir.'

Placing his glasses on his nose, the Earl looked at the kite with a mystified air.

'Where?'

'Here, sir, here!'

As he spoke, the Hon. Augustus shook the kite. Just for a second, he more than half suspected that the Earl was about to throw a ruler at his head — the august nobleman had thrown such things at people's heads more than once in his time. But on this occasion he refrained. He contented himself with addressing his; son in a tone which resembled, in some respects, the highly rectified extract of vitriolic acid.

'I have to assure you, Augustus Champnell, that there is a limit even to your father's power of endurance.'

'I have no desire whatever to try your power of endurance. You will find, sir, that the letter is here, ou will observe that the kite has a very long tail—it balances it exactly, doesn't it, Ronald? The tail is constructed of pieces of paper. Will you kindly cut off the third piece of paper from the end?'

'I shall do nothing of the kind. I have had enough of this tomfoolery.'

'Then, sir, I will do it for you. I thought that if you cut it off yourself you would be certain that the letter had :remained unread. But perhaps itwill be equally satisfactory if I cut it off in your presence.'

The tail of the kite was formed of pieces of paper tied to a string—as tails of kites are apt to be. With a pen-knife, the Hon. Augustus removed the piece of paper which was third from the bottom of the string—and, having freed it from its bonds, handed it—still' screwed up anyhow—to his father. , 'There is the leter, sir.' The Earl unfolded the piece of paper, which he had taken—gingerly enough—between his fingers, staring' at it as if he had quite decided that, at last, his eyes must be deceiving him. 'It is—good—good—!' The Earl floundered in his speech to such an extent that he was actually unable to find a word which was sufficiently strong to enable him to give adequate expression to his feelings. Then he. sprang from his seat, and roared at Konald: "So you stole it, did you, sir?' The Hon. Augustus interposed. 'You are under a misapprehension. If you will permit me, I will explain.' He turned to the yoimg'ster. 'Here's your kite, Konald. I'll make a better tail for you in a minute or two, in exchange for the one I have spoilt. Off you go, old' chap.' ■ •

Oft' the 'old chap' went —evincing no symptom of unwillingness to get out of the paternal study. After he was gone, the Earl continued to examine the restored letter in silence, as if he did not know exactly what to say. So his son; spoke instead.

'I believe, sir, that I have earned the stipulated reward.' ■

'I'll be hanged if you haven't, and you shall have it! Taking' a chequebook from a drawer, the Earl scribbled off a cheque for one hundred guineas then and there. As he was about to hand it to his son, he hesitated. 'But hpw am I to know that the letter has remained unread?'

'You will have sufficient proof of that when I tell you how I tracked it down, or rather up, for, when I first caught sight of it it was careering through the air. It was in this way. When you told me how it was impossible that anyone cc\ild know that such a letter was boing written and it seemed pretty certain that during your absence from the room ho one had entered either through the door, or through the window, it became obvious to me that you yourself must have been responsible for its disappearance.'

'The devil it did!'

'When,' continued Augustus, 'I saw the spots on the table —which I see are still there—l had at. once a glimpse of how the disappearance had been effected.' 'How do yoxi make that out?' 'Very simply. These things, like conjurer's tricks, always are (simple when they are explair. "d. I-had previously noticed that some of the contents of a bottle of mucilage had been - spilled on one of the bookshelves—here, sir, they still are.'

'Jove, now you've mentioned it, I remember spilling the bottle as I was g&tting' down the Red Book!'

'Exactly. anyhow, there, were some of the contents. I saw that the spots on the table resembled those contents, and, what wr.s more, I noticed that, as I had expected, you hat got some of the contents on the sleeve of your coat. You see, sir?'

The 110 11. Augustus turned ' his father's right coat slseve upwards. Sure enough, on it, near the cuff, was a greasy smear.

'In covering the letter, as you supposed, with the blotter, nothing was easier in your haste—ycra told me, sir. you were in a hurry—than for you, —with that strong mucilage, there, actually, though xmconsciously, to attach it to the sleeve of your coat. That, I take it, is what you did do. The question to be determined was —where had you dropped it? You had not dropped it in .he room; you must have dropped it before you saw the Countess, otherwise she would have seen it sticking to your sleevse and have pointed it out to you. It seemed to me probable that youi had brushed it off you,r sleeve against the door, as you wrere entering the Countess' room. That, again, is what I believe you did do. The room was empty when I reacted it, but a number of scraps of paper were littered about on the floor. I knew Ronald had been making a tail to his kite and, as your letter was not among the torn paper, I jumped to the conclusion that Eonald had used it as an addition to his kite's tail. I started off in chase of him, I brought his kite to the ground, perceived that a sheet of your letter paper was attached to the tail, and straightway brought hint and his kite back to you. I submit,sir, that the evidence goes to show that no one has seen {he letter but? Ronald—he says, himself, he picked it up from the floor and tied it to the tail! and what is Ronald's capacity, or, rather, incapacity, to read your, handwriting you are well aware. Yovt perceive, sir, that the whole affair is very simple.'

'Simple,' growled the Earl. 'Simple beyond the verge puerility! Here is your cheque, sir. I hope you may earn other cheques as easily. If this sort of thing is the art of detection, it is an art which any simpl ton may. master. As, therefore, the profession of a detective should be within the range of even your capacities, you have my permission to adopt \it. as your own.'

So the Hon. Augustus did!

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Permanent link to this item

https://paperspast.natlib.govt.nz/newspapers/AS18990701.2.84.20

Bibliographic details

Auckland Star, Auckland Star, Volume XXX, Issue 154, 1 July 1899

Word Count
3,923

THE LOST LETTER. Auckland Star, Volume XXX, Issue 154, 1 July 1899

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