“Well,” replied Villiers, “he was an old college friend of mine.”
“You don’t say so? Have you ever seen his wife?”
“No, I haven’t. I have lost sight of Herbert for many years.”
“It’s queer, isn’t it, parting with a man at the college gate or at Paddington, seeing nothing of him for years, and then finding him pop up his head in such an odd place. But I should like to have seen Mrs. Herbert; people said extraordinary things about her.”
“What sort of things?”
“Well, I hardly know how to tell you. Everyone who saw her at the police court said she was at once the most beautiful woman and the most repulsive they had ever set eyes on. I have spoken to a man who saw her, and I assure you he positively shuddered as he tried to describe the woman, but he couldn’t tell why. She seems to have been a sort of enigma; and I expect if that one dead man could have told tales, he would have told some uncommonly queer ones. And there you are again in another puzzle; what could a respectable country gentleman like Mr. Blank (we’ll call him that if you don’t mind) want in such a very queer house as Number 20? It’s altogether a very odd case, isn’t it?”
“It is indeed, Austin; an extraordinary case. I didn’t think, when I asked you about my old friend, I should strike on such strange metal. Well, I must be off; good-day.”
Villiers went away, thinking of his own conceit of the Chinese boxes; here was quaint workmanship indeed.
THE DISCOVERY IN PAUL STREET
A few months after Villiers’ meeting with Herbert, Mr. Clarke was sitting, as usual, by his after-dinner hearth, resolutely guarding his fancies from wandering in the direction of the bureau. For more than a week he had succeeded in keeping away from the “Memoirs,” and he cherished hopes of a complete self-reformation; but, in spite of his endeavours, he could not hush the wonder and the strange curiosity that the last case he had written down had excited within him. He had put the case, or rather the outline of it, conjecturally to a scientific friend, who shook his head, and thought Clarke getting queer, and on this particular evening Clarke was making an effort to rationalize the story, when a sudden knock at the door roused him from his meditations.
“Mr. Villiers to see you sir.”
“Dear me, Villiers, it is very kind of you to look me up; I have not seen you for many months; I should think nearly a year. Come in, come in. And how are you, Villiers? Want any advice about investments?”
“No, thanks, I fancy everything I have in that way is pretty safe. No, Clarke, I have really come to consult you about a rather curious matter that has been brought under my notice of late. I am afraid you will think it all rather absurd when I tell my tale. I sometimes think so myself, and that’s just what I made up my mind to come to you, as I know you’re a practical man.”