XXIV. Opium
 

Denise Ryland was lunching that day with Dr. Cumberly and his daughter at Palace Mansions; and as was usually the case when this trio met, the conversation turned upon the mystery.

"I have just seen Leroux," said the physician, as he took his seat, "and I have told him that he must go for a drive to-morrow. I have released him from his room, and given him the run of the place again, but until he can get right away, complete recovery is impossible. A little cheerful company might be useful, though. You might look in and see him for a while, Helen?"

Helen met her father's eyes, gravely, and replied, with perfect composure, "I will do so with pleasure. Miss Ryland will come with me."

"Suppose," said Denise Ryland, assuming her most truculent air, "you leave off . . . talking in that . . . frigid manner . . . my dear. Considering that Mira . . . Leroux and I were . . . old friends, and that you . . . are old friends of hers, too, and considering that I spend . . . my life amongst . . . people who very sensibly call . . . one another . . . by their Christian names, forget that my name is Ryland, and call me . . . Denise!"

"I should love to!" cried Helen Cumberly; "in fact, I wanted to do so the very first time I saw you; perhaps because Mira Leroux always referred to you as Denise" . . .

"May I also avail myself of the privilege?" inquired Dr. Cumberly with gravity, "and may I hope that you will return the compliment?"

"I cannot . . . do it!" declared Denise Ryland, firmly. "A doctor . . . should never be known by any other name than . . . Doctor. If I heard any one refer to my own . . . physician as Jack or . . . Bill, or Dick . . . I should lose all faith in him at once!"

As the lunch proceeded, Dr. Cumberly gradually grew more silent, seeming to be employed with his own thoughts; and although his daughter and Denise Ryland were discussing the very matter that engaged his own attention, he took no part in the conversation for some time. Then:

"I agree with you!" he said, suddenly, interrupting Helen; "the greatest blow of all to Leroux was the knowledge that his wife had been deceiving him."

"He invited . . . deceit!" proclaimed Denise Ryland, "by his . . . criminal neglect."

"Oh! how can you say so!" cried Helen, turning her gray eyes upon the speaker reproachfully; "he deserves--"

"He certainly deserves to know the real truth," concluded Dr. Cumberly; "but would it relieve his mind or otherwise?"

Denise Ryland and Helen looked at him in silent surprise.

"The truth?" began the latter--"Do you mean that you know--where she is" . . .

"If I knew that," replied Dr. Cumberly, "I should know everything; the mystery of the Palace Mansions murder would be a mystery no longer. But I know one thing: Mrs. Leroux's absence has nothing to do with any love affair."

"What!" exclaimed Denise Ryland. "There isn't another man . . . in the case? You can't tell me" . . .

"But I do tell you!" said Dr. Cumberly; "I assure you."

"And you have not told--Mr. Leroux?" said Helen incredulously. "You have not told him--although you know that the thought--of that is?" . . .

"Is practically killing him? No, I have not told him yet. For-- would my news act as a palliative or as an irritant?"

"That depends," pronounced Denise Ryland, "on the nature of . . . your news."

"I suppose I have no right to conceal it from him. Therefore, we will tell him to-day. But although, beyond doubt, his mind will be relieved upon one point, the real facts are almost, if not quite, as bad."

"I learnt, this morning," he continued, lighting a cigarette, "certain facts which, had I been half as clever as I supposed myself, I should have deduced from the data already in my possession. I was aware, of course, that the unhappy victim--Mrs. Vernon--was addicted to the use of opium, and if a tangible link were necessary, it existed in the form of the written fragment which I myself took from the dead woman's hand." . . .

"A link!" said Denise Ryland.

"A link between Mrs. Vernon and Mrs. Leroux," explained the physician. "You see, it had never occurred to me that they knew one another." . . .

"And did they?" questioned his daughter, eagerly.

"It is almost certain that they were acquainted, at any rate; and in view of certain symptoms, which, without giving them much consideration, I nevertheless had detected in Mrs. Leroux, I am disposed to think that the bond of sympathy which existed between them was" . . .

He seemed to hesitate, looking at his daughter, whose gray eyes were fixed upon him intently, and then at Denise Ryland, who, with her chin resting upon her hands, and her elbows propped upon the table, was literally glaring at him.

"Opium!" he said.

A look of horror began slowly to steal over Helen Cumberly's face; Denise Ryland's head commenced to sway from side to side. But neither women spoke.

"By the courtesy of Inspector Dunbar," continued Dr. Cumberly, "I have been enabled to keep in touch with the developments of the case, as you know; and he had noted as a significant fact that the late Mrs. Vernon's periodical visits to Scotland corresponded, curiously, with those of Mrs. Leroux to Paris. I don't mean in regard to date; although in one or two instances (notably Mrs. Vernon's last journey to Scotland, and that of Mrs. Leroux to Paris), there was similarity even in this particular. A certain Mr. Debnam--the late Horace Vernon's solicitor--placed an absurd construction upon this" . . .

"Do you mean," interrupted Helen in a strained voice, "that he insinuated that Mrs. Vernon" . . .

"He had an idea that she visited Leroux--yes," replied her father hastily. "It was one of those absurd and irritating theories, which, instinctively, we know to be wrong, but which, if asked for evidence, we cannot hope to prove to be wrong."

"It is outrageous!" cried Helen, her eyes flashing indignantly; "Mr. Debnam should be ashamed of himself!"

Dr. Cumberly smiled rather sadly.

"In this world," he said, "we have to count with the Debnams. One's own private knowledge of a man's character is not worth a brass farthing as legal evidence. But I am happy to say that Dunbar completely pooh-poohed the idea."

"I like Inspector Dunbar!" declared Helen; "he is so strong--a splendid man!"

Denise Ryland stared at her cynically, but made no remark.

"The inspector and myself," continued Dr. Cumberly, "attached altogether a different significance to the circumstances. I am pleased to tell you that Debnam's unpleasant theories are already proved fallacious; the case goes deeper, far deeper, than a mere intrigue of that kind. In short, I am now assured--I cannot, unfortunately, name the source of my new information--but I am assured, that Mrs. Leroux, as well as Mrs. Vernon, was addicted to the opium vice." . . .

"Oh, my God! how horrible!" whispered Helen.

"A certain notorious character," resumed Dr. Cumberly . . .

"Soames!" snapped Denise Ryland. "Since I heard . . . that man's name I knew him for . . . a villain . . . of the worst possible . . . description . . . imaginable."

"Soames," replied Dr. Cumberly, smiling slightly, "was one of the group, beyond doubt--for I may as well explain that we are dealing with an elaborate organization; but the chief member, to whom I have referred, is a greater one than Soames. He is a certain shadowy being, known as Mr. King."

"The name on the paper!" said Helen, quickly. "But of course the police have been looking for Mr. King all along?"

"In a general way--yes; but as we have thousands of Kings in London alone, the task is a stupendous one. The information which I received this morning narrows down the search immensely; for it points to Mr. King being the chief, or president, of a sort of opium syndicate, and, furthermore, it points to his being a Chinaman."

"A Chinaman!" cried Denise and Helen together.

"It is not absolutely certain, but it is more than probable. The point is that Mrs. Leroux has not eloped with some unknown lover; she is in one of the opium establishments of Mr. King."

"Do you mean that she is detained there?" asked Helen.

"It appears to me, now, to be certain that she is. My hypothesis is that she was an habitue of this place, as also was Mrs. Vernon. These unhappy women, by means of elaborate plans, made on their behalf by the syndicate, indulged in periodical opium orgies. It was a game well worth the candle, as the saying goes, from the syndicates standpoint; for Mrs. Leroux, alone, has paid no less than a thousand pounds to the opium group!"

"A thousand pounds!" cried Denise Ryland. "You don't mean to tell me that that . . . silly fool . . . of a man, Harry Leroux . . . has allowed himself to be swindled of . . . all that money?"

"There is not the slightest doubt about it," Dr. Cumberly assured her; "he opened a credit to that amount in Paris, and the entire sum has been absorbed by Mr. King!"

"It's almost incredible! " said Helen.

"I quite agree with you," replied her father. "Of course, most people know that there are opium dens in London, as in almost every other big city, but the existence of these palatial establishments, conducted by Mr. King, although undoubtedly a fact, is a fact difficult to accept. It doesn't seem possible that such a place can be conducted secretly; whereas I am assured that all the efforts of Scotland Yard thus far have failed to locate the site of the London branch."

"But surely," cried Denise Ryland, nostrils dilated indignantly, "some of the . . . customers of this . . . disgusting place . . . can be followed?" . . .

"The difficulty is to identify them," explained Cumberly. "Opium smoking is essentially a secret vice; a man does not visit an opium den openly as he would visit his club; and the elaborate precautions adopted by the women are illustrated in the case of Mrs. Vernon, and in the case of Mrs. Leroux. It is a pathetic fact almost daily brought home to me, that women who acquire a drug habit become more rapidly and more entirely enslaved by it than does a man. It becomes the center of the woman's existence; it becomes her god: all other claims, social and domestic, are disregarded. Upon this knowledge, Mr. King has established his undoubtedly extensive enterprise." . . .

Dr. Cumberly stood up.

"I will go down and see Leroux," he announced quietly. "His sorrow hitherto has been secondary to his indignation. Possibly ignorance in this case is preferable to the truth, but nevertheless I am determined to tell him what I know. Give me ten minutes or so, and then join me. Are you agreeable?"

"Quite," said Helen.

Dr. Cumberly departed upon his self-imposed mission.