Chapter 71280980

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Chapter NumberVIII
Chapter TitleIn Search of Richard Gent.
Chapter Urlhttp://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article71280980
Full Date1897-12-04
Page Number31
Corrections0
Word Count3112
IllustratedN
Last Corrected0000-00-00
Newspaper TitleAustralian Town and Country Journal (Sydney, NSW : 1870 - 1907)
Trove TitleThe Mystery of Phillip Bennion's Death
article text

CHAPTER VIII.

In Hoarrli (if Hiclianl Ment.

When I returned to my own apartments I ex amined the volume which Mr. Clinton had taken from the drawer in his uncle's writing-table. I felt bound to do something which would divert my mind from the thoughts and the doubts which pressed upon it. I had never imagined that my interview with Raymond Clinton would have furn ished we with such ample food Cor meditation. I was almost unmanned by the revelation that, af ter all, I had not dreamed, but that I actually had gone in to Philip Bennion. In spite of my protes tations to Mr. Clinton there was still the aw tul question asking of my heart: Had I killed my friend? And this despite the fact that I was conscious that my doubts of Clinton had by nc means disappeared.

1 turned, as I have said, to the book with which Mr. Clinton had entrusted me, in the hope of finding in its pages the wherewithal to divert my attention from, too personal and too sombre a theme. I found sufficient cause for diversion, ol one kind, if not of another.

It was, as Mr. Clinton had suggested, a kind of diary. Philip Bennion appeared lo have used it for a variety of purposes-some of which purposes not a little astonished me. There was, so far as 1 could judge from a cursory examination, no sort of order or arrangement about tho book. Bennion seemed to have jotted down, as the fancy took him, here a memorandum of the occurrences of the day, there a reflection, so to speak, upon men and

manners.

But the book principally dealt with his collec tion, and that in rather a peculiar way. There would bc an entry of the purchase of a particular specimen, of how much he had paid for it, from whom he had purchased it. And then would iv How comments upon the price, the purchaser, the purchase itself. And I was amused to note hew frankly he had dealt, in his private and particular memorandum book, with the demerits of the additions which he had made to his collec tion.

As thus-he appears to have been In Paris at the time the entry was made-"June 23.-Bought ivory snuff-box, a hundred francs, from Foulard 27, Rue de Becq. Doubtful acquisition. Fou

lard says box belonged to a Marquis de Filoselle, was painted for him by one of the ladies of the court, and was found on tho Marquis's body after he had been guillotined. Doubt it. However, not bad box; has got a history-if a lying one! Foulard wanted two hundred francs, so Avas ass enough to give him a hundred."

I happened to remember the snuff-box to which this entry evidently alluded. Bennion had di lated for an hour on its romantic history, to the literal and particular truth of which he had been prepared to swear. These collectors! I always had entertained suspicions as to the authenticity of'Philip Bennion's most genuine antiques. The expression of them had, more than once, almost driven him mad. And now it was Bhown that lie had entertained them all the time himself, i ain forced to admit that I had nëver suspected him of such duplicity as that.

It was some time before I alighted on any al lusion to that mysterious cabinet. At last, how ever, I came to what I was looking for. It' waa under a date which was not yet six months' old.

"Bought, Italian cabinet, beginning of sixteenth century, a hundred guineas, from Richard Gent. No. -, Brompton-road. The man's a fooll Tho cabinet would not have been dear at fifty titfaea

the price, It ls as Uno un example of the period as I ever saw. Should say it is as fine an example as there is extant. Four paintings on four front panels, marvellously done! Don't know where Gent got lt from; new-comer, never heard of him before. Should say he stole it. Even then tho man's a fool to take a hundred,' and I gave him what he asked. Key wanted cleaning or some, thing-couldn't quite make out what-but coming home,"

That was the cabinet, and that was the key! My own recollection served me as to the date. lt only required a slight effort of memory to recall that it must have been about that period that Philip Bennion had called me in, in triumph, to show me his new purchase.

The more I looked at that entry in Philip Ben nion's diary the less I liked it, the darker were the suspicions which shadowed my mind. There was mere than one point about it which struck me disagreeably. <

There was the small price,'so small as to cause Bennion to suggest, evidently not altogether in jest, that the man must have stolen it to'enable him to sell it at such a price. My own '''.limited knowledge made me aware that to ask only a hun dred guineas for such a cabinet as that was little else than an absurdity. As Bennion himself ob served, fifty times the sum would have been nearer the mark. "What could have induced a dealer, a man whose business lt is to make himself ac quainted with the value of his wares, and who noi celdom places on them a higher value than his cus tomers, to have parted with what must almost cer tainly have been the finest example in his stock at a price so obviously disproportioned to its intrinsic worth.

I wondered!

Then, again, there was the fact, which Ben nion had noted, of the key not, having been sent home with the cabinet. Why had that eccentric dealer in bric-a-brac, Mr. Richard Gent, retain ed it? What had been the exact nature of tbs "cleaning" process to which it had been sub jected? I felt that I should very much like to know. And, if putting a civil question to Mr. Richard Gent would suffice to elicit the informa tion, I would know in the morning. Philip Bennion had evidently not altogether under stood the matter. I understood it less than lie had done.

Another curious feature which struck ms about this curious transaction was the fact that, according to Phillip Bennion's statement. Richard Gent was a "newcomer." I supposs there never lived a man who was better ac quainted with the dealers in bric-a-brac than Philip Bennion had been. He knew something about them all personally, and not only by re pute. There was scarcely a day of his life, a large part of which he had not spent in routing out the contents of some dealer's shop or other. I verily believe that he knew what they had al most as well as they did themselves. And when he made a note of the fact that Richard Gent was a "new-comer, never heard of him," it meant much.

It was certainly, as I have remarked, another curious feature in the history of that curious transaction that Philip Bennion should have pur chased that remarkable cabinet, with its re markable key, from a mau who had been a per fect stranger to him. and of whom he had never

even heard before.

I resolved that the next day I would make it my business to look up Mr. Richard Gent upon my own account.

The next morning, so soon as I had breakfast ed, I packed up the dainty key of that dainty cabinet, enclosed it in a little box, and address ed it to Mr. Lewis Cowan, that world-famed au thority on the nature and properties of poisons. I wrote a letter describing, to the best of my ability and so far as I knew them, the pécu-, liarities of that peculiar key, and asking him to let me know whether it was, or was not, charg ed with poisonous matter, and, if so, what wa-, the character of the poison, and what were the results which it would be likely to have upon any one with whom it came actively into con

tact.

This letter-which I had marked "Very ur gent"-and the package I left, in person at Mr. Lewis Cowan's door. And having done so, 1 hied me to what 1 hoped would lie a satisfactory little interview with Mr. Richard Gent.

In that memorandum of purchase which he had entered in his note-book. Philip Bennion had ex ucl ly stated the street, and thc number of tut street, in which Mr. Richard Gent's establish ment was to bo found-number so-and-so, Brompton-road. I was, therefore, not prepare! to experience any difficulty in finding it. Bromp ton-road is a sufficiently well-known thorough fare. I had always been given to understand that it was not one in which a man could take a shop for a month or two and then vacate it, but it appeared that that was exactly what Mr. Richard Cent had done.

The number to which Philip Bennion had so particularly referred was empty-both the house and the shop. For there was a shop, though it was but a little one. It was on the right-hand side of the street, going down from Knights bridge, just above where the pavement Avas widest-and it is wide just there. It was a very little shop, with a little, old-fashioned win dow. When 1 reached it the only thing to ba seen in the window was a bill-"This Shop' to Let. Apply"-to the agents. There Avas no sign about the place of recent tenaucy. To my eyes it looked dirty and neglected, as if it had been empty for months; not at all the sort of shop which, it I Ave re in a speculative frame of mind, I should care to take. Nor was thero anything to inform one as to Avhat had been the nature of the business Avhich therein had last boen carried on. So far as I could see, by dint of staring through the grimy little AvindoAV, the interior Avas destitute of fittings. Moreover, thero Avas no name over the shop-front, nor Avas there anything of any sort Avhich Avent to show what thc last tenant had been.

I felt, as I stood in front of that dingy little excuse for a shop, that the mystery of that ca binet, and of its key, .Avas likely, so far as Mr. Richard Gent Avas concerned, to remain a mys

tery. I concluded that, at any Vate, on that morning, 1 should not be able to put to him thoso few questions Avhich I should so very much have liked to have put, and Avhich, indeed, I had come there specially to put.

I looked to see what the shops were Avhich were on either side of the empty one. On the right Avas a confectioner's. . The window of the Bhop on the left Avas shaded by a high Avire blind, on the centre of Avhich was inscribed in large gold leters, surmounted by thc Royal arms, a name-"Vose." I suspected that it was a tai lor's, and a high-class tailor's too. The shop looked aB though it Averc an old-established one. If I Avas to obtain any information about tlu

departed Mr. Richard Gout, it was probable that

I should obtain lt there.

So I entered Mr. Vose's shop.

I was right in my conjecture-it was a tail or's. A tall, portly individual came forward. I inquired of him for Mr. Vose. HE informed me that he was that gentleman. Talcing out my card-case I gave him my card.

"I am Mr. Otway, of Piccadilly Mansions. I merely wish to ask you if you can tell me mything about a Mr. Richard Gent, who, luàt July, occupied the shop next door?"

Mr. Vose looked at me, then he looked at my card. Then he said, speaking with a slight

Teutonic accent:

"It was last July that Mr. Gent went away." "Last July? Are you sure?"

"I am very sure. It was the thirteenth of July. That happens to be my birthday, and

that causes me to remember it."

I was startled. The thirteenth of July! Phil lip Bennion had only bought the cabinet, ac» cording to the entry in his diary, on the tenth ».£ July. Three days after Mr. Gent had goiio H way. Not improbably the thirteenth was tut day on which he had returned the key.

Seeing that I remained silent, Mr. Vose went on to make a further observation which did not tend to diminish my bewilderment.

"Mr. Gent was only there five weeks-not five weeks, I think, not quite."

"Not five weeks? Indeed! I was under the impression that he had been there much longer that five weeks. The Mr. Gent I refer to was a dealer in bric-a-brac."

"That is so-that is the man. I only learnt his name, Mr. Gent, through the postman; but there is no doubt that it is the same man." Mr. Vose looked again at my card, seemed to reflect a moment, and then asked mc a ques tion which nearly took my breath away: "Par don me, Mr. Otway, but are you the gentleman who purchased the Medici cabinet?"

"The Medici cabinet! May I ask, Mr. Vose, what you know about the cabinet?"

Mr. Vose shrugged his shoulders.

"Ah, it is very little that I know-not so much as I would like to know, by a great deal. You must know, Mr. Otway, that I, too, am a collector"-Mr. Vose apparently had a trick of taking things a good deal for granted-"in my little way, of course. And when the shop next door was opened, I dropped in, in a neighborly way, to see if the new man had anything which might take my fancy. There was a little rub bish, not much, for the shop was almost empty -and it does not hold much, as you can see. At the back there was something which was co vered over with a cloth. I had the shop to myself, because no one seemed to have heard me come in, so I lifted up the cloth to see what it was. I assure you, after the rubbish I had seen, the whole lot of which . was not worth a five-pound note, I never was so astonished in my life. It was the finest sixteenth century .Italian cabinet, I should think, there is in the world. I never saw anything liner, not in a museum nor anywhere. The panels were paint ed-I know a little of painting; I never saw any thing more fine. 1 was wondering how such a cabinet as that could have got into that dog hole of a place, when Mr. Gent came in. Ho was quite in a temper. He seemed to think that I had taken a liberty in lifting the cloth. I told him who I was, that I was his neighbor, and a collector, and so on, and I asked him how much he wanted for his cabinet. He hummed and he hahed. I could scarcely get him to state a price at all. But at last he said that he would not take less than five thousand guineas, and it struck me, from his tone, that he would not care to sell it even for that."

Five thousand guineas! In his memorandum Philip Bennion had declared that the cabinet was worth fifty times what he had given for it. Here were his hundred guineas multiplied by fifty.

Mr. Vose went on. He had waxed enthusias tic while speaking of the beauties of the cabinet.

"Five thousand guineas for a cabinet was not in my line-not quite, you may believe. But day after day I dropped in next door to ask Mr. Gent if he would not take a little less-a little less. But, no; he would not bate a single far thing. He was inclined to raise his figures rather than to lower them. And I do believe that, in the end, I would have bought it, for, after all, it would not have been a bad invest ment for my money. Only one day, when I dropped in, he told me he had sold it. It had gone."

"Sold it? Did he tell you to whom?"

"No, he did not tell me that. But I asked him how much he had got for it. He looked at me, and he smiled, and he said he had got his price."

"His price? Did he say that he had got five thousand guineas?"

"He named no sum exactly; but he gave me the impression that he had got more than five thousand guineas."

More than five thousand guineas! Could Philip Bennion's entry in his diary of the sum which he had given for the cabinet have been deliberately false? I began to wonder if Mr. Richard Gent had been an even greater fool than his customer had imagined him to be. "What was the mystery?

Mr. Vose seemed to be a communicative sort, of person. I put to him another question.

"What kind of a man was this Mr. Gent? 1 mean, what kind of a man was he to look at?"

Mr. Vose half closed his eyes, as if the better to form a mental picture.

"He was a slight, short, pretty young man, with an olive skin, straight black hair, and a big, black moustache. He had a sulky, dis agreeable manner, not at all the sort of manner, which helps a man who wants to find a cus-» tomer. I will say this for him, that he never tried to make a customer of me. I don't know, Avhy, but he always seemed to me as if he would like to kick me out into the street, and would rather see me hanged than sell to me his pre cious cabinet. He called himself Gent, and he spoke English very well indeed, as well, for in^ stance, as I do; but for all that, unless I am mistaken, he was an Italian born and bred."

"Is it an impertinence on my part to ask, Mr. Vose, what price you offered for the cabinet?"

"I do not mind telling you, not in the least. I offered three thousand guineas, and I would give three thousand guineas now, this moment, to any gentleman who desired to sell it."

(To be continued.)

"I wish," soild (the prig at dinner, "that th« host had placed a gentleman opposite me."

"Why," arnwerccl his disappointed neighbor, "you could hardly be more opposite to a gentle man than you are."