"La Belle Monopede" needs little or no introduction to our readers, at any rate to those who are at all interested in the theatre. Patrons of variety theatres all over the world are familiar with the unique acrobatic dancing act given by this beautiful girl with the perfect figure - perfect, that is, except in one startling particular. For "La Belle Monopede" performs her truly marvellous dances supported only by a single slim, shapely leg, the only lower limb she possesses! It is not surprising that such a girl, the only lady performer so handicapped on the world's variety stage, should have had many curious and and bizarre adventures, and the fact that the famous one- legged beauty has been persuaded to relate one of the most amazing in these columns, will be welcomed by our readers. This adventure, which has for its intriguing title - "The Tattooed Butterfly", will be found one of the most extraordinary ever published.
I had just reached my dressing room at the Imperial, at the conclusion of my turn, one Monday evening, at the beginning of a warm London August, and, after removing my make-up, was sitting down luxuriously on my couch for a rest and a cigarette, when my maid brought me a card and a request from its owner for an interview - "on a matter", so the message went, "of extreme importance and urgency".
I was still clad only in my silk tights, just as I have left the stage (as you probably know, I never wear skirts during my dancing act - they would only hamper me, and might prove dangerous), but as the stranger seemed in somewhat of a hurry, I told Marie to admit him, wondering what exactly his important and urgent business could be. Marie smilingly obeyed, and then, at a nod from me, she discreetly withdrew.
My visitor proved to be young, tall, good-looking in a petulant sort of way, and I decided, in the quick, unreasoning way in which one makes such decisions, that I didn't altogether like him.
His dark eyes widened as they noted me, reclining amid my cushions. Then his glance, sweeping appraisingly over my leg, settled momentarily, yet quite perceptibly, on the plumb, rounded stump at my right hip, fully exposed as it was by the revealing tights.
I am, naturally, quite used to being stared at both on the stage and off, but under that direct scrutiny, I stirred a little resentfully, and my hand went down ostensibly to smooth and caress the silk-clad stump, but actually in an instinctive gesture of concealment.
However, I motioned my visitor to a chair, and puffing meditatively at my cigarette, asked him, in my politest tones, what I could do for him.
"My name", he began, in low, in fact, quite pleasant tones, as you will have gathered from my card, is Robert Grant. And I have come frankly on an extraordinary mission, to ask you - if I may be permitted to do such a thing - an extraordinary favour. May I go on?"
I was naturally somewhat astonished at this opening, but I nodded pleasantly enough.
"Please do, Mr. Grant," I said. "I hope I shall be able to help you."
His lips opened in a quick smile. Thank you, Miss - ?" he paused questioningly. "I'm afraid I only know you as 'La Belle Monopde", he concluded.
"My name is Merrill", I said helpfully. "Sonia Merrill".
"Thank you again, Miss Merrill," he said. "And now for my story. I shall try to tell it as briefly as possible. Close on three years ago, my sister, Valerie, a beautiful girl of about nineteen, disappeared. As a matter of fact, there was a man in the case, though we, that is, my father, mother and myself, only heard of this later. What happened to her, none of us knew. She just disappeared into the blue.
My father who was passionately fond of her, never recovered from the blow. Never a strong man, he lost interest in life, and steadily declined in health until at last he took to his bed, a dying man. His only hope was that one day Valerie might return to him.
For nearly three years we heard not a single item of news about her. And then, just about a month ago, I had a letter from a friend in America, telling me he was on his way home, and that he had news of Valerie.
Unfortunately, in our joy, mother and I rushed with the good news to my father. I say unfortunately, because the news that my friend actually brought to us was that Valerie was dead. He had not had the courage to mention the facts in his letter, for fear it happened to fall in my father's hands. He had kept his news until he saw us.
You see, Miss Merrill, the terrible dilemma of my mother and myself. My father knows nothing of the true facts. We dared not to tell him. He is still awaiting the coming of my friend with news of Valerie. If we told him the truth, it would kill him as surely as if we drove a knife into his heart. And his death would assuredly be followed by that of my mother, for she lives only for him."
I couldn't help but be moved by this poignant story, told so simply and with such quiet dignity by my visitor, and my initial and instinctive distrust of him slipped to the background of my mind. But I was quite at a loss to know why he had come to me with his story. I put the question to him, and for a moment or so he was silent, as if hesitating how to proceed. Then he bent forward, his eyes fixed on my face.
"That, Miss Merrill," he said slowly, "brings me to the most extraordinary part of my story. On Saturday last, I happened to pick up a copy of one of the illustrated weeklies, and in it I saw - a photograph of yourself. I had seen neither yourself or a photograph of you before. Well, I came up to town to-day specially to see your performance. I wanted to see if you were really like that photograph."
"But - but why?" I asked, in astonishment.
"Because," was the amazing reply, "anyone who knew her would have taken that photograph for one of my sister, Valerie. In fact, at first I felt sure it was. Only a very careful scrutiny showed me that, though it was marvellously like, it was really a photograph of another woman. And now, that I see you in flesh, well, the resemblance is more astonishing that ever. It's wonderful."
A sudden silence fell on the room, I sat there, for the moment, too startled to do anything but stare at my visitor. His purpose had in that moment become crystal clear in my mind and I realised what was to be the "extraordinary favour" that he had come to ask of me - nothing less than the impersonation of his sister for the sake of his dying father! Only, surely, there was one inseparable difficulty he had omitted to take into account. I shot a searching look at him. "But, Mr. Grant," I said, "now you have seen me, you surely must realise that I am not like your sister in every particular. For instance - I - I happen to have only one leg."
But he only smiled a little deprecatingly.
"I could hardly be unaware of that fact, Miss Merrill," he said quietly. "But that is really the most extraordinary thing about the resemblance. You see, Valerie, too, had only one leg. She lost her right leg when only a child, just about as near to the hip as yours, and just before she disappeared - if I may be permitted to make the comparison - her stump was very similar in size and contour to your own. It was this amazing combination of facts that simply forced me to see you and tell you my story."
I was silent once again, genuinely startled and a good deal intrigued by the whole astonishing situation. It was of course quite probable that Robert Grant had told me the whole truth, and that his only motive was the bringing of some consolation and happiness to his dying father before the end. But that early distrust of my visitor had come filtering back to my mind. What actually was his real motive? Was there something he was holding back?
Extraordinary as it may seem, however, I had already practically made up my mind as to my course of action. I scented adventure and I can never resist its appeal. I had to see this thing through now, even if it led me to depths as perilous as they were unforeseen.
He agreed, when I at last put the question to him, that his object in seeking the interview was to ask me to impersonate his sister and, divining my favourable interest in the scheme, he at once became excitedly eager ... Could I possibly see my way to do it? ... I should be doing an incalculable service to his parents and himself... . It would really entail very little trouble upon me - I should simply be the guest of his mother and himself at their beautiful home by the sea in Cornwall; everything would be done for my comfort and except for the interviews with his father, which would be made as brief as possible, I should really be spending a very pleasant and restful holiday ... Surely I would come to his assistance now that I realised the extreme gravity of the situation? . .
I had to smile at his exuberance, in spite of my suspicions, and at last I nodded.
"It's all wrong," I said. "The whole scheme is absolute madness - but, yes I'll come. This week is the last of my season at the Imperial, and I was, in any case, taking a few weeks holiday before taking up my contracts in America. So I shall be ready to join you in Cornwall at the end of the present week."
He sprang to his feet and grasping my somewhat unresponsive hand, gripped it firmly.
"That's splendid, Miss Merrill," he cried enthusiastically. "It's more than I dared hope for."
Then, dropping my hand, he stood by the couch and into his slightly averted face came a look of indecision.
"Miss Merrill," he said slowly at last. "There is just one other matter that I think I ought to mention. It isn't absolutely essential - but - well, let me explain -"
I waited a little curiously. What exactly was coming now?
"It's just this," he went on. "Once, some years ago, during a visit to Paris with some girl friends, Valerie was persuaded by these friends to join them in a very silly girlish freak. This was for each of them to have a tiny emblem or design tattooed on some part of the body. Valerie's design took the form of a small, exquisitely worked butterfly in scarlet and blue."
"I see," I said, very much intrigued by this newest development. "And was this design so placed that its absence - say in myself, would be noticeable. Is that what you are driving at, Mr. Grant?"
"Well, yes and no. Normally its absence would not be noted and, in fact, in this matter I'm not thinking about my father, but of others, old friends of Valerie who might possibly turn up while you are with us. You see, for instance, do you bathe, in spite of - " he broke off awkwardly.
I love bathing; in fact, in spite of my having only one leg, I am quite a good swimmer - and I told him so.
"So was Valerie," he said. "She was always in the water, and it was at such times that friends of hers noticed this tattooed design of hers."
"Then - on what part exactly was the design tattooed? - On the leg?"
"Well, in a way, yes. To be exact, on the thigh, a little to the right side, just about two inches below the right hip."
"The right hip!" I said quickly.
I looked at him curiously. I did not doubt for a moment that his sister had had the rather bizarre notion of having a butterfly design tattooed on her stump - for, of course, that is what, in plain words, his description meant. There seemed no earthly reason for inventing such a story. But what was his real motive in introducing it? Was it so "unessential", as he had suggested, or was it an important part of whatever plot he was hatching? And what exactly did he require of me?"
"I see," I said, after a pause. "And do you think perhaps that if I were to have a similar design tattooed -"
He made a little gesture of dissent.
"Well, hardly that, Miss Merrill," he said. "But perhaps a design may be painted and transferred skillfully enough to pass, even a close inspection, for genuine tattooing."
It was quite evident to me now that the butterfly was, for some reason, an important part of his scheme. And, determined as I was to see the whole thing through I was quite willing to humour him even this. In fact, in this connection, I have a confession to make. I was really much intrigued by the butterfly idea, quite apart from the adventure into which I was now being drawn. It appealed to something curious and bizarre in my nature.
I admitted something of this to Robert Grant, and told him I was prepared to go much further than he expected. In fact, if he could supply me with full particulars of the design, I was prepared to have a similar one actually tattooed!
"I shall go tomorrow," I said when he had described the design, "and, as I shall not be travelling to your place until Sunday, there will be nearly a week for any healing that might be necessary - What do you say?"
He could only stammer his fervent thanks, though I thought I could detect in his eyes a sudden glint of almost unholy triumph. We discussed ways and means, fixed up all arrangements for my journey to Cornwall, chattered for a while on the possibilities of my enjoying a really pleasant holiday.
At last he was gone, and I lay back on my cushions, my brain a riot of conflicting emotions. In what tangle of deceit was I about to thrust myself? What was to be the outcome of this mad venture of mine? Well - I should very soon know!
Thegenra House, as the home of the Grants was called, I found to be all Robert Grant had described, and more. It was a beautiful place, expensively and tastefully furnished, perched on low lying Cornish cliffs overlooking the sea. A picturesque, winding pathway led down to a delightful stretch of sand, sheltered by encircling cliffs that made the beach practically as private as were the grounds of the house.
Robert Grant had been at his kindest and most courteous during our journey down, calling for me on the Sunday in a luxurious saloon car with chauffeur and all complete, and seeing to my comfort in every way during the delightful run down. I travelled without Marie, leaving her behind in town for obvious reasons. I was for the time being no longer Sonia Merrill - I was Valerie Grant.
The little tattooing operation had been a complete success, and though for a day or two following it my stump had been a little sore and somewhat swollen, it had now practically recovered, and was almost normal. Secretly, I was quite proud of the dainty little design that decorated my body in so novel a place!
Of my first and subsequent interviews with the older Mr. Grant, I shall say as little as possible, for in the first place they were inexpressibly painful to me, and in the second, they do not play any important part in this story. One thing was certain, however. The man was really ill, very ill, though I would hardly say he was dying. I don't know quite what subterfuge I had expected, but at any rate, in this particular my suspicions were proved wrong.
Mrs. Grant I found charming - but surely that was fear that every now and then looked out of her eyes! What part she was playing in the drama I could not guess, but I had a curious feeling that in some way that part had been forced upon her.
But whatever uneasiness I felt, the days passed uneventfully. I gloried in the pleasant, lazy days after the strenuous months of my dancing season and spend my time basking in the sun, and bathing from the little beach, after spending the whole day in my swimming costume. Robert Grant was a frequent companion, joining me on the beach and in the sea. He was very attentive - too attentive, I began to think - anxious to win and hold my good opinion, regarding me, I suspected now often, with the eyes more of a lover than of the brother he was supposed to be. And all the time I waited - waited for something to happen that I felt instinctively was coming.
A week passed in this way - and then something did happen. Robert Grant brought a friend to lunch. He was very charming, this tall, open-faced American whom Robert introduced as a friend he had met while in the States, and I liked him on sight. He evidently had never known Valerie Grant and myself as a stranger, and I wondered what exactly he was doing in this galley? But he certainly was an acquisition to the party, and extremely welcome.
We found ourselves thrown together a great deal during the day, and I noticed his eyes staying smilingly and approvingly in my direction every now and then; and somehow his obvious interest in me was extraordinarily pleasant. Then in the same magnetic way we came together after dinner and drifted out into the warm, glowing August night, gradually making our way down the winding pathway to the sea.
He did not seem at all embarrassed by my deficiency or by my crutches as I swung along beside him - in fact, he had smilingly helped to adjust my crutches beneath my arms when I rose from the table - and though I had caught his swift glance at my leg, rather frankly exposed in its filmy, flesh-coloured silk stocking, below the barely knee-length, slim-fitting and clinging georgette evening gown, I felt, somehow, that it was one of admiration rather than mere curiosity.
"Are you just a bird of passage, Mr. Carden?" I asked, as I picked my way rather gingerly on my crutches.
"Well, it all depends, Miss Grant," he replied, smiling in his attractive way, and then hesitated slightly. "I'm over on a little matter of business," he went on, "and my stay depends on how soon, or otherwise, it is completed. But Robert insists on my putting up here for a little while. I'd like to - if his sister has no objection."
The words had no hint of coquetting about them. They were just pleasant and charming, like himself. I turned to smile up at him, and at that moment, one of my crutches slipped on the sloping pathway, and I felt myself falling. The next moment a strong arm caught and held me. But in the confusion both my crutches slipped from my grasp to the path, and I found myself standing insecurely on my single foot, in its extremely high-heeled evening slipper, with Tony Carden's arm closely about me and my face looking up into his.
For a few breathless moments he held me thus, a queer, tender little smile on his lips, and I had a sudden incredible impression that he was going to kiss me. But, if the temptation came to him, he conquered it, and drawing one arm gingerly away, he bent down swiftly and picked up the crutches. Then very gently he adjusted them once more beneath my arms and we continued our journey very carefully to the beach.
That was the beginning of a very delightful companionship between Tony and myself during the days that followed. We were together most of the time, either exploring the scenic beauties of the district in his big car, or spending the days, clad only in our swimming suits, basking or frolicking on the sands or in the sea, growing gradually closer to each other, happy in each other's company.
We never forgot the episode of the slipping crutch, and at the outset, when we were bathing, I always let my crutches in the house, as he insisted, for safety's sake, upon carrying me in his arms down to the sea. It was indeed a very dangerous, if delicious experience, to lie thus in the circle of his strong arms, and for the thrill of it became more and more an ecstasy for me, and I could guess at Tony's feelings from the closeness in which he held me to him.
Curiously enough, to my very great relief and delight, he never seemed in the slightest way concerned by the very frank manner in which such charms as I possess were displayed by my very revealing swimming costumes. They were all alike, skintight, one-piece affairs of the filmiest silk that left my arms bare from the shoulders and my leg and stump bare from the hips.
Yet he never seemed repelled - rather the contrary! In fact, he was distinctly fascinated by the effortless agility with which I was able to hop about the sands without my crutches. We often romped together on the sands, and he could never get over my quickness and sure- footedness, when taking part in any game he indulged in.
Of course, he knew nothing of my long training as a dancer which had brought my powers of balance on one leg to perfection. In fact he suggested that with my extraordinary cleverness, I ought to go on the stage.
One thing, however, he did seem to notice, and that was the little tattooed butterfly that now so attractively adorned my stump. I often caught his eyes upon it, but only in momentary and often furtive glances, and I wondered, at first, if it had any significance for him, apart from his general interest in myself. But he never made any reference to it, and I soon came to take his interest for granted.
A curious thing about our friendship was that, while it was evident that Tony was becoming daily more and more fond of me, we never got any further than the intimate friendly stage. Something seemed to keep him aloof, some secret barrier seemed always erected between us. I accepted the situation in one way quite gladly, for, after all, I was playing a part, and was not the girl he imagined me to be. But at odd moments the realisation awoke a pang within my breast, and I knew I trembled periously upon the very brink of love.
Meanwhile, I had practically forgotten the storm that, up till then, I had expected to break, sooner or later, about our seemingly peaceful household. And so, when it did actually break, it took me completely by surprise.
I had spent a delightful day with Tony, motoring for miles through the wonderful Cornish scenery and we had returned some little time before dinner - in fact, rather sooner than we were expected. Tony garaged the car and then with boyish zest proposed a dip before dinner. I agreed enthusiastically, and with a joyous wave of the hand swung myself rapidly upstairs on my crutches, eager, as always, to get what Tony called my "beach rags".
My room was on the first floor, and was approached from a beautiful gallery, carpeted very luxuriously in very thick pile. In consequence, my slim, rubber-padded crutches made practically no sound as I swung along - a fact that has an important bearing on what was about to happen. As I neared my room, I heard the soft footfall of someone descending from the floor above and for some reason I can't explain, I paused on the gallery and waited.
The individual I had heard continued the descent and reached the landing on the first floor - hidden from me as yet by the angle of the stairs. Here a pause was made, and I heard the door or lid opened and the sound of a bunch of keys being dropped in some receptacle. Then the footfalls continued, coming towards me. Quickly I resumed my way to my room, and thus met face to face - Robert Grant.
There would, of course, have been nothing extraordinary about such an encounter except for two very curious details. He was carrying a tray, upon which were some empty dishes, covered with a white cloth; and, at the sight of me, he had gone a sort of dirty grey. He recovered himself on the instant, however, and managed to smile at me.
"Hallo!" he said, with suspicious heartiness. "What are you up to? Got back early, haven't you?"
My own smile was of the most disarming and ingenious character.
"Yes," I trilled. "Had a ripping day - but Tony would insist on a dip. I'm going to fling on a costume and get down to the beach - I've just raced up the stairs," I added for his special benefit.
He seemed extremely relieved, and then, with a laugh, nodded towards the tray in his hand.
"Father's dinner things," he explained. "I nearly always look after him when the maids are out." And, still smiling, he went on his way.
I reached my room, and flinging aside my crutches dropped into the depths of a big easy chair. The first fact my brain registered was that Robert Grant was a liar - a deliberate and very quick-thinking liar. He had said he had come from his father's room, but his father's room was on the same floor as mine, as was that of every other member of the household, except the maids, who were on the other side of the house. He had obviously brought that tray from one of the floors above. Why, then, had he lied about it? And why, on meeting me, had he suddenly gone livid with fear?
I picked up my crutches again and crept to the door, opened it, and peeped out. There was not a soul about, and swiftly I swung along the other side of the gallery to the landing, where Robert had paused. I remembered that here, in an alcove, there was a fine old carved chest and a seat. I lifted the top, and at the bottom of the chest, half-hidden by all sorts of odds and ends, I found what I was looking for - the bunch of keys I had heard Robert drop.
I snatched them up and examined them. There were about a dozen keys on the ring, nearly all slightly rusted from disuse. But two were smooth from recent use, and these I discovered with a little thrill, were duplicates. Quickly I detached one of the latter, softly replaced the bunch, and regaining my room, hid the key in a safe place.
Within a minute or so, I had changed into my swimming things, and was down in the hall, where Tony was writing, quite unsuspicious of anything untoward having happened.
Despite the turmoil within me, I was able to greet him with a gay smile. Then, leaving my crutches in the hall as usual, I surrendered myself to his waiting arms, and was carried down, very gently and tenderly, to the beach. For the first time I did not fully enjoy a swim with Tony, though we frolicked as usual, and made a great deal of cheerful noise. My thoughts were busy with a completely new aspect that affairs had assumed since my meeting with Robert - busy with that and my plans for discovering what was behind his lying and his fear.
And after the swim, as Tony and I sat close together on the warm sands, I had fits of day-dreaming that Tony must have noticed, though he said nothing. I know now that he put them down to some other cause - not unremotely connected with himself! I was finally awakened from my reverie, as one often is, by the consciousness that I was being steadily observed and then, with a sudden intake of breath, I felt Tony's hand, which had been lying in mine, on my lap, slip softly down and rest lightly on my stump.
The thrill of the contact pulsed through me like an electric shock, but I managed to retain something of my composure, and I awaited curiously.
"Val," he said, slowly breaking the silence, at last. "That little butterfly of yours is really the cunningist thing! I - I never had the nerve to mention it before, because oh - well, it isn't a thing I could talk about, is it? But it took my fancy from the first. It's such a dainty idea. You - you won't think I'm too curious, or that I'll make you feel sensitive, if I have a real good look at it?"
"You silly boy, Tony," I said, gaily, yet a little breathlessly, since I sensed something more than than mere curiosity behind his request. "Of course you may examine the butterfly. And I'm not in the least sensitive about my stump - otherwise I wouldn't display it as I do."
I raised the plump, perfectly rounded stump slightly, and watched Tony in some amazement as he bent down and closely examined the butterfly, smoothing it now and then with light fingers. At last he sat up again, and, smiled a smile that was almost as natural as usual.
"A beautiful bit of work, Val," he said, "and a real original and ingenious idea. What - what exactly put it into your head to have it done just in that spot?"
I didn't know quite how I should have replied to that leading and very significant question - for by this time I felt sure there was a great deal more behind Tony's interest that appeared on the surface - had there not come at the moment, a very opportune, if somewhat disturbing, interruption.
Robert Grant came down the pathway to the sands, and halted hesitatingly by us.
"I say, Val," he began, after a perceptible pause, "I'm dashed sorry, old thing, but something rather unfortunate had happened. You know you left your crutches in the hall. Well, Jenkins and I were shifting that big hall cupboard - I never liked its present position - and the fool let his end slip, with the result that it fell on your crutches and smashed them both. I'm horribly sorry, really, I am. I'm afraid they're absolutely done in. What can you do?"
Fortunately remembering the role I was playing I could only stare up at him in half-amused vexation. Though actually I was not in the very least amused. I was able to carry off the situation creditably enough, managing even to laugh at the predicament I found myself in. At any rate, I had to grin and bear it, until I was able to get another pair of crutches down from London.
Meanwhile Tony solved my immediate difficulties by carrying me on to the house, and up to my room, and, preoccupied as I was with the problem of the smashed crutches, I was yet conscious of a queer feeling that Tony's arms were not so caressing nor so closely enfolding as usual. Something had happened, something that had rendered him even more aloof than ever!
Once in my room, I sat and pondered on Robert Grant's latest move - for that it was a deliberate move, I was quite certain. The breaking of my crutches was a clever trick. A less clever scoundrel might have locked my door at night to prevent any prying explorations about the house on my part - but such a move would have turned any vague suspicions I might be supposed to have into certainties. The breaking of the crutches, however, had all the appearance of an accident, and, in Robert's calculations, curtailed my activities quite as successfully as a locked door would have done.
And yet I laughed suddenly and triumphantly. Robert has shown his hand only too plainly, and yet, in all his scheming, had forgotten one very important thing. He had forgotten that my training as a dancer had made me as much at home on my one leg as other people are on two. Naturally, I used crutches off the stage. They were very necessary adjuncts to my daily life. But I could do without them with the greatest of ease, as my dancing act, in which crutches never so much as appear, should have plainly revealed to Mr. Robert Grant. I would yet show that gentleman that he had made a very great mistake when he invited me to play a part in his pretty little plot.
My chance came that night when about midnight everybody had retired and the house was silent and still. My plans were simple. My intention was to explore the floors above until I discovered a locked door which the key I had taken fitted. As I was now without crutches, and would have to carry out the whole of my expedition on one leg, I very naturally decided to dispense with the skirts altogether in fact, I could not do better than adopt the dress in which I was so much at home on he stage.
Fortunately, I had brought with me from London several complete outfits of silk tights, and now I chose a suit of filmy, black silk, selecting black so that there would be less chance of my being seen in the darkness by any chance prowler. I slipped into these swiftly, yet quietly, smoothing the skin-tight silk over shapely leg and rounded stump, as meticulously as if I were preparing for the stage, and observing in the mirror the effect of the satin trunks, and daringly low-cut sleeveless bodice, perfectly moulded to the curves of my figure.
For footwear, I selected a slim, low-cut, tight-fitting slipper in dull black satin, of the sort that acrobats wear, and made entirely without a heel. One cannot hop on a high heel, by the way, without running the risk of tripping, and thus incurring serious injury.
Finally, I took from its hiding place the key I had secured, switched off my electric light, and I was ready for my adventure.
Softly I opened my door, slipped out and listened. Nothing stirred. The house was wrapped in complete silence. I locked my door behind me, keeping the key, and, taking a firm hold of my courage, I hopped swiftly and effortlessly along the gallery and up the first flight of stairs.
Though the darkness was rather terrifying, and I was in many ways handicapped by the lack of crutches, despite my agility, I eventually succeeded in making the tour of the floor, without finding the door I was searching for. I had a similar experience on the next floor, the rooms on which were fewer, and was almost giving way to a feeling of defeat, when my groping hand came in contact with some soft, thick material, and I realised that I grasped a very heavy plush curtain swung across what I imagined was an alcove.
A sudden light flashed in my brain, and the next moment I was behind the curtain and standing close to a locked door. With infinite care, I slipped the key into the lock. It turned!
Under the cover of the heavy sound-deadening curtain, I began to knock softly, yet regularly and persistently on the door. For some time there was no result. Then, with a leap of the pulses, I heard a voice; a frightened, breathless, faraway voice -
I opened the door and slipped into the room. Then for a ghastly second I thought I was trapped, for I felt myself enveloped in a heavy thick material. But as I pulled it aside, a search of relief swept through me. I had run into another curtain, hung just inside the doorway - another device for deadening the sound that might come from the room.
I searched for the electric switch and found it almost at once. But I did not at once press it down.
"Listen," I said softly. "I'm a friend - or I hope you'll regard me as a friend. I am a stranger in this house, and certain happenings made me suspect that there was a prisoner somewhere up here. Will you trust me - and may I switch on the light?"
A little tremulous sound came from the darkness. Then a voice.
"Oh, please do!"
I depressed the switch, and the light leapt at me out of the blackness, blinding me for the moment with its intensive glare. Then, as my eyes grew accustomed to the light, I saw for the first time the occupant of the room.
A slim, dainty girl, exquisite in her fresh young beauty, was sitting up in bed, gazing at me with great eyes in which were equally mingled blank incredulity and sheer astonishment. Her blonde, shingled hair clung close, delicious little curls to her shapely head and the clinging, sleeveless night-dress of transparent crepe-de- chine, emphasised rather than concealed the delicately curving outlines of her perfectly modelled body.
I had to smile at her quite understandable bewilderment in the circumstances, and then, quietly locking he door behind me, I hopped swiftly to the bed and sat on the side, facing the girl. Her eyes travelled slowly over me, taking in every detail, and her astonishment, if possible, deepened.
"Why," she stammered at last, "Who are you? ... You might you might be - myself! ... And you have only - only one leg; ... Look - !"
She suddenly threw aside the bedclothes and swung herself out to the edge of the bed. "Look! - " she repeated.
Through the filmy, clinging silk of her night dress, the soft flesh of her lovely body blushed rosily, every outline clearly discernible, so it was only too evident that the slim leg and little bare foot she extended towards me were the only ones she possessed. And, just below the right hip, the thin silk was lifted in a round, plump oval, clearly outlining a stump about the same size, and as perfect in contour as my own.
A queer little thrill shook me at the startling revelation, though, really, it had not been entirely unexpected. I had, of course, on entering the room, become aware at once of the girl's extraordinary resemblance to myself - though she was, in my opinion, the prettier of the two - and I had already had my vague suspicions of the identity of Robert Grant's prisoner. But the actual demonstration that our uncanny likeness to each other extended even to the possession by each of us of only one leg, left me amazed at the wonder of it.
However, this was no time for the consideration of such things. As soon as I had recovered, I took the girl's two hands in my own.
"You are Valerie Grant?" I said.
She nodded, her eyes widening. "Yes," she said. "How did you know?"
In a few rapid sentences, I told her my story, and the manner in which Robert Grant had lured me into the house, while she listed spellbound.
"The question is now," I concluded, "what is the reason for this astounding plot? Can you throw any light upon it?"
But, though the excitement was already dancing in her eyes, she only shook her head.
"Very little, Miss Merrill, I'm afraid," she replied. "I can tell you why Robert imprisoned me here - but that doesn't explain the rest of his doings and why he brought you here. You see, in the first place, I am not really Robert Grant's sister at all. I don't know my real name, but I do know that my mother, who died when I was about five, left me in the care of the Grants, whose name I took, and who brought me up as their own daughter. My mother left sufficient money for my board and education, etc., and up to eight or nine month ago, I was tolerably happy, and everything went more or less smoothly.
Then, for the first time, Robert Grant began to pay me attentions, and finally pestered me to marry him. I think I showed how distasteful his proposals were, and for a time he desisted. Then, to my great relief, he went to America, on some business trip, so he said. But on his return he started all over again, and even became threatening. Eventually, some weeks ago, we all left our Surrey home and came down here to Cornwall - "
"Then this is not your home?" I interjected in surprise.
"Oh, no. This house is only rented for the season - why exactly I don't know. We had been here only a few days when Robert carried me up to this room - a kind of attic, as you see, with only a skylight for window - took away my crutches, locked the door on me - and left me. - And here I am as you found me."
I sat back, my thoughts busy with the problem, and for the moment baffled by it. Then suddenly I thought of Tony. Had he any place in the jig-saw?
"Do you know anybody named Tony Carden?" I asked Valerie. "An American, a friend, apparently, of Robert's?" But she only shook her head.
"No", she replied. "I never heard the name before. Has he anything to do with this ghastly business?"
"I don't know, Valerie," I said slowly. "I think he may have in some way - Valerie, forgive me, but I have the most serious reasons for asking the question. Do you happen to have a little butterfly design tattooed on your stump?"
Her eyes opened in astonishment for this was my first reference to the matter.
"Why, yes," she replied, "but how on earth did you know?"
I told her, and then asked if she would allow me to see the design. "I have an idea about it that may lead somewhere," I explained.
A tinge of colour crept softly into her cheeks but, after a little hesitation, she nodded, and quietly drew up her night-dress until the little bare, plump stump was fully exposed. There, on the soft white flesh, a little to the right side, was a replica of the butterfly design that adorned my own stump, and bending down, I examined it carefully.
I at once became aware of two important points. The first was that, though in outline and colour it was still quite clear, it was much more faded than mine - a very natural thing, in the circumstances. The second was that in several tiny and hardly noticeable particulars the design differed from mine!
I lifted my head slowly and thoughtfully. Had Tony examined my butterfly design for the express purpose of comparing it with an original, the details of which he already knew? And had he noticed the discrepancies in my design? And if all this was so, what was the reason for his interest in the matter?
"Valerie," I sad suddenly, "why exactly did you have tattooed this design on your stump?"
She gazed at me in sheer amazement and her reply astonished me.
"But - but I didn't have it done, and as a matter of fact, it was never tattooed on my stump. My mother had it done when I was a baby - why, I don't know - two or three years before I lost my leg, which was amputated when I was five as the result of the railway accident in which poor mother was fatally injured. The butterfly was actually tattooed on my right thigh, though now, of course, it appears to have been done on my stump."
Light - though still very dim in quality - was filtering through the darkness. It was obvious now that the tattooed butterfly was assuming greater and greater importance. It had been tattooed on Valerie for some very definite purpose, and both Robert Grant and Tony knew what its real significance was!
A sudden idea leapt unbidden into my brain.
"Valerie," I breathed excitedly, "listen! It is quite clear to me now that Robert Grant brought Tony Carden here for the express purpose of examining this butterfly design. It is also clear to me that he found something wrong with mine, and was puzzled to account for the discrepancy. Now, - here's my plan. You shall take my place tonight, and tomorrow you must so arrange things hat Tony takes you bathing, and is given an opportunity of examining your design. Then - unless he is in league in with Robert - he will talk, and perhaps we will get out the whole amazing plot".
The excitement was dancing in Valerie's eyes when I concluded, and she fell in with the plan with the greatest enthusiasm.
"You had better get downstairs at once," I said. "By the way, will you be able to manage all right without crutches? It's rather a ticklish business to negotiate the stairs."
"Oh, I shall manage splendidly," said Valerie gaily. I've often hopped about without my crutches, especially a a child."
"Capital - you had better just take your undies with you, as you will be wearing my frock for a day or to. Thank goodness you are practically my figure."
Still thrilling with excitement Valerie flung off her nightdress, exposing for a moment the nude beauties of her perfect form, and slipped into very brief cami-knickers, "stump-sock", and stoking all of the finest and filmiest silk. Then, when all was ready, we stood together outside Valerie's door and I handed her my key.
"You are a darling"! Valerie breathed and then, with a final hug, she disappeared into the darkness, hopping quite expertly upon her little stockinged foot.
I re-entered the room and locked the door. So far, everything had gone smoothly, according to plan. I had played my small part. The next move was with Valerie - and Tony.
The sun was streaming through the long staircase windows, when, next morning, somewhere about eleven, I stood once again at the top of the stairs. An hour or so earlier, Robert Grant had brought me breakfast, maintaining, to my relief, a sullen silence, and departing as soon as he had set down the tray. Quite obviously he was totally unsuspecting that I was not the real Valerie.
I had chosen a charming frock of Valerie's in flowered chiffon, that fitted me to perfection, and just barely reached the knee. With it, I wore a filmy, flesh-coloured silk stocking, with very brief silk knickers and a silk "stump-sock" to match. One thing of my own I retained - my heel-less satin slipper, as I was still, of course, without crutches.
No sound came from below, and gathering my skirts well above the knee, I hopped swiftly downwards, and within a minute or so was once again back in my own room. As I had anticipated, Valerie was not there, and I sped across to the windows, from which I had an excellent view of the little beach below.
A little pulse of triumph beating my breast. On the sands, close together in very earnest conversation, were Valerie and Tony, Valerie in swimming costume and Tony in white flannels. I waited, standing patiently by the window. Then, after what seemed an interminable time, Tony stood up, and taking Valerie in his arms, he carried her slowly up the pathway into the house.
I was out on the gallery in a moment, and keeping well out of sight, I saw Tony carry Valerie into the big drawing room that opened to the right from the hall.
Almost immediately, he reappeared without Valerie, and looked about him.
"Grant!" he called at last.
I heard an answering "Hullo!" from somewhere in the house, and eventually Robert appeared, and behind him his mother.
"What's the trouble, old man?" I heard him ask amiably enough.
"Just a moment," said Tony grimly. "A little matter I think we ought to discuss inside. Mrs. Grant may as well be present also."
The trio entered the drawing-room, and I heard the door click behind them.
Softly I slipped down the stairs, and going to the drawingroom door, stood there considering what best to do. I heard a murmur of voices within, then Robert's voice suddenly raised in angry protest. Under cover of the sound I quietly opened the door and listened.
"I have not the slightest idea of what you are getting at," Robert was almost shouting. "I never heard of this Sonia Merrill you talk about. The whole thing is ridiculous - a put up job."
He stopped abruptly, as if the flow of his angry speech had been suddenly dammed, and his jaw dropped. For I had slipped into the room, and stood regarding him with an ironic smile.
"Then, I suppose you will say you are now seeing double, Mr. Grant," I said quietly. "Who do think I am - just a reflection in a mirror, or the Sonia Merrill you say you have never heard of?"
Of what happened next I have only a hazy recollection. Robert must have pulled out the revolver with lightning speed, for the bullet zipped past me almost before I had finished speaking. I saw Tony jump for the raging man, and forgetting myself and my lack of crutches, I moved forward and fell headlong. My poor little stump took the full impact of the fall, and so intense was the sudden shock of pain, that I fainted away. Something heard a long way off - something like another muffled shot came out of the distance and I remembered nothing more.
I awoke to the realisation of caressing fingers about my face, and I smiled unsteadily into the eyes of Tony, who was kneeling by the couch on which I lay. Seated by me, holding my hands was Valerie, still in her swimming costume, her silk wrap hanging loosely from her shoulders, and at the far end of the room, something draped in a white sheet lay dreadfully still.
"You are quite all right, Sonia," murmured Tony tenderly. "You only fainted. Thank God, he missed you."
"But, - "my eyes wandered fearfully to the sheeted form.
"He - he must have imagined he had hit you," explained Tony, gently. "He turned the pistol on himself ... We are now awaiting a doctor - though he can do nothing now - and the police."
* * *
"Yes the whole thing turned on the tattooed butterfly," said Tony some considerable time later, when the ghastly preliminaries in connection with Robert Grant's death were over and Valerie, Tony and I gathered together on one of the sunny lawns. "You see, Valerie, your brother was married to one of the Tempests, a very rich New York family, but as she and her husband never got on well together, she suddenly decided one day, after a more than usually fierce quarrel, to take her baby girl with her and quit. She made for England, her native land, and after a while made her home with the Grants. So sore was she with whole brood of the Tempests, that she never used the name Tempest again, and before she died she made the Grants promise to bring the girl up as one of their own.
But, curiously enough, and woman-like, she could not help leaving just one little clue to her daughter's identity. An emblem always connected with the Tempests for generations was a tiny butterfly in scarlet and blue, and in common with all the brides of the Tempests, Valerie's mother possessed a number of jewels and garments, all either inset or stamped with this butterfly design. It was a copy of this design that Mrs. Tempest had tattooed on her little daughter's thigh. One can only guess at the motive. Valerie would always carry the proof of her identity about her, and yet it would be secret enough to satisfy her mother's feeling against the Tempests.
However, a year ago, Roger Tempest, Valerie's father, died - and left a fortune of a million and a half dollars. He also left instructions that search should be made for his daughter, Valerie, to whom, if found, he left practically everything. My father's firm, for years the legal advisers of the Tempests, was entrusted with the task, and that is how I came into the affair.
You now begin to see something of Robert Grant's plot. He saw the advertisement asking for information about Valerie Tempest and though he did not recognise the name Tempest, the description of the famous butterfly design and the name Valerie, gave him all the clues needed. He came over to New York, where he interviewed me, told the story of the tattooed design, and interested me sufficiently to make me promise to sail for England as soon as I could manage it.
Meanwhile, his plan to marry Valerie, and so get hold of her money, miscarried, and it was then that he saw your photograph, Sonia, and the ingenious plot to substitute you for Valerie leapt into his mind. He rented this out of the way place in Cornwall to put his plot into execution, coercing his ailing father, and his poor, frightened mother into doing his bidding. The rest you know" - "But, Tony," I interjected. "just one point. Why didn't you tell me he story when you first met me. You imagined I was Valerie Tempest. Why didn't you mention the fact?"
"Ah!" said Tony, with a rueful smile. "That is where your friend Robert showed his cleverness. He realised that danger, so he told me a nice little cock-and-bull story. According to him, Valerie had been brought up to think she was a Grant. She worshipped Mr. and Mrs. Grant, whom she really thought were her parents. To tell her, therefore, who she really was, before I was absolutely certain of her identity would, so the ingenious Robert said, be rather cruel, specially if she turned out not to be the Valerie Tempest I was looking for. So I could say nothing until I was able to make a detailed examination of the butterfly design - and even then, according to arrangements, was to consult Robert himself before taking and other steps."
"I see," I said with a little nod of appreciation. "And supposing his plot had succeeded - how was he going to deal with me?"
"Oh, I take it he intended to frighten you into acceptance of the situation. You see, you, on the surface, were his accomplice. You had even gone to the trouble of having a very similar design tattooed. He also thought, no doubt, that you would be mercenary enough to jump at a share in a million and a half dollars. But he made two mistakes. He mistook your character, and underrated your cleverness for one thing. For another, he wasn't careful enough to supply you with the exact design of the famous butterfly. What he intended to do with Valerie - well, thank God, she is still alive to listen to this story of his plot."
A thoughtful silence fell on the group, and then came an interruption. A little two-seater car swung up the drive, a laughing faced boy at the wheel. With a swift blush, and a murmured apology, Valerie snatched up her crutches - which she had now regained - and swung eagerly across the lawn to the car.
I smiled mistily at Tony.
"It's Jack Agnew," I explained. "Valerie told me all about him. They're to be engaged now - if Valerie's millions don't scare him off. Valerie wired him to let him know where she was - there he is."
Tony suddenly bent forward and took both my hands.
"And, Sonia," he said huskily, "what about us?" I held aloof all the time because - oh, you were, so I imagined, a heiress to millions - but I loved you at the very first glance. Sonia - is there any chance for me?"
"But, Tony, dear - I am - I am a cripple."
He laughed suddenly and incredulously.
"You - a cripple;" he said. "Why, that's the very last thing I should say of you; You're more active than I am, and your loss of a leg is hardly a handicap at all. Besides, strange as it may seem, there is something curiously fascinating about your being one-legged. I didn't find it at all distasteful when I first set eyes on you, and when you nearly fell and I had to hold you in my arms - well, I just wanted to carry you about for the rest of my life. Sonia, darling, marry me, and you can then leave the stage and return with me to America."
"Leave the stage;"
"Yes, dearest. I don't want you to earn your living that way - exposing your beautiful, incomplete body before people who don't understand."
"But, Tony - I love the stage, and the public loves me. They like my pluck, and applaud my skill. Tony, dear, listen! I love you, really I do. But I don't want to marry and settle down just yet. Give me - say, a year. I have my contract to finish; America to visit for the first time, and I love my dancing. In a year, dearest, I shall be ready."
Tony took me fiercely in his arms for the first time, our lips met in a lingering, passionate kiss.
"Very well, sweetheart," he said at last, with a great shuddering sigh. "In a year, I shall come for you."
I smiled up at him.
"I shall be waiting, dearest," I said, and drew down his head to seal the pact with a kiss.