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Fire-Tongue Sax Rohmer

The Purple Stain

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This constant conflict between intuition and tangible evidence was beginning to tell upon him. Either his sixth sense had begun to play tricks or he was the object of the most perfectly organized and efficient system of surveillance with which he had ever come in contact. Once, in the past, he had found himself pitted against the secret police of Moscow, and hitherto he had counted their methods incomparable. Unless he was the victim of an unpleasant hallucination, those Russian spies had their peers in London.

As he alighted from a cab before the house of the late Sir Charles, Benson opened the door. "We have just finished, sir," he said, as Harley ran up the steps. "But Mrs. Howett would like to see you, sir."

"Very good, Benson," replied Harley, handing his hat and cane to the butler. "I will see her in the dining room, please."

Benson throwing open the door, Paul Harley walked into the room which so often figured in his vain imaginings. The table was laid for dinner in accordance with his directions. The chair which he remembered to have occupied was in place and that in which Sir Charles had died was set at the head of the table.

Brows contracted, Harley stood just inside the room, looking slowly about him. And, as he stood so, an interrogatory cough drew his gaze to the doorway. He turned sharply, and there was Mrs. Howett, a pathetic little figure in black.

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"Ah, Mrs. Howett," said Harley; kindly, "please try to forgive me for this unpleasant farce with its painful memories. But I have a good reason. I think you know this. Now, as I am naturally anxious to have everything clear before Miss Abingdon returns, will you be good enough to tell me if the table is at present set exactly as on the night that Sir Charles and I came in to dinner?"

"No, Mr. Harley," was the answer, "that was what I was anxious to explain. The table is now laid as Benson left it on that dreadful night."

"Ah, I see. Then you, personally, made some modifications?"

"I rearranged the flowers and moved the centre vase so." The methodical old lady illustrated her words. "I also had the dessert spoons changed. You remember, Benson?"

Benson inclined his head. From a sideboard he took out two silver spoons which he substituted for those already set upon the table.

"Anything else, Mrs. Howett?"

"The table is now as I left it, sir, a few minutes before your arrival. Just after your arrival I found Jones, the parlourmaid--a most incompetent, impudent girl--altering the position of the serviettes. At least, such was my impression."

"Of the serviettes?" murmured Harley.

"She denied it," continued the housekeeper, speaking with great animation; "but she could give no explanation. It was the last straw. She took too many liberties altogether."

As Harley remained silent, the old lady ran on animatedly, but Harley was no longer listening.

"This is not the same table linen?" he asked, suddenly.

"Why, no, sir," replied Benson. "Last week's linen will be at the laundry."

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Sax Rohmer

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