A BID FOR FORTUNE
DR. NIKOLA'S VENDETTA
By GUY BOOTHBY
Author of "Dr. Nikola," "The Beautiful White Devil," etc., etc.
WARD, LOCK & CO., LIMITED LONDON, MELBOURNE AND TORONTO 1918
CHAPTER I. I determine to take a Holiday,—Sydney, and what Befel me there
CHAPTER II. London
CHAPTER III. I Visit my Relations
CHAPTER IV. I Save an Important Life
CHAPTER V. Mystery
CHAPTER VI. I Meet Dr. Nikola again
CHAPTER VII. Port Said, and what Befel us there
CHAPTER VIII. Our Imprisonment and Attempt at Escape
CHAPTER IX. Dr. Nikola permits us a Free Passage
CHAPTER I. We reach Australia, and the Result
CHAPTER II. On the Trail
CHAPTER III. Lord Beckenham's Story
CHAPTER IV. Following up a Clue
CHAPTER V. The Islands, and what we found there
CHAPTER VI. Conclusion
A BID FOR FORTUNE
The manager of the new Imperial Restaurant on the Thames Embankment went into his luxurious private office and shut the door. Having done so, he first scratched his chin reflectively, and then took a letter from the drawer in which it had reposed for more than two months and perused it carefully. Though he was not aware of it, this was the thirtieth time he had read it since breakfast that morning. And yet he was not a whit nearer understanding it than he had been at the beginning. He turned it over and scrutinized the back, where not a sign of writing was to be seen; he held it up to the window, as if he might hope to discover something from the water-mark; but there was nothing in either of these places of a nature calculated to set his troubled mind at rest. Then he took a magnificent repeater watch from his waistcoat pocket and glanced at the dial; the hands stood at half-past seven. He immediately threw the letter on the table, and as he did so his anxiety found relief in words.
"It's really the most extraordinary affair I ever had to do with," he remarked. "And as I've been in the business just three-and-thirty years at eleven a.m. next Monday morning, I ought to know something about it. I only hope I've done right, that's all."
As he spoke, the chief bookkeeper, who had the treble advantage of being tall, pretty, and just eight-and-twenty years of age, entered the room. She noticed the open letter and the look upon her chief's face, and her curiosity was proportionately excited.
"You seem worried, Mr. McPherson," she said tenderly, as she put down the papers she had brought in for his signature.
"You have just hit it, Miss O'Sullivan," he answered, pushing them farther on to the table. "I am worried about many things, but particularly about this letter."
He handed the epistle to her, and she, being desirous of impressing him with her business capabilities, read it with ostentatious care. But it was noticeable that when she reached the signature she too turned back to the beginning, and then deliberately read it over again. The manager rose, crossed to the mantelpiece, and rang for the head waiter. Having relieved his feelings in this way, he seated himself again at his writing-table, put on his glasses, and stared at his companion, while waiting for her to speak.
"It's very funny," she said. "Very funny indeed!"
"It's the most extraordinary communication I have ever received," he replied with conviction. "You see it is written from Cuyaba, Brazil. The date is three months ago to a day. Now I have taken the trouble to find out where and what Cuyaba is."
He made this confession with an air of conscious pride, and having done so, laid himself back in his chair, stuck his thumbs into the armholes of his waistcoat, and looked at his fair subordinate for approval. Nor was he destined to be disappointed. He was a bachelor in possession of a snug income, and she, besides being pretty, was a lady with a keen eye to the main chance.
"And where is Cuyaba?" she asked humbly.
"Cuyaba," he replied, rolling his tongue with considerable relish round his unconscious mispronunciation of the name, "is a town almost on the western or Bolivian border of Brazil. It is of moderate size, is situated on the banks of the river Cuyaba, and is considerably connected with the famous Brazilian Diamond Fields."
"And does the writer of this letter live there?"
"I cannot say. He writes from there—that is enough for us."
"And he orders dinner for four—here, in a private room overlooking the river, three months ahead—punctually at eight o'clock, gives you a list of the things he wants, and even arranges the decoration of the table. Says he has never seen either of his three friends before; that one of them hails from (here she consulted the letter again) Hang-chow, another from Bloemfontein, while the third resides, at present, in England. Each one is to present an ordinary visiting card with a red dot on it to the porter in the hall, and to be shown to the room at once. I don't understand it at all."
The manager paused for a moment, and then said deliberately,—"Hang-chow is in China, Bloemfontein is in South Africa."
"What a wonderful man you are, to be sure, Mr. McPherson! I never can think how you manage to carry so much in your head."
There spoke the true woman. And it was a move in the right direction, for the manager was susceptible to her gentle influence, as she had occasion to know.
At this juncture the head waiter appeared upon the scene, and took up a position just inside the doorway, as if he were afraid of injuring the carpet by coming farther.
"Is No. 22 ready, Williams?"
"Quite ready, sir. The wine is on the ice, and cook tells me he'll be ready to dish punctual to the moment."
"The letter says, 'no electric light; candles with red shades.' Have you put on those shades I got this morning?"
"Just seen it done this very minute, sir."
"And let me see, there was one other thing." He took the letter from the chief bookkeeper's hand and glanced at it. "Ah, yes, a porcelain saucer, and a small jug of new milk upon the mantelpiece. An extraordinary request, but has it been attended to?"
"I put it there myself, sir."
"Jones, Edmunds, Brooks, and Tomkins."
"Very good. Then I think that will do. Stay! You had better tell the hall porter to look out for three gentlemen presenting plain visiting cards with a little red spot on them. Let Brooks wait in the hall, and when they arrive tell him to show them straight up to the room."
"It shall be done, sir."
The head waiter left the room, and the manager stretched himself in his chair, yawned by way of showing his importance, and then said solemnly,—
"I don't believe they'll any of them turn up; but if they do, this Dr. Nikola, whoever he may be, won't be able to find fault with my arrangements."
Then, leaving the dusty high road of Business, he and his companion wandered in the shady bridle-paths of Love—to the end that when the chief bookkeeper returned to her own department she had forgotten the strange dinner party about to take place upstairs, and was busily engaged upon a calculation as to how she would look in white satin and orange blossoms, and, that settled, fell to wondering whether it was true, as Miss Joyce, a subordinate, had been heard to declare, that the manager had once shown himself partial to a certain widow with reputed savings and a share in an extensive egg and dairy business.
At ten minutes to eight precisely a hansom drew up at the steps of the hotel. As soon as it stopped, an undersized gentleman, with a clean shaven countenance, a canonical corporation, and bow legs, dressed in a decidedly clerical garb, alighted. He paid and discharged his cabman, and then took from his ticket pocket an ordinary white visiting card, which he presented to the gold-laced individual who had opened the apron. The latter, having noted the red spot, called a waiter, and the reverend gentleman was immediately escorted upstairs.
Hardly had the attendant time to return to his station in the hall, before a second cab made its appearance, closely followed by a third. Out of the second jumped a tall, active, well-built man of about thirty years of age. He was dressed in evening dress of the latest fashion, and to conceal it from the vulgar gaze, wore a large Inverness cape of heavy texture. He also in his turn handed a white card to the porter, and, having done so, proceeded into the hall, followed by the occupant of the last cab, who had closely copied his example. This individual was also in evening dress, but it was of a different stamp. It was old-fashioned and had seen much use. The wearer, too, was taller than the ordinary run of men, while it was noticeable that his hair was snow-white, and that his face was deeply pitted with smallpox. After disposing of their hats and coats in an ante-room, they reached room No. 22, where they found the gentleman in clerical costume pacing impatiently up and down.
Left alone, the tallest of the trio, who for want of a better title we may call the Best Dressed Man, took out his watch, and having glanced at it, looked at his companions. "Gentlemen," he said, with a slight American accent, "it is three minutes to eight o'clock. My name is Eastover!"
"I'm glad to hear it, for I'm most uncommonly hungry," said the next tallest, whom I have already described as being so marked by disease. "My name is Prendergast!"
"We only wait for our friend and host," remarked the clerical gentleman, as if he felt he ought to take a share in the conversation, and then, as an afterthought, he continued, "My name is Baxter!"
They shook hands all round with marked cordiality, seated themselves again, and took it in turns to examine the clock.
"Have you ever had the pleasure of meeting our host before?" asked Mr. Baxter of Mr. Prendergast.
"Never," replied that gentleman, with a shake of his head. "Perhaps Mr. Eastover has been more fortunate?"
"Not I," was the brief rejoinder. "I've had to do with him off and on for longer than I care to reckon, but I've never set eyes on him up to date."
"And where may he have been the first time you heard from him?"
"In Nashville, Tennessee," said Eastover. "After that, Tahupapa, New Zealand; after that, Papeete, in the Society Islands; then Pekin, China. And you?"
"First time, Brussels; second, Monte Video; third, Mandalay, and then the Gold Coast, Africa. It's your turn, Mr. Baxter."
The clergyman glanced at the timepiece. It was exactly eight o'clock. "First time, Cabul, Afghanistan; second, Nijni Novgorod, Russia; third, Wilcannia, Darling River, Australia; fourth, Valparaiso, Chili; fifth, Nagasaki, Japan."
"He is evidently a great traveller and a most mysterious person."
"He is more than that," said Eastover with conviction; "he is late for dinner!"
Prendergast looked at his watch.
"That clock is two minutes fast. Hark, there goes Big Ben! Eight exactly."
As he spoke the door was thrown open and a voice announced "Dr. Nikola."
The three men sprang to their feet simultaneously, with exclamations of astonishment, as the man they had been discussing made his appearance.
It would take more time than I can spare the subject to give you an adequate and inclusive description of the person who entered the room at that moment. In stature he was slightly above the ordinary, his shoulders were broad, his limbs perfectly shaped and plainly muscular, but very slim. His head, which was magnificently set upon his shoulders, was adorned with a profusion of glossy black hair; his face was destitute of beard or moustache, and was of oval shape and handsome moulding; while his skin was of a dark olive hue, a colour which harmonized well with his piercing black eyes and pearly teeth. His hands and feet were small, and the greatest dandy must have admitted that he was irreproachably dressed, with a neatness that bordered on the puritanical. In age he might have been anything from eight-and-twenty to forty; in reality he was thirty-three. He advanced into the room and walked with out-stretched hand directly across to where Eastover was standing by the fireplace.
"Mr. Eastover, I feel certain," he said, fixing his glittering eyes upon the man he addressed, and allowing a curious smile to play upon his face.
"That is my name, Dr. Nikola," the other answered with evident surprise. "But how on earth can you distinguish me from your other guests?"
"Ah! it would surprise you if you knew. And Mr. Prendergast, and Mr. Baxter. This is delightful; I hope I am not late. We had a collision in the Channel this morning, and I was almost afraid I might not be up to time. Dinner seems ready; shall we sit down to it?" They seated themselves, and the meal commenced. The Imperial Restaurant has earned an enviable reputation for doing things well, and the dinner that night did not in any way detract from its lustre. But, delightful as it all was, it was noticeable that the three guests paid more attention to their host than to his excellent menu. As they had said before his arrival, they had all had dealings with him for several years, but what those dealings were they were careful not to describe. It was more than possible that they hardly liked to remember them themselves.
When coffee had been served and the servants had withdrawn, Dr. Nikola rose from the table, and went across to the massive sideboard. On it stood a basket of very curious shape and workmanship. This he opened, and as he did so, to the astonishment of his guests, an enormous cat, as black as his master's coat, leaped out on to the floor. The reason for the saucer and jug of milk became evident.
Seating himself at the table again, the host followed the example of his guests and lit a cigar, blowing a cloud of smoke luxuriously through his delicately chiselled nostrils. His eyes wandered round the cornice of the room, took in the pictures and decorations, and then came down to meet the faces of his companions. As they did so, the black cat, having finished its meal, sprang on to his shoulder to crouch there, watching the three men through the curling smoke drift with its green blinking, fiendish eyes. Dr. Nikola smiled as he noticed the effect the animal had upon his guests.
"Now shall we get to business?" he said briskly.
The others almost simultaneously knocked the ashes off their cigars and brought themselves to attention. Dr. Nikola's dainty, languid manner seemed to drop from him like a cloak, his eyes brightened, and his voice, when he spoke, was clean cut as chiselled silver.
"You are doubtless anxious to be informed why I summoned you from all parts of the globe to meet me here to-night? And it is very natural you should be. But then, from what you know of me, you should not be surprised at anything I do."
His voice dropped back into its old tone of gentle languor. He drew in a great breath of smoke and then sent it slowly out from his lips again. His eyes were half closed, and he drummed with one finger on the table edge. The cat looked through the smoke at the three men, and it seemed to them that he grew every moment larger and more ferocious. Presently his owner took him from his perch, and seating him on his knee fell to stroking his fur, from head to tail, with his long slim fingers. It was as if he were drawing inspiration for some deadly mischief from the uncanny beast.
"To preface what I have to say to you, let me tell you that this is by far the most important business for which I have ever required your help. (Three slow strokes down the centre of the back, and one round each ear.) When it first came into my mind I was at a loss who to trust in the matter. I thought of Vendon, but I found Vendon was dead. I thought of Brownlow, but Brownlow was no longer faithful. (Two strokes down the back and two on the throat.) Then bit by bit I remembered you. I was in Brazil at the time. So I sent for you. You came. So far so good."
He rose, and crossed over to the fireplace. As he went the cat crawled back to its original position on his shoulder. Then his voice changed once more to its former business-like tone.
"I am not going to tell you very much about it. But from what I do tell you, you will be able to gather a great deal and imagine the rest. To begin with, there is a man living in this world to-day who has done me a great and lasting injury. What that injury is is no concern of yours. You would not understand if I told you. So we'll leave that out of the question. He is immensely rich. His cheque for L300,000 would be honoured by his bank at any minute. Obviously he is a power. He has had reason to know that I am pitting my wits against his, and he flatters himself that so far he has got the better of me. That is because I am drawing him on. I am maturing a plan which will make him a poor and a very miserable man at one and the same time. If that scheme succeeds, and I am satisfied with the way you three men have performed the parts I shall call on you to play in it, I shall pay to each of you the sum of L10,000. If it doesn't succeed, then you will each receive a thousand and your expenses. Do you follow me?"
It was evident from their faces that they hung upon his every word.
"But, remember, I demand from you your whole and entire labour. While you are serving me you are mine body and soul. I know you are trustworthy. I have had good proof that you are—pardon the expression—unscrupulous, and I flatter myself you are silent. What is more, I shall tell you nothing beyond what is necessary for the carrying out of my scheme, so that you could not betray me if you would. Now for my plans!"
He sat down again and took a paper from his pocket. Having perused it, he turned to Eastover.
"You will leave at once—that is to say, by the boat on Wednesday—for Sydney. You will book your passage to-morrow morning, first thing, and join her in Plymouth. You will meet me to-morrow evening at an address I will send you, and receive your final instructions. Good-night."
Seeing that he was expected to go, Eastover rose, shook hands, and left the room without a word. He was too astonished to hesitate or to say anything.
Nikola took another letter from his pocket and turned to Prendergast. "You will go down to Dover to-night, cross to Paris to-morrow morning, and leave this letter personally at the address you will find written on it. On Thursday, at half-past two precisely, you will deliver me an answer in the porch at Charing Cross. You will find sufficient money in that envelope to pay all your expenses. Now go!"
"At half-past two you shall have your answer. Good-night."
When Prendergast had left the room, Dr. Nikola lit another cigar and turned his attentions to Mr. Baxter.
"Six months ago, Mr. Baxter, I found for you a situation as tutor to the young Marquis of Beckenham. You still hold it, I suppose?"
"Is the father well disposed towards you?"
"In every way. I have done my best to ingratiate myself with him. That was one of your instructions."
"Yes, yes! But I was not certain that you would succeed. If the old man is anything like what he was when I last met him he must still be a difficult person to deal with. Does the boy like you?"
"I hope so."
"Have you brought me his photograph as I directed?"
"I have. Here it is."
Baxter took a photograph from his pocket and handed it across the table.
"Good. You have done very well, Mr. Baxter. I am pleased with you. To-morrow morning you will go back to Yorkshire——"
"I beg your pardon, Bournemouth. His Grace owns a house near Bournemouth, which he occupies during the summer months."
"Very well—then to-morrow morning you will go back to Bournemouth and continue to ingratiate yourself with father and son. You will also begin to implant in the boy's mind a desire for travel. Don't let him become aware that his desire has its source in you—but do not fail to foster it all you can. I will communicate with you further in a day or two. Now go."
Baxter in his turn left the room. The door closed. Dr. Nikola picked up the photograph and studied it.
"The likeness is unmistakable—or it ought to be. My friend, my very dear friend, Wetherell, my toils are closing on you. My arrangements are perfecting themselves admirably. Presently, when all is complete, I shall press the lever, the machinery will be set in motion, and you will find yourself being slowly but surely ground into powder. Then you will hand over what I want, and be sorry you thought fit to baulk Dr. Nikola!"
He rang the bell and ordered his bill. This duty discharged, he placed the cat back in its prison, shut the lid, descended with the basket to the hall, and called a hansom. The porter inquired to what address he should order the cabman to drive. Dr. Nikola did not reply for a moment, then he said, as if he had been thinking something out: "The Green Sailor public-house, East India Dock Road."
I DETERMINE TO TAKE A HOLIDAY.—SYDNEY, AND WHAT BEFEL ME THERE
First and foremost, my name, age, description, and occupation, as they say in the Police Gazette. Richard Hatteras, at your service, commonly called Dick, of Thursday Island, North Queensland, pearler, copra merchant, beche-de-mer and tortoiseshell dealer, and South Sea trader generally. Eight-and-twenty years of age, neither particularly good-looking nor, if some people are to be believed, particularly amiable, six feet two in my stockings, and forty-six inches round the chest; strong as a Hakodate wrestler, and perfectly willing at any moment to pay ten pounds sterling to the man who can put me on my back.
And big shame to me if I were not so strong, considering the free, open-air, devil-may-care life I've led. Why, I was doing man's work at an age when most boys are wondering when they're going to be taken out of knickerbockers. I'd been half round the world before I was fifteen, and had been wrecked twice and marooned once before my beard showed signs of sprouting. My father was an Englishman, not very much profit to himself, so he used to say, but of a kindly disposition, and the best husband to my mother, during their short married life, that any woman could possibly have desired. She, poor soul, died of fever in the Philippines the year I was born, and he went to the bottom in the schooner Helen of Troy, a degree west of the Line Islands, within six months of her decease; struck the tail end of a cyclone, it was thought, and went down, lock, stock, and barrel, leaving only one man to tell the tale. So I lost father and mother in the same twelve months, and that being so, when I put my cabbage-tree on my head it covered, as far as I knew, all my family in the world.
Any way you look at it, it's calculated to give you a turn; at fifteen years of age, to know that there's not a living soul on the face of God's globe that you can take by the hand and call relation. That old saying about "blood being thicker than water" is a pretty true one, I reckon: friends may be kind—they were so to me—but after all they're not the same thing, nor can they be, as your own kith and kin.
However, I had to look my trouble in the face, and stand up to it as a man should, and I suppose this kept me from brooding over my loss as much as I should otherwise have done. At any rate, ten days after the news reached me, I had shipped aboard the Little Emily, trading schooner, for Papeete, booked for five years among the islands, where I was to learn to water copra, to cook my balances, and to lay the foundation of the strange adventures that I am going to tell you about.
After my time expired and I had served my Trading Company on half the mudbanks of the Pacific, I returned to Australia and went up inside the Great Barrier Reef to Somerset—the pearling station that had just come into existence on Cape York. They were good days there then, before all the new-fangled laws that now regulate the pearling trade had come into force; days when a man could do almost as he liked among the islands in those seas. I don't know how other folk liked it, but the life just suited me—so much so that when Somerset proved inconvenient and the settlement shifted across to Thursday, I went with it, and, what was more to the point, with money enough at my back to fit myself out with a brand-new lugger and full crew, so that I could go pearling on my own account.
For many years I went at it head down, and this brings me up to four years ago, when I was a grown man, the owner of a house, two luggers, and as good a diving plant as any man could wish to possess. What was more, just before this I had put some money into a mining concern on the mainland, which had, contrary to most ventures of the sort, turned up trumps, giving me as my share the nice round sum of L5,000. With all this wealth at my back, and having been in harness for a greater number of years on end than I cared to count, I made up my mind to take a holiday and go home to England to see the place where my father was born, and had lived his early life (I found the name of it written in the fly-leaf of an old Latin book he left me), and to have a look at a country I'd heard so much about, but never thought to set my foot upon.
Accordingly I packed my traps, let my house, sold my luggers and gear, intending to buy new ones when I returned, said good-bye to my friends and shipmates, and set off to join an Orient liner in Sydney. You will see from this that I intended doing the thing in style! And why not? I'd got more money to my hand to play with than most of the swells who patronize the first saloon; I had earned it honestly, and was resolved to enjoy myself with it to the top of my bent.
I reached Sydney a week before the boat was advertised to sail, but I didn't fret much about that. There's plenty to see and do in such a big place, and when a man's been shut away from theatres and amusements for years at a stretch, he can put in his time pretty well looking about him. All the same, not knowing a soul in the place, I must confess there were moments when I did think regretfully of the little island hidden away up north under the wing of New Guinea, of the luggers dancing to the breeze in the harbour, and the warm welcome that always awaited me among my friends in the saloons. Take my word for it, there's something in even being a leader on a small island. Anyway, it's better than being a deadbeat in a big city like Sydney, where nobody knows you, and your next-door neighbour wouldn't miss you if he never saw or heard of you again.
I used to think of these things as I marched about the streets looking in at shop windows, or took excursions up and down the harbour. There's no place like Sydney Harbour in the wide, wide world for beauty, and before I'd been there a week I was familiar with every part of it. Still, it would have been more enjoyable, as I hinted just now, if I had had a friend to tour about with me; and by the same token I'm doing one man an injustice.
There was one fellow, I remember, who did offer to show me round: I fell across him in a saloon in George Street. He was tall and handsome, and as spic and span as a new pin till you came to look under the surface. When he entered the bar he winked at the girl who was serving me, and as soon as I'd finished my drink asked me to take another with him. Seeing what his little game was, and wanting to teach him a lesson, I lured him on by consenting. I drank with him, and then he drank with me.
"Been long in Sydney?" he inquired casually, as he stroked his fair moustache.
"Just come in," was my reply.
"Don't you find it dull work going about alone?" he inquired. "I shall never forget my first week of it."
"You're about right," I answered. "It is dull! I don't know a soul, bar my banker and lawyer."
"Dear me!" (more curling of the moustache). "If I can be of any service to you while you're here, I hope you'll command me. I believe we're both Englishmen, eh?"
"It's very good of you," I replied modestly, affecting to be overcome by his condescension. "I'm just off to lunch. I am staying at the Quebec. Is it far enough for a hansom?" As he was about to answer, a lawyer, with whom I had done a little business the day before, walked into the room. I turned to my patronising friend and said, "Will you excuse me for one moment? I want to speak to this gentleman."
He was still all graciousness.
"I'll call a hansom and wait for you in it."
When he had left the saloon I spoke to the new arrival. He had noticed the man I had been talking to, and was kind enough to warn me against him.
"That man," he said, "bears a very bad reputation. He makes it his trade to meet new arrivals from England—weak-brained young pigeons with money. He shows them round Sydney, and plucks them so clean that, when they leave his hands, in nine cases out of ten, they haven't a feather left to fly with. You ought not, with your experience of rough customers, to be taken in by him."
"Nor am I," I replied. "I am going to teach him a lesson. Come with me."
Arm in arm we walked into the street, watched by Mr. Hawk from his seat in the cab. When we got there we stood for a moment chatting, and then strolled together down the pavement. Next moment I heard the cab coming along after us, and my friend hailing me in his silkiest tones; but though I looked him full in the face I pretended not to know him. Seeing this he drove past us—pulled up a little farther down and sprang out to wait for me.
"I was almost afraid I had missed you," he began, as we came up with him. "Perhaps as it is such a fine day you would rather walk than ride?"
"I beg your pardon," I answered. "I'm really afraid you have the advantage of me."
"But you have asked me to lunch with you at the Quebec. You told me to call a hansom."
"Pardon me again! but you are really mistaken. I said I was going to lunch at the Quebec, and asked you if it was far enough to be worth while taking a hansom. That is your hansom, not mine. If you don't require it any longer, I should advise you to pay the man and let him go."
"You are a swindler, sir. I refuse to pay the cabman. It is your hansom."
I took a step closer to my fine gentleman, and, looking him full in the face, said as quietly as possible, for I didn't want all the street to hear:
"Mr. Dorunda Dodson, let this be a lesson to you. Perhaps you'll think twice next time before you try your little games on me!"
He stepped back as if he had been shot, hesitated a moment, and then jumped into his cab and drove off in the opposite direction. When he had gone I looked at my astonished companion.
"Well, now," he ejaculated at last, "how on earth did you manage that?"
"Very easily," I replied. "I happened to remember having met that gentleman up in our part of the world when he was in a very awkward position—very awkward. By his action just now I should say that he has not forgotten the circumstance any more than I have."
That was the first of the only two adventures of any importance I met with during my stay in New South Wales. And there's not much in that, I fancy I can hear you saying. Well, that may be so, I don't deny it, but it was nevertheless through that that I became mixed up with the folk who figure in this book, and indeed it was to that very circumstance, and that alone, I owe my connection with the queer story I have set myself to tell. And this is how it came about.
Three days before the steamer sailed, and about four o'clock in the afternoon, I chanced to be walking down Castlereagh Street, wondering what on earth I should do with myself until dinner-time, when I saw approaching me the very man whose discomfiture I have just described. Being probably occupied planning the plucking of some unfortunate new chum, he did not see me. And as I had no desire to meet him again, after what had passed between us, I crossed the road and meandered off in a different direction, eventually finding myself located on a seat in the Domain, lighting a cigarette and looking down over a broad expanse of harbour.
One thought led to another, and so I sat on and on long after dusk had fallen, never stirring until a circumstance occurred on a neighbouring path that attracted my attention. A young and well-dressed lady was pursuing her way in my direction, evidently intending to leave the park by the entrance I had used to come into it. But unfortunately for her, at the junction of two paths to my right, three of Sydney's typical larrikins were engaged in earnest conversation. They had observed the girl coming towards them, and were evidently preparing some plan for accosting her. When she was only about fifty yards away, two of them walked to a distance, leaving the third and biggest ruffian to waylay her. He did so, but without success; she passed him and continued her walk at increased speed.
The man thereupon quickened his pace, and, secure in the knowledge that he was unobserved, again accosted her. Again she tried to escape him, but this time he would not leave her. What was worse, his two friends were now blocking the path in front. She looked to right and left, and was evidently uncertain what to do. Then, seeing escape was hopeless, she stopped, took out her purse, and gave it to the man who had first spoken to her. Thinking this was going too far, I jumped up and went quickly across the turf towards them. My footsteps made no sound on the soft grass, and as they were too much occupied in examining what she had given them, they did not notice my approach.
"You scoundrels!" I said, when I had come up with them. "What do you mean by stopping this lady? Let her go instantly; and you, my friend, just hand over that purse."
The man addressed looked at me as if he were taking my measure, and were wondering what sort of chance he'd have against me in a fight. But I suppose my height must have rather scared him, for he changed his tone and began to whine.
"I haven't got the lady's purse, s'help me, I ain't! I was only a asking of 'er the time!"
"Hand over that purse!" I said sternly, approaching a step nearer to him.
One of the others here intervened,—"Let's stowch 'im, Dog! There ain't a copper in sight!"
With that they began to close upon me. But, as the saying goes, "I'd been there before." I'd not been knocking about the rough side of the world for fifteen years without learning how to take care of myself. When they had had about enough of it, which was most likely more than they had bargained for, I took the purse and went to where the innocent cause of it all was standing. She was looking very white and scared, but she plucked up sufficient courage to thank me prettily.
I can see her now, standing there looking into my face with big tears in her pretty blue eyes. She was a girl of about twenty-one or two years of age—tall, but slenderly built, with a sweet oval face, bright brown hair, and the most beautiful eyes I have ever seen in my life. She was dressed in some dark green material, wore a fawn jacket, and, because the afternoon was cold, had a boa of marten fur round her neck. I can remember also that her hat was of some flimsy make, with lace and glittering spear points in it, and that the whole structure was surmounted by two bows, one of black ribbon, the other of salmon pink.
"Oh, how can I thank you?" she began, when I had come up with her. "But for your appearance I don't know what those men might not have done to me."
"I was very glad that I was there to help you," I replied, looking into her face with more admiration for its warm young beauty than perhaps I ought to have shown. "Here is your purse. I hope you will find its contents safe. At the same time will you let me give you a little piece of advice. From what I have seen this afternoon this is evidently not the sort of place for a young lady to be walking in alone and after dark. I don't think I would risk it again if I were you."
She looked at me for a moment and then said:
"You are quite right. I have only myself to thank for my misfortune. I met a friend and walked across the green with her; I was on my way back to my carriage—which is waiting for me outside—when I met those men. However, I can promise you that it will not happen again. I am leaving Sydney in a day or two."
Somehow, when I heard that, I began to feel glad I was booked to leave the place too. But of course I didn't tell her so.
"May I see you safely to your carriage?" I said at last. "Those fellows may still be hanging about on the chance of overtaking you."
Her courage must have come back to her, for she looked up into my face with a smile.
"I don't think they will be rude to me again, after the lesson you have given them. But if you will walk with me I shall be very grateful."
Side by side we proceeded down the path, through the gates and out into the street. A neat brougham was drawn up alongside the kerb, and towards this she made her way. I opened the door and held it for her to get in. But before she did so she turned to me and stretched out her little hand.
"Will you tell me your name, that I may know to whom I am indebted?"
"My name is Hatteras. Richard Hatteras, of Thursday Island, Torres Straits. I am staying at the Quebec."
"Thank you, Mr. Hatteras, again and again. I shall always be grateful to you for your gallantry!"
This was attaching too much importance to such a simple action, and I was about to tell her so, when she spoke again: "I think I ought to let you know who I am. My name is Wetherell, and my father is the Colonial Secretary. I'm sure he will be quite as grateful to you as I am. Good-bye."
She seemed to forget that we had already shaken hands, for she extended her own a second time. I took it and tried to say something polite, but she stepped into her carriage and shut the door before I could think of anything, and next moment she was being whirled away up the street.
Now old fogies and disappointed spinsters can say what they please about love at first sight. I'm not a romantic sort of person—far from it—the sort of life I had hitherto led was not of a nature calculated to foster a belief in that sort of thing. But if I wasn't over head and ears in love when I resumed my walk that evening, well, I've never known what the passion is.
A daintier, prettier, sweeter little angel surely never walked the earth than the girl I had just been permitted the opportunity of rescuing, and from that moment forward I found my thoughts constantly reverting to her. I seemed to retain the soft pressure of her fingers in mine for hours afterwards, and as a proof of the perturbed state of my feelings I may add that I congratulated myself warmly on having worn that day my new and fashionable Sydney suit, instead of the garments in which I had travelled down from Torres Straits, and which I had hitherto considered quite good enough for even high days and holidays. That she herself would remember me for more than an hour never struck me as being likely.
Next morning I donned my best suit again, gave myself an extra brush up, and sauntered down town to see if I could run across her in the streets. What reason I had for thinking I should is more than I can tell you, but at any rate I was not destined to be disappointed. Crossing George Street a carriage passed me, and in it sat the girl whose fair image had exercised such an effect upon my mind. That she saw and recognized me was evidenced by the gracious bow and smile with which she favoured me. Then she passed out of sight, and it was a wonder that that minute didn't see the end of my career, for I stood like one in a dream looking in the direction in which she had gone, and it was not until two carts and a brewer's wagon had nearly run me down that I realized it would be safer for me to pursue my meditations on the side walk.
I got back to my hotel by lunch-time, and during the progress of that meal a brilliant idea struck me. Supposing I plucked up courage and called? Why not? It would be only a polite action to inquire if she were any the worse for her fright. The thought was no sooner born in my brain than I was eager to be off. But it was too early for such a formal business, so I had to cool my heels in the hall for an hour. Then, hailing a hansom and inquiring the direction of their residence, I drove off to Potts Point. The house was the last in the street—an imposing mansion standing in well-laid-out grounds. The butler answered my ring, and in response to my inquiry dashed my hopes to the ground by informing me that Miss Wetherell was out.
"She's very busy, you see, at present, sir. She and the master leave for England on Friday in the Orizaba."
"What!" I cried, almost forgetting myself in my astonishment. "You don't mean to say that Miss Wetherell goes to England in the Orizaba?"
"I do, sir. And I do hear she's goin' 'ome to be presented at Court, sir!"
"Ah! Thank you. Will you give her my card, and say that I hope she is none the worse for her fright last evening?"
He took the card, and a substantial tip with it, and I went back to my cab in the seventh heaven of delight. I was to be shipmates with this lovely creature! For four weeks or more I should be able to see her every day! It seemed almost too good to be true. Instinctively I began to make all sorts of plans and preparations. Who knew but what—but stay, we must bring ourselves up here with a round turn, or we shall be anticipating what's to come.
To make a long story short—for it must be remembered that what I am telling you is only the prelude to all the extraordinary things that will have to be told later on—the day of sailing came. I went down to the boat on the morning of her departure, and got my baggage safely stowed away in my cabin before the rush set in.
About three o'clock we hove our anchor and steamed slowly down the Bay. I had been below when the Wetherells arrived on board, so the young lady had not yet become aware of my presence. Whether she would betray any astonishment when she did find out was beyond my power to tell; at any rate, I know that I was by a long way the happiest man aboard the boat that day. However, I was not to be kept long in suspense. Before we had reached the Heads it was all settled, and satisfactorily so. I was standing on the promenade deck, just abaft the main saloon entrance, watching the panorama spread out before me, when I heard a voice I recognized only too well say behind me:
"Good-bye to you, dear old Sydney. Great things will have happened when I set eyes on you again."
Little did she know how prophetic were her words. As she spoke I turned and confronted her. For a moment she was overwhelmed with surprise, then, stretching out her hand, she said:
"Really, Mr. Hatteras, this is most wonderful. You are the last person I expected to meet on board."
"And perhaps," I replied, "I might with justice say the same of you."
She turned to a tall, white-bearded man beside her.
"Papa, I must introduce you to Mr. Hatteras. You will remember I told you how kind Mr. Hatteras was when those larrikins were rude to me in the Domain."
"I am sincerely obliged to you, Mr. Hatteras," he said, holding out his hand and shaking mine heartily. "My daughter did tell me, and I called yesterday at your hotel to thank you personally, but you were unfortunately not at home. Are you visiting Europe?"
"Yes; I'm going home for a short visit to see the place where my father was born."
"Are you then, like myself, an Australian native? I mean, of course, as you know, colonial born?" asked Miss Wetherell with a little laugh. The idea of her calling herself an Australian native in any other sense! The very notion seemed preposterous.
"I was born at sea, a degree and a half south of Mauritius," I answered; "so I don't know what you would call me. I hope you have comfortable cabins?"
"Very. We have made two or three voyages in this boat before, and we always take the same places. And now, papa, we must really go and see where poor Miss Thompson is. We are beginning to feel the swell, and she'll be wanting to go below. Good-bye for the present."
I raised my cap and watched her walk away down the deck, balancing herself as if she had been accustomed to a heaving plank all her life. Then I turned to watch the fast receding shore, and to my own thoughts, which were none of the saddest, I can assure you. For it must be confessed here—and why should I deny it?—that I was in love from the soles of my deck shoes to the cap upon my head. But as to the chance, that I, a humble pearler, would stand with one of Sydney's most beautiful daughters—why, that's another matter, and one that, for the present, I was anxious to keep behind me.
Within the week we had left Adelaide behind us, and four days later Albany was also a thing of the past. By the time we had cleared the Lewin we had all settled down to our life aboard ship, the bad sailors were beginning to appear on deck again, and the medium voyagers to make various excuses for their absences from meals. One thing was evident, that Miss Wetherell was the belle of the ship. Everybody paid her attention, from the skipper down to the humblest deck hand. And this being so, I prudently kept out of the way, for I had no desire to be thought to presume on our previous acquaintance. Whether she noticed this I cannot tell, but at any rate her manner to me when we did speak was more cordial than I had any right or reason to expect it would be. Seeing this, there were not wanting people on board who scoffed and sneered at the idea of the Colonial Secretary's daughter noticing so humble a person as myself, and when it became known what my exact social position was, I promise you these malicious whisperings did not cease.
One evening, two or three days after we had left Colombo behind us, I was standing at the rails on the promenade deck a little abaft the smoking-room entrance, when Miss Wetherell came up and took her place beside me. She looked very dainty and sweet in her evening dress, and I felt, if I had known her better, I should have liked to tell her so.
"Mr. Hatteras," said she, when we had discussed the weather and the sunset, "I have been thinking lately that you desire to avoid me."
"Heaven forbid! Miss Wetherell," I hastened to reply. "What on earth put such a notion into your head?"
"All the same I believe it to be true. Now, why do you do it?"
"I have not admitted that I do do it. But, perhaps, if I do seem to deny myself the pleasure of being with you as much as some other people I could mention, it is only because I fail to see what possible enjoyment you can derive from my society."
"That is a very pretty speech," she answered, smiling, "but it does not tell me what I want to know."
"And what is it that you want to know, my dear young lady?"
"I want to know why you are so much changed towards me. At first we got on splendidly—you used to tell me of your life in Torres Straits, of your trading ventures in the Southern Seas, and even of your hopes for the future. Now, however, all that is changed. It is, 'Good-morning, Miss Wetherell,' 'Good-evening, Miss Wetherell,' and that is all. I must own I don't like such treatment."
"I must crave your pardon—but——"
"No, we won't have any 'buts.' If you want to be forgiven, you must come and talk to me as you used to do. You will like the rest of the people I'm sure when you get to know them. They are very kind to me."
"And you think I shall like them for that reason?"
"No, no. How silly you are. But I do so want you to be friendly."
After that there was nothing for it but for me to push myself into a circle where I had the best reasons for knowing that I was not wanted. However, it had its good side: I saw more of Miss Wetherell; so much more indeed that I began to notice that her father did not quite approve of it. But, whatever he may have thought, he said nothing to me on the subject.
A fortnight or so later we were at Aden, leaving that barren rock about four o'clock, and entering the Red Sea the same evening. The Suez Canal passed through, and Port Said behind us, we were in the Mediterranean, and for the first time in my life I stood in Europe.
At Naples the Wetherells were to say good-bye to the boat, and continue the rest of their journey home across the Continent. As the hour of separation approached, I must confess I began to dread it more and more. And somehow, I fancy, she was not quite as happy as she used to be. You will probably ask what grounds I had for believing that a girl like Miss Wetherell would take any interest in a man like myself; and it is a question I can no more answer than I can fly. And yet, when I came to think it all out, I was not without my hopes.
We were to reach port the following morning. The night was very still, the water almost unruffled. Somehow it came about that Miss Wetherell and I found ourselves together in the same sheltered spot where she had spoken to me on the occasion referred to before. The stars in the east were paling, preparatory to the rising of the moon. I glanced at my companion as she leant against the rails scanning the quiet sea, and noticed the sweet wistfulness of her expression. Then, suddenly, a great desire came over me to tell her of my love. Surely, even if she could not return it, there would be no harm in letting her know how I felt towards her. For this reason I drew a little closer to her.
"And so. Miss Wetherell," I said, "to-morrow we are to say good-bye; never, perhaps, to meet again."
"Oh, no, Mr. Hatteras," she answered, "we won't say that. Surely we shall see something of each other somewhere. The world is very tiny after all."
"To those who desire to avoid each other, perhaps, but for those who wish to find it is still too large."
"Well, then, we must hope for the best. Who knows but that we may run across each other in London. I think it is very probable."
"And will that meeting be altogether distasteful to you?" I asked, quite expecting that she would answer with her usual frankness. But to my surprise she did not speak, only turned half away from me. Had I offended her?
"Miss Wetherell, pray forgive my rudeness," I said hastily. "I ought to have known I had no right to ask you such a question."
"And why shouldn't you?" she replied, this time turning her sweet face towards me. "No, I will tell you frankly, I should very much like to see you again."
With that all the blood in my body seemed to rush to my head. Could I be dreaming? Or had she really said she would like to see me again? I would try my luck now whatever came of it.
"You cannot think how pleasant our intercourse has been to me," I said. "And now I have to go back to my lonely, miserable existence again."
"But you should not say that; you have your work in life!"
"Yes, but what is that to me when I have no one to work for? Can you conceive anything more awful than my loneliness? Remember, as far as I know I am absolutely without kith and kin. There is not a single soul to care for me in the whole world—not one to whom my death would be a matter of the least concern."
"Oh, don't—don't say that!" Her voice faltered so that I turned from the sea and contemplated her.
"It is true, Miss Wetherell, bitterly true."
"It is not true. It cannot be true!"
"If only I could think it would be some little matter of concern to you I should go back to my work with a happier heart."
Again she turned her face from me. My arm lay beside hers upon the bulwarks, and I could feel that she was trembling. Brutal though it may seem to say so, this gave me fresh courage. I said slowly, bending my face a little towards her:
"Would it affect you, Phyllis?"
One little hand fell from the bulwarks to her side, and I took possession of it. She did not appear to have heard my question, so I repeated it. Then her head went down upon the bulwarks, but not before I had caught the whispered "yes" that escaped her lips.
Before she could guess what was going to happen, I had taken her in my arms and smothered her face with kisses. Nor did she offer any resistance. I knew the whole truth now. She was mine, she loved me—me—me—me! The whole world seemed to re-echo the news, the very sea to ring with it, and just as I learned from her own dear lips the story of her love, the great moon rose as if to listen. Can you imagine my happiness, my delight? She was mine, this lovely girl, my very own! bound to me by all the bonds of love. Oh, happy hour! Oh, sweet delight! I pressed her to my heart again and again. She looked into my face and then away from me, her sweet eyes suffused with tears, then suddenly her expression changed. I turned to see what ailed her, and to my discomfiture discovered her father stalking along the silent deck towards us.
Whispering to her to leave us, she sped away, and I was left alone with her angry parent. That he was angry I judged from his face; nor was I wrong in my conjecture.
"Mr. Hatteras," he said severely, "pray what does this mean? How is it that I find you in this undignified position with my daughter?"
"Mr. Wetherell," I answered, "I can see that an explanation is due to you. Just before you came up I was courageous enough to tell your daughter that I loved her. She has been generous enough to inform me that she returns my affection. And now the best course for me to pursue is to ask your permission to make her my wife."
"You presume, sir, upon the service you rendered my daughter in Sydney. I did not think you would follow it up in this fashion."
"Your daughter is free to love whom she pleases, I take it," I said, my temper getting a little the better of my judgment. "She has been good enough to promise to marry me—if I can obtain your permission. Have you any objection to raise?"
"Only one, and that one is insuperable! Understand me, I forbid it once and for all! In every particular—without hope of change—I forbid it!"
"As you must see it is a matter which affects the happiness of two lives, I feel sure you will be good enough to tell me your reasons?"
"I must decline any discussion on the matter at all. You have my answer, I forbid it!"
"This is to be final, then? I am to understand that you are not to be brought to change your mind by any actions of mine?"
"No, sir, I am not! What I have said is irrevocable. The idea is not to be thought of for a moment. And while I am on this subject let me tell you that your conduct towards my daughter on board this ship has been very distasteful to me. I have the honour to wish you a very good-evening."
"Stay, Mr. Wetherell," I said, as he turned to go. "You have been kind enough to favour me with your views. Now I will give you mine. Your daughter loves me. I am an honest and an industrious man, and I love her with my whole heart and soul. I tell you now, and though you decline to treat me with proper fairness, I give you warning that I intend to marry her if she will still have me—with your consent or without it!"
"You are insolent, sir."
"I assure you I have no desire to be. I endeavour to remember that you are her father, though I must own you lack her sense of what is fair and right."
"I will not discuss the question any further with you. You know my absolute decision. Good-night!"
With anger and happiness struggling in my breast for the mastery, I paced that deck for hours. My heart swelled with joy at the knowledge that my darling loved me, but it sank like lead when I considered the difficulties which threatened us if her father persisted in his present determination. At last, just as eight bells was striking (twelve o'clock), I went below to my cabin. My fellow-passenger was fast asleep—a fact which I was grateful for when I discovered propped against my bottle-rack a tiny envelope with my name upon it. Tearing it open I read the following:—
"MY OWN DEAREST,—
"My father has just informed me of his interview with you. I cannot understand it or ascribe a reason for it. But whatever happens, remember that I will be your wife, and the wife of no other.
"May God bless and keep you always. "Your own, "PHYLLIS.
"P.S.—Before we leave the ship you must let me know your address in London."
With such a letter under my pillow, can it be doubted that my dreams were good? Little I guessed the accumulation of troubles to which this little unpleasantness with Mr. Wetherell was destined to be the prelude!
Now that I come to think the matter out, I don't know that I could give you any definite idea of what my first impressions of London were. One thing at least is certain, I had never had experience of anything approaching such a city before, and, between ourselves, I can't say that I ever want to again. The constant rush and roar of traffic, the crowds of people jostling each other on the pavements, the happiness and the misery, the riches and the poverty, all mixed up together in one jumble, like good and bad fruit in a basket, fairly took my breath away; and when I went down, that first afternoon, and saw the Park in all its summer glory, my amazement may be better imagined than described.
I could have watched the carriages, horsemen, and promenaders for hours on end without any sense of weariness. And when a bystander, seeing that I was a stranger, took compassion upon my ignorance and condescended to point out to me the various celebrities present, my pleasure was complete. There certainly is no place like London for show and glitter, I'll grant you that; but all the same I'd no more think of taking up my permanent abode in it than I'd try to cross the Atlantic in a Chinese sampan.
Having before I left Sydney been recommended to a quiet hotel in a neighbourhood near the Strand, convenient both for sight-seeing and business, I had my luggage conveyed thither, and prepared to make myself comfortable for a time. Every day I waited eagerly for a letter from my sweetheart, the more impatiently because its non-arrival convinced me that they had not yet arrived in London. As it turned out, they had delayed their departure from Naples for two days, and had spent another three in Florence, two in Rome, and a day and a half in Paris.
One morning, however, my faithful watch over the letter rack, which was already becoming a standing joke in the hotel, was rewarded. An envelope bearing an English stamp and postmark, and addressed in a handwriting as familiar to me as my own, stared me in the face. To take it out and break the seal was the work of a moment. It was only a matter of a few lines, but it brought me news that raised me to the seventh heaven of delight.
Mr. and Miss Wetherell had arrived in London the previous afternoon, they were staying at the Hotel Metropole, would leave town for the country at the end of the week, but in the meantime, if I wished to see her, my sweetheart would be in the entrance hall of the British Museum the following morning at eleven o'clock.
How I conducted myself in the interval between my receipt of the letter and the time of the appointment, I have not the least remembrance; I know, however, that half-past ten, on the following morning, found me pacing up and down the street before that venerable pile, scanning with eager eyes every conveyance that approached me. The minutes dragged by with intolerable slowness, but at length the time arrived.
A kindly church clock in the neighbourhood struck the hour, and others all round it immediately took up the tale. Before the last stroke had died away a hansom turned towards the gates from Bury Street, and in it, looking the picture of health and beauty, sat the girl who, I had good reason to know, was more than all the world to me. To attract her attention and signal to the driver to pull up was the work of a second, and a minute later I had helped her to alight, and we were strolling together across the square towards the building.
"Ah, Dick," she said, with a roguish smile, "you don't know what trouble I had to get away this morning. Papa had a dozen places he wished me to go to with him. But when I told him that I had some very important business of my own to attend to before I could go calling, he was kind enough to let me off."
"I'll be bound he thought you meant business with a dressmaker," I laughingly replied, determined to show her that I was not unversed in the ways of women.
"I'm afraid he did," she answered, blushing, "and I feel horribly guilty. But my heart told me I must see you at once, whatever happened."
Could any man desire a prettier speech than that? If so, I was not that man. We were inside the building by this time, ascending the great staircase.
As we entered the room at the top of the stairs, I thought it a good opportunity to ask the question I had been longing to put to her.
"Phyllis, my sweetheart," I said, with a tremor in my voice, "it is a fortnight now since I spoke to you. You have had plenty of time to consider our position. Have you regretted giving me your love?"
We came to a standstill, and leant over a case together, but what it contained I'm sure I haven't the very vaguest idea.
She looked up into my face with a sweet smile.
"Not for one single instant, Dick! Having once given you my love, is it likely I should want it back again?"
"I don't know. Somehow I can't discover sufficient reason for your giving it to me at all."
"Well, be sure I'm not going to tell you. You might grow conceited. Isn't it sufficient that I do love you, and that I am not going to give you up, whatever happens?"
"More than sufficient," I answered solemnly. "But, Phyllis, don't you think I can induce your father to relent? Surely as a good parent he must be anxious to promote your happiness at any cost to himself?"
"I can't understand it at all. He has been so devoted to me all my life that his conduct now is quite inexplicable. Never once has he denied me anything I really set my heart upon, and he always promised me that I should be allowed to marry whomsoever I pleased, provided he was a good and honourable man, and one of whom he could in any way approve. And you are all that, Dick, or I shouldn't have loved you, I know."
"I don't think I'm any worse than the ordinary run of men, dearest, if I am no better. At any rate I love you with a true and honourable love. But don't you think he will come round in time?"
"I'm almost afraid not. He referred to it only yesterday, and seemed quite angry that I should have dared to entertain any thought of you after what he said to me on board ship. It was the first time in my life he ever spoke to me in such a tone, and I felt it keenly. No, Dick, there is something behind it all that I cannot understand. Some mystery that I would give anything to fathom. Papa has not been himself ever since we started for England. Indeed, his very reason for coming at all is an enigma to me. And now that he is here, he seems in continual dread of meeting somebody—but who that somebody is, and why my father, who has the name and reputation of being such a courageous, determined, honourable man, should be afraid, is a thing I cannot understand."
"It's all very mysterious and unfortunate. But surely something can be done? Don't you think if I were to see him again, and put the matter more plainly before him, something might be arranged?"
"It would be worse than useless at present, I fear. No, you must just leave it to me, and I'll do my best to talk him round. Ever since my mother died I have been as his right hand, and it will be strange if he does not listen to me and see reason in the end."
Seeing who it was that would plead with him I did not doubt it.
By this time we had wandered through many rooms and now found ourselves in the Egyptian Department, surrounded by embalmed dead folk and queer objects of all sorts and descriptions. There was something almost startling about our love-making in such a place, among these men and women, whose wooings had been conducted in a country so widely different to ours, and in an age that was dead and gone over two thousand years ere we were born. I spoke of this to Phyllis. She laughed and gave a little shiver.
"I wonder," she said, looking down on the swathed-up figure of a princess of the royal house of Egypt, lying stretched out in the case beside which we sat, "if this great lady, who lies so still and silent now, had any trouble with her love affair?"
"Perhaps she had more than one beau to her string, and not being allowed to have one took the other," I answered; "though from what we can see of her now she doesn't look as if she were ever capable of exercising much fascination, does she?"
As I spoke I looked from the case to the girl and compared the swaddled-up figure with the healthy, living, lovely creature by my side. But I hadn't much time for comparison. My sweetheart had taken her watch from her pocket and was glancing at the dial.
"A quarter to twelve!" she cried in alarm, "Oh, Dick, I must be going. I promised to meet papa at twelve, and I must not keep him waiting."
She rose and was about to pull on her gloves. But before she had time to do so I had taken a little case from my pocket and opened it. When she saw what it contained she could not help a little womanly cry of delight.
"Oh, Dick! you naughty, extravagant boy!"
"Why, dearest? Why naughty or extravagant to give the woman I love a little token of my affection?" As I spoke I slipped the ring over her pretty ringer and raised the hand to my lips.
"Will you try," I said, "whenever you look at that ring, to remember that the man who gave it to you loves you with his whole heart and soul, and will count no trouble too great, or no exertion too hard, to make you happy?"
"I will remember," she said solemnly, and when I looked I saw that tears stood in her eyes. She brushed them hastily away, and after an interlude which it hardly becomes me to mention here, we went down the stairs again and out into the street, almost in silence.
Having called a cab, I placed her in it and nervously asked the question that had been sometime upon my mind:—"When shall I see you again?"
"I cannot tell," she answered. "Perhaps next week. But I'll let you know. In the meantime don't despair; all will come right yet. Good-bye."
"Good-bye and God bless you!"
Having seen the last of her I wandered slowly down the pavement towards Oxford Street, then turning to my left hand, made my way citywards. My mind was full of my interview with the sweet girl who had just left me, and I wandered on and on, wrapped in my own thoughts, until I found myself in a quarter of London into which I had never hitherto penetrated. The streets were narrow, and, as if to be in keeping with the general air of gloom, the shops were small and their wares of a peculiarly sordid nature.
A church clock somewhere in the neighbourhood struck "One," and as I was beginning to feel hungry, and knew myself to be a long way from my hotel, I cast about me for a lunching-place. But it was some time before I encountered the class of restaurant I wanted. When I did it was situated at the corner of two streets, carried a foreign name over the door, and, though considerably the worse for wear, presented a cleaner appearance than any other I had as yet experienced.
Pushing the door open I entered. An unmistakable Frenchman, whose appearance, however, betokened long residence in England, stood behind a narrow counter polishing an absinthe glass. He bowed politely and asked my business.
"Can I have lunch?" I asked.
"Oui, monsieur! Cer-tain-lee. If monsieur will walk upstairs I will take his order."
Waving his hand in the direction of a staircase in the corner of the shop he again bowed elaborately, while I, following the direction he indicated, proceeded to the room above. It was long and lofty, commanded an excellent view of both thoroughfares, and was furnished with a few inferior pictures, half a dozen small marble-top tables, and four times as many chairs.
When I entered three men were in occupation. Two were playing chess at a side table, while the third, who had evidently no connection with them, was watching the game from a distance, at the same time pretending to be absorbed in his paper. Seating myself at a table near the door, I examined the bill of fare, selected my lunch, and in order to amuse myself while it was preparing, fell to scrutinizing my companions.
Of the chess-players, one was a big, burly fellow, with enormous arms, protruding rheumy eyes, a florid complexion, and a voluminous red beard. His opponent was of a much smaller build, with pale features, a tiny moustache, and watery blue eyes. He wore a pince-nez, and from the length of his hair and a dab of crimson lake upon his shirt cuff, I argued him an artist.
Leaving the chess-players, my eyes lighted on the stranger on the other side. He was more interesting in every way. Indeed, I was surprised to see a man of his stamp in the house at all. He was tall and slim, but exquisitely formed, and plainly the possessor of enormous strength. His head, if only from a phrenological point of view, was a magnificent one, crowned with a wealth of jet-black hair. His eyes were dark as night, and glittered like those of a snake. His complexion was of a decidedly olive hue, though, as he sat in the shadow of the corner, it was difficult to tell this at first sight.
But what most fascinated me about this curious individual was the interest he was taking in the game the other men were playing. He kept his eyes fixed upon the board, looked anxiously from one to the other as a move trembled in the balance, smiled sardonically when his desires were realized, and sighed almost aloud when a mistake was made.
Every moment I expected his anxiety or disappointment to find vent in words, but he always managed to control himself. When he became excited I noticed that his whole body quivered under its influence, and once when the smaller of the players made an injudicious move a look flew into his face that was full of such malignant intensity that I'll own I was influenced by it. What effect it would have had upon the innocent cause of it all, had he seen it, I should have been sorry to conjecture.
Just as my lunch made its appearance the game reached a conclusion, and the taller of the two players, having made a remark in German, rose to leave. It was evident that the smaller man had won, and in an excess of pride, to which I gathered his nature was not altogether a stranger, he looked round the room as if in defiance.
Doing so, his eyes met those of the man in the corner. I glanced from one to the other, but my gaze rested longest on the face of the smaller man. So fascinated did he seem to be by the other's stare that his eyes became set and stony. It was just as if he were being mesmerized. The person he looked at rose, approached him, sat down at the table and began to arrange the men on the board. Then he looked up again.
"May I have the pleasure of giving you a game?" he asked in excellent English, bowing slightly as he spoke, and moving a pawn with his long white fingers.
The little man found voice enough to murmur an appropriate reply, and they began their game, while I turned to my lunch. But, in spite of myself, I found my eyes continually reverting to what was happening at the other table. And, indeed, it was a curious sight I saw there. The tall man had thrown himself into the business of the game, heart and soul. He half sat, half crouched over the board, reminding me of a hawk hovering over a poultry yard.
His eyes were riveted first on the men before him and then on his opponent—his long fingers twitched and twined over each move, and seemed as if they would never release their hold. Not once did he speak, but his attitude was more expressive than any words.
The effect on the little man, his companion, was overwhelming. He was quite unable to do anything, but sat huddled up in his chair as if terrified by his demoniacal companion. The result even a child might have foreseen. The tall man won, and the little man, only too glad to have come out of the ordeal with a whole skin, seized his hat and, with a half-uttered apology, darted from the room.
For a moment or two his extraordinary opponent sat playing with the chessmen. Then he looked across at me and without hesitation said, accompanying his remark with a curious smile, for which I could not at all account:—"I think you will agree with me that the limitations of the fool are the birth gifts of the wise!"
Not knowing what reply to make to this singular assertion, I wisely held my tongue. This brought about a change in his demeanour; he rose from his seat, and came across to where I sat. Seating himself in a chair directly opposite me, he folded his hands in his lap, after the manner of a demure old spinster, and, having looked at me earnestly, said with an almost indescribable sweetness of tone:—
"I think you will allow, Mr. Hatteras, that half the world is born for the other half to prey upon!"
For a moment I was too much astonished to speak; how on earth had he become aware of my name? I stumbled out some sort of reply, which evidently did not impress him very much, for he began again:—
"Our friend who has just left us will most certainly be one of those preyed upon. I pity him because he will not have the smallest grain of pleasure in his life. You, Mr. Hatteras, on the other hand, will, unwittingly, be in the other camp. Circumstances will arrange that for you. Some have, of course, no desire to prey; but necessity forces it on them. Yourself, for instance. Some only prey when they are quite sure there will be no manner of risk. Our German friend who played the previous game is an example. Others, again, never lose an opportunity. Candidly speaking, to which class should you imagine I belong?"
He smiled as he put the question, and, his thin lips parting, I could just catch the glitter of the short teeth with which his mouth was furnished. For the third time since I had made his acquaintance I did not know which way to answer. However, I made a shot and said something.
"I really know nothing about you," I answered. "But from your kindness in giving our artist friend a game, and now in allowing me the benefit of your conversation, I should say you only prey upon your fellow-men when dire extremity drives you to it."
"And you would be wrong. I am of the last class I mentioned. There is only one sport of any interest to me in life, and that is the opportunity of making capital out of my fellow humans. You see, I am candid with you, Mr. Hatteras!"
"Pray excuse me. But you know my name! As I have never, to my knowledge, set eyes on you before, would you mind telling me how you became acquainted with it?"
"With every pleasure. But before I do so I think it only fair to tell you that you will not believe my explanation. And yet it should convince you. At any rate we'll try. In your right-hand top waistcoat pocket you have three cards." Here he leant his head on his hands and shut his eyes. "One is crinkled and torn, but it has written on it, in pencil, the name of Edward Braithwaite, Macquarrie Street, Sydney. I presume the name is Braithwaite, but the t and e are almost illegible. The second is rather a high-sounding one—the Hon. Sylvester Wetherell, Potts Point, Sydney, New South Wales; and the third is, I take it, your own, Richard Hatteras. Am I right?"
I put my fingers in my pocket, and drew out what it contained—a half-sovereign, a shilling, a small piece of pencil, and three cards. The first, a well-worn piece of pasteboard, bore, surely enough, the name of Edward Braithwaite, and was that of the solicitor with whom I transacted my business in Sydney; the second was given me by my sweetheart's father the day before we left Australia; and the third was certainly my own.
Was this witchcraft or only some clever conjuring trick? I asked myself the question, but could give it no satisfactory answer. At any rate you may be sure it did not lessen my respect for my singular companion.
"Ah! I am right, then!" he cried exultingly. "Isn't it strange how the love of being right remains with us, when we think we have safely combated every other self-conceit. Well, Mr. Hatteras, I am very pleased to have made your acquaintance. Somehow I think we are destined to meet again—where I cannot say. At any rate, let us hope that that meeting will be as pleasant and successful as this has been."
But I hardly heard what he said. I was still puzzling my brains over his extraordinary conjuring trick—for trick I am convinced it was. He had risen and was slowly drawing on his gloves when I spoke.
"I have been thinking over those cards," I said, "and I am considerably puzzled. How on earth did you know they were there?"
"If I told you, you would have no more faith in my powers. So with your permission I will assume the virtue of modesty. Call it a conjuring trick, if you like. Many curious things are hidden under that comprehensive term. But that is neither here nor there. Before I go would you like to see one more?"
"Very much, indeed, if it's as good as the last!"
In the window stood a large glass dish, half full of water, and having a dark brown fly paper floating on the surface. He brought it across to the table at which I sat, and having drained the water into a jug near by, left the paper sticking to the bottom.
This done, he took a tiny leather case from his pocket and a small bottle out of that again. From this bottle he poured a few drops of some highly pungent liquid on to the paper, with the result that it grew black as ink and threw off a tiny vapour, which licked the edges of the bowl and curled upwards in a faint spiral column.
"There, Mr. Hatteras, this is a—well, a trick—I learned from an old woman in Benares. It is a better one than the last and will repay your interest. If you will look on that paper for a moment, and try to concentrate your attention, you will see something that will, I think, astonish you."
Hardly believing that I should see anything at all I looked. But for some seconds without success. My scepticism, however, soon left me. At first I saw only the coarse grain of the paper and the thin vapour rising from it. Then the knowledge that I was gazing into a dish vanished. I forget my companion and the previous conjuring trick. I saw only a picture opening out before me—that of a handsomely furnished room, in which was a girl sitting in an easy chair crying as if her heart were breaking. The room I had never seen before, but the girl I should have known among a thousand. She was Phyllis, my sweetheart!
I looked and looked, and as I gazed at her, I heard her call my name. "Oh, Dick! Dick! come to me!" Instantly I sprang to my feet, meaning to cross the room to her. Next moment I became aware of a loud crash. The scene vanished, my senses came back to me; and to my astonishment I found myself standing alongside the overturned restaurant table. The glass dish lay on the floor, shattered into a thousand fragments. My friend, the conjuror, had disappeared.
Having righted the table again, I went downstairs and explained my misfortune. When I had paid my bill I took my departure, more troubled in mind than I cared to confess. That it was only what he had called it, a conjuring trick, I felt I ought to be certain, but still it was clever and uncanny enough to render me very uncomfortable.
In vain I tried to drive the remembrance of the scene I had witnessed from my brain, but it would not be dispelled. At length, to satisfy myself, I resolved that if the memory of it remained with me so vividly in the morning I would take the bull by the horns and call at the Metropole to make inquiries.
I returned to my hotel in time for dinner, but still I could not rid myself of the feeling that some calamity was approaching. Having sent my meal away almost untouched, I called a hansom and drove to the nearest theatre, but the picture of Phyllis crying and calling for me in vain kept me company throughout the performance, and brought me home more miserable at the end than I had started. All night long I dreamed of it, seeing the same picture again and again, and hearing the same despairing cry, "Oh, Dick! Dick! come to me!"
In the morning there was only one thing to be done. Accordingly, after breakfast I set off to make sure that nothing was the matter. On the way I tried to reason with myself. I asked how it was that I, Dick Hatteras, a man who thought he knew the world so well, should have been so impressed with a bit of wizardry as to be willing to risk making a fool of myself before the two last people in the world I wanted to think me one. Once I almost determined to turn back, but while the intention held me the picture rose again before my mind's eye, and on I went more resolved to solve the mystery.
Arriving at the hotel, a gorgeously caparisoned porter, who stood on the steps, said in response to my inquiry:—
"They've left, sir. Started yesterday afternoon, quite suddenly, for Paris, on their way back to Australia!"
I VISIT MY RELATIONS
For the moment I could hardly believe my ears. Gone? Why had they gone? What could have induced them to leave England so suddenly? I questioned the hall porter on the subject, but he could tell me nothing save that they had departed for Paris the previous day, intending to proceed across the Continent in order to catch the first Australian boat at Naples.
Feeling that I should only look ridiculous if I stayed questioning the man any longer, I pressed a tip into his hand and went slowly back to my own hotel to try and think it all out. But though I devoted some hours to it, I could arrive at no satisfactory conclusion. The one vital point remained and was not to be disputed—they were gone. But the mail that evening brought me enlightenment in the shape of a letter, written in London and posted in Dover. It ran as follows:—
"MY OWN DEAREST.—Something terrible has happened to papa! I cannot tell you what, because I do not know myself. He went out this morning in the best of health and spirits, and returned half an hour ago trembling like a leaf and white as a sheet. He had only strength enough left to reach a chair in my sitting-room before he fainted dead away. When he came to himself again he said, 'Tell your maid to pack at once. There is not a moment to lose. We start for Paris this evening to catch the next boat leaving Naples for Australia.' I said, 'But papa!' 'Not a word,' he answered. 'I have seen somebody this morning whose presence renders it impossible for us to remain an instant longer in England. Go and pack at once, unless you wish my death to lie at your door.' After that I could, of course, say nothing. I have packed and now, in half an hour, we leave England again. If I could only see you to say good-bye; but that, too, is impossible. I cannot tell what it all means, but that it is very serious business that takes us away so suddenly I feel convinced. My father seems frightened to remain in London a minute longer than he can help. He even stands at the window as I write, earnestly scrutinizing everybody who enters the hotel. And now, my own——"
But what follows, the reiterations of her affection, her vows to be true to me, etc., etc., could have no possible interest for any one save lovers.
I sat like one stunned. All enjoyment seemed suddenly to have gone out of life for me. I could only sit twirling the paper in my hand and picturing the train flying remorselessly across France, bearing away from me the girl I loved better than all the world. I went down to the Park, but the scene there had no longer any interest in my eyes. I went later on to a theatre, but I found no enjoyment in the piece performed. London had suddenly become distasteful to me. I felt I must get out of it; but where could I go? Every place was alike in my present humour. Then one of the original motives of my journey rose before me, and I determined to act on the suggestion.
Next morning I accordingly set off for Hampshire to try, if possible, to find my father's old home. What sort of a place it would turn out to be I had not the very remotest idea.
Leaving the train at Lyndhurst Road—for the village I was in search of was situated in the heart of the New Forest—I hired a ramshackle conveyance from the nearest innkeeper and started off for it. The man who drove me had lived in the neighbourhood, so he found early occasion to inform me, all his seventy odd years, and it struck him as a humorous circumstance that he had never in his life been even as far as Southampton, a matter of only ten minutes by rail.
We had travelled a matter of two miles when it struck me to ask my charioteer about the place to which we were proceeding. It was within the bounds of possibility, I thought, that he might once have known my father. I determined to try him. So waiting till we had passed a load of hay coming along the lane, I put the question to him.
To my surprise, he had no sooner heard the name than he became as excited as it was possible for him to be.
"Hatteras!" he cried. "Be ye a Hatteras? Well, well, now, dearie me, who'd ha' thought it!"
"Do you know the name so well, then?"
"Ay! ay! I know the name well enough; who doesn't in these parts? There was the old Squire and Lady Margaret when first I remember. Then Squire Jasper and his son, the captain, as was killed in the mutiny in foreign parts—and Master James——"
"James—that was my father's name. James Dymoke Hatteras."
"You Master James' son—you don't say! Well! well! Now to think of that too! Him that ran away from home after words with the Squire, and went to foreign parts. Who'd have thought it! Sir William will be right down glad to see ye, I'll be bound."
"Sir William, and who's Sir William?"
"He's the only one left now, sir. Lives up at the House. Ah, dear! ah, dear! There's been a power o' trouble in the family these years past."
By this time the aspect of the country was changing. We had left the lane behind us, ascended a short hill, and were now descending it again through what looked to my eyes more like a stately private avenue than a public road. Beautiful elms reared themselves on either hand and intermingled their branches overhead; while before us, through a gap in the foliage, we could just distinguish the winding river, with the thatched roofs of the village, of which we had come in search, lining its banks, and the old grey tower of the church keeping watch and ward over all.
There was to my mind something indescribably peaceful and even sad about that view, a mute sympathy with the Past that I could hardly account for, seeing that I was Colonial born and bred. For the first time since my arrival in England the real beauty of the place came home upon me. I felt as if I could have looked for ever on that quiet and peaceful spot.