THE WHEEL O' FORTUNE
Author of "The Wings of the Morning," "The Pillar of Light," "The Captain of the Kansas" etc.
ILLUSTRATIONS BY JAMES MONTGOMERY FLAGG
CHAPTER I. WHEREIN FORTUNE TURNS HER WHEEL CHAPTER II. THE COMPACT CHAPTER III. A CHANGE OF SKY, BUT NOT OF HABIT CHAPTER IV. VON KERBER EXPLAINS CHAPTER V. MISS FENSHAWE SEEKS AN ALLY CHAPTER VI. AT THE PORTAL CHAPTER VII. MRS. HAXTON RECEIVES A SHOCK CHAPTER VIII. MASSOWAH ASSERTS ITSELF CHAPTER IX. A GALLOP IN THE DARK CHAPTER X. THE CALM BEFORE THE STORM CHAPTER XI. A WOMAN INTERVENES CHAPTER XII. STUMP DEPENDS ON OBSERVATION CHAPTER XIII. THE SIGN IN THE SKY CHAPTER XIV. WHEREIN A BISHARIN CAMEL BECOMES USEFUL CHAPTER XV. THE DESERT AWAKES CHAPTER XVI. A FLIGHT—AND A FIGHT CHAPTER XVII. HOW THREE ROADS LED IN ONE DIRECTION CHAPTER XVIII. THE FINDING OF THE TREASURE
LIST OF ILLUSTRATIONS
"By the Prophet!" he exclaimed, "I am overjoyed at seeing you" "I don't want your charity, I want work!" "Let your prisoner go, Mr. King" "Good morning, Mr. King," she cried "You need no promise from me, Miss Fenshawe" The Arab appraised Royson with critical eye He did not dare meet the glance suddenly turned upon him "Go, Dick, but come back to me in safety"
WHEREIN FORTUNE TURNS HER WHEEL
At ten o'clock on a morning in October—a dazzling, sunlit morning after hours of wind-lashed rain—a young man hurried out of Victoria Station and dodged the traffic and the mud-pools on his way towards Victoria Street. Suddenly he was brought to a stand by an unusual spectacle. A procession of the "unemployed" was sauntering out of Vauxhall Bridge Road into the more important street. Being men of leisure, the processionists moved slowly. The more alert pedestrian who had just emerged from the station did not grumble at the delay—he even turned it to advantage by rolling and lighting a cigarette. The ragged regiment filed past, a soiled, frayed, hopeless-looking gang. Three hundred men had gathered on the south side of the river, and were marching to join other contingents on the Thames Embankment, whence some thousands of them would be shepherded by policemen up Northumberland Avenue, across Trafalgar Square, and so, by way of Lower Regent Street and Piccadilly, to Hyde Park, where they would hoarsely cheer every demagogue who blamed the Government for their miseries.
London, like Richard Royson, would stand on the pavement and watch them. Like him, it would drop a few coins into the collecting boxes rattled under its nose, and grin at the absurd figure cut by a very fat man who waddled notably, among his leaner brethren, for hunger and substance are not often found so strangely allied. But, having salved its conscience by giving, and gratified its sarcastic humor by laughing, London took thought, perhaps, when it read the strange device on the banner carried by this Vauxhall contingent. "Curse your charity —we want work," said the white letters, staring threateningly out of a wide strip of red cotton. There was a brutal force in the phrase. It was Socialism in a tabloid. Many a looker-on, whose lot was nigh as desperate as that of the demonstrators, felt that it struck him between the eyes.
It had some such effect on Royson. Rather abruptly he turned away, and reached the less crowded Buckingham Palace Road. His face was darkened by a frown, though his blue eyes had a glint of humor in them. The legend on the banner had annoyed him. Its blatant message had penetrated the armor of youth, high spirits, and abounding good health. It expressed his own case, with a crude vigor. The "unemployed" genius who railed at society in that virile line must have felt as he, Dick Royson, had begun to feel during the past fortnight, and the knowledge that this was so was exceedingly distasteful. It was monstrous that he should rate himself on a par with those slouching wastrels. The mere notion brought its own confutation. Twenty-four years of age, well educated, a gentleman by birth and breeding, an athlete who stood six feet two inches high in his stockings, the gulf was wide, indeed, between him and the charity-cursers who had taken his money. Yet—the words stuck....
Evidently, he was fated to be a sight-seer that morning. When he entered Buckingham Palace Road, the strains of martial music banished the gaunt specter called into being by the red cotton banner. A policeman, more cheerful and spry than his comrades who marshaled the procession shuffling towards Westminster, strode to the center of the busy crossing, and cast an alert eye on the converging lines of traffic. Another section of the ever-ready London crowd lined up on the curb. Nursemaids, bound for the parks, wheeled their perambulators into strategic positions, thus commanding a clear view and blocking the edge of the pavement. Drivers of omnibuses, without waiting for the lifted hand of authority, halted in Lower Grosvenor Gardens and Victoria Street. Cabs going to the station, presumably carrying fares to whom time meant lost trains, spurted to cross a road which would soon be barred. And small boys gathered from all quarters in amazing profusion. In a word, the Coldstream Guards were coming from Chelsea Barracks to do duty at St. James's, coming, too, in the approved manner of the Guards, with lively drumming and clash of cymbals, while brass and reeds sang some jaunty melody of the hour.
The passing of a regimental band has whisked many a youngster out of staid Britain into the far lands, the lilt and swing of soldiers on the march have a glamour all the more profound because it is evanescent. That man must indeed be careworn who would resist it. Certainly, the broad-shouldered young giant who had been momentarily troubled by the white-red ghost of poverty was not so minded. He could see easily, over the heads of the people standing on the edge of the pavement, so he did not press to the front among the rabble, but stood apart, with his back against a shop window. Thus, he was free to move to right or left as he chose. That was a slight thing in itself, an unconscious trick of aloofness—perhaps an inherited trait of occupying his own territory, so to speak. But it is these slight things which reveal character. They oft-times influence human lives, too; and no man ever extricated himself more promptly from the humdrum of moneyless existence in London than did Richard Royson that day by placing the width of the sidewalk between himself and the unbroken row of spectators. Of course, he knew nothing of that at the moment. His objective was an appointment at eleven' o'clock in the neighborhood of Charing Cross, and, now that he was given the excuse, he meant to march along the Mall behind the Guards. Meanwhile, he watched their advance.
Above the tall bearskins and glittering bayonets he caught the flourish of energetic drumsticks. The big drum gave forth its clamor with window-shaking insistence; it seemed to be the summons of power that all else should stand aside. On they came, these spruce Guards, each man a marching machine, trained to strut and pose exactly as his fellows. There was a sense of omnipotence in their rhythmic movement. And they all had the grand manner—from the elegant captain in command down to the smallest drummer-boy. Although the sun was shining brightly now, the earlier rain and hint of winter in the air had clothed all ranks in dark gray great-coats and brown leggings. Hence, to the untrained glance, they were singularly alike. Officers, sergeants, privates and bandsmen might have been cast in molds, after the style of toy soldiers. There were exceptions, of course, just as the fat man achieved distinction among the unemployed. The crimson sashes of the officers, the drum-major, with his twirling staff, the white apron of the big drummer, drew the eye. A slim subaltern, carrying the regimental color, held pride of place in the picture. The rich hues of the silk lent a barbaric splendor to his sober trappings. And he took himself seriously. A good-looking lad, with smooth contours not yet hardened to the military type, his face had in it a set gravity which proclaimed that he would bear that flag whithersoever his country's need demanded. And it was good to see him so intent on the mere charge of it in transit between Chelsea Barracks and the Guard-room at St. James's Palace. That argued earnestness, an excellent thing, even in the Household Brigade.
Royson was amusing himself with the contrast between the two types of banner-bearers he had gazed at in the short space of five minutes—he was specially tickled by the fact that the Guards, also, were under police protection—when he became aware that the features of the color- lieutenant were familiar to him. A man in uniform, with forehead and chin partly hidden by warlike gear, cannot be recognized easily, if there be any initial doubt as to his identity. To determine the matter, Royson, instead of following in the rear as he had intended, stepped out brightly and placed himself somewhat ahead of the officer. He was near the drums before he could make sure that he was actually within a few yards of a former classmate. The knowledge brought a rush of blood to his face. Though glad enough to see unexpectedly one who had been a school friend, it was not in human nature that the marked difference between their present social positions should not be bitter to him. Here was "Jack" marching down the middle of the road in the panoply of the Guards, while "Dick" his superior during six long years at Rugby, was hurrying along the pavement, perhaps nearing the brink of that gulf already reached by the Vauxhall processionists.
So Dick Royson's placid temper was again ruffled, and he might have said nasty things about Fate had not that erratic dame suddenly thought, fit to alter his fortunes. As the street narrowed between lofty buildings, so did the blaring thunder of the music increase. The mob closed in on the soldiers' heels; the whole roadway was packed with moving men. A somber flood of humanity—topped by the drumsticks, the flag, the glistening bayonets and the bearskins—it seemingly engulfed all else in its path. The sparkle of the band, intensified by the quick, measured tramp of the soldiers, aroused a furtive enthusiasm. Old men, bearded and bent, men whom one would never suspect of having borne arms, straightened themselves, stood to attention, and saluted the swaying flag. Callow youths, hooligans, round-shouldered slouchers at the best, made shift to lift their heads and keep step. And the torrent caught the human flotsam of the pavement in its onward swirl. If Royson had not utilized that clear space lower down the street, it would have demanded the exercise of sheer force to reach the van of the dense gathering of nondescripts now following the drum.
Nevertheless, a clearance was made, and speedily, with the startling suddenness of a summer whirlwind. A pair of horses, attached to an open carriage, were drawn up in a by-street until the Guards had passed. So far as Royson was concerned, they were on the opposite side of the road, with their heads towards him. But he happened to be looking that way, because his old-time companion, the Hon. John Paton Seymour, was in the direct line of sight, and his unusual stature enabled him to see that both horses reared simultaneously. They took the coachman by surprise, and their downward plunge dragged him headlong from the box. Instantly there was a panic among the mob. It melted away from the clatter of frenzied hoofs as though a live shell had burst in the locality. Two staccato syllables from the officer in command stopped the music and brought the Guards to a halt. The horses dashed madly forward, barely missing the color and its escort. A ready-witted sergeant grabbed at the loose reins flapping in the air, but they eluded him with a snake-like twist. The next wild leap brought the carriage pole against a lamp-post, and both were broken. Then one of the animals stumbled, half turned, backed, and locked the front wheels. A lady, the sole occupant, was discarding some heavy wraps which impeded her movements, evidently meaning to spring into the road, but she was given no time. The near hind wheel was already off the ground. In another second the carriage must be overturned, had not Royson, brought by chance to the right place, seized the off wheel and the back of the hood, and bodily lifted the rear part of the victoria into momentary safety. It was a fine display of physical strength, and quick judgment. He literally threw the vehicle a distance of several feet. But that was not all. He saw his opportunity, caught the reins, and took such a pull at the terrified horses that a policeman and a soldier were able to get hold of their heads. The coachman, who had fallen clear, now ran up. With him came a gentleman in a fur coat. Royson was about to turn and find out what had become of the lady, when some one said quietly:
"Well saved, King Dick!"
It was the Hon. John Seymour who spoke. Rigid as a statue, and almost as helpless, he was standing in the middle of the road, with his left hand holding the flag and a drawn sword in his right. Yet a school nickname bridged five years so rapidly that the man who had just been reviling Fate smiled at the picturesque officer of the Guards in the old, tolerant way, the way in which the hero of the eleven or fifteen permits his worshipers to applaud.
But this mutual recognition went no further. The Guards must on to St. James's. Some incomprehensible growls set them in motion again, the drum banged with new zest, and the street gradually emptied, leaving only a few curious gapers to surround the damaged victoria and the trembling horses. The fresh outburst of music brought renewed prancing, but the pair were in hand now, for Royson held the reins, and the mud- bedaubed coachman was ready to twist their heads off in his wrath.
"Don't know what took 'em," he was gasping to the policeman. "Never knew 'em be'ave like this afore. Quiet as sheep, they are, as a ryule."
"Too fat," explained the unemotional constable. "Give 'em more work an' less corn. Wot's your name an' address? There's this 'ere lamp-post to pay for. Cavalry charges in Buckingham Palace Road cost a bit."
An appreciative audience grinned at the official humor. But Royson was listening to the somewhat lively conversation taking place behind him.
"Are you injured in any way?" cried the gentleman in the far coat, obviously addressing the lady in the victoria. The too accurate cadence in his words bespoke the foreigner, the man who has what is called "a perfect command" of English.
"Not in the least, thank you," was the answer. The voice was clear, musical, well-bred, and decidedly chilling. The two concluding words really meant "no thanks to you," The lady was, however, quite self- possessed, and, as a consequence, polite.
"But why in the world did you not jump out when I shouted to you?" demanded the man.
"Because you threw your half of the rug over my feet, and thus hindered me."
"Did I? Ach, Gott! Do you think I deserted you, then?"
"No, no, I did not mean that, Baron von Kerber. The affair was an accident, and you naturally thought I would follow your example, I did try, twice, to spring clear, but I lost my balance each time. We have no cause to blame one another. My view is that Spong was caught napping. Instead of arguing about things we might have done, we really ought to thank this gentleman, who prevented any further developments in some wonderful way not quite known to me yet."
The lady was talking herself into less caustic mood. Perhaps she had not expected the Baron to shine in an emergency. Her calmness seemed to irritate him, though he was most anxious to put himself right with her.
"My object in jumping out so quickly was to run to the horses' heads," he said. "Unfortunately, I tripped and nearly fell. But why sit there? We must take a hansom. Or perhaps you would prefer to go by train?"
"Oh, a cab, by all means."
The horses were now standing so quietly that Royson handed the reins to the coachman, who was examining the traces. Then he was able to turn and look at the lady. He saw that she was young and pretty, but the heavy furs she wore half concealed her face, and the fact that his own garments were frayed, while his hands and overcoat were plastered with mud off the wheels, did not help to dissipate a certain embarrassment that gripped him, for he was a shy man where women were concerned. She, too, faltered a little, and the reason was made plain by her words.
"I do not know how to thank you," she said, and he became aware that she had wonderful brown eyes. "I think—you saved my life. Indeed, I am sure you did. Will you—call—at an address that I will give you? Mr. Fenshawe will be most anxious to—to—acknowledge your services."
"Oh, pray leave that to me, Miss Fenshawe," broke in the Baron, whose fluent English had a slight lisp. "Here is my card," he went on rapidly, looking at Royson with calm assurance. "Come and see me this evening, at seven o'clock, and I will make it worth your while."
A glance at Royson's clothes told him enough, as he thought, to appraise the value of the assistance given. And he had no idea that his fair companion had really been in such grave danger. He believed that the shattering of the pole against the lamp standard had stopped the bolting horses, and that the tall young man now surveying him with a measuring eye had merely succeeded in catching the reins.
Royson lifted his hat to the lady, who had alighted, and was daintily gathering her skirts out of the mud.
"I am glad to have been able to help you, madam," he said. He would have gone without another word had not von Kerber touched his arm.
"You have not taken my card," said the man imperiously.
Some mischievous impulse, born of the turbulent emotions momentarily quelled by the flurry of the carriage accident, conquered Royson's better instincts. Though the Baron, was tall, he towered above him. And he hardly realized the harshness, the vexed contempt, of his muttered reply:
"I don't want your charity, I want work."
At once he was conscious of his mistake. He had sunk voluntarily to the level of the Vauxhall paraders. He had even stolen their thunder. A twinge of self-denunciation drove the anger from his frowning eyes. And the Baron again thought he read his man correctly.
"Even so," he said, in a low tone, "take my card. I can find you work, of the right sort, for one who has brains and pluck, yes?"
The continental trick of ending with an implied question lent a subtle meaning to his utterance, and he helped it with covert glance and sour smile. Thus might Caesar Borgia ask some minion if he could use a dagger. But Royson was too humiliated by his blunder to pay heed to hidden meanings. He grasped the card in his muddied fingers, and looked towards Miss Fenshawe, who was now patting one of the horses. Her aristocratic aloofness was doubly galling. She, too, had heard what he said, and was ready to classify him with the common herd. And, indeed, he had deserved it. He was wholly amazed by his own churlish outburst. Not yet did he realize that Fate had taken his affairs in hand, and that each step he took, each syllable he uttered in that memorable hour, were part and parcel of the new order of events in his life.
Quite crestfallen, he hurried away. He found himself inside the gates of the park before he took note of direction. Then he went to the edge of the lake, wetted his handkerchief, and rubbed off the worst of the mud-stains. While engaged in this task he calmed down sufficiently to laugh, not with any great degree of mirth, it is true, but with a grain of comfort at the recollection of Seymour's eulogy.
"King Dick!" he growled. "Times have changed since last I heard that name. By gad, five years can work wonders."
And, indeed, so can five seconds, when wonders are working, but the crass ignorance of humanity oft prevents the operation being seen. Be that as it may, Royson discovered that it was nearly eleven o'clock before he had cleaned his soiled clothes sufficiently to render himself presentable. As he set out once more for his rendezvous, he heard the band playing the old Guard back to quarters. The soldiers came down the Mall, but he followed the side of the lake, crossed the Horse-guards Parade, and reached the office for which he was bound at ten minutes past eleven. He had applied for a secretaryship, a post in which "a thorough knowledge of French" was essential, and he was received by a pompous, flabby little man, with side whiskers, for whom he conceived a violent dislike the moment he set eyes on him. Apparently, the feeling was mutual. Dick Royson was far too distinguished looking to suit the requirements of the podgy member for a county constituency, a legislator who hoped to score in Parliament by getting the Yellow Books of the French Chamber translated for his benefit.
"You are late, Mr. Royson," began the important one.
"Yes," said Dick.
"Exactly, but I was mixed up in a slight mishap to a carriage."
"As I was about to remark," said the M.P., in his most impressive manner, "punctuality in business is a sine qua non. I have already appointed another secretary."
"Poor devil!" said Dick.
"How dare you, sir, speak to me in that manner?"
"I was thinking of him. I don't know him, but, having seen you, I am sorry for him."
"You impudent rascal—"
But Royson had fled. Out in the street, he looked up at the sky. "Is there a new moon?" he asked himself, gravely. "Am I cracked? Why did I pitch into that chap? If I'm not careful, I shall get myself into trouble to-day. I wonder if Jack Seymour will lend me enough to take me to South Africa? They say that war is brewing there. That is what I want—gore, bomb-shells, more gore. If I stay in London—"
Then he encountered a procession coming up Northumberland Avenue. Police, mounted and on foot, headed it. Behind marched the unemployed, thousands of them.
"If I stay in London," he continued, quite seriously, "I shall pick out a beefy policeman and fight him. Then I shall get locked up, and my name will be in the papers, and my uncle will see it, and have a fit, and die. I don't want my uncle to have a fit, and die, or I shall feel that I am responsible for his death. So I must emigrate."
Suddenly he recalled the words and manner of the Baron von Kerber. They came to him with the vividness of a new impression. He sought for the card in his pocket. "Baron Franz von Kerber, 118, Queen's Gate, W.," it read.
"Sounds like an Austrian name," he reflected. "But the girl was English, a thoroughbred, too. What was it he said? 'Work of the right sort, for a man with brains and pluck.' Well, I shall give this joker a call. If he wants me to tackle anything short of crime, I'm his man. Failing him, I shall see Jack to-morrow, when he is off duty."
A red banner was staggering up Northumberland Avenue, and he caught a glimpse of a fat man in the midst of the lean ones.
"Oh, dash those fellows, they give me the hump," he growled, and he turned his back on them a second time. But no military pomp or startled horses offered new adventure that day. He wandered about the streets, ate a slow luncheon, counted his money, seventeen shillings all told, went into the British Museum, and dawdled through its galleries until he was turned out. Then he bought a newspaper, drank some tea, and examined the shipping advertisements.
His mind was fixed on South Africa. Somehow, it never occurred to him that the fur-clothed Baron might find him suitable employment. Nevertheless, he went to 118, Queen's Gate, at seven o'clock. The footman who opened the door, seemed to be expecting him.
"Mr. King?" said the man.
This struck Royson as distinctly amusing.
"Something like that," he answered, but the footman had the face of a waxen image.
"This way, Mr. King."
And Royson followed him up a wide staircase, marveling at the aptness of the name.
The Baron Franz von Kerber was in evening dress. He was engrossed in the examination of a faded, or discolored, document when Royson was shown into an apartment, nominally the drawing-room, which the present tenant had converted into a spacious study. An immense map of the Red Sea littoral, drawn and colored by hand, hung on one of the walls; there were several chart cases piled on a table; and a goodly number of books, mainly ancient tomes, were arranged on shelves or stacked on floor and chairs. This was the room of a worker. Von Kerber's elegant exterior was given a new element of importance by his surroundings.
That was as much as Royson could note before the Baron looked up from the letter he was reading. It demanded close scrutiny, because it was written in Persi-Arabic.
"Ah, glad to see you, Mr. King," he said affably. "Sit there," and he pointed to an empty chair. Dick knew that this seat in particular was selected because it would place him directly in front of a cluster of electric lights. He waited until the door was closed.
"By the way," he said, "why do you call me 'King'? That is not my name, but it is rather extraordinary that you should have hit on it, because it is part of a nickname I had at school."
He was fully at ease now. Poverty and anxiety can throw even a Napoleon out of gear, but Richard Royson was hard as granite in some ways, and the mere decision to go to South Africa had driven the day's distempered broodings from his mind.
"I thought I heard the officer who spoke to you in Buckingham Palace Road address you as King," explained von Kerber.
"Yes, that is true," admitted Royson. He felt that it would savor of the ridiculous, in his present circumstances, were he to state his nickname in full and explain the significance of it. In fact, he was resolved to accept the five-pound note which the Baron would probably offer him, and be thankful for it. Hence, the pseudonym rather soothed his pride.
Von Kerber placed the Arabic scrawl under a paperweight. He was a man who plumed himself on a gift of accurate divination. Such a belief is fatal. For the third time that day, he misunderstood the Englishman's hesitancy.
"What's in a name?" he quoted, smilingly. "Suppose I continue to call you King? It is short, and easily remembered, and your English names puzzle me more than your language, which is difficult enough, yes?"
"Then we can leave it at that," agreed Royson.
"I thought so. Well, to come to business. What can you do?"
"It would be better, perhaps, if you told me what you want me to do."
"Can you ride?"
"Have you ever been to sea?"
Royson pricked up his ears at this. "The sea!" suggested undreamed-of possibilities. And von Kerber certainly had the actor's facial art of conveying much more than the mere purport of his words. The map, the charts, assumed a new meaning. Were they scenic accessories? Had this foreigner taken the whim to send him abroad on some mission? He decided to be less curt in his statements.
"If I simply answered your question I should be compelled to say 'No,'" he replied. "So far as my actual sea-going is concerned, it has consisted of trips across the Channel when I was a boy. Yet I am a fair sailor. I can handle a small yacht better than most men of my age. My experience is confined to a lake, but it is complete in that small way. And I taught myself the rudiments of navigation as a pastime."
The Baron expressed both surprise and gratification by the monosyllable. Royson was weighing his companion closely now, and he came to the conclusion, that there were qualities in that tall, thin, somewhat effeminate personality which he had not detected during their brief meeting of the morning. Von Kerber was good-looking, with something of the dignity and a good deal of the aspect of a bird of prey. His slender frame was well-knit. His sinuous hands hinted at unexpected strength. Were Royson told that his possible employer was a master of the rapier he would have credited it. And the Baron, for his part, was rapidly changing the first-formed estimate of his guest.
"Pray forgive me if I seem to intrude on your personal affairs," he said; "but, taking your own words, you are—how do you say it— schlimm—aux abois—"
"Hard up. Yes."
"What? You speak German, or is it French?"
"German, a little. I am understandable in French."
Again von Kerber paused. Royson smiled. Had he striven to mislead the other man as to his character he could not have succeeded so admirably. And the Baron read the smile according to his own diagnosis. He was sure that this well-educated, gentlemanly, yet morose-mannered young Englishman was under a cloud—that he had broken his country's laws, and been broken himself in the process. And von Kerber was searching for men of that stamp. They would do things that others, who pinned their faith to testimonials, certificates, and similar vouchers of repute, might shy at.
"I think you are one to be trusted?" he went on.
"I am glad you think that."
"Yes. I soon make up my mind. And to-day you acted as one man among a thousand. Miss Fenshawe, the lady in the carriage, enlightened me afterwards. I saw only part of your fine behavior. You were quick and fearless. Those are the qualities I seek, but I demand obedience, too, and a still tongue, yes?"
"I would not betray a man who trusted me," said Dick. "If I disagreed with you I would leave you. I fell out with the son of my last employer, so I left him, a fortnight ago. Yet I have kept my reasons to myself."
The memory of that falling out was yet vivid. He had filled the position of foreign correspondence clerk to an export firm in the city. One evening, returning late to the office, he surprised the typist, a rather pretty girl, in tears. She blurted out some broken words which led him to interview the young gentleman who represented the budding talent of the house; and the result was lamentable. The senior partner dismissed him next day, telling him he was lucky he had escaped arrest for a murderous assault, and, as for the girl, she was like the rest of her class, anxious only to inveigle a rich young fool into marriage. The point of view of both father and son was novel to Royson, and their ethics were vile, but he gave the girl, who was sent away at the same time, half of the six pounds he had in his pocket, and wished he had used his fist instead of his open hand on the junior partner's face.
This, of course, had singularly little bearing on his declaration to von Kerber, who metaphorically stuck his talons into that portion of Royson's utterance which interested him. He bent across the table, leaning on his curved fingers, spread apart, like claws.
"Ah," he said slowly. "That is good. You would not betray a man who trusted you. You mean that?"
"Very well, then. I offer you the position of second mate on my yacht, the Aphrodite. She is a sailing vessel, with auxiliary steam, a seaworthy craft, of two hundred and eighty tons. I pay well, but I ask good service. The salary is L20 per month, all found. The captain, two officers, and fourteen men receive ten per cent of the gross profits of a certain undertaking—the gross profits, remember—divided in proportion to their wages. If successful, your share, small though it sounds, will be large enough to make you a comparatively rich man. Do you accept, yes?"
Dick Royson felt his heart thumping against his ribs. "Why, of course, I accept," he cried. "But your terms are so generous, to a man without a profession, that I must ask you one thing? Is the affair such as an honest man can take part in?"
"It is. No one can cavil at its honesty. Yet we may encounter difficulties. There may be fighting, not against a government, but to defend our—our gains—from those who would rob us."
"I'm with you, heart and soul," cried Royson, stirred out of his enforced calmness. "Indeed, I am exceedingly obliged to you. I am at a loss to account for my amazing good luck."
The Baron snapped his fingers with a fine air. "Good luck!" he exclaimed. "There is no such thing. A man with intelligence and nerve grasps the opportunity when it presents itself. You took it this morning. You may say that you might not have been given the chance. Nonsense, my dear Mr. King! Missing that, you would have found another. Let me tell you that I have created a place for you on the ship's roll. You took my fancy. I had already secured my crew. They are all Englishmen—stupid fellows, some of them, but trustworthy. You are a trustworthy race, yes?"
"That is our repute. I have met exceptions."
"Oh, as for that, every man has his price. That is why I pay well. Now, I am going out to dine. The Aphrodite sails this week. You. will sign an agreement, yes?"
"Delighted," said Dick, though bitter experience had taught him that von Kerber's last question might reveal some disagreeable feature hitherto unseen, just as the sting of the scorpion lies in its tail.
The Baron handed him a printed document.
"Read that," he said. "You need have no fear of legal quibbles. It contains nothing unreasonable, but I insist on its observance in letter and spirit."
Certainly, no unfair demand was made by the brief contract which Royson glanced at. He noticed that the Aphrodite was described as "owned by Hiram Fenshawe, Esq., of Chalfount Manor, Dorset, and Emperor's Gate, London, W.," while Baron Franz von Kerber figured as "controller and head of the expedition." The agreement was to hold good for six months, with an option, "vesting solely in the said Baron Franz von Kerber," to extend it, month by month, for another equal period. There were blanks for dates and figures—, and one unusual clause read:
"The undersigned hereby promises not to divulge the vessel's destination or mission, should either, or both, become known to him; not to give any information which may lead to inquiry being made by others as to her destination or mission, and not to make any statement, in any form whatsoever, as to the success or otherwise of the voyage at its conclusion, unless at the request of the said Baron Franz von Kerber. The penalty for any infringement of this clause, of which Baron Franz von Kerber shall be the judge, shall be dismissal, without any indemnity or payment of the special bonus hereinafter recited."
Then followed the salary clause, and a stipulation as to the ten per cent share of the gross profits. The Baron's promises could not have been phrased in more straightforward style.
"Give me a pen," said Royson, placing the paper on a blotting pad.
There was an unconscious masterfulness in his voice and manner which seemed to startle von Kerber. In very truth, the younger man was overjoyed at the astounding turn taken by his fortunes. The restraint he had imposed on himself earlier was gone. He wanted to wring the Baron's hand and hail him as his best friend. Perhaps the other deemed this attitude a trifle too free and easy in view of the relations that would exist between them in the near future.
"You will find a pen on the ink-stand," said he, quietly, stooping, over some papers on a corner of the table. Then he added, apparently as an afterthought:
"Don't forget your name, Mr. King."
The hint brought Royson back to earth. He signed "Richard King," dried the ink carefully, and marveled a little at his re-christening and its sequel.
"When and where shall I report myself for duty, sir?" he asked.
Von Kerber looked up. His tone grew affable again, and Dick had learnt already that it is a token of weakness when a man insists on his own predominance.
"First let me fill in a date and the amount of your salary." The Baron completed and signed a duplicate. "Get that stamped at Somerset House, in case of accident," he continued, "I might have been killed this very day, you know. One of my servants will witness both documents. Before he comes in, put this envelope in your pocket. It contains half of your first month's salary in advance, and you will find in it a card with the address of a firm of clothiers, who will supply your outfit free of charge. Call on them early to-morrow, as the time is short, and you are pretty long, yes? Report yourself to the same people at four o'clock on Wednesday afternoon. They will have your baggage ready, and give you full directions. From that moment you are in my service. And now, the order is silence, yes?"
While the Baron was speaking he touched an electric bell. The waxen- faced man-servant appeared, laboriously wrote "William Jenkins" where he was bid, and escorted Royson to the door. The Baron merely nodded when Dick said "Good night, sir." He had picked up an opera hat and overcoat from a chair, but was bestowing a hasty farewell glance on the Persi-Arabic letter.
A closed carriage and pair of horses were standing in front of the house, and Royson recognized the coachman. It was that same Spong who had groveled in the mud of Buckingham Palace Road nine hours ago. And the man knew him again, for he raised his whip in a deferential salute.
"Not much damage done this morning?" cried Dick.
"No, sir. I drove 'em home afterwards, broken pole an' all," said Spong.
"That's not the same pair, is it?"
"No, sir. This lot is theayter, the bays is park."
So Mr. Hiram Fenshawe, whoever he was, owned the yacht, and ran at least two fine equipages from his town house. He must be a wealthy man. Was he the father of that patrician maid whose gratitude had not stood the strain of Royson's gruffness? Or, it might be, her brother, seeing that he was associated with von Kerber in some unusual enterprise? What was it? he wondered. "There may be fighting," said von Kerber. Dick was glad of that. He had taken a solemn vow to his dying mother that he would not become a soldier, and the dear lady died happy in the belief that she had snatched her son from the war-dragon which had bereft her of a husband. The vow lay heavy on the boy's heart daring many a year, for he was a born man-at-arms, but he had kept it, and meant to keep it, though not exactly according to the tenets of William Penn. Somehow, his mother's beautiful face, wanly exquisite in that unearthly light which foreshadows the merging of time into eternity, rose before him now as he passed from the aristocratic dimness of Prince's Gate into the glare and bustle of Knightsbridge. A newsboy rushed along, yelling at the top of his voice. The raucous cry took shape: "Kroojer's reply. Lytest from Sarth Hafricar." That day's papers had spoken of probable war, and Royson wanted to be there. He had dreamed of doing some work for the press, and was a reader and writer in his spare time, while he kept his muscles fit by gymnastics. But those past yearnings were merged in his new calling. He was a sailor now, a filibuster of sorts. The bo's'n's whistle would take the place of the bugle-call. Would that have pleased his mother? Well, poor soul, she had never imagined that her son would be compelled to chafe his life out at a city desk. The very, air of London had become oppressive; the hurrying crowd was unsympathetic to his new-found joy of living; so, without any well-defined motive, he sought the ample solitude of the park.
Be it noted that he usually went straight from point to point without regard to obstacles. Hence, in his devious wanderings of that remarkable day, he was departing from fixed habit, and, were he a student of astrology, he would assuredly have sought to ascertain what planets were in the ascendant at a quarter-past ten in the morning, and half-past seven in the evening. For he had scarcely reached the quiet gloom of the trees when a man, who had followed him since he quitted von Kerber's house, overtook him and touched his arm.
"Beg pardon," said the stranger, "but are you the gentleman who called on Baron von Kerber half an hour ago?"
"Yes." Taken unawares, Dick was thrown off his guard for the instant.
"And you left his house just now?"
"To prevent a mistake, may I ask your name?"
"Certainly. It is Royson, Richard Royson."
A curious ring of satisfaction in the newcomer's voice carried a warning note with it. Dick was conscious, too, that he had departed from the new role assigned to him by his employer, yet it would be absurd to begin explaining that he was not known as Royson, but as King, in connection with von Kerber. The blunder annoyed him, and he faced his questioner squarely.
"Before I give you any more information I want to know who you are," he said.
His downright way of speaking appeared to carry conviction.
"Well, Mr. Royson, I don't mind telling you that I am a private inquiry agent," was the ominous answer. "I am retained by a gentleman who brings a very serious charge against von Kerber, and, as I have reason to believe that you are only slightly mixed up in this affair at present, I am commissioned to offer you a handsome reward for any valuable information you may give my client or procure for him in the future."
"Indeed!" said Dick, who was debating whether or not to knock the man down.
"Yes. We mean business, I assure you. This is no common matter. Von Kerber is an Austrian, and my client is an Italian. Perhaps you know how they hate each other as nations, and these two have a private quarrel as well."
"What does your employer want to find out?" asked Dick.
"Well, as a start, he wants to know why von Kerber is shipping a crew for a yacht called the Aphrodite."
"Then he has learned something already?"
"Oh, that was too easy. Any one can pump a half-drunken sailor."
The private inquiry agent spoke confidentially. He fancied he had secured the sort of aide he needed, a spy of superior intelligence.
"Suppose I give you that first item of news, what is the figure?"
"Say a fiver."
"But I am almost willing to pay that much for the pleasure of spreading your nose over your face."
There was a sudden gap between the two. Perhaps the stranger felt that the rawness of the atmosphere demanded brisk movement.
"Oh, is that it?" snarled he.
"Yes, that is it."
"You had better be careful what you are doing." Dick had advanced a pace, but the agent sheered off twice as far, as though the air between them was not only cold but resilient.
"I shall be quite careful. Just one small punch, say a sovereign's worth. Come, that is cheap enough."
Then the man ran off at top speed. Royson could have caught him in a few strides, but he did not move. He had not meant to hit, only to scare, yet the incident was perplexing, and the more he pondered over it the less pleased he was at his own lack of finesse, as he might have learnt something without fear of indiscretion, seeing that he had nothing to tell. Nevertheless, his final decision was in favor of the first impulse. Von Kerber had treated him with confidence—why should he wish to possess any disturbing knowledge of von Kerber?
But he refused to be shadowed like a thief. He stepped out, left the park at Stanhope Gate, jumped on to a passing omnibus, changed it for another in the middle of Oxford Street, and walked down. Regent Street with a well-founded belief that he had defeated espionage for the time. Thereafter, he behaved exactly like several hundred thousand young men In London that night. He dined, bought some cigars, rare luxuries to him, went to a music-hall, soon wearied of its inanities, and traveled by an early train to Brixton, where he rented cheap lodgings.
He slept the sleep of sound digestion, which is so often confused with a good conscience, and rose betimes. At a city tailoring establishment he was measured dubiously, being far removed from stock size. But a principal made light of difficulties, and Royson noticed that he was to be supplied with riding breeches and boots in addition to a sea-faring kit, while a sola topi, or pith helmet, appeared, in the list.
He asked no questions, was assured that all would be in readiness at four o'clock that day, and found himself turned loose again in London at an early hour with nothing to do. And what do you think he did? He caught a Mansion-House train to Victoria, waylaid the Guards a second time, marched with them valiantly to St. James's, and took a keen delight in their stately pageant. He saw his friend, Seymour, strolling to and fro with a brother officer in the tiny square, and watched him march; back to Chelsea with the relieved guard.
Then, with all the zest of seeing London from a new standpoint, that of moneyed idleness, he strolled towards Hyde Park. He took the road known as the Ladies' Mile, crossed the Serpentine by the bridge, and came back by the Row. There, near the Albert Gate crossing, a lady had reined in her chestnut hunter and was talking to an old gentleman standing near the rails. Had Royson stared at her, he might have remembered the eyes, and the finely-cut contours of nose, lips and chin. But his acquaintance with fashionable society had been severed so completely that he was not aware of the new code which permits its votaries to stare at a pretty woman; and a riding-habit offers sharp contrast to a set of sables. He was passing, all unconscious of the interest he had aroused in the lady, when he heard her say:
"Why, grandfather, there he is. Good morning, Mr. King. Mr. Fenshawe and I were just talking about you."
Royson would have known her voice anywhere. It had the rare distinction of music and perfect diction. Amidst the shrill vulgarity which counterfeited wit in the average upper class gathering of the period such a voice must have sounded like the song of a robin in a crowded rookery.
The unexpected greeting brought a rush of color to Dick's face. But yesterday's cloud had vanished, and his natural embarrassment was obviously that of a well-bred man young enough to be delighted by the recognition. Moreover, he was not covered with mud, nor had his sensibilities been jarred by standards representing the hell and heaven of modern existence.
He lifted his hat.
"I am glad to see you have experienced no ill effects from yesterday's shock, Miss Fenshawe," he said.
"Not in the least. It was a wonderful escape. Even the victoria leaves hospital this afternoon, I am told."
Mr. Fenshawe, whose silvery-white hair and wrinkled skin betokened an age that his erect, spare frame would otherwise have concealed, patted Royson's shoulder.
"You did well, Mr. King, very well. I am much beholden to you. And I was pleased to hear from Baron von Kerber last night that you have joined our expedition."
Though of middle height, Mr. Fenshawe had to raise his hand as high as his own forehead to reach Dick's back. His eyes were shrewd and keen, with the introspective look of the student. Though it was more than probable that he was very wealthy, judging from the meager details within Royson's ken, he had the semblance of a university professor rather than a millionaire.
"I think the good fortune is wholly mine, sir," said Dick, trying to answer both at once, and puzzled to determine how he could repudiate the name which von Kerber had fastened on to him.
"No, we will not put it that way," and the other seemed to sweep some confusing thought from before his mental vision. "Let us say that the reward will be commensurate with the deed. We do not forget, we Fenshawes, do we, Irene? Good day, Mr. King. I hope to make your better acquaintance. We shall see much of each other ere long."
Thus dismissed, with another friendly tap on the shoulder, Royson had no option but to raise his hat again. He received a very gracious smile from Miss Fenshawe, and he left the two with a curious consciousness that there was at least one woman in the world who had the power to send his blood whirling through his veins.
As he walked off under the trees, the eyes of grandfather and granddaughter followed him.
"A useful man that, for work in the desert," said Mr. Fenshawe.
"Yes. Quite a Crusader in appearance," mused the girl aloud.
The old man laughed noiselessly.
"I find you are only half persuaded as to the peaceable nature of our task, Irene," he said.
"I find it even more difficult to persuade you that Count von Kerber fears interference, grandad."
"My dear child, these foreigners are all nerves. Look at me. I have spent twenty years of my life among the Arabs, and felt safer there than in a London crowd."
"Yes, you dear old thing, but you are not Count von Kerber."
"Nerves, Irene, nothing else. At any rate, your Mr. King should adjust the average in that respect. And if you begin to talk of risk I shall have to reconsider my decision to take you with us."
The chestnut threw up his head, and pranced excitedly, having been warned that a gallop was imminent.
"No, you don't," laughed Irene. "If we Fenshawes do not forget, we also stick together. By-by. See you at lunch."
And she was gone, sitting her horse with the ease and sureness of one of those Arabs in whom her grandfather placed such confidence.
A CHANGE OF SKY, BUT NOT OF HABIT
Royson had time and to spare for the analysis of events during the remainder of the day. In spite of von Kerber's repudiation of luck, he believed that the fickle jade sometimes favored a man, and he counted himself thrice fortunate in having met with an adventure leading to such an unforeseen opening. He realized too, that had he been better dressed—were his words and manners modeled on smooth convention—he would not have received the offer of employment on board the Aphrodite. Looked at in cold blood, there was nothing sinister in von Kerber's wish to keep his business affairs private. If the Baron were mixed up in a quarrel with some unknown Italian, his association with people like Mr. Fenshawe and his granddaughter supplied a valid excuse for observing a certain secrecy.
To guess the nature of the yacht's mission was more difficult. Any reader of newspapers was aware that Morocco, Montenegro and Armenia, not to mention the political volcanoes of Finland, Poland, and Carlist centers in Spain, provided scope for international intrigue even in these prosaic days. But it was a vain thing to imagine that the Fenshawes would be involved in any wild-cat scheme of that sort. The natural sequel to this thought was—who were they? and the nearest Free Library answered promptly:
"Fenshawe, Hiram, C.M.G., 2d Class Osmanieh Hon. Fellow of Caius College, Cambridge, landowner and colliery proprietor, an enthusiastic Egyptologist, vice-President of Upper Egypt Exploration Society; has devoted immense sums of money and many years of his life to Egyptian archaeological research. His private collection of coins, pottery, gold, silver and bronze ornaments, and other works of art having special reference to the Roman occupation of Egypt, is probably unequaled.... Born at Liverpool, March 20, 1830; married, June 10, 1854. Hilda, daughter of Sir Adolphus Livingston, Nairn. Only son, Hildebrand, born April 27, 1856; married, December 20, 1880. Irene, 2d daughter of the late Dr. Alfred Stowell, LL.D., Master of Trinity Hall, Cambridge.... Mr. and Mrs. Hildebrand Fenshawe were lost in the wreck of the P. & O. liner Bokhara, off the Pescadores Islands, 1892, leaving one daughter, Irene Hildegarde, born February 11, 1882."
The book supplied other details, but Royson obtained from the foregoing extracts a sufficiently clear idea of the identity of the two people whom he had encountered in the park. Of course, he set his wits to work instantly to construct new avenues for the promised activity of the Aphrodite, but, these imaginings being as hopelessly mistaken as are most other human peeps into futurity, they served only to keep him on tenterhooks until he revisited the outfitters' establishment. There he was handed the keys of two large steel trunks, canvas-covered, and requested to assure himself that they contained all the articles set forth on a list. The manager also gave him a first-class ticket for Marseilles, and a typewritten instruction that he was to travel by the nine o'clock train from Victoria that evening. On arriving at the French port he would find the Aphrodite moored in No. 3. Basin, and he was requested not to wear any portion of his uniform until on board the yacht.
The nature of the arrangements, the prodigal supply of clothing, rather took Dick's breath away. Even the initials, "R. K.," were painted on the trunks and stitched on to the canvas.
"My employer seems to have done things pretty thoroughly," he could not help saying.
The shopman dug a compliment out of the remark.
"Our house has a reputation to maintain," he answered, "and Mr. Fenshawe is one of our best and oldest customers."
There was no mention of Count von Kerber, which added a ripple to the wave of astonishment in Royson's breast. He took his baggage to Charing Cross in a cab, and deposited it there. Meanwhile, he learned from a further scrutiny of the list that his own few belongings were hardly wanted. He had not been so well equipped since he left Heidelberg to rush to his mother's death-bed. Nevertheless, having already gathered in a valise some books, photographs, letters, and other odds and ends, he went to Brixton to obtain them.
While giving a farewell glance around his dingy room, an old envelope, thrown aside overnight, reminded him of a half-formed idea, which appealed to him strongly now that he knew his port of departure.
So he wrote a short letter:
Dear Mr. Forbes:
"You were kind to me four years ago, as kind as Sir Henry Royson would permit you to be towards one who had wilfully and irreparably insulted him. My feelings with regard to him have undergone no change. He may be dead, for all I know, or care. But you, I suppose, are still the trusted solicitor of the Cuddesham estate, and Sir Henry Royson, if alive, may have remained unmarried. In that event, I am heir to a barren title, and it may save you some trouble if I inform you that I am leaving England. For reasons of no consequence, I am passing under the name of Richard King. If I return, or settle down in some other land, I will write to you, say, after the lapse of a year. Please regard this note as strictly private, and do not interpret it as foreshadowing any attempt on my part to arrive at a reconciliation with Sir Henry Royson."
He was about to add the briefest announcement of his new career, but he checked himself; had not von Kerber forbidden the giving of any information?
He signed the letter, and addressed it to the senior partner of a firm of solicitors in Lincoln's Inn Fields. Then, indeed, he felt that he had snapped the last slender link that bound him to the dull life of the city. Like Kent, he vowed that "freedom lies hence, and banishment is here." And he had always hated Brixton, which was unjust to that pleasant suburb, but the days of his sojourn there had been days of bondage.
He was among the first to secure a seat in the Continental mail. Having registered those superb trunks through to Marseilles, and reserved a comfortable corner by depositing his valise there, he strolled up and down the platform, and quietly scrutinized his fellow passengers. So far as he could judge, none of the earlier arrivals were prospective shipmates. Two bronzed men, of free gait, with that trick of carrying the hands back to front which singles out the sailor from the rest of humanity, drew him like a lodestone. But he soon discovered that they were P. & O. officers, bidding farewell to a friend bound for Egypt.
At last he came upon a man and a woman, a remarkable pair under any circumstances, but specially interesting to him, seeing that the man gripped an ancient carpet bag on which was pasted a label with the glaring superscription: "Captain John Stump, yacht Aphrodite, Marsails." The address was half written, half printed, and the quaintly phonetic spelling of the concluding word betrayed a rugged independence of thought which was certainly borne out by Captain John Stump's appearance. The written label might be wrong; not so that stamped by Neptune on a weather-beaten face and a figure like a capstan. Little more than five feet in height, he seemed to be quite five feet wide. If it be true that a poet is born, not made, Captain Stump was a master mariner from his cradle. Royson had never before seen such a man. Drawn out to Royson's stature he would yet have remained the broader of the two. The lady with him, evidently Mrs. Stump, was mated for him by happy chance. Short mean usually marry tall women, and your sons of Anak will select wives of fairy-like proportions. But Mrs. Stump was even shorter than her husband, and so plump withal, that a tape measure round her shoulders might have given her the prize for girth.
Captain Stump was examining the interior of each carriage suspiciously when he set eyes on the P. & O. officers.
"Port yer helium, Becky," he growled, and the two turned to the right- about. It happened that he entered Royson's compartment. There were not many first-class passengers that night, so Royson promptly took possession of his own corner, lit a pipe, and unobtrusively watched his future commander. This was not difficult, as Stump stood near the open door, and each word he uttered was audible.
"Don't want to berth alongside sailor-men to-night, Becky," he said, after sizing up Dick in a comprehensive glance. "Them's my sailin' orders. 'Hoist no colors,' sez he, 'until you bring to at Marseilles.'"
"What's your first port of call, John?" asked his wife.
"Dunno. I'll send you a wire."
A pause. Then Mrs. Stump:
"Will you be long in Marseilles, John?"
Dick thought that this would be impossible anywhere, but Stump answered:
"Mebbe half an hour, mebbe a week. You know all that I know, Becky."
Captain Stump spat, and agreed that it was—emphatically funny. A ticket inspector approached.
"Going on, sir?" he asked.
"Goin' on? Of course I am. What in thunder d'ye think I'm stannin' here for?" demanded the captain.
"But if you stand there, sir, you'll get left," said the official good- humoredly.
"Better get in, John, an' don't argy with the gentleman," said Mrs. Stump.
Her husband obeyed, grudgingly. The inspector examined his ticket, and Royson's, and locked the door.
"Nice thing!" grumbled Stump. "I can't give you a good-by hug now, Becky."
This was literally true. The captain's breadth of beam had never been contemplated by the designers of South-Eastern railway carriages. Even when the door was open, he had to enter sideways, and the brass rail across the window rendered it a physical impossibility to thrust head and shoulders outside.
The shrill whistle of a guard was answered by a colleague.
"Take care of yourself, John," said Becky.
"No fear! And mind you wait till the 'bus stops to-night. The other evening—"
Royson never learnt what had befallen Mrs. Stump on that other evening. At the moment the train began to move, he saw a man peeping into the carriage as if he were looking for some one. He believed it was the private inquiry agent whom he had shaken off so effectively in Hyde Park. The gloom of the station, and the fact that the man's face was in shadow, made him doubtful, but as the train gathered speed, the watcher on the platform nodded to him and smiled derisively. Captain Stump had quick eyes. He turned to Royson.
"Beg pardon, mister, but is that a friend of yours?" he asked.
"No," said Dick.
"Well, he was signalin' somebody, an' it wasn't me."
Then remarking that the unknown craft looked like a curiously-colored pirate, the captain squeezed himself into a seat. When the train ran into and backed out of Cannon Street, Stump was puzzled. He opened the carpet-bag, and drew forth a ship's compass, which he consulted. After a few minutes' rapid traveling his doubts seemed to subside, and he replaced the compass. Producing a cake of tobacco, he cut off several shavings with an exceedingly sharp knife, rolled them between his broad palms, filled a pipe, lit it, and whetted the knife on the side of his boot. Dick noticed that all his actions were wonderfully nimble for a man of his build. Any stranger who imagined that this squat Hercules was slow and ponderous in movement would be wofully mistaken if he based hostilities on that presumption.
Perhaps the captain missed the companionship of the stout lady he had parted from at Charing Cross, or it might be that his gruffness was a matter of habit—at any rate, after a puff or two, he spoke to Royson again.
"D'ye know wot time we're due at Dover?" he asked.
"Yes, at 10.50."
"We don't stop long there?"
"No. The boat sails ten minutes later."
"Good. I don't cotton on to these blessed trains. Every time they jolt I fancy we're on the rocks. Give me a ship, an' the steady beat of the screw, sez I. Then I know where I am."
"I quite agree with you, captain, but you must put up with a fair spell of railway bumping before you reach Marseilles."
Stump gave him a questioning look. Royson did not resemble the type of land shark with which he was familiar. Yet his eyes gleamed like those of a perplexed bull.
"I s'pose you heard my missus an' me talking of Marseilles," he growled, "but how do you know I'm a captain."
"It is written on your bag."
"Well, my missus wrote that—"
"Moreover," went on Dick, determined to break the ice, "I'm your second mate."
"Wot?" roared Stump, leaning forward and placing a hand on each knee, while his fiery glance took in every detail of Royson's appearance. "You—my—second—mate?"
The words formed a crescendo of contemptuous analysis. But Dick faced the storm boldly.
"Yes," he said. "I don't see any harm in stating the fact, now that I know who you are."
"Harm! Who said anything about harm? Wot sort of sailor d'ye call yerself? Who ever heard of a sailor in knickers?"
Then it dawned on Royson that the captain's wrath was comprehensible. There is in every male Briton who goes abroad an ingrained instinct that leads him to don a costume usually associated with a Highland moor. Why this should be no man can tell, but nine out of ten Englishmen cross the Channel in sporting attire, and Royson was no exception to the rule. In his case a sheer revolt against the "office" suit had induced him to dress in clothes which recalled one glorious summer on the Westmoreland hills. Their incongruity did not appeal to him until Captain Stump forcibly drew attention thereto, and his hearty laugh at the way in which he was enlightened did not tend to soothe his skipper's indignation.
"Second mate!" bellowed Stump again, calling the heavens to witness that there never was such another, "Where's yer ticket? Seein' is believin', they say. Who did you go to sea with? When did you pass?"
"I have no certificate, if that is what you mean, and I have never been to sea," said Royson.
This remark impressed Stump as an exquisite joke. His rage yielded to a rumble of hoarse laughter.
"Lord love a duck!" he guffawed. "If only I'd ha' knowed, I could have told my missus. It would have cheered her up for a week. Never mind. We've a few minutes in Dover. I'll send her a picture postcard. It'll 'arf tickle 'er to death."
Evidently the captain meant to add certain explanatory remarks which would account for that Gargantuan tickling. Dick, anxious not to offend his future commander, smiled sheepishly, and said:
"Sorry I can't supply you with a photograph."
Stump's gaze rested on his stockings, loose breeches, Norfolk jacket and deerstalker cap.
"Damme," he grinned, "it's better than a pantomime. Second mate! Is there any more like you on the train? P'haps that chap in the next caboose, in a fur coat an' top hat, is the steward. An' wot'll Tagg say?"
"I don't know," said Dick, half inclined to resent this open scorn. "Who is Tagg, anyhow?"
Stump instantly became silent. He seemed to remember his "sailing orders." He muttered something about "playin' me for a sucker," and shut his lips obstinately. Not another word did he utter until they reached Dover. He smoked furiously, gave Royson many a wrathful glance, but bottled up the tumultuous thoughts which troubled him. On board the steamer, however, curiosity conquered prudence. After surveying Dick's unusual proportions from several points of view, he came up and spoke in what he intended to be a light comedy tone.
"I say, Mr. Second Mate," he said, "I don't see the Plimsoll Mark on the funnel. Do you?"
"No, captain. I expect it has been washed off."
"If I was you I'd write to the Board of Trade about it."
"Best let sleeping dogs lie, captain."
"Because they might look for yours, and as it ought to be round your neck they would say you were unseaworthy."
"So you know what it is, you long swab?"
"Yes. Come and have a drink. That will reach your load-line all right."
Royson had hit on the right method of dealing with Stump. The skipper promised himself some fun, and they descended to the saloon. The Channel was in boisterous mood, and Dick staggered once or twice in transit. Stump missed none of this, and became more jovial. Thus might one of the Hereford stots he resembled approach a green pasture.
"If you ask the steward he'll bring you some belayin' tackle," he said.
"I am a trifle crank just now," admitted Royson, "but when the wind freshens I'll take in a reef or two."
Stump looked up at him.
"You've put me clean, out of reckonin'. Never bin to sea, you say? Wot's yer name?"
"King, Richard King."
"Damme, I'm comin' to like you. You're a bit of a charak-ter. By the time the Aphrodite points her nose home again I'll 'ave you licked into shape."
They were crossing the saloon, and were sufficiently noteworthy by force of contrast to draw many eyes. Indeed, were Baron von Kerber on board, he must have been disagreeably impressed by the fact that in sending the short skipper and the long second mate of the Aphrodite to Marseilles in company he had supplied an unfailing means of tracking their movements. Of course, he was not responsible for the chance that threw them together, but the mere presence of two such men on the same vessel would be remembered quite easily by those who make it their business to watch trans-Channel passengers.
Royson gave no thought to this factor in the queer conditions then shaping his life. Had Stump remained taciturn, it might have occurred to him that they were courting observation. But it needed the exercise of much resourcefulness to withstand the stream of questions with which his commander sought to clear the mystery attached to a second mate who knew not the sea. Luckily, he emerged from the flood with credit; nay, the examiner himself was obliged at times to assume a knowledge which he did not possess, for, if Stump knew how to con a ship from port to port, Royson could give reasons for great circle sailing which left Stump gasping. At last, the stout captain could no longer conceal his amazement when Royson had recited correctly the rules of the road for steamships crossing:
If to my Starboard Red appear, It is my duty to keep clear; Act as Judgment says is proper— "Port"—or "Starboard"—"Back"—or "Stop her!"
But when, upon my Port is seen A steamer's Starboard light of green, For me there's naught to do, but see That Green to Port keeps clear of me.
"Come, now," he growled, "wot's your game? D'ye mean to say you've bin humbuggin' me all this time?"
His little eyes glared redly from underneath his shaggy eyebrows. He was ready to sulk again, without hope of reconciliation, so Royson perforce explained.
"I have no objection to telling you, captain, how I came to acquire a good deal of unusual information about the sea, but I want to stipulate, once and for all, that I shall not be further questioned as to my past life."
"Go ahead! That's fair."
"Well, I have spent many a day, since I was a boy of ten until I was nearly twenty, sailing a schooner-rigged yacht on Windermere. My companion and tutor was a retired commander of the Royal Navy, and he amused himself by teaching me navigation. I learnt it better than any of the orthodox sciences I had to study at school. You see, that was my hobby, while a wholesome respect for my skipper led me to work hard. I have not forgotten what I was taught, though the only stretch of water I have seen during the last few years is the Thames from its bridges, and I honestly believe that if you will put up with my want of experience of the sea for a week or so, I shall be quite capable of doing any work you may entrust to me."
"By gad!" said Stump admiringly, "you're a wonder. Come on deck. I'll give you a tip or two as we go into Calais."
During the journey across France it was natural that Royson should take the lead. He spoke the language fluently, whereas Stump's vocabulary was limited to a few forcible expressions he had picked up from brother mariners. There was a break-down on the line near Dijon, which delayed them eight hours, and Stump might have had apoplexy were not Royson at hand to translate the curt explanations of railway officials. But the two became good friends, which was an excellent thing for Dick, and the latter soon discovered, to his great surprise, that Stump had never set eyes on the Aphrodite.
"No," he said, when some chance remark from Royson had elicited this curious fact, "she's a stranger to me. Me an' Tagg—Tagg is my first mate, you see—had just left the Chirria when she was sold to the Germans out of the East Indian trade, an' we was lookin' about for wot might turn up when the man who chartered the Aphrodite put us on to this job. Tagg has gone ahead with most of the crew, but I had to stop in London a few days—to see after things a bit."
Stump had really remained behind in order to buy a complete set of charts, but he checked his confidences at that point, nor did Royson endeavor to probe further into the recent history of the yacht.
Instead of traversing Marseilles at night, they drove through its picturesque streets in broad daylight. Both Royson and the captain were delighted with the lines of the Aphrodite when they saw her in the spacious dock. Her tapering bows and rakish build gave her an appearance of greater size than her tonnage warranted. Royson was sailor enough to perceive that her masts and spars were intended for use, and, when he reached her deck, to which much scrubbing and vigorous holy-stoning had given the color of new bread, he knew that none but men trained on a warship had coiled each rope and polished every inch of shining brass.
And his heart sank a little then. The looks and carriage of the few sailors visible at the moment betokened their training. How could he hope to hold his own with them? The first day at sea must reveal his incompetence. He would be the laughing-stock of the crew.
He was almost nervous when an undersized hairy personage shoved a grinning face up a companionway, and hailed Stump joyfully. Then the captain did a thing which went far to prove that true gentility is not a matter of deportment or mincing phrase.
"Keep mum before this crowd," he muttered. "Stand by, and I'll pull you through."
Stump extended a gigantic hand to the hairy one. "Glad to see you again, old Never-fail," he roared. "Let me introjuice our second mate. Mr. Tagg—Mr. King. An' now, Tagg, wot's for breakfast? Mr. King an' me can eat a Frenchman if you have nothin' tastier aboard."
Royson was relieved to find that he had practically no duties to perform until the yacht sailed. She had been coaled and provisioned by a Marseilles firm of shipping agents, and only awaited telegraphic orders to get up steam, in case the wind were unfavorable for beating down the Gulf of Lions, when Mr. Fenshawe and his party arrived.
Every member of the crew was of British birth, and Britons are not, as a rule, endowed with the gift of tongues. Hence, Royson was the only man on board who spoke French, and this fact led directly to his active participation in the second act of the drama of love and death in which, all unconsciously, he was playing a leading part. On the day after his arrival in the French port, the head partner of the firm of local agents came on board and explained that, by inadvertence, some cases of claret of inferior vintage had been substituted for the wine ordered. The mistake had been discovered in the counting-house, and he was all apologies.
Royson and he chatted together while the goods were being exchanged, and, in the end, the polite Frenchman invited messieurs les officiers to dine with him, and visit the Palais de Glace, where some daring young lady was announced to do things in a motor-car, which, in England, are only attempted by motor omnibuses.
Stump, who would not leave the yacht, permitted Tagg and Royson to accept the proffered civility. They passed a pleasant evening, and saw the female acrobat negotiate a thirty-feet jump, head downward, taken through space by the automobile. Then they elected to walk to No. 3. Basin, a distance of a mile and a half. It was about eleven o'clock and a fine night. The docks road, a thoroughfare cut up by railway lines holding long rows of empty wagons, seemed to be quite deserted. Tagg, who was slightly lame, though active as a cat on board ship, was not able to walk fast. The two discussed the performance, and other matters of slight interest, and they paid little heed to the movements of half a dozen men, who appeared from behind some coal trucks, until the strangers advanced towards them in a furtive and threatening way. But nothing happened. The prowlers sheered off as quickly as they came. Tagg, who had the courage which Providence sends to puny men, glanced up at Royson and laughed.
"Your size saved us from a fight," he said. "That gang is up to mischief."
"I wonder what they are planning," said Royson, looking back to see if he could distinguish any other wayfarers on the ill-lighted road.
"Robbery, with murder thrown in," was Tagg's brief comment.
"They had the air of expecting somebody. Did you think that? What do you say if we wait in the shadow a few minutes?"
"Better mind our own business," said Tagg, but he did not protest further, and the two halted in the gloom of a huge warehouse.
There was nothing visible along the straight vista of the road, but, after a few seconds' silence, they heard the clatter and rumble of a vehicle crossing a distant drawbridge.
"Some skipper comin' to his ship," muttered Tagg. "It can't be ours. By George, if those chaps tackled him they would be sorry for themselves."
"Captain Stump is a good man in a row, I take it?"
"'Good' isn't the word. He's a terror. I've seen him get six of his men out of a San Francisco crimp's house, an' I s'pose you 'aven't bin to sea without knowing wot that means."
"Ah!" said Royson admiringly. He had found safety many times during the past two days by some such brief comment. Thus did he steer clear of conversational rocks.
The carriage drew nearer, and became dimly visible—it was one of the tiny voiturettes peculiar to French towns. Suddenly the listeners heard a shout. The horse's feet ceased their regular beat on the roadway. Royson began to run, but Tagg vociferated:
"Wait for me, you long ijiot! If you turn up alone they'll knife you before you can say 'Jack Robinson.'"
Dick had no intention of saying "Jack Robinson," but he moderated his pace, and helped Tagg over the ground by grasping his arm. They soon saw that two men had pulled the driver off the box, and were holding him down—indeed, tying him hand and foot. Royson prevented the success of this operation by a running kick and an upper cut which placed two Marseillais out of action. Then he essayed to plunge into a fearsome struggle that was going on inside the carriage. Frantic oaths in German and Italian lent peculiar significance to a flourishing of naked knives. But that which stirred the blood in his veins was his recognition of Baron von Kerber's high-pitched voice, alternately cursing and pleading for life to assailants who evidently meant to show scant mercy. One man who, out of the tail of his eye, had witnessed Dick's discomfiture of the coachman's captors, drew a revolver, a weapon not meant for show, as its six loaded chambers proved when Dick picked it up subsequently.
Royson had no love of unnecessary risk. Stooping quickly, he grasped the hub of the off front wheel, and, just varying the trick which saved Miss Fenshawe in Buckingham Palace Road, threw the small vehicle over on its side. No doubt the patient animal in the shafts wondered what was happening, but the five struggling men in the interior were even more surprised when they were pitched violently into the road.
Royson sprang into the midst of them, found von Kerber, and said:
"You're all right now, Baron. We can whip the heads off these rascals."
The sound of his English tongue seemed to take all the fight out of the remaining warriors. Tagg had closed valiantly with one, and the others made off. Von Kerber rose to his feet, so Royson went to Tagg's assistance. He heard the Baron shriek, in a falsetto of rage:
"You may have recovered the papyrus, Alfieri, but it is of no value to you. Name of an Italian dog! I have outwitted you even now!"
While kneeling to pinion the footpad's arms behind his back, thus rescuing Tagg from a professor of the savate, Dick tried to guess von Kerber's motive in hurling such an extraordinary taunt after one of his runaway adversaries, and in French, too, whereas the other had an Italian name, and, in all likelihood, spoke only Italian. Was this Alfieri the man who "hated" von Kerber—who "brought a very serious charge" against him? But Royson was given no time for consecutive thought. The Baron, breathing heavily, and seemingly in pain, came to him and said, in the low tone of one who does not wish to be overheard:
"Let your prisoner go, Mr. King. I am all right, and everlastingly obliged to you, but I do not wish to be detained in Marseilles while the slow French law gets to work. So let him go. He is nothing—a mere hireling, yes? And we sail to-morrow."
VON KERBER EXPLAINS
"You've left your trademark on this chap," broke in Tagg. He was bending over a prostrate body, and the cab-driver was bewailing the plight of his voiturette.
Royson righted the carriage; then he lifted the man to a sitting position, and listened to his stertorous breathing. The blow had been delivered on that facial angle known to boxers as the "point," while its scientific sequel is the "knock-out."
"He is all right," was the cool verdict. "He will wake up soon and feel rather sick. The general effect will be excellent. In future he will have a wholesome respect for British sailors."
He laid the almost insensible form on the road again, pocketed the revolver, which he found close at hand, and gave an ear to von Kerber's settlement with the cocher. The latter was now volubly indignant in the assessment of damages to his vehicle, hoping to obtain a louis as compensation. When he was given a hundred francs his gratitude became almost incoherent.
The Baron cut him short, stipulating sternly that he must forget what had happened. Then he turned to Royson.
"If you think we can leave the fellow on the ground with safety, I want to reach the yacht," he said.
"Are you wounded?" inquired Dick.
"Slightly. Those scoundrels did not dare to strike home. They knew my papers would identify them."
"But they robbed you?"
"No, not of anything valuable. Why do you ask?"
"Because you sang out to one of them, an Italian, I should judge—"
"Ah, you heard that? You are, indeed, quick in an emergency. Can we go on, yes?"
"Certainly. I will just lift our dazed friend into the victoria, and tell the cocher to give him a glass of cognac at the first cafe he comes to."
This was done. Five minutes later, the first and second officers of the Aphrodite assisted their employer up the yacht's gangway. Leaving Tagg to explain to Stump what had happened, Royson took von Kerber to his cabin, and helped to remove his outer clothing. A superficial wound on the neck, and a somewhat deeper cut on the right forearm, were the only injuries; the contents of a medicine chest, applied under von Kerber's directions, soon staunched the flow of blood.
"I do not wish anything to be said about this affair," began the Baron, when Royson would have left him.
"Tagg must have given the captain full details already," said Dick.
"But did he hear that name, Alfieri?"
"I think not."
"And he would not understand, about the—er—document?"
"The papyrus," suggested Royson.
"No. I don't suppose he would understand the word In English, whereas you spoke French."
"Ah, yes, of course. Well, that is between you and me. Will you ask Captain Stump and Mr. Tagg to join as in a bottle of wine? I would put matters in my own way, yes?"
The Baron, after a slight hesitancy, made his wishes clear. Mr. Fenshawe and his party would arrive at Marseilles by the train de luxe next morning, and preparations must be made for instant departure as soon as they came on board. They would be alarmed needlessly if told of the affray on the quay, so it was advisable that nothing should be said about it.
"You see," purred the Baron affably, refilling the glasses which Stump and Tagg had emptied at a gulp, "ladies, especially young ones, are apt to be nervous."
"Have we wimmen aboard this trip?" growled Stump in a deep rumble of disapproval.
"Ladies, yes. Two, and a maid."
Stump bore round on his chief.
"Wot did I tell ye, Tagg?" he demanded fiercely, "Didn't I say that them fixins aft meant no good?"
"You did," agreed Tagg, with equal asperity.
Von Kerber caught the laughter in Dick's eyes, and checked the angry protest ready to bubble forth.
"The two ladies," he said, speaking with an emphasis which strove to cloak his annoyance at Stump's offhanded manner, "are Miss Fenshawe, granddaughter of the gentleman who owns this yacht, and her companion, Mrs. Haxton. Without their presence this trip would not have been undertaken, and that fact had better be recognized at the outset. But now, gentlemen, I have come on ahead to have a quiet talk with you. Captain Stump knows our destination, but none of you is aware of the object of our voyage. I propose to take you fully into my confidence in that respect. By this time, you have become more or less acquainted with the crew, and, if you think any of the men are unsuitable, we must get rid of them at once."
He paused, and looked at Stump. That broad-beamed navigator emptied his glass again, and gazed into it fixedly, apparently wondering why champagne was so volatile a thing. Tagg followed the skipper's example, but fixed his eyes on the bottle, perhaps in calculation. Royson, deeming it wise to hold his tongue, contented himself with closing the medicine chest, and thus making it possible for von Kerber to sit down.
The latter was obviously ill at ease. Although he was the master of these three men, he was their inferior in individual strength of character. But he was a polished man of the world, and he promptly extricated himself from a difficult position, though Royson, at least, detected the effort he was compelled to make.
"I see you are thinking that one bottle does not go far among four of us, Mr. Tagg," he exclaimed, with a pleasantly patronizing air. "Kindly tell the steward to bring another, Mr. King. And some cigars. Then we can discuss matters at our ease. And will you make sure that we are not overheard? What I have to say is meant for the ship's officers alone at this moment, though, when the time for action comes, every man on board must be with us absolutely."
Dick summoned the steward, and ascertained that the watch were quietly chatting and smoking forward, whereas the Baron's stateroom was situated aft. The delay enabled von Kerber to collect his thoughts. When he resumed the promised disclosure, his voice was under control, and he spoke with less constraint.