When we reached the bottom of the hill, and had turned the corner, a broad, well-made stone bridge confronted us. On the other side of this was an old-fashioned country inn, with its signboard dangling from the house front, and opposite it again a dilapidated cottage lolling beside two iron gates. The gates were eight feet or more in height, made of finely wrought iron, and supported by big stone posts, on the top of which two stone animals—griffins, I believe they are called—holding shields in their claws, looked down on passers-by in ferocious grandeur. From behind the gates an avenue wound and disappeared into the wood.
Without consulting me, my old charioteer drove into the inn yard, and, having thrown the reins to an ostler, descended from the vehicle. I followed his example, and then inquired the name of the place inside the gates. My guide, philosopher, and friend looked at me rather queerly for a second or two, and then recollecting that I was a stranger to the place, said:—
"That be the Hall I was telling 'ee about. That's where Sir William lives!"
"Then that's where my father was born?"
He nodded his head, and as he did so I noticed that the ostler stopped his work of unharnessing the horse, and looked at me in rather a surprised fashion.
"Well, that being so," I said, taking my stick from the trap, and preparing to stroll off, "I'm just going to investigate a bit. You bring yourself to an anchor in yonder, and don't stir till I come for you again."
He took himself into the inn without more ado, and I crossed the road towards the gates. They were locked, but the little entrance by the tumble-down cottage stood open, and passing through this I started up the drive. It was a perfect afternoon; the sunshine straggled in through the leafy canopy overhead and danced upon my path. To the right were the thick fastnesses of the preserves; while on my left, across the meadows I could discern the sparkle of water on a weir. I must have proceeded for nearly a mile through the wood before I caught sight of the house. Then, what a strange experience was mine.
Leaving the shelter of the trees, I opened on to as beautiful a park as the mind of man could imagine. A herd of deer were grazing quietly just before me, a woodman was eating his dinner in the shadow of an oak; but it was not upon deer or woodman that I looked, but at the house that stared at me across the undulating sea of grass. It was a noble building, of grey stone, in shape almost square, with many curious buttresses and angles. The drive ran up to it with a grand sweep, and upon the green that fronted it some big trees reared their stately heads. In my time I'd heard a lot of talk about the stately homes of England, but this was the first time I had ever set eyes on one. And to think that this was my father's birthplace, the house where my ancestors had lived for centuries! I could only stand and stare at it in sheer amazement.
You see, my father had always been a very silent man, and though he used sometimes to tell us yarns about scrapes he'd got into as a boy, and how his father was a very stern man, and had sent him to a public school, because his tutor found him unmanageable, we never thought that he'd been anything very much.
To tell the truth, I felt a bit doubtful as to what I'd better do. Somehow I was rather nervous about going up to the house and introducing myself as a member of the family without any credentials to back my assertion up; and yet, on the other hand, I did not want to go away and have it always rankling in my mind that I'd seen the old place and been afraid to go inside. My mind once made up, however, off I went, crossed the park, and made towards the front door. On nearer approach, I discovered that everything showed the same neglect I had noticed at the lodge. The drive was overgrown with weeds; no carriage seemed to have passed along it for ages. Shutters enclosed many of the windows, and where they did not, not one but several of the panes were broken. Entering the great stone porch, in which it would have been possible to seat a score of people, I pulled the antique door-bell, and waited, while the peal re-echoed down the corridors, for the curtain to go up on the next scene.
Presently I heard footsteps approaching. A key turned in the lock, and the great door swung open. An old man, whose years could hardly have totalled less than seventy, stood before me, dressed in a suit of solemn black, almost green with age. He inquired my business in a wheezy whisper. I asked if Sir William Hatteras were at home. Informing me that he would find out, he left me to ruminate on the queerness of my position. In five minutes or so he returned, and signed to me to follow.
The hall was in keeping with the outside of the building, lofty and imposing. The floor was of oak, almost black with age, the walls were beautifully wainscoted and carved, and here and there tall armoured figures looked down upon me in disdainful silence. But the crowning glory of all was the magnificent staircase that ran up from the centre. It was wide enough and strong enough to have taken a coach and four, the pillars that supported it were exquisitely carved, as were the banisters and rails. Half-way up was a sort of landing, from which again the stairs branched off to right and left.
Above this landing-place, and throwing a stream of coloured light down into the hall, was a magnificent stained-glass window, and on a lozenge in the centre of it the arms that had so much puzzled me on the gateway. A nobler hall no one could wish to possess, but brooding over it was the same air of poverty and neglect I had noticed all about the place. By the time I had taken in these things, my guide had reached a door at the farther end. He bade me enter, and I did so, to find a tall, elderly man of stern aspect awaiting my coming.
He, like his servant, was dressed entirely in black, with the exception of a white tie, which gave his figure a semi-clerical appearance. His face was long and somewhat pinched, his chin and upper lip were shaven, and his snow-white, close-cropped whiskers ran in two straight lines from his jaw up to a level with his piercing, hawk-like eyes. He would probably have been about seventy-five years of age, but he did not carry it well. In a low, monotonous voice he bade me welcome, and pointed to a chair, himself remaining standing.
"My servant tells me you say your name is Hatteras?" he began.
"That is so," I replied. "My father was James Dymoke Hatteras."
He looked at me very sternly for almost a minute, not for a second betraying the slightest sign of surprise. Then putting his hands together, finger tip to finger tip, as I discovered later was his invariable habit while flunking, he said solemnly:——
"James was my younger brother. He misconducted himself gravely in England and was sent abroad. After a brief career of spendthrift extravagance in Australia, we never heard of him again. You may be his son, but then, on the other hand, of course, you may not. I have no means of judging."
"I give you my word," I answered, a little nettled by his speech and the insinuation contained in it; "but if you want further proof, I've got a Latin book in my portmanteau with my father's name upon the fly-leaf, and an inscription in his own writing setting forth that it was given by him to me."
"Exactly! a Catullus."
"Then I'll have to trouble you to return it to me at your earliest convenience. The book is my property: I paid eighteenpence for it on the 3rd of July, 1833, in the shop of John Burns, Fleet Street, London. My brother took it from me a week later, and I have not been able to afford myself another copy since."
"You admit then that the book is evidence of my father's identity?"
"I admit nothing. What do you want with me? What do you come here for? You must see for yourself that I am too poor to be of any service to you, and I have long since lost any public interest I may once have possessed."
"I want neither one nor the other. I am home from Australia on a trip, and I have a sufficient competence to render me independent of any one."
"Ah! That puts a different complexion on the matter. You say you hail from Australia? And what may you have been doing there?"
He came a step closer, and as he did so I noticed that his face had assumed a look of indescribable cunning, that was evidently intended to be of an ingratiating nature. He spoke in little jerks, pressing his fingers together between each sentence.
"Gold-mining! Ah! And pearling! Well, well! And you have been fortunate in your ventures?"
"Very!" I replied, having by this time determined on my line of action. "I daresay my cheque for ten thousand pounds would not be dishonoured."
"Ten thousand pounds! Ten thousand pounds! Dear me, dear me!"
He shuffled up and down the dingy room, all the time looking at me out of the corners of his eyes, as if to make sure that I was telling him the truth.
"Come, come, uncle," I said, resolving to bring him to his bearings without further waste of time. "This is not a very genial welcome!"
"Well, well, you mustn't expect too much, my boy! You see for yourself the position I'm in. The old place is shut up, going to rack and ruin. Poverty is staring me in the face; I am cheated by everybody. Robbed right and left, not knowing which way to turn. But I'll not be put upon. They may call me what they please, but they can't get blood out of a stone. Can they! Answer me that, now!"
This speech showed me everything as plain as a pikestaff. I mean, of course, the reason of the deserted and neglected house, and his extraordinary reception of myself. I rose to my feet.
"Well, uncle—for my uncle you certainly are, whatever you may say to the contrary—I must be going. I'm sorry to find you like this, and from what you tell me I couldn't think of worrying you with my society! I want to see the old church and have a talk with the parson, and then I shall go off never to trouble you again."
He immediately became almost fulsome in his effort to detain me. "No, no! You mustn't go like that. It's not hospitable. Besides, you mustn't talk with parson. He's a bad lot, is parson—a hard man with a cruel tongue. Says terrible things about me, does parson. But I'll be even with him yet. Don't speak to him, laddie, for the honour of the family. Now ye'll stay and take lunch with me?—potluck, of course—I'm too poor to give ye much of a meal; and in the meantime I'll show ye the house and estate."
This was just what I wanted, though I did not look forward to the prospect of lunch in his company.
With trembling hands he took down an old-fashioned hat from a peg and turned towards the door. When we had passed through it he carefully locked it and dropped the key into his breeches' pocket. Then he led the way upstairs by the beautiful oak staircase I had so much admired on entering the house.
When we reached the first landing, which was of noble proportions and must have contained upon its walls nearly a hundred family portraits all coated with the dust of years, he approached a door and threw it open. A feeble light straggled in through the closed shutters, and revealed an almost empty room. In the centre stood a large canopied bed, of antique design. The walls were wainscoted, and the massive chimney-piece was carved with heraldic designs. I inquired what room this might be.
"This is where all our family were born," he answered. "'Twas here your father first saw the light of day."
I looked at it with a new interest. It seemed hard to believe that this was the birthplace of my own father, the man whom I remembered so well in a place and life so widely different. My companion noticed the look upon my face, and, I suppose, felt constrained to say something. "Ah! James!" he said sorrowfully, "ye were always a giddy, roving lad. I remember ye well." (He passed his hand across his eyes, to brush away a tear, I thought, but his next speech disabused me of any such notion.) "I remember that but a day or two before ye went ye blooded my nose in the orchard, and the very morning ye decamped ye borrowed half a crown of me, and never paid it back."
A sudden something prompted me to put my hand in my pocket. I took out half a crown, and handed it to him without a word. He took it, looked at it longingly, put it in his pocket, took it out again, ruminated a moment, and then reluctantly handed it back to me.
"Nay, nay! my laddie, keep your money, keep your money. Ye can send me the Catullus." Then to himself, unconscious that he was speaking his thoughts aloud: "It was a good edition, and I have no doubt would bring five shillings any day."
From one room we passed into another, and yet another. They were all alike—shut up, dust-ridden, and forsaken. And yet with it all what a noble place it was—one which any man might be proud to call his own. And to think that it was all going to rack and ruin because of the miserly nature of its owner. In the course of our ramble I discovered that he kept but two servants, the old man who had admitted me to his presence, and his wife, who, as that peculiar phrase has it, cooked and did for him. I discovered later that he had not paid either of them wages for some years past, and that they only stayed on with him because they were too poor and proud to seek shelter elsewhere.
When we had inspected the house we left it by a side door, and crossed a courtyard to the stables. There the desolation was, perhaps, even more marked than in the house. The great clock on the tower above the main building had stopped at a quarter to ten on some long-forgotten day, and a spider now ran his web from hand to hand. At our feet, between the stones, grass grew luxuriantly, thick moss covered the coping of the well, the doors were almost off their hinges, and rats scuttled through the empty loose boxes at our approach. So large was the place, that thirty horses might have found a lodging comfortably, and as far as I could gather, there was room for half as many vehicles in the coach-houses that stood on either side. The intense quiet was only broken by the cawing of the rooks in the giant elms overhead, the squeaking of the rats, and the low grumbling of my uncle's voice as he pointed out the ruin that was creeping over everything.
Before we had finished our inspection it was lunch time, and we returned to the house. The meal was served in the same room in which I had made my relative's acquaintance an hour before. It consisted, I discovered, of two meagre mutton chops and some homemade bread and cheese, plain and substantial fare enough in its way, but hardly the sort one would expect from the owner of such a house. For a beverage, water was placed before us, but I could see that my host was deliberating as to whether he should stretch his generosity a point or two further.
Presently he rose, and with a muttered apology left the room, to return five minutes later carrying a small bottle carefully in his hand. This, with much deliberation and sighing, he opened. It proved to be claret, and he poured out a glassful for me. As I was not prepared for so much liberality, I thought something must be behind it, and in this I was not mistaken.
"Nephew," said he after a while, "was it ten thousand pounds you mentioned as your fortune?"
I nodded. He looked at me slyly and cleared his throat to gain time for reflection. Then seeing that I had emptied my glass, he refilled it with another scarce concealed sigh, and sat back in his chair.
"And I understand you to say you are quite alone in the world, my boy?"
"Quite! Until I met you this morning I was unaware that I had a single relative on earth. Have I any more connections?"
"Not a soul—only Gwendoline."
"Gwendoline! and who may Gwendoline be?"
"My daughter—your cousin. My only child! Would you like to see her?"
"I had no idea you had a daughter. Of course I should like to see her!"
He left the table and rang the bell. The ancient man-servant answered the summons.
"Tell you wife to bring Miss Gwendoline to us."
"Miss Gwendoline here, sir? You do not mean it sure-lie, sir?"
"Numbskull! numbskull! numbskull!" cried the old fellow in an ecstasy of fury that seemed to spring up as suddenly as a squall does between the islands, "bring her or I'll be the death of you."
Without further remonstrance the old man left the room, and I demanded an explanation.
"Good servant, but an impudent rascal, sir!" he said. "Of course you must see my daughter, my beautiful daughter, Gwendoline. He's afraid you'll frighten her, I suppose! Ha! ha! Frighten my bashful, pretty one. Ha! ha!"
Anything so supremely devilish as the dried-up mirth of this old fellow it would be difficult to imagine. His very laugh seemed as if it had to crack in his throat before it could pass his lips. What would his daughter be like, living in such a house, with such companions? While I was wondering, I heard footsteps in the corridor, and then an old woman entered and curtsied respectfully. My host rose and went over to the fireplace, where he stood with his hands behind his back and the same devilish grin upon his face.
"Well, where is my daughter?"
"Sir, do you really mean it?"
"Of course I mean it. Where is she?"
In answer the old lady went to the door and called to some one in the hall.
"Come in, dearie. It's all right. Come in, do'ee now, that's a little dear."
But the girl made no sign of entering, and at last the old woman had to go out and draw her in. And then—but I hardly know how to write it. How shall I give you a proper description of the—thing that entered.
She—if she it could be called—was about three feet high, dressed in a shapeless print costume. Her hair stood and hung in a tangled mass upon her head, her eyes were too large for her face, and to complete the horrible effect, a great patch of beard grew on one cheek, and descended almost to a level with her chin. Her features were all awry, and now and again she uttered little moans that were more like those of a wild beast than of a human being. In spite of the old woman's endeavours to make her do so, she would not venture from her side, but stood slobbering and moaning in the half dark of the doorway.
It was a ghastly sight, one that nearly turned me sick with loathing. But the worst part of it all was the inhuman merriment of her father.
"There, there!" he cried; "had ever man such a lovely daughter? Isn't she a beauty? Isn't she fit to be a prince's bride? Isn't she fit to be the heiress of all this place? Won't the young dukes be asking her hand in marriage? Oh, you beauty! You—but there, take her away—take her away, I say, before I do her mischief."
The words had no sooner left his mouth than the old woman seized her charge and bundled her out of the room, moaning as before. I can tell you there was at least one person in that apartment who was heartily glad to be rid of her.
When the door had closed upon them my host came back to his seat, and with another sigh refilled my glass. I wondered what was coming next. It was not long, however, before I found out.
"Now you know everything," he said. "You have seen my home, you have seen my poverty, and you have seen my daughter. What do you think of it all?"
"I don't know what to think."
"Well, then, I'll tell you. That child wants doctors; that child wants proper attendance. She can get neither here. I am too poor to help her in any way. You're rich by your own telling. I have to-day taken you into the bosom of my family, recognized you without doubting your assertions. Will you help me? Will you give me one thousand pounds towards settling that child in life? With that amount it could be managed."
"Will I what?" I cried in utter amazement—dumbfounded by his impudence.
"Will you settle one thousand pounds upon her, to keep her out of her grave?"
"Not one penny!" I cried: "and, what's more, you miserable, miserly old wretch, I'll give you a bit of my mind."
And thereupon I did! Such a talking to as I suppose the old fellow had never had in his life before, and one he'd not be likely to forget in a hurry. He sat all the time, white with fury, his eyes blazing, and his fingers quivering with impotent rage. When I had done he ordered me out of his house. I took him at his word, seized my hat, and strode across the hall through the front door, and out into the open air.
But I was not to leave the home of my ancestors without a parting shot. As I closed the front door behind me I heard a window go up, and on looking round there was the old fellow shaking his fist at me.
"Leave my house—leave my park!" he cried in a shrill falsetto, "or I'll send for the constable to turn you off. Bah! You came to steal. You're no nephew of mine; I disown you! You're a common cheat—a swindler—an impostor! Go!"
I took him at his word, and went. Leaving the park, I walked straight across to the rectory, and inquired if I might see the clergyman. To him I told my tale, and, among other things, asked if anything could be done for the child—my cousin. He only shook his head.
"I fear it is hopeless, Mr. Hatteras," the clergyman said. "The old gentleman is a terrible character, and as he owns half the village, and every acre of the land hereabouts, we all live in fear and trembling of him. We have no shadow of a claim upon the child, and unless we can prove that he actually ill-treats it, I'm sorry to say I think there is nothing to be done."
So ended my first meeting with my father's family.
From the rectory I returned to my inn. What should I do now? London was worse than a desert to me now that my sweetheart was gone from it, and every other place seemed as bad. Then an advertisement on the wall of the bar parlour caught my eye:
"FOR SALE OR HIRE, THE YACHT, ENCHANTRESS. Ten Tons. Apply, SCREW & MATCHEM, Bournemouth."
It was just the very thing. I was pining for a breath of sea air again. It was perfect weather for a cruise. I would go to Bournemouth, inspect the yacht at once, and, if she suited me, take her for a month or so. My mind once made up, I hunted up my Jehu and set off for the train, never dreaming that by so doing I was taking the second step in that important chain of events that was to affect all the future of my life.
I SAVE AN IMPORTANT LIFE
I travelled to Bournemouth by a fast train, and immediately on arrival made my way to the office of Messrs. Screw & Matchem, with a view to instituting inquiries regarding the yacht they had advertised for hire. It was with the senior partner I transacted my business; a shrewd but pleasant gentleman.
Upon my making known my business to him, he brought me a photograph of the craft in question, and certainly a nice handy boat she looked. She had been built, he went on to inform me, for a young nobleman, who had made two very considerable excursions in her before he had been compelled to fly the country, and was only three years old. I learned also that she was lying in Poole harbour, but he was good enough to say that if I wished to see her she should be brought round to Bournemouth the following morning, when I could inspect her at my leisure. As this arrangement was one that exactly suited me, I closed with it there and then, and thanking Mr. Matchem for his courtesy, betook myself to my hotel. Having dined, I spent the evening upon the pier—the first of its kind I had ever seen—listened to the band and diverted myself with thoughts of her to whom I had plighted my troth, and whose unexpected departure from England had been such a sudden and bitter disappointment to me.
Next morning, faithful to promise, the Enchantress sailed into the bay and came to an anchor within a biscuit throw of the pier. Chartering a dinghy, I pulled myself off to her, and stepped aboard. An old man and a boy were engaged washing down, and to them I introduced myself and business. Then for half an hour I devoted myself to overhauling her thoroughly. She was a nice enough little craft, well set up, and from her run looked as if she might possess a fair turn of speed; the gear was in excellent order, and this was accounted for when the old man told me she had been repaired and thoroughly overhauled that selfsame year.
Having satisfied myself on a few other minor points, I pulled ashore and again went up through the gardens to the agents' office. Mr. Matchem was delighted to hear that I liked the yacht well enough to think of hiring her at their own price (a rather excessive one, I must admit), and, I don't doubt, would have supplied me with a villa in Bournemouth, and a yachting box in the Isle of Wight, also on their own terms, had I felt inclined to furnish them with the necessary order. But fortunately I was able to withstand their temptations, and having given them my cheque for the requisite amount, went off to make arrangements, and to engage a crew.
Before nightfall I had secured the services of a handy lad in place of the old man who had brought the boat round from Poole, and was in a position to put to sea. Accordingly next morning I weighed anchor for a trip round the Isle of Wight. Before we had brought the Needles abeam I had convinced myself that the boat was an excellent sailer, and when the first day's cruise was over I had no reason to repent having hired her.
Not having anything to hurry me, and only a small boy and my own thoughts to keep me company, I took my time; remained two days in the Solent, sailed round the island, put in a day at Ventnor, and so back to Bournemouth. Then, after a day ashore, I picked up a nice breeze and ran down to Torquay to spend another week, sailing slowly back along the coast, touching at various ports, and returning eventually to the place I had first hailed from.
In relating these trifling incidents it is not my wish to bore my readers, but to work up gradually to that strange meeting to which they were the prelude. Now that I can look back in cold blood upon the circumstances that brought it about, and reflect how narrowly I escaped missing the one event which was destined to change my whole life, I can hardly realize that I attached such small importance to it at the time. Somehow I have always been a firm believer in Fate, and indeed it would be strange, all things considered, if I were not. For when a man has passed through so many extraordinary adventures as I have, and not only come out of them unharmed, but happier and a great deal more fortunate than he has really any right to be, he may claim the privilege, I think, of saying he knows something about his subject.
And, mind you, I date it all back to that visit to the old home, and to my uncle's strange reception of me, for had I not gone down into the country I should never have quarrelled with him, and if I had not quarrelled with him I should not have gone back to the inn in such a dudgeon, and in that case I should probably have left the place without a visit to the bar, never have seen the advertisement, visited Bournemouth, hired the yacht or—but there, I must stop. You must work out the rest for yourself when you have heard my story.
The morning after my third return to Bournemouth I was up by daybreak, and had my breakfast, and was ready to set off on a cruise across the bay, before the sun was a hand's breadth above the horizon. It was as perfect a morning as any man could wish to see. A faint breeze just blurred the surface of the water, tiny waves danced in the sunshine, and my barkie nodded to them as if she were anxious to be off. The town ashore lay very quiet and peaceful, and so still was the air that the cries of a few white gulls could be heard quite distinctly, though they were half a mile or more away. Having hove anchor, we tacked slowly across the bay, passed the pier-head, and steered for Old Harry Rock and Swanage Bay. My crew was for'ard, and I had possession of the tiller.
As we went about between Canford Cliffs and Alum Chine, something moving in the water ahead of me attracted my attention. We were too far off to make out exactly what it might be, and it was not until five minutes later, when we were close abreast of it, that I discovered it to be a bather. The foolish fellow had ventured farther out than was prudent, had struck a strong current, and was now being washed swiftly out to sea. But for the splashing he made to show his whereabouts, I should in all probability not have seen him, and in that case his fate would have been sealed. As it was, when we came up with him he was quite exhausted.
Heaving my craft to, I leapt into the dinghy, and pulled towards him, but before I could reach the spot he had sunk. At first I thought he was gone for good and all, but in a few seconds he rose again. Then, grabbing him by the hair, I passed an arm under each of his, and dragged him unconscious into the boat. In less than three minutes we were alongside the yacht again, and with my crew's assistance I got him aboard. Fortunately a day or two before I had had the forethought to purchase some brandy for use in case of need, and my Thursday Island experiences having taught me exactly what was best to be done under such circumstances, it was not long before I had brought him back to consciousness.
In appearance he was a handsome young fellow, well set up, and possibly nineteen or twenty years of age. When I had given him a stiff nobbler of brandy to stop the chattering of his teeth, I asked him how he came to be so far from shore.
"I am considered a very good swimmer," he replied, "and often come out as far as this, but to-day I think I must have got into a strong outward current, and certainly but for your providential assistance I should never have reached home alive."
"You have had a very narrow escape," I answered, "but thank goodness you're none the worse for it. Now, what's the best thing to be done? Turn back, I suppose, and set you ashore."
"But what a lot of trouble I'm putting you to."
"Nonsense! I've nothing to do, and I count myself very fortunate in having been able to render you this small assistance. The breeze is freshening, and it won't take us any time to get back. Where do you live?"
"To the left there! That house standing back upon the cliff. I don't know how to express my gratitude."
"Just keep that till I ask you for it; and now, as we've got a twenty minutes' sail before us, the best thing for you to do would be to slip into a spare suit of my things. They'll keep you warm, and you can return them to my hotel when you get ashore."
I sang out to the boy to come aft and take the tiller, while I escorted my guest below into the little box of a cabin, and gave him a rig out. Considering I am six feet two, and he was only five feet eight, the things were a trifle large for him; but when he was dressed I couldn't help thinking what a handsome, well-built, aristocratic-looking young fellow he was. The work of fitting him out accomplished, we returned to the deck. The breeze was freshening, and the little hooker was ploughing her way through it, nose down, as if she knew that under the circumstances her best was expected of her.
"Are you a stranger in Bournemouth?" my companion asked, as I took the tiller again.
"Almost," I answered. "I've only been in England three weeks. I'm home from Australia."
"Australia! Really! Oh, I should so much like to go out there."
His voice was very soft and low, more like a girl's than a boy's, and I noticed that he had none of the mannerisms of a man—at least, not of one who has seen much of the world.
"Yes, Australia's as good a place as any other for the man who goes out there to work," I said. "But somehow you don't look to me like a chap that is used to what is called roughing it. Pardon my bluntness."
"Well, you see, I've never had much chance. My father is considered by many a very peculiar man. He has strange ideas about me, and so you see I've never been allowed to mix with other people. But I'm stronger than you'd think, and I shall be twenty in October next."
"If you don't mind telling me, what is your name?"
"I suppose there can be no harm in letting you know it. I was told if ever I met any one and they asked me, not to tell them. But since you saved my life it would be ungrateful not to let you know. I am the Marquis of Beckenham."
"Is that so? Then your father is the Duke of Glenbarth?"
"Yes. Do you know him?"
"Never set eyes on him in my life, but I heard him spoken of the other day."
I did not add that it was Mr. Matchem who, during my conversation with him, had referred to his Grace, nor did I think it well to say that he had designated him the "Mad Duke." And so the boy I had saved from drowning was the young Marquis of Beckenham. Well, I was moving in good society with a vengeance. This boy was the first nobleman I had ever clapped eyes on, though I knew the Count de Panuroff well enough in Thursday Island. But then foreign Counts, and shady ones at that, ought not to reckon, perhaps.
"But you don't mean to tell me," I said at length, "that you've got no friends? Don't you ever see any one at all?"
"No, I am not allowed to. My father thinks it better not. And as he does not wish it, of course I have nothing left but to obey. I must own, however, I should like to see the world—to go along voyage to Australia, for instance."
"But how do you put in your time? You must have a very dull life of it."
"Oh, no! You see, I have never known anything else, and then I have always the future to look forward to. As it is now, I bathe every morning, I have my yacht, I ride about the park, I have my studies, and I have a tutor who tells me wonderful stories of the world."
"Oh, your tutor has been about, has he?"
"Dear me, yes! He was a missionary in the South Sea Islands, and has seen some very stirring adventures."
"A missionary in the South Seas, eh? Perhaps I know him."
"Were you ever in those seas?"
"Why, I've spent almost all my life there."
"Were you a missionary?"
"You bet not. The missionaries and my friends don't cotton to one another."
"But they are such good men!"
"That may be. Still, as I say, we don't somehow cotton. I'd like to set my eyes upon your tutor."
"Well, you will. I think I see him on the beach now. I expect he has been wondering what has become of me. I've never been out so long before."
"Well, you're close home now, and as safe as eggs in a basket."
Another minute brought us into as shallow water as I cared to go. Accordingly, heaving to, I brought the dinghy alongside, and we got into her. Then casting off, I pulled my lord ashore. A small, clean-shaven, parsonish-looking man, with the regulation white choker, stood by the water waiting for us. As I beached the boat he came forward and said:
"My lord, we have been very anxious about you. We feared you had met with an accident."
"I have been very nearly drowned, Mr. Baxter. Had it not been for this gentleman's prompt assistance I should never have reached home again."
"You should really be more careful, my lord. I have warned you before. Your father has been nearly beside himself with anxiety about you!"
"Eh?" said I to myself. "Somehow this does not sound quite right. Anyhow, Mr. Baxter, I've seen your figure-head somewhere before—but you were not a missionary then, I'll take my affidavit."
Turning to me, my young lord held out his hand.
"You have never told me your name," he said almost reproachfully.
"Dick Hatteras," I answered, "and very much at your service."
"Mr. Hatteras, I shall never forget what you have done for me. That I am most grateful to you I hope you will believe. I know that I owe you my life."
Here the tutor's voice chipped in again, as I thought, rather impatiently. "Come, come, my lord. This delay will not do. Your father will be growing still more nervous about you. We must be getting home!"
Then they went off up the cliff path together, and I returned to my boat.
"Mr. Baxter," I said to myself again as I pulled off to the yacht, "I want to know where I've seen your face before. I've taken a sudden dislike to you. I don't trust you; and if your employer's the man they say he is, well, he won't either."
Then, having brought the dinghy alongside, I made the painter fast, clambered aboard, and we stood out of the bay once more.
The following morning I was sitting in my room at the hotel idly scanning the Standard, and wondering in what way I should employ myself until the time arrived for me to board the yacht, when I heard a carriage roll up to the door. On looking out I discovered a gorgeous landau, drawn by a pair of fine thoroughbreds, and resplendent with much gilded and crested harness, standing before the steps. A footman had already opened the door, and I was at the window just in time to see a tall, soldierly man alight from it. To my astonishment, two minutes later a waiter entered my room and announced "His Grace the Duke of Glenbarth." It was the owner of the carriage and the father of my young friend, if by such a title I might designate the Marquis of Beckenham.
"Mr. Hatteras, I presume?" said he.
"Yes, that is my name. I am honoured by your visit. Won't you sit down?"
He paused for a moment, and then continued:
"Mr. Hatteras, I have to offer you an apology. I should have called upon you yesterday to express the gratitude I feel to you for having saved the life of my son, but I was unavoidably prevented."
"I beg you will not mention it," I said. "His lordship thanked me sufficiently himself. And after all, when you look at it, it was not very much to do. I would, however, venture one little suggestion. Is it wise to let him swim so far unaccompanied by a boat? The same thing might happen to him on another occasion, and no one be near enough to render him any assistance."
"He will not attempt so much again. He has learned a lesson from this experience. And now, Mr. Hatteras, I trust you will forgive what I am about to say. My son has told me that you have just arrived in England from Australia. Is there any way I can be of service to you? If there is, and you will acquaint me with it, you will be conferring a great favour upon me."
"I thank your Grace," I replied—I hope with some little touch of dignity—"it is very kind of you, but I could not think of such a thing. But, stay, there is one service, perhaps you could do me."
"I am delighted to hear it, sir. And what may it be?"
"Your son's tutor, Mr. Baxter! His face is strangely familiar to me. I have seen him somewhere before, but I cannot recall where. Could you tell me anything of his history?"
"Very little, I fear, save that he seems a worthy and painstaking man, an excellent scholar, and very capable in his management of young men. I received excellent references with him, but of his past history I know very little. I believe, however, that he was a missionary in the South Seas for some time, and that he was afterwards for many years in India. I'm sorry I cannot tell you more about him since you are interested in him."
"I've met him somewhere, I'm certain. His face haunts me. But to return to your son—I hope he is none the worse for his adventure?"
"Not at all, thank you. Owing to the system I have adopted in his education, the lad is seldom ailing."
"Pardon my introducing the subject. But do you think it is quite wise to keep a youth so ignorant of the world? I am perhaps rather presumptuous, but I cannot help feeling that such a fine young fellow would be all the better for a few companions."
"You hit me on rather a tender spot, Mr. Hatteras. But, as you have been frank with me, I will be frank with you. I am one of those strange beings who govern their lives by theories. I was brought up by my father, I must tell you, in a fashion totally different from that I am employing with my son. I feel now that I was allowed a dangerous amount of license. And what was the result? I mixed with every one, was pampered and flattered far beyond what was good for me, derived a false notion of my own importance, and when I came to man's estate was, to all intents and purposes, quite unprepared and unfitted to undertake the duties and responsibilities of my position.
"Fortunately I had the wit to see where the fault lay, and there and then I resolved that if ever I were blessed with a son, I would conduct his education on far different lines. My boy has not met a dozen strangers in his life. His education has been my tenderest care. His position, his duties towards his fellow-men, the responsibilities of his rank, have always been kept rigorously before him. He has been brought up to understand that to be a Duke is not to be a titled nonentity or a pampered roue, but to be one whom Providence has blessed with an opportunity of benefiting and watching over the welfare of those less fortunate than himself in the world's good gifts.
"He has no exaggerated idea of his own importance; a humbler lad, I feel justified in saying, you would nowhere find. He has been educated thoroughly, and he has all the best traditions of his race kept continually before his eyes. But you must not imagine, Mr. Hatteras, that because he has not mixed with the world he is ignorant of its temptations. He may not have come into personal contact with them, but he has been warned against their insidious influences, and I shall trust to his personal pride and good instincts to help him to withstand them when he has to encounter them himself. Now, what do you think of my plan for making a nobleman?"
"A very good one, with such a youth as your son, I should think, your Grace; but I would like to make one more suggestion, if you would allow me?"
"And that is?"
"That you should let him travel before he settles down. Choose some fit person to accompany him. Let him have introductions to good people abroad, and let him use them; then he will derive different impressions from different countries, view men and women from different standpoints, and enter gradually into the great world and station which he is some day to adorn."
"I had thought of that myself, and his tutor has lately spoken to me a good deal upon the subject. I must own it is an idea that commends itself strongly to me. I will think it over. And now, sir, I must wish you good-day. You will not let me thank you, as I should have wished, for the service you have rendered my house, but, believe me, I am none the less grateful. By the way, your name is not a common one. May I ask if you have any relatives in this county?"
"Only one at present, I fancy—my father's brother, Sir William Hatteras, of Murdlestone, in the New Forest."
"Ah! I never met him. I knew his brother James very well in my younger days. But he got into sad trouble, poor fellow, and was obliged to fly the country."
"You are speaking of my father. You knew him?"
"Knew him? indeed, I did. And a better fellow never stepped; but, like most of us in those days, too wild—much too wild! And so you are James's son? Well, well! This is indeed a strange coincidence. But, dear me, I am forgetting; I must beg your pardon for speaking so candidly of your father."
"No offence, I'm sure."
"And pray tell me where my old friend is now?"
"Dead, your Grace! He was drowned at sea."
The worthy old gentleman seemed really distressed at this news. He shook his head, and I heard him murmur: "Poor Jim! Poor Jim!"
Then, turning to me again, he took my hand.
"This makes our bond a doubly strong one. You must let me see more of you! How long do you propose remaining in England?"
"Not very much longer, I fear. I am already beginning to hunger for the South again."
"Well, you must not go before you have paid us a visit. Remember we shall always be pleased to see you. You know our house, I think, on the cliff. Good-day, sir, good-day."
So saying, the old gentleman accompanied me downstairs to his carriage, and, shaking me warmly by the hand, departed. Again I had cause to ponder on the strangeness of the fate that had led me to Hampshire—first to the village where my father was born, and then to Bournemouth, where by saving this young man's life I had made a firm friend of a man who again had known my father. By such small coincidences are the currents of our lives diverted.
That same afternoon, while tacking slowly down the bay, I met the Marquis. He was pulling himself in a small skiff, and when he saw me he made haste to come alongside and hitch on. At first I wondered whether it would not be against his father's wishes that he should enter into conversation with such a worldly person as myself. But he evidently saw what was passing in my mind, and banished all doubts by saying:
"I have been on the look-out for you, Mr. Hatteras. My father has given me permission to cultivate your acquaintance, if you will allow me."
"I shall be very pleased," I answered. "Won't you come aboard and have a chat? I'm not going out of the bay this afternoon."
He clambered over the side and seated himself in the well, clear of the boom, as nice-looking and pleasant a young fellow as any man could wish to set eyes on.
"You can't imagine how I've been thinking over all you told me the other day," he began when we were fairly on our way. "I want you to tell me more about Australia and the life you lead out there, if you will."
"I'll tell you all I can with pleasure," I answered. "But you ought to go and see the places and things for yourself. That's better than any telling. I wish I could take you up and carry you off with me now; away down to where you can make out the green islands peeping out of the water to port and starboard, like bits of the Garden of Eden gone astray and floated out to sea. I'd like you to smell the breezes that come off from them towards evening, to hear the 'trades' whistling overhead, and the thunder of the surf upon the reef. Or at another time to get inside that selfsame reef and look down through the still, transparent water, at the rainbow-coloured fish dashing among the coral boulders, in and out of the most beautiful fairy grottos the brain of man can conceive."
"Oh, it must be lovely! And to think that I may live my life and never see these wonders. Please go on; what else can you tell me?"
"What more do you want to hear? There is the pick of every sort of life for you out there. Would you know what real excitement is? Then I shall take you to a new gold rush. To begin with, you must imagine yourself setting off for the field, with your trusty mate marching step by step beside you, pick and shovel on your shoulders, and both resolved to make your fortunes in the twinkling of an eye. When you get there, there's the digger crowd, composed of every nationality. There's the warden and his staff, the police officers, the shanty keepers, the blacks, and dogs.
"There's the tented valley stretching away to right and left of you, with the constant roar of sluice boxes and cradles, the creak of windlasses, and the perpetual noise of human voices. There's the excitement of pegging out your claim and sinking your first shaft, wondering all the time whether it will turn up trumps or nothing. There's the honest, manly labour from dawn to dusk. And then, when daylight fails, and the lamps begin to sparkle over the field, songs drift up the hillside from the drinking shanties in the valley, and you and your mate weigh up your day's returns, and, having done so, turn into your blankets to dream of the monster nugget you intend to find upon the morrow. Isn't that real life for you?"
He did not answer, but there was a sparkle in his eyes which told me I was understood.
"Then if you want other sorts of enterprise, there is Thursday Island, where I hail from, with its extraordinary people. Let us suppose ourselves wandering down the Front at nightfall, past the Kanaka billiard saloons and the Chinese stores, into, say, the Hotel of All Nations. Who is that handsome, dark, mysterious fellow, smoking a cigarette and idly flirting with the pretty bar girl? You don't know him, but I do! There's indeed a history for you. You didn't notice, perhaps, that rakish schooner that came to anchor in the bay early in the forenoon. What lines she had! Well, that was his craft. To-morrow she'll be gone, it is whispered, to try for pearl in prohibited Dutch waters. Can't you imagine her slinking round the islands, watching for the patrolling gunboat, and ready, directly she has passed, to slip into the bay, skim it of its shell, and put to sea again. Sometimes they're chased."
"Well, a clean pair of heels or trouble with the authorities, and possibly a year in a Dutch prison before you're brought to trial! Or would you do a pearling trip in less exciting but more honest fashion? Would you ship aboard a lugger with five good companions, and go a-cruising down the New Guinea coast, working hard all day long, and lying out on deck at night, smoking and listening to the lip-lap of the water against the counter, or spinning yarns of all the world?"
"Why, what more do you want? Do you hanker after a cruise aboard a stinking beche-de-mer boat inside the Barrier Reef, or a run with the sandalwood cutters or tortoiseshell gatherers to New Guinea; or do you want to go ashore again and try an overlanding trip half across the continent, riding behind your cattle all day long, and standing your watch at night under dripping boughs, your teeth chattering in your head, waiting for the bulls to break, while every moment you expect to hear the Bunyip calling in that lonely water-hole beyond the fringe of Mulga scrub?"
"You make me almost mad with longing."
"And yet, somehow, it doesn't seem so fine when you're at it. It's when you come to look back upon it all from a distance of twelve thousand miles that you feel its real charm. Then it calls to you to return in every rustle of the leaves ashore, in the blue of the sky above, in the ripple of the waves upon the beach. And it eats into your heart, so that you begin to think you will never be happy till you're back in the old tumultuous devil-may-care existence again."
"What a life you've led! And how much more to be envied it seems than the dull monotony of our existence here in sleepy old England."
"Don't you believe it. If you wanted to change I could tell you of dozens of men, living exactly the sort of life I've described, who would only too willingly oblige you. No, no! Believe me, you've got chances of doing things we could never dream of. Do them, then, and let the other go. But all the same, I think you ought to see more of the world I've told you of before you settle down. In fact, I hinted as much to your father only yesterday."
"He said that you had spoken of it to him. Oh, how I wish he would let me go!"
"Somehow, d'you know, I think he will."
I put the cutter over on another tack, and we went crashing back through the blue water towards the pier. The strains of the band came faintly off to us. I had enjoyed my sail, for I had taken a great fancy to this bright young fellow sitting by my side. I felt I should like to have finished the education his father had so gallantly begun. There was something irresistibly attractive about him, so modest, so unassuming, and yet so straightforward and gentlemanly.
Dropping him opposite the bathing machines, I went on to my own anchorage on the other side of the pier. Then I pulled myself ashore and went up to the town. I had forgotten to write an important letter that morning, and as it was essential that the business should be attended to at once, to repair my carelessness, I crossed the public gardens and went through the gardens to the post office to send a telegram.
I must tell you here that since my meeting with Mr. Baxter, the young Marquis's tutor, I had been thinking a great deal about him, and the more I thought the more certain I became that we had met before. To tell the truth, a great distrust of the man was upon me. It was one of those peculiar antipathies that no one can explain. I did not like his face, and I felt sure that he did not boast any too much love for me.
As my thoughts were still occupied with him, my astonishment may be imagined, on arriving at the building, at meeting him face to face upon the steps. He seemed much put out at seeing me, and hummed and hawed over his "Good-afternoon" for all the world as if I had caught him in the middle of some guilty action.
Returning his salutation, I entered the building and looked about me for a desk at which to write my wire. There was only one vacant, and I noticed that the pencil suspended on the string was still swinging to and fro as it had been dropped. Now Baxter had only just left the building, so there could be no possible doubt that it was he who had last used the stand. I pulled the form towards me and prepared to write. But as I did so I noticed that the previous writer had pressed so hard upon his pencil that he had left the exact impression of his message plainly visible upon the pad. It ran as follows:
"LETTER RECEIVED. YOU OMMITTED REVEREDN. THE TRAIN IS LAID, BUT A NEW ELEMENT OF DANGER HAS ARISEN."
It was addressed to "Nikola, Green Sailor Hotel, East India Dock Road, London," and was signed "Nineveh."
The message was so curious that I looked at it again, and the longer I looked the more certain I became that Baxter was the sender. Partly because its wording interested me, and partly for another reason which will become apparent later on, I inked the message over, tore it from the pad, and placed it carefully in my pocket-book. One thing at least was certain, and that was, if Baxter were the sender, there was something underhand going on. If he were not, well, then there could be no possible harm in my keeping the form as a little souvenir of a rather curious experience.
I wrote my own message, and having paid for it left the office. But I was not destined to have the society of my own thoughts for long. Hardly had I reached the Invalids' Walk before I felt my arm touched. To my supreme astonishment I found myself again confronted by Mr. Baxter. He was now perfectly calm and greeted me with extraordinary civility.
"Mr. Hatteras, I believe," he said. "I think I had the pleasure of meeting you on the sands a few days ago. What a beautiful day it is, isn't it? Are you proceeding this way? Yes? Then perhaps I may be permitted the honour of walking a short distance with you."
"With pleasure," I replied. "I am going up the cliff to my hotel, and I shall be glad of your company. I think we met in the telegraph office just now."
"In the post office, I think. I had occasion to go in there to register a letter."
His speech struck me as remarkable. My observation was so trivial that it hardly needed an answer, and yet not only did he vouchsafe me one, but he corrected my statement and volunteered a further one on his own account. What reason could he have for wanting to make me understand that he had gone in there to post a letter? What would it have mattered to me if he had been there, as I suggested, to send a telegram?
"Mr. Baxter," I thought to myself, "I've got a sort of conviction that you're not the man you pretend to be, and what's more I'd like to bet a shilling to a halfpenny that, if the truth were only known, you're our mysterious friend Nineveh."
We walked for some distance in silence. Presently my companion began to talk again—this time, however, in a new strain, and perhaps with a little more caution.
"You have been a great traveller, I understand."
"A fairly great one, Mr. Baxter. You also, I am told, have seen something of the world."
"A little—very little."
"The South Seas, I believe. D'you know Papeete?"
"I have been there."
"D'you know New Guinea at all?"
"No. I was never near it. I am better acquainted with the Far East—China, Japan, etc."
Suddenly something, I shall never be able to tell what, prompted me to say:
"And the Andamans?"
The effect on my companion was as sudden as it was extraordinary. For a moment he staggered on the path like a drunken man; his face grew ashen pale, and he had to give utterance to a hoarse choking sound before he could get out a word. Then he said:
"No—no—you are quite mistaken, I assure you. I never knew the Andamans."
Now, on the Andamans, as all the world knows, are located the Indian penal establishments, and noting his behaviour, I became more and more convinced in my own mind that there was some mystery about Mr. Baxter that had yet to be explained. I had still a trump card to play.
"I'm afraid you are not very well, Mr. Baxter," I said at length. "Perhaps the heat is too much for you, or we are walking too fast? This is my hotel. Won't you come inside and take a glass of wine or something to revive you?"
He nodded his head eagerly. Large drops of perspiration stood on his forehead, and I saw that he was quite unstrung. "I am not well—not at all well."
As soon as we reached the smoking-room I rang for two brandies and sodas. When they arrived he drank his off almost at a gulp, and in a few seconds was pretty well himself again.
"Thank you for your kindness, Mr. Hatteras," he said. "I think we must have walked up the hill a little too fast for my strength. Now, I must be going back to the town. I find I have forgotten something."
Almost by instinct I guessed his errand. He was going to despatch another telegram. Resolved to try the effect of one parting shot, I said:
"Perhaps you do not happen to be going near the telegraph office again? If you are, should I be taxing your kindness too much if I asked you to leave a message there for me? I find I have forgotten one."
He bowed and simply said: "With much pleasure."
He pronounced it "pleesure," and as he said it he licked his lips in his usual self-satisfied fashion. I wondered how he would conduct himself when he saw the message I was going to write.
Taking a form from a table near where I sat, I wrote the following:
"John Nicholson, "Langham Hotel, London.
"The train is laid, but a new danger has arisen.
Blotting it carefully, I gave it into his hands, at the same time asking him to read it, lest my writing should not be decipherable and any question might be asked concerning it. As he read I watched his face intently. Never shall I forget the expression that swept over it. I had scored a complete victory. The shaft went home. But only for an instant. With wonderful alacrity he recovered himself and, shaking me feebly by the hand, bade me good-bye, promising to see that my message was properly delivered. When he had gone I laid myself back in my chair for a good think. The situation was a peculiar one in every way. If he were up to some devilry I had probably warned him. If not, why had he betrayed himself so openly?
Half an hour later an answer to my first telegram arrived, and, such is the working of Fate, it necessitated my immediate return to London. I had been thinking of going for some days past, but had put it off. Now it was decided for me.
As I did not know whether I should return to Bournemouth, I determined to call upon the Marquis to bid him good-bye. Accordingly I set off for the house.
Now if Burke may be believed, the Duke of Glenbarth possesses houses in half the counties of the kingdom; but I am told his seaside residence takes precedence of them all in his affections. Standing well out on the cliffs, it commands a lovely view of the bay—looks toward the Purbeck Hills on the right, and the Isle of Wight and Hengistbury Head on the left. The house itself, as far as I could see, left nothing to be desired, and the grounds had been beautified in the highest form of landscape gardening.
I found my friend and his father in a summer-house upon the lawn. Both appeared unaffectedly glad to see me, and equally sorry to hear that I had come to bid them good bye. Mr. Baxter was not visible, and it was with no little surprise I learned that he, too, was contemplating a trip to the metropolis.
"I hope, if ever you visit Bournemouth again, you will come and see us," said the Duke as I rose to leave.
"Thank you," said I, "and I hope if ever your son visits Australia you will permit me to be of some service to him."
"You are very kind. I will bear your offer in mind."
Shaking hands with them both, I bade them good-bye, and went out through the gate.
But I was not to escape without an interview with my clerical friend after all. As I left the grounds and turned into the public road I saw a man emerge from a little wicket gate some fifty yards or so further down the hedge. From the way he made his appearance, it was obvious he had been waiting for me to leave the house.
It was, certainly enough, my old friend Baxter. As I came up with him he said, with the same sanctimonious grin that usually encircled his mouth playing round it now:
"A nice evening for a stroll, Mr. Hatteras."
"A very nice evening, as you say, Mr. Baxter."
"May I intrude myself upon your privacy for five minutes?"
"With pleasure. What is your business?"
"Of small concern to you, sir, but of immense importance to me. Mr. Hatteras, I have it in my mind that you do not like me."
"I hope I have not given you cause to think so. Pray what can have put such a notion into your head?"
I half hoped that he would make some allusion to the telegram he had despatched for me that morning, but he was far too cunning for that. He looked me over and over out of his small ferrety eyes before he replied:
"I cannot tell you why I think so, Mr. Hatteras, but instinct generally makes us aware when we are not quite all we might be to other people. Forgive me for speaking in this way to you, but you must surely see how much it means to me to be on good terms with friends of my employer's family."
"You are surely not afraid lest I should prejudice the Duke against you?"
"Not afraid, Mr. Hatteras! I have too much faith in your sense of justice to believe that you would willingly deprive me of my means of livelihood—for of course that is what it would mean in plain English."
"Then you need have no fear. I have just said good-bye to them. I am going away to-morrow, and it is improbable that I shall ever see either of them again."
"You are leaving for Australia?"
"Very shortly, I think."
"I am much obliged to you for the generous way you have treated me. I shall never forget your kindness."
"Pray don't mention it. Is that all you have to say to me? Then good-evening!"
"Good-evening, Mr. Hatteras."
He turned back, and I continued my way along the cliff, reflecting on the curious interview I had just passed through. If the truth must be known, I was quite at a loss to understand what he meant by it! Why had he asked that question about Australia? Was it only chance that had led him to put it, or was it done designedly, and for some reason connected with that mysterious "train" mentioned in his telegram?
I was to find out later, and only too thoroughly!
I MEET DR. NIKOLA AGAIN
It is strange with what ease, rapidity, and apparent unconsciousness the average man jumps from crisis to crisis in that strange medley he is accustomed so flippantly to call His Life. It was so in my case. For two days after my return from Bournemouth I was completely immersed in the toils of Hatton Garden, had no thought above the sale of pearls and the fluctuations in the price of shell; yet, notwithstanding all this, the afternoon of the third day found me kicking my heels on the pavement of Trafalgar Square, my mind quite made up, my passage booked, and my ticket for Australia stowed away in my waistcoat pocket.
As I stood there the grim, stone faces of the lions above me were somehow seen obscurely, Nelson's monument was equally unregarded, for my thoughts were far away with my mind's eye, following an ocean mail-steamer as she threaded her tortuous way between the Heads and along the placid waters of Sydney Harbour.
So wrapped up was I in the folds of this agreeable reverie, that when I felt a heavy hand upon my shoulder and heard a masculine voice say joyfully in my ear, "Dick Hatteras, or I'm a Dutchman," I started as if I had been shot.
Brief as was the time given me for reflection, it was long enough for that voice to conjure up a complete scene in my mind. The last time I had heard it was on the bridge of the steamer Yarraman, lying in the land-locked harbour of Cairns, on the Eastern Queensland coast; a canoeful of darkies were jabbering alongside, and a cargo of bananas was being shipped aboard.
I turned and held out my hand. "Jim Percival!" I cried, with as much pleasure as astonishment. "How on earth does it come about that you are here?"
"Arrived three days ago," the good-looking young fellow replied. "We're lying in the River just off the West India Docks. The old man kept us at it like galley slaves till I began to think we should never get the cargo out. Been up to the office this morning, coming back saw you standing here looking as if you were thinking of something ten thousand miles away. I tell you I nearly jumped out of my skin with astonishment, thought there couldn't be two men with the same face and build, so smacked you on the back, discovered I was right, and here we are. Now spin your yarn. But stay, let's first find a more convenient place than this."
We strolled down the Strand together, and at last had the good fortune to discover a "house of call" that met with even his critical approval. Here I narrated as much of my doings since we had last met, as I thought would satisfy his curiosity. My meeting with that mysterious individual at the French restaurant and my suspicions of Baxter particularly amused him.
"What a rum beggar you are, to be sure!" was his disconcerting criticism when I had finished. "What earthly reason have you for thinking that this chap, Baxter, has any designs upon your young swell, Beckenham, or whatever his name may be?"
"What makes you stand by to shorten sail, when you see a suspicious look about the sky? Instinct, isn't it?"
"That's a poor way out of the argument."
"Well, at any rate, time will show how far I'm right or wrong; though I don't suppose I shall hear any more of the affair, as I return to Australia in the Saratoga on Friday next."
"And what are you going to do now?"
"I haven't the remotest idea. My business is completed, and I'm just kicking my heels in idleness till Friday comes and it is time for me to set off."
"Then I have it. You'll just come along down to the docks with me; I'm due back at the old hooker at five sharp. You'll dine with us—pot luck, of course. Your old friend Riley is still chief officer; I'm second; young Cleary, whom you remember as apprentice, is now third; and, if I'm not very much mistaken, we'll find old Donald Maclean aboard too, tinkering away at his beloved engines. I don't believe that fellow could take a holiday away from his thrust blocks and piston rods if he were paid to. We'll have a palaver about old times, and I'll put you ashore myself when you want to go. There, what do you say?"
"I'm your man," said I, jumping at his offer with an alacrity which must have been flattering to him.
The truth was, I was delighted to have secured some sort of companionship, for London, despite its multitudinous places of amusement, and its five millions of inhabitants, is but a dismal caravanserai to be left alone in. Moreover, the Yarraman's officers and I were old friends, and, if the truth must be told, my heart yearned for the sight of a ship and a talk about days gone by.
Accordingly, we made our way to the docks.
The Yarraman, travel-stained, and bearing on her weather-beaten plates evidences of the continuous tramp-like life she had led, lay well out in the stream. Having chartered a waterman, we were put on board, and I had the satisfaction of renewing my acquaintance with the chief officer, Riley, at the yawning mouth of the for'ard hatch. The whilom apprentice, Cleary, now raised to the dignity of third officer, grinned a welcome to me from among the disordered raffle of the fo'c's'le head, while that excellent artificer, Maclean, oil-can and spanner in hand, greeted me affectionately in Gaelic from the entrance to the engine-room. The skipper was ashore, so I seated myself on the steps leading to the hurricane deck, and felt at home immediately.
Upon the circumstances attending that reunion there is no necessity for me to dwell. Suffice it that we dined in the deserted saloon, and adjourned later to my friend Percival's cabin in the alley way just for'ard of the engine-room, where several bottles of Scotch whisky, a strange collection of glass ware, and an assortment of excellent cigars, were produced. Percival and Cleary, being the juniors, ensconced themselves on the top bunk; Maclean (who had been induced to abandon his machinery in honour of our meeting) was given the washhand-stand. Riley took the cushioned locker in the corner, while I, as their guest, was permitted the luxury of a canvas-backed deck chair, the initials on the back of which were not those of its present owner. At first the conversation was circumscribed, and embraced Plimsoll, the attractions of London, and the decline in the price of freight; but, as the contents of the second bottle waned, speech became more unfettered, and the talk drifted into channels and latitudes widely different. Circumstances connected with bygone days were recalled; the faces of friends long hidden in the mists of time were brought again to mind; anecdotes illustrative of various types of maritime character succeeded to each other in brisk succession, till Maclean, without warning, finding his voice, burst into incongruous melody. One song suggested another; a banjo was produced, and tuned to the noise of clinking glasses; and every moment the atmosphere grew thicker.
How long this concert would have lasted I cannot say, but I remember, after the third repetition of the chorus of the sea-chanty that might have been heard a mile away, glancing at my watch and discovering to my astonishment that it was past ten o'clock. Then rising to my feet I resisted all temptations to stay the night, and reminded my friend Percival of his promise to put me ashore again. He was true to his word, and five minutes later we were shoving off from the ship's side amid the valedictions of my hosts. I have a recollection to this day of the face of the chief engineer gazing sadly down upon me from the bulwarks, while his quavering voice asserted the fact, in dolorous tones, that
"Aft hae I rov'd by bonny Doon, To see the rose and woodbine twine; And ilka bird sang o' its luve, And fondly sae did I o' mine."
With this amorous farewell still ringing in my ears I landed at Limehouse Pier, and bidding my friend good-bye betook myself by the circuitous route of Emmett and Ropemaker Streets and Church Row to that aristocratic thoroughfare known as the East India Dock Road.
The night was dark and a thick rain was falling, presenting the mean-looking houses, muddy road, and foot-stained pavements in an aspect that was even more depressing than was usual to them. Despite the inclemency of the weather and the lateness of the hour, however, the street was crowded; blackguard men and foul-mouthed women, such a class as I had never in all my experience of rough folk encountered before, jostled each other on the pavements with scant ceremony; costermongers cried their wares, small boys dashed in and out of the crowd at top speed, and flaring gin palaces took in and threw out continuous streams of victims.
For some minutes I stood watching this melancholy picture, contrasting it with others in my mind. Then turning to my left hand I pursued my way in the direction I imagined the Stepney railway station to lie. It was not pleasant walking, but I was interested in the life about me—the people, the shops, the costermongers' barrows, and I might even say the public-houses.
I had not made my way more than a hundred yards along the street when an incident occurred that was destined to bring with it a train of highly important circumstances. As I crossed the entrance to a small side street, the door of an ill-looking tavern was suddenly thrust open and the body of a man was propelled from it, with a considerable amount of violence, directly into my arms. Having no desire to act as his support I pushed him from me, and as I did so glanced at the door through which he had come. Upon the glass was a picture, presumably nautical, and under it this legend, "The Green Sailor." In a flash Bournemouth post office rose before my mind's eye, the startled face of Baxter on the door-step, the swinging pencil on the telegraph stand, and the imprint of the mysterious message addressed to "Nikola, Green Sailor Hotel, East India Dock Road." So complete was my astonishment that at first I could do nothing but stand stupidly staring at it, then my curiosity asserted itself and, seeking the private entrance, I stepped inside. A short passage conducted me to a small and evil-smelling room abutting on the bar. On the popular side of the counter the place was crowded; in the chamber where I found myself I was the sole customer. A small table stood in the centre, and round this two or three chairs were ranged, while several pugnacious prints lent an air of decoration to the walls.
On the other side, to the left of that through which I had entered, a curtained doorway hinted at a similar room beyond. A small but heavily-built man, whom I rightly judged to be the landlord, was busily engaged with an assistant, dispensing liquor at the counter, but when I rapped upon the table he forsook his customers, and came to learn my wishes. I called for a glass of whisky, and seated myself at the table preparatory to commencing my inquiries as to the existence of Baxter's mysterious friend. But at the moment that I was putting my first question the door behind the half-drawn curtain, which must have been insecurely fastened, opened about an inch, and a voice greeted my ears that brought me up all standing with surprise. It was the voice of Baxter himself.
"I assure you," he was saying, "it was desperate work from beginning to end, and I was never so relieved in my life as when I discovered that he had really come to say good-bye."
At this juncture one of them must have realized that the door was open, for I heard some one rise from his chair and come towards it. Acting under the influence of a curiosity, which was as baneful to himself as it was fortunate for me, before closing it he opened the door wider and looked into the room where I sat. It was Baxter, and if I live to be an hundred I shall not forget the expression on his face as his eyes fell upon me.
"Mr. Hatteras!" he gasped, clutching at the wall.
Resolved to take him at a disadvantage, I rushed towards him and shook him warmly by the hand, at the same time noticing that he had discarded his clerical costume. It was too late now for him to pretend that he did not know me, and as I had taken the precaution to place my foot against it, it was equally impossible for him to shut the door. Seeing this he felt compelled to surrender, and I will do him the justice to admit that he did it with as good a grace as possible.
"Mr. Baxter," I said, "this is the last place I should have expected to meet you in. May I come in and sit down?"
Without giving him time to reply I entered the room, resolved to see who his companion might be. Of course, in my own mind I had quite settled that it was the person to whom he had telegraphed from Bournemouth—in other words Nikola. But who was Nikola? And had I ever seen him before?
My curiosity was destined to be satisfied, and in a most unexpected fashion. For there, sitting at the table, a half-smoked cigarette between his fingers, and his face turned towards me, was the man whom I had seen playing chess in the restaurant, the man who had told me my name by the cards in my pocket, and the man who had warned me in such a mysterious fashion about my sweetheart's departure. He was Baxter's correspondent! He was Nikola!
Whatever my surprise may have been, he was not in the least disconcerted, but rose calmly from his seat and proffered me his hand, saying as he did so:
"Good-evening, Mr. Hatteras. I am delighted to see you, and still more pleased to learn that you and my worthy old friend, Baxter, have met before. Won't you sit down?"
I seated myself on a chair at the further end of the table; Baxter meanwhile looked from one to the other of us as if uncertain whether to go or stay. Presently, however, he seemed to make up his mind, and advancing towards Nikola, said, with an earnestness that I could see was assumed for the purpose of putting me off the scent:
"And so I cannot induce you, Dr. Nikola, to fit out an expedition for the work I have named?"
"If I had five thousand pounds to throw away," replied Nikola, "I might think of it, Mr. Baxter, but as I haven't you must understand that it is impossible." Then seeing that the other was anxious to be going, he continued, "Must you be off? then good-night."
Baxter shook hands with us both with laboured cordiality, and having done so slunk from the room. When the door closed upon him Nikola turned to me.
"There must be some fascination about a missionary's life after all," he said. "My old tutor, Baxter, as you are aware, has a comfortable position with the young Marquis of Beckenham, which, if he conducts himself properly, may lead to something really worth having in the future, and yet here he is anxious to surrender it in order to go back to his work in New Guinea, to his hard life, insufficient food, and almost certain death."
"He was in New Guinea then?"
"Five years—so he tells me."
"Are you certain of that?"
"Then all I can say is that, in spite of his cloth, Mr. Baxter does not always tell the truth."
"I am sorry you should think that. Pray what reason have you for saying so?"
"Simply because in a conversation I had with him at Bournemouth he deliberately informed me that he had never been near New Guinea in his life."
"You must have misunderstood him. However, that has nothing to do with us. Let us turn to a pleasanter subject."
He rang the bell, and the landlord having answered it, ordered more refreshment. When it arrived he lit another cigarette, and leaning back in his chair glanced at me through half-closed eyes.
Then occurred one of the most curious and weird circumstances connected with this meeting. Hardly had he laid himself back in his chair before I heard a faint scratching against the table leg, and next moment an enormous cat, black as the Pit of Tophet, sprang with a bound upon the table and stood there steadfastly regarding me, its eyes flashing and its back arched. I have seen cats without number, Chinese, Persian, Manx, the Australian wild cat, and the English tabby, but never in the whole course of my existence such another as that owned by Dr. Nikola. When it had regarded me with its evil eyes for nearly a minute, it stepped daintily across to its master, and rubbed itself backwards and forwards against his arm, then to my astonishment it clambered up on to his shoulder and again gave me the benefit of its fixed attention. Dr. Nikola must have observed the amazement depicted in my face, for he smiled in a curious fashion, and coaxing the beast down into his lap fell to stroking its fur with his long, white fingers. It was as uncanny a performance as ever I had the privilege of witnessing.
"And so, Mr. Hatteras," he said slowly, "you are thinking of leaving us?"
"I am," I replied, with a little start of natural astonishment. "But how did you know it?"
"After the conjuring tricks—we agreed to call them conjuring tricks, I think—I showed you a week or two ago, I wonder that you should ask such a question. You have the ticket in your pocket even now."
All the time he had been speaking his extraordinary eyes had never left my face; they seemed to be reading my very soul, and his cat ably seconded his efforts.
"By the way, I should like to ask you a few questions about those self same conjuring tricks," I said. "Do you know you gave me a most peculiar warning?"
"I am very glad to hear it; I hope you profited by it."
"It cost me a good deal of uneasiness, if that's any consolation to you. I want to know how you did it?"
"My fame as a wizard would soon evaporate if I revealed my methods," he answered, still looking steadfastly at me. "However, I will give you another exhibition of my powers. In fact, another warning. Have you confidence enough in me to accept it?"
"I'll wait and see what it is first," I replied cautiously, trying to remove my eyes from his.
"Well, my warning to you is this—you intend to sail in the Saratoga for Australia on Friday next, don't you? Well, then, don't go; as you love your life, don't go!"
"Good gracious! and why on earth not?" I cried.
He stared fixedly at me for more than half a minute before he answered. There was no escaping those dreadful eyes, and the regular sweep of those long white fingers on the cat's black fur seemed to send a cold shiver right down my spine. Bit by bit I began to feel a curious sensation of dizziness creeping over me.
"Because you will not go. You cannot go. I forbid you to go."
I roused myself with an effort, and sprang to my feet, crying as I did so:
"And what right have you to forbid me to do anything? I'll go on Friday, come what may. And I'd like to see the man who will prevent me."
Though he must have realized that his attempt to hypnotize me (for attempt it certainly was) had proved a failure, he was not in the least disconcerted.
"My dear fellow," he murmured gently, knocking off the ash of his cigarette against the table edge as he did so, "no one is seeking to prevent you. I gave you, at your own request—you will do me the justice to admit that—a little piece of advice. If you do not care to follow it, that is your concern, not mine; but pray do not blame me. Must you really go now? Then good-night, and good-bye, for I don't suppose I shall see you this side of the Line again."
I took his proffered hand, and wished him good-night. Having done so, I left the house, heartily glad to have said good-bye to the only man in my life whom I have really feared.
When in the train, on my way back to town, I came to review the meeting in the Green Sailor, I found myself face to face with a series of problems very difficult to work out. How had Nikola first learned my name? How had he heard of the Wetherells? Was he the mysterious person his meeting with whom had driven Wetherell out of England? Why had Baxter telegraphed to him that "the train was laid"? Was I the new danger that had arisen? How had Baxter come to be at the Green Sailor, in non-clerical costume? Why had he been so disturbed at my entry? Why had Nikola invented such a lame excuse to account for his presence there? Why had he warned me not to sail in the Saratoga? and, above all, why had he resorted to hypnotism to secure his ends?
I asked myself these questions, but one by one I failed to answer them to my satisfaction. Whatever other conclusion I might have come to, however, one thing at least was certain: that was, that my original supposition was a correct one. There was a tremendous mystery somewhere. Whether or not I was to lose my interest in it after Friday remained to be seen.
It was nearly twelve o'clock by the time I entered my hotel; but late as it was I found time to examine the letter rack. It contained two envelopes bearing my name, and taking them out I carried them with me to my room. One, to my delight, bore the postmark of Port Said, and was addressed in my sweetheart's handwriting. You may guess how eagerly I tore it open, and with what avidity I devoured its contents. From it I gathered that they had arrived at the entrance of the Suez Canal safely; that her father had recovered his spirits more and more with every mile that separated him from Europe. He was now almost himself again, she said, but still refused with characteristic determination to entertain the smallest notion of myself as a son-in-law. But Phyllis herself did not despair of being able to talk him round. Then came a paragraph which struck me as being so peculiar as to warrant my reproducing it here:
"The passengers, what we have seen of them, appear to be, with one exception, a nice enough set of people. That exception, however, is intolerable; his name is Prendergast, and his personal appearance is as objectionable as his behaviour is extraordinary; his hair is snow-white, and his face is deeply pitted with smallpox. This is, of course, not his fault, but it seems somehow to aggravate the distaste I have for him. Unfortunately we were thrown into his company in Naples, and since then the creature has so far presumed upon that introduction, that he scarcely leaves me alone for a moment. Papa does not seem to mind him so much, but I thank goodness that, as he leaves the boat in Port Said, the rest of the voyage will be performed without him."
The remainder of the letter had no concern for any one but myself, so I do not give it. Having read it I folded it up and put it in my pocket, feeling that if I had been on board the boat I should in all probability have allowed Mr. Prendergast to understand that his attentions were distasteful and not in the least required. If I could only have foreseen that within a fortnight I was to be enjoying the doubtful pleasure of that very gentleman's society, under circumstances as important as life and death, I don't doubt I should have thought still more strongly on the subject.
The handwriting of the second envelope was bold, full of character, but quite unknown to me. I opened it with a little feeling of curiosity, and glanced at the signature, "Beckenham." It ran as follows:—
"West Cliff, Bournemouth, "Tuesday Evening.
"MY DEAR MR. HATTERAS,
"I have great and wonderful news to tell you! This week has proved an extraordinarily eventful one for me, for what do you think? My father has suddenly decided that I shall travel. All the details have been settled in a great hurry. You will understand this when I tell you that Mr. Baxter and I sail for Sydney in the steamship Saratoga next week. My father telegraphed to Mr. Baxter, who is in London, to book our passages and to choose our cabins this morning. I can only say that my greatest wish is that you were coming with us. Is it so impossible? Cannot you make your arrangements fit in? We shall travel overland to Naples and join the boat there. This is Mr. Baxter's proposition, and you may be sure, considering what I shall see en route, I have no objection to urge against it. Our tour will be an extensive one. We visit Australia and New Zealand, go thence to Honolulu, thence to San Francisco, returning, across the United States, via Canada, to Liverpool.
"You may imagine how excited I am at the prospect, and as I feel that I owe a great measure of my good fortune to you, I want to be the first to acquaint you of it.
"Yours ever sincerely, "BECKENHAM."
I read the letter through a second time, and then sat down on my bed to think it out. One thing was self-evident. I knew now how Nikola had become aware that I was going to sail in the mail boat on Friday; Baxter had seen my name in the passenger list, and had informed him.
I undressed and went to bed, but not to sleep. I had a problem to work out, and a more than usually difficult one it was. Here was the young Marquis of Beckenham, I told myself, only son of his father, heir to a great name and enormous estates, induced to travel by my representations. There was a conspiracy afoot in which, I could not help feeling certain, the young man was in some way involved. And yet I had no right to be certain about it after all, for my suspicions at best were only conjectures. Now the question was whether I ought to warn the Duke or not? If I did I might be frightening him without cause, and might stop his son's journey; and if I did not, and things went wrong—well, in that case, I should be the innocent means of bringing a great and lasting sorrow upon his house. Hour after hour I turned this question over and over in my mind, uncertain how to act. The clocks chimed their monotonous round, the noises died down and rose again in the streets, and daylight found me only just come to a decision. I would not tell them; but at the same time I would make doubly sure that I sailed aboard that ship myself, and that throughout the voyage I was by the young man's side to guard him from ill.
Breakfast time came, and I rose from my bed wearied with thought. Even a bath failed to restore my spirits. I went downstairs and, crossing the hall again, examined the rack. Another letter awaited me. I passed into the dining-room and, seating myself at my table, ordered breakfast. Having done so, I turned to my correspondence. Fate seemed to pursue me. On this occasion the letter was from the lad's father, the Duke of Glenbarth himself, and ran as follows:—
"Sandridge Castle, Bournemouth, "Wednesday.
"DEAR MR. HATTERAS,
"My son tells me he has acquainted you with the news of his departure for Australia next week. I don't doubt this will cause you some little surprise; but it has been brought about by a curious combination of circumstances. Two days ago I received a letter from my old friend, the Earl of Amberley, who, as you know, has for the past few years been Governor of the colony of New South Wales, telling me that his term of office will expire in four months. Though he has not seen my boy since the latter was two years old, I am anxious that he should be at the head of affairs when he visits the colony. Hence this haste. I should have liked nothing better than to have accompanied him myself, but business of the utmost importance detains me in England. I am, however, sending Mr. Baxter with him, with powerful credentials, and if it should be in your power to do anything to assist them you will be adding materially to the debt of gratitude I already owe you.
"Believe me, my dear Mr. Hatteras, to be,
"Very truly yours, "GLENBARTH."
My breakfast finished, I answered both these letters, informed my friends of my contemplated departure by the same steamer, and promised that I would do all that lay in my power to ensure both the young traveller's pleasure and his safety. For the rest of the morning I was occupied inditing a letter to my sweetheart, informing her of my return to the Colonies, and telling her all my adventures since her departure.
The afternoon was spent in saying good-bye to the few business friends I had made in London, and in the evening I went for the last time to a theatre.
Five minutes to eleven o'clock next morning found me at Waterloo sitting in a first-class compartment of the West of England express, bound for Plymouth and Australia. Though the platform was crowded to excess I had the carriage so far to myself, and was about to congratulate myself on my good fortune, when a porter appeared on the scene, and deposited a bag in the opposite corner. A moment later, and just as the train was in motion, a man jumped in the carriage, tipped the servant, and then placed a basket upon the rack. The train was half-way out of the station before he turned round, and my suspicions were confirmed. It was Dr. Nikola!
Though he must have known who his companion was, he affected great surprise. "Mr. Hatteras," he cried, "I think this is the most extraordinary coincidence I have ever experienced in my life."
"Why so?" I asked. "You knew I was going to Plymouth to-day, and one moment's reflection must have told you, that as my boat sails at eight, I would be certain to take the morning express, which lands me there at five. Should I be indiscreet if I asked where you may be going?"
"Like yourself, I am also visiting Plymouth," he answered, taking the basket, before mentioned, down from the rack, and drawing a French novel from his coat pocket. "I expect an old Indian friend home by the mail boat that arrives to-night. I am going down to meet him."
I felt relieved to hear that he was not thinking of sailing in the Saratoga, and after a few polite commonplaces, we both lapsed into silence. I was too suspicious, and he was too wary, to appear over friendly. Clapham, Wimbledon, Surbiton, came and went. Weybridge and Woking flashed by at lightning speed, and even Basingstoke was reached before we spoke again. That station behind us, Dr. Nikola took the basket before mentioned on his knee, and opened it. When he had done so, the same enormous black cat, whose acquaintance I had made in the East India Dock Road, stepped proudly forth. In the daylight the brute looked even larger and certainly fiercer than before. I felt I should have liked nothing better than to have taken it by the tail and hurled it out of the window. Nikola, on the other hand, seemed to entertain for it the most extraordinary affection.
Now such was this marvellous man's power of fascination that by the time we reached Andover Junction his conversation had roused me quite out of myself, had made me forget my previous distrust of him, and enabled me to tell myself that this railway journey was one of the most enjoyable I had ever undertaken.
In Salisbury we took luncheon baskets on board, with, two bottles of champagne, for which my companion, in spite of my vigorous protest, would insist upon paying.
As the train rolled along the charming valley, in which lie the miniature towns of Wilton, Dinton, and Tisbury, we pledged each other in right good fellowship, and by the time Exeter was reached were friendly enough to have journeyed round the world together.