Exeter behind us, I began to feel drowsy, and presently was fast asleep.
I remember no more of that ill-fated journey; nor, indeed, have I any recollection of anything at all, until I woke up in Room No. 37 of the Ship and Vulture Hotel in Plymouth.
The sunshine was streaming in through the slats of the Venetian blinds, and a portly gentleman, with a rosy face, and grey hair, was standing by my bedside, holding my wrist in his hand, and calmly scrutinizing me. A nurse in hospital dress stood beside him.
"I think he'll do now," he said to her as he rubbed his plump hands together; "but I'll look round in the course of the afternoon."
"One moment," I said feebly, for I found I was too weak to speak above a whisper. "Would you mind telling me where I am, and what is the matter with me?"
"I should very much like to be able to do so," was the doctor's reply. "My opinion is, if you want me to be candid, that you have been drugged and well-nigh poisoned by a remarkably clever chemist. But what the drug and poison were, and who administered it to you, and the motive for doing so, is more than I can tell you. From what I can learn from the hotel proprietors, you were brought here from the railway station in a cab last night by a gentleman who happened to find you in the carriage in which you travelled down from London. You were in such a curious condition that I was sent for and this nurse procured. Now you know all about it."
"What day did you say this is?"
"Saturday, to be sure."
"Saturday!" I cried. "You don't mean that! Then, by Jove, I've missed the Saratoga after all. Here, let me get up! And tell them downstairs to send for the Inspector of Police. I have got to get to the bottom of this."
I sat up in bed, but was only too glad to lie down. I looked at the doctor.
"How long before you can have me fit to travel?"
"Give yourself three days' rest and quiet," he replied, "and we'll see what we can do."
"Three days? And two days and a half to cross the Continent, that's five and a half—say six days. Good! I'll catch the boat in Naples, and then, Dr. Nikola, if you're aboard, as I suspect, I advise you to look out."
PORT SAID, AND WHAT BEFEL US THERE
Fortunately for me my arrangements fitted in exactly, so that at one thirty p.m., on the seventh day after my fatal meeting with Dr. Nikola in the West of England express, I had crossed the Continent, and stood looking out on the blue waters of Naples Bay. To my right was the hill of San Martino, behind me that of Capo di Monte, while in the distance, to the southward, rose the cloud-tipped summit of Vesuvius. The journey from London is generally considered, I believe, a long and wearisome one; it certainly proved so to me, for it must be remembered that my mind was impatient of every delay, while my bodily health was not as yet recovered.
The first thing to be done on arrival at the terminus was to discover a quiet hotel; a place where I could rest and recoup during the heat of the day, and, what was perhaps more important, where I should run no risk of meeting with Dr. Nikola or his satellites. I had originally intended calling at the office of the steamship company in order to explain the reason of my not joining the boat in Plymouth, planning afterwards to cast about me, among the various hotels, for the Marquis of Beckenham and Mr. Baxter. But, on second thoughts, I saw the wisdom of abandoning both these courses.
Nor for the same reason did I feel inclined to board the steamer, which I could see lying out in the harbour, until darkness had fallen. I ascertained, however, that she was due to sail at midnight, and that the mails were already being got aboard.
Almost exactly as eight o'clock was striking, I mounted the gangway, and strolled down the promenade deck to the first saloon entrance; then calling a steward to my assistance, I had my baggage conveyed to my cabin, where I set to work arranging my little knicknacks, and making myself comfortable for the voyage that lay before us. So far I had seen nothing of my friends, and, on making inquiries, I discovered that they had not yet come aboard. Indeed, they did not do so until the last boat had discharged its burden at the gangway. Then I met Lord Beckenham on the promenade deck, and unaffected was the young man's delight at seeing me.
"Mr. Hatteras," he cried, running forward to greet me with out-stretched hand, "this was all that was wanting to make my happiness complete. I am glad to see you. I hope your cabin is near ours."
"I'm on the port side just abaft the pantry," I answered, shaking him by the hand. "But tell me about yourself. I expect you had a pleasant journey across the Continent."
"Delightful!" was his reply. "We stayed a day in Paris, and another in Rome, and since we have been here we have been rushing about seeing everything, like a regulation pair of British tourists."
At this moment Mr. Baxter, who had been looking after the luggage, I suppose, made his appearance, and greeted me with more cordiality than I had expected him to show. To my intense surprise, however, he allowed no sign of astonishment to escape him at my having joined the boat after all. But a few minutes later, as we were approaching the companion steps, he said:—"I understood from his lordship, Mr. Hatteras, that you were to embark at Plymouth; was I mistaken, therefore, when I thought I saw you coming off with your luggage this evening?"
"No, you were not mistaken," I answered, being able now to account for this lack of surprise. "I came across the Continent like yourselves, and only joined the vessel a couple of hours ago."
Here the Marquis chimed in, and diverted the conversation into another channel.
"Where is everybody?" he asked, when Mr. Baxter had left us and gone below. "There are a lot of names on the passenger list, and yet I see nobody about!"
"They are all in bed," I answered. "It is getting late, you see, and, if I am not mistaken, we shall be under way in a few minutes."
"Then, I think, if you'll excuse me for a few moments, I'll go below to my cabin. I expect Mr. Baxter will be wondering where I am."
When he had left me I turned to the bulwarks and stood looking across the water at the gleaming lights ashore. One by one the boats alongside pushed off, and from the sounds that came from for'ard, I gathered that the anchor was being got aboard. Five minutes later we had swung round to our course and were facing for the open sea. For the first mile or so my thoughts chased each other in rapid succession. You must remember that it was in Naples I had learnt that my darling loved me, and it was in Naples now that I was bidding good-bye to Europe and to all the strange events that had befallen me there. I leant upon the rail, looked at the fast receding country in our wake, at old Vesuvius, fire-capped, away to port, at the Great Bear swinging in the heavens to the nor'ard, and then thought of the Southern Cross which, before many weeks were passed, would be lifting its head above our bows to welcome me back to the sunny land and to the girl I loved so well. Somehow I felt glad that the trip to England was over, and that I was on my way home at last.
The steamer ploughed her almost silent course, and three-quarters of an hour later we were abreast of Capri. As I was looking at it, Lord Beckenham came down the deck and stood beside me. His first speech told me that he was still under the influence of his excitement; indeed, he spoke in rapturous terms of the enjoyment he expected to derive from his tour.
"Are you sure you will be a good sailor?" I asked.
"Oh, I have no fear of that," he answered confidently. "As you know, I have been out in my boat in some pretty rough weather and never felt in the least ill, so I don't think it is likely that I shall begin to be a bad sailor on a vessel the size of the Saratoga. By the way, when are we due to reach Port Said?"
"Next Thursday afternoon, I believe, if all goes well."
"Will you let me go ashore with you if you go? I don't want to bother you, but after all you have told me about the place, I should like to see it in your company."
"I'll take you with pleasure," I answered, "provided Mr. Baxter gives his consent. I suppose we must regard him as skipper."
"Oh, I don't think we need fear his refusing. He is very good-natured, you know, and lets me have my own way a good deal."
"Where is he now?"
"Down below, asleep. He has had a lot of running about to-day, and thought he would turn in before we got under way. I think I had better be going now. Good-night."
"Good-night," I answered, and he left me again.
When I was alone I returned to my thoughts of Phyllis and the future, and as soon as my pipe was finished, went below to my bunk. My berth mate I had discovered earlier in the evening was a portly English merchant of the old school, who was visiting his agents in Australia; and, from the violence of his snores, I should judge had not much trouble on his mind. Fortunately mine was the lower bunk, and, when I had undressed, I turned into it to sleep like a top until roused by the bath-room steward at half-past seven next morning. After a good bathe I went back to my cabin and set to work to dress. My companion by this time was awake, but evidently not much inclined for conversation. His usual jovial face, it struck me, was not as rosy as when I had made his acquaintance the night before, and I judged that his good spirits were more than half assumed.
All this time a smart sea was running, and, I must own, the Saratoga was rolling abominably.
"A very good morning to you, my dear sir," my cabin mate said, with an air of enjoyment his pallid face belied, as I entered the berth. "Pray how do you feel to-day?"
"In first-class form, and as hungry as a hunter."
He laid himself back on his pillow with a remark that sounded very much like "Oh dear," and thereafter I was suffered to shave and complete my toilet in silence. Having done so I put on my cap and went on deck.
It was indeed a glorious morning; bright sunshine streamed upon the decks, the sea was a perfect blue, and so clear was the air that, miles distant though it was from us, the Italian coast-line could be plainly discerned above the port bulwarks. By this time I had cross-examined the chief steward, and satisfied myself that Nikola was not aboard. His absence puzzled me considerably. Was it possible that I could have been mistaken in the whole affair, and that Baxter's motives were honest after all? But in that case why had Nikola drugged me? And why had he warned me against sailing in the Saratoga? The better to think it out I set myself for a vigorous tramp round the hurricane deck, and was still revolving the matter in my mind, when, on turning the corner by the smoking-room entrance, I found myself face to face with Baxter himself. As soon as he saw me, he came smiling towards me, holding out his hand.
"Good-morning, Mr. Hatteras," he said briskly; "what a delightful morning it is, to be sure. You cannot tell how much I am enjoying it. The sea air seems to have made a new man of me already."
"I am glad to hear it. And pray how is your charge?" I asked, more puzzled than ever by this display of affability.
"Not at all well, I am sorry to say."
"Not well? You don't surely mean to say that he is sea-sick?"
"I'm sorry to say I do. He was perfectly well until he got out of his bunk half an hour ago. Then a sudden, but violent, fit of nausea seized him, and drove him back to bed again."
"I am very sorry to hear it, I hope he will be better soon. He would have been one of the last men I should have expected to be bowled over. Are you coming for a turn round?"
"I shall feel honoured," he answered, and thereupon we set off, step for step, for a constitutional round the deck. By the time we had finished it was nine o'clock, and the saloon gong had sounded for breakfast.
The meal over, I repaired to the Marquis's cabin, and having knocked, was bidden enter. I found my lord in bed, retching violently; his complexion was the colour of zinc, his hands were cold and clammy, and after every spasm his face streamed with perspiration.
"I am indeed sorry to see you like this," I said, bending over him. "How do you feel now?"
"Very bad, indeed!" he answered, with a groan. "I cannot understand it at all. Before I got out of bed this morning I felt as well as possible. Then Mr. Baxter was kind enough to bring me a cup of coffee, and within five minutes of drinking it, I was obliged to go back to bed feeling hopelessly sick and miserable."
"Well, you must try and get round as soon as you can, and come on deck; there's a splendid breeze blowing, and you'll find that will clear the sickness out of you before you know where you are."
But his only reply was another awful fit of sickness, that made as if it would tear his chest asunder. While he was under the influence of it, his tutor entered, and set about ministering to him with a care and fatherly tenderness that even deceived me. I can see things more plainly now, on looking back at them, than I could then, but I must own that Baxter's behaviour towards the boy that morning was of a kind that would have hoodwinked the very Master of All Lies himself. I could easily understand now how this man had come to have such an influence over the kindly-natured Duke of Glenbarth, who, when all was said and done, could have had but small experience of men of Baxter's type.
Seeing that, instead of helping, I was only in the way, I expressed a hope that the patient would soon be himself again, and returned to the deck.
Luncheon came, and still Lord Beckenham was unable to leave his berth. In the evening he was no better. The following morning he was, if anything, stronger; but towards mid-day, just as he was thinking of getting up, his nausea returned upon him, and he was obliged to postpone the attempt. On Wednesday there was no improvement, and, indeed, it was not until Thursday afternoon, when the low-lying coast of Port Said was showing above the sea-line, that he felt in any way fit to leave his bunk. In all my experience of sea-sickness I had never known a more extraordinary case.
It was almost dark before we dropped our anchor off the town, and as soon as we were at a standstill I went below to my friend's cabin. He was sitting on the locker fully dressed.
"Port Said," I announced. "Now, how do you feel about going ashore? Personally, I don't think you had better try it."
"Oh! but I want to go. I have been looking forward to it so much. I am much stronger than I was, believe me, and Mr. Baxter doesn't think it could possibly hurt me."
"If you don't tire yourself too much," that gentleman put in.
"Very well, then," I said. "In that case I'm your man. There are plenty of boats alongside, so we'll have no difficulty about getting there. Won't you come, too, Mr. Baxter?"
"I think not, thank you," he answered. "Port Said is not a place of which I am very fond."
"In that case I think we had better be going," I said, turning to his lordship.
We made our way on deck, and, after a little chaffering, secured a boat, in which we were pulled ashore. Having arrived there, we were immediately beset by the usual crowd of beggars and donkey boys, but, withstanding their importunities, we turned into the Rue de Commerce and made our way inland. To my companion the crowded streets, the diversity of nationalities and costume, and the strange variety of shops and wares, were matters of absorbing interest. This will be the better understood when it is remembered that, poor though Port Said is in orientalism, it was nevertheless the first Eastern port he had encountered. We had both a few purchases to make, and this business satisfactorily accomplished, we started off to see the sights.
Passing out of the Rue de Commerce, our attention was attracted by a lame young beggar who, leaning on his crutches, blocked our way while he recited his dismal catalogue of woes. Our guide bade him be off, and indeed I was not sorry to be rid of him, but I could see, by glancing at his face, that my companion had taken his case more seriously. In fact, we had not proceeded more than twenty yards before he asked me to wait a moment for him, and taking to his heels ran back to the spot where we had left him. When he rejoined us I said:—"You don't mean to say that you gave that rascal money?"
"Only half a sovereign," he answered. "Perhaps you didn't hear the pitiful story he told us? His father is dead, and now, if it were not for his begging, his mother and five young sisters would all be starving."
I asked our guide if he knew the man, and whether his tale were true.
"No, monsieur," he replied promptly, "it is all one big lie. His father is in the jail, and, if she had her rights, his mother would be there too."
Not another word was said on the subject, but I could see that the boy's generous heart had been hurt. How little he guessed the effect that outburst of generosity was to have upon us later on!
At our guide's suggestion, we passed from the commercial, through the European quarter, to a large mosque situated in Arab Town. It was a long walk, but we were promised that we should see something there that would amply compensate us for any trouble we might be put to to reach it. This turned out to be the case, but hardly in the fashion he had predicted.
The mosque was certainly a fine building, and at the time of our visit was thronged with worshippers. They knelt in two long lines, reaching from end to end, their feet were bare, and their heads turned towards the east. By our guide's instructions we removed our boots at the entrance, but fortunately took the precaution of carrying them into the building with us. From the main hall we passed into a smaller one, where a number of Egyptian standards, relics of the war of '82, were unrolled for our inspection. While we were examining them, our guide, who had for a moment left us, returned with a scared face to inform us that there were a number of English tourists in the mosque who had refused to take their boots off, and were evidently bent on making trouble. As he spoke the ominous hum of angry voices drifted in to us, increasing in volume as we listened. Our guide pricked up his ears and looked anxiously at the door.
"There will be trouble directly," he said solemnly, "if those young men do not behave themselves. If messieurs will be guided by me, they will be going. I can show them a backway out."
For a moment I felt inclined to follow his advice, but Beckenham's next speech decided me to stay.
"You will not go away and leave those stupid fellows to be killed?" he said, moving towards the door into the mosque proper. "However foolish they may have been, they are still our countrymen, and whatever happens we ought to stand by them."
"If you think so, of course we will, but remember it may cost us our lives. You still want to stay? Very good, then, come along, but stick close to me."
We left the small ante-room, in which we had been examining the flags, and passed back into the main hall. Here an extraordinary scene presented itself.
In the furthest corner, completely hemmed in by a crowd of furious Arabs, were three young Englishmen, whose faces plainly showed how well they understood the dangerous position into which their own impudence and folly had enticed them.
Elbowing our way through the crowd, we reached their side, and immediately called upon them to push their way towards the big doors; but before this man[oe]uvre could be executed, some one had given an order in Arabic, and we were all borne back against the wall.
"There is no help for it!" I cried to the biggest of the strangers. "We must fight our way out. Choose your men and come along."
So saying, I gave the man nearest me one under the jaw to remember me by, which laid him on his back, and then, having room to use my arms, sent down another to keep him company. All this time my companions were not idle, and to my surprise I saw the young Marquis laying about him with a science that I had to own afterwards did credit to his education. Our assailants evidently did not expect to meet with this resistance, for they gave way and began to back towards the door. One or two of them drew knives, but the space was too cramped for them to do much harm with them.
"One more rush," I cried, "and we'll turn them out."
We made the rush, and next moment the doors were closed and barred on the last of them. This done, we paused to consider our position. True we had driven the enemy from the citadel, but then, unless we could find a means of escape, we ourselves were equally prisoners in it. What was to be done?
Leaving three of our party to guard the doors, the remainder searched the adjoining rooms for a means of escape; but though we were unsuccessful in our attempt to find an exit, we did what was the next best thing to do, discovered our cowardly guide in a corner, skulking in a curious sort of cupboard.
By the time we had proved to him that the enemy were really driven out, and that we had possession of the mosque, he recovered his wits a little, and managed, after hearing our promise to throw him to the mob outside unless he discovered a means of escape for us, to cudgel his brains and announce that he knew of one.
No sooner did we hear this, than we resolved to profit by it. The mob outside was growing every moment more impatient, and from the clang of steel-shod rifle butts on the stone steps we came to the conclusion that the services of a force of soldiery had been called in. The situation was critical, and twice imperious demands were made upon us to open the door. But, as may be supposed, this we did not feel inclined to do.
"Now, for your way out," I said, taking our trembling guide, whose face seemed to blanch whiter and whiter with every knock upon the door, by the shoulders, and giving him a preliminary shake. "Mind what you're about, and remember, if you lead us into any trap, I'll wring your miserable neck, assure as you're alive. Go ahead."
Collecting our boots and shoes, which, throughout the tumult, had been lying scattered about upon the floor, we passed into the ante-room, and put them on. Then creeping softly out by another door, we reached a small courtyard in the rear, surrounded on all sides by high walls. Our way, so our guide informed us, lay over one of these. But how we were to surmount them was a puzzle, for the lowest scaling place was at least twelve feet high. However, the business had to be done, and, what was more to the point, done quickly.
Calling the strongest of the tourists, who were by this time all quite sober, to my side, I bade him stoop down as if he were playing leap-frog; then, mounting his back myself, I stood upright, and stretched my arms above my head. To my delight my fingers reached to within a few inches of the top of the wall.
"Stand as steady as you can," I whispered, "for I'm going to jump."
I did so, and clutched the edge. When I had pulled myself to the top I was so completely exhausted as to be unable to do anything for more than a minute. Then I whispered to another man to climb upon the first man's back, and stretch his hands up to mine. He did so, and I pulled him up beside me. The guide came next, then the other tourist, then Lord Beckenham. After which I took off and lowered my coat to the man who had stood for us all, and having done so, took a firm grip of the wall with my legs, and dragged him up as I had done the others. It had been a longer business than I liked, and every moment, while we were about it, I expected to hear the cries of the mob inside the mosque, and to find them pouring into the yard to prevent our escape. The bolts on the door, however, must have possessed greater strength than we gave them credit for. At any rate, they did not give way.
When we were all safely on the wall, I asked the guide in which direction we should now proceed; he pointed to the adjoining roofs, and in Indian file, and with the stealthiness of cats, we accordingly crept across them.
The third house surmounted, we found ourselves overlooking a narrow alley, into which we first peered carefully, and, having discovered that no one was about, eventually dropped.
"Now," said the guide, as soon as we were down, "we must run along here, and turn to the left."
We did so, to find ourselves in a broader street, which eventually brought us out into the thoroughfare through which we had passed to reach the mosque.
Having got our bearings now, we headed for the harbour, or at least for that part of the town with which I was best acquainted, as fast as our legs would carry us. But, startling as they had been, we had not yet done with adventures for the night.
Once in the security of the gaslit streets, we said good-bye to the men who had got us into all the trouble, and having come to terms with our guide, packed him off and proceeded upon our way alone.
Five minutes later the streaming lights of an open doorway brought us to a standstill, and one glance told us we were looking into the Casino. The noise of the roulette tables greeted our ears, and as we had still plenty of time, and my companion was not tired, I thought it a good opportunity to show him another phase of the seamy side of life.
But before I say anything about that I must chronicle a curious circumstance. As we were entering the building, something made me look round. To my intense astonishment I saw, or believed I saw, Dr. Nikola standing in the street, regarding me. Bidding my companion remain where he was for a moment, I dashed out again and ran towards the place where I had seen the figure. But I was too late. If it were Dr. Nikola, he had vanished as suddenly as he had come. I hunted here, there, and everywhere, in doorways, under verandahs, and down lanes, but it was no use, not a trace of him could I discover. So abandoning my search, I returned to the Casino. Beckenham was waiting for me, and together we entered the building.
The room was packed, and consequently all the tables were crowded, but as we did not intend playing, this was a matter of small concern to us. We were more interested in the players than the game. And, indeed, the expressions on the faces around us were extraordinary. The effect on the young man by my side was peculiar. He looked from face to face, as if he were observing the peculiarities of some strange animals. I watched him, and then I saw his expression suddenly change.
Following the direction of his eyes, I observed a young man putting down his stake upon the board. His face was hidden from me, but by taking a step to the right I could command it. It was none other than the young cripple who had represented his parents to be in such poverty-stricken circumstances; the same young man whom Beckenham had assisted so generously only two hours before. As we looked, he staked his last coin, and that being lost, turned to leave the building. To do this, it was necessary that he should pass close by where we stood. Then his eyes met those of his benefactor, and with a look of what might almost have been shame upon his face, he slunk down the steps and from the building.
"Come, let us get out of this place," cried my companion impatiently, "I believe I should go mad if I stayed here long."
Thereupon we passed out into the street, and without further ado proceeded in the direction in which I imagined the Saratoga to lie. A youth requested, in broken English, to be permitted the honour of piloting us, but feeling confident of being able to find my way I declined his services. For fully a quarter of an hour we plodded on, until I began to wonder why the harbour did not heave in sight. It was a queer part of the town we found ourselves in; the houses were perceptibly meaner and the streets narrower. At last I felt bound to confess that I was out of my reckoning, and did not know where we were.
"What are we to do?" asked my lord, looking at his watch. "It's twenty minutes to eleven, and I promised Mr. Baxter I would not be later than the hour."
"What an idiot I was not to take that guide!"
The words were hardly out of my mouth before that personage appeared round the corner and came towards us. I hailed his coming with too much delight to notice the expression of malignant satisfaction on his face, and gave him the name of the vessel we desired to find. He appeared to understand, and the next moment we were marching off in an exactly contrary direction.
We must have walked for at least ten minutes without speaking a word.
From one small and dirty street we turned into another and broader one. By this time not a soul was to be seen, only a vagrant dog or two lying asleep in the road. In this portion of the town gas lamps were at a discount, consequently more than half the streets lay in deep shadow. Our guide walked ahead, we followed half-a-dozen paces or so behind him. I remember noticing a Greek cognomen upon a sign board, and recalling a similar name in Thursday Island, when something very much resembling a thin cord touched my nose and fell over my chin. Before I could put my hand up to it it had begun to tighten round my throat. Just at the same moment I heard my companion utter a sharp cry, and after that I remember no more.
OUR IMPRISONMENT AND ATTEMPT AT ESCAPE
For what length of time I lay unconscious after hearing Beckenham's cry, and feeling the cord tighten round my throat, as narrated in the preceding chapter, I have not the remotest idea; I only know that when my senses returned to me again I found myself in complete darkness. The cord was gone from my neck, it is true, but something was still encircling it in a highly unpleasant fashion. On putting my hand up to it, to my intense astonishment, I discovered it to be a collar of iron, padlocked at the side, and communicating with a wall at the back by means of a stout chain fixed in a ring, which again was attached to a swivel.
This ominous discovery set me hunting about to find out where I was, and for a clue as to what these things might mean. That I was in a room was evident from the fact that, by putting my hands behind me, I could touch two walls forming a corner. But in what part of the town such room might be was beyond my telling. One thing was evident, however, the walls were of brick, unplastered and quite innocent of paper.
As not a ray of light relieved the darkness I put my hand into my ticket pocket, where I was accustomed to carry matches, and finding that my captors had not deprived me of them, lit one and looked about me. It was a dismal scene that little gleam illumined. The room in which I was confined was a small one, being only about ten feet long by eight wide, while, if I had been able to stand upright, I might have raised my hand to within two or three inches of the ceiling. In the furthest left-hand corner was a door, while in the wall on the right, but hopelessly beyond my reach, was a low window almost completely boarded up. I had no opportunity of seeing more, for by the time I had realized these facts the match had burnt down to my fingers. I blew it out and hastened to light another.
Just as I did so a low moan reached my ear. It came from the further end of the room. Again I held the match aloft; this time to discover a huddled-up figure in the corner opposite the door. One glance at it told me that it was none other than my young friend the Marquis of Beckenham. He was evidently still unconscious, for though I called him twice by name, he did not answer, but continued in the same position, moaning softly as before. I had only time for a hurried glance at him before my last match burned down to my fingers, and had to be extinguished. With the departure of the light a return of faintness seized me, and I fell back into my corner, if not quite insensible, certainly unconscious of the immediate awkwardness of our position.
It was daylight when my power of thinking returned to me, and long shafts of sunshine were percolating into us through the chinks in the boards upon the window. To my dismay the room looked even smaller and dingier than when I had examined it by the light of my match some hours before. The young Marquis lay unconscious in his corner just as I had last seen him, but with the widening light I discovered that his curious posture was due more to extraneous circumstances than to his own weakness, for I could see that he was fastened to the wall by a similar collar to my own.
I took out my watch, which had not been taken from me as I might have expected, and examined the dial. It wanted five minutes of six o'clock. So putting it back into my pocket, I set myself for the second time to try and discover where we were. By reason of my position and the chain that bound me, this could only be done by listening, so I shut my eyes and put all my being into my ears. For some moments no sound rewarded my attention. Then a cock in a neighbouring yard on my right crowed lustily, a dog on my left barked, and a moment later I heard the faint sound of some one coming along the street. The pedestrian, whoever he might be, was approaching from the right hand, and, what was still more important, my trained ear informed me that he was lame of one leg, and walked with crutches. Closer and closer he came. But to my surprise he did not pass the window; indeed, I noticed that when he came level with it the sound was completely lost to me. This told me two things: one, that the window, which was boarded up, did not look into the main thoroughfare; the other, that the street itself ran along on the far side of the very wall to which my chain was attached.
As I arrived at the knowledge of this fact, Beckenham opened his eyes; he sat up as well as his chain would permit, and gazed about him in a dazed fashion. Then his right hand went up to the iron collar enclosing his neck, and when he had realized what it meant he appeared even more mystified than before. He seemed to doze again for a minute or so, then his eyes opened, and as they did so they fell upon me, and his perplexity found relief in words.
"Mr. Hatteras," he said, in a voice like that of a man talking in his sleep, "where are we and what on earth does this chain mean?"
"You ask me something that I want to know myself," I answered. "I cannot tell you where we are, except that we are in Port Said. But if you want to know what I think it means, well, I think it means treachery. How do you feel now?"
"Very sick indeed, and my head aches horribly. But I can't understand it at all. What do you mean by saying that it is treachery?"
This was the one question of all others I had been dreading, for I could not help feeling that when all was said and done I was bitterly to blame. However, unpleasant or not, the explanation had to be got through, and without delay.
"Lord Beckenham," I began, sitting upright and clasping my hands round my knees, "this is a pretty bad business for me. I haven't the reputation of being a coward, but I'll own I feel pretty rocky and mean when I see you sitting there on the floor with that iron collar round your neck and that chain holding you to the wall, and know that it's, in a measure, all my stupid, blundering folly that has brought it about."
"Oh, don't say that, Mr. Hatteras!" was the young man's generous reply. "For whatever or whoever may be to blame for it, I'm sure you're not."
"That's because you don't know everything, my lord. Wait till you have heard what I have to tell you before you give me such complete absolution."
"I'm not going to blame you whatever you may tell me; but please go on!"
There and then I set to work and told him all that had happened to me since my arrival in London; informed him of my meeting with Nikola, of Wetherell's hasty departure for Australia, of my distrust for Baxter, described the telegram incident and Baxter's curious behaviour afterwards, narrated my subsequent meeting with the two men in the Green Sailor Hotel, described my journey to Plymouth, and finished with the catastrophe that had happened to me there.
"Now you see," I said in conclusion, "why I regard myself as being so much to blame."
"Excuse me," he answered, "but I cannot say that I see it in the same light at all."
"I'm afraid I must be more explicit then. In the first place you must understand that, without a shadow of a doubt, Baxter was chosen for your tutor by Nikola, whose agent he undoubtedly is, for a specific purpose. Now what do you think that purpose was? You don't know? To induce your father to let you travel, to be sure. You ask why they should want you to travel? We'll come to that directly. Their plan is succeeding admirably, when I come upon the scene and, like the great blundering idiot I am, must needs set to work unconsciously to assist them in their nefarious designs. Your father eventually consents, and it is arranged that you shall set off for Australia at once. Then it is discovered that I am going to leave in the same boat. This does not suit Nikola's plans at all, so he determines to prevent my sailing with you. By a happy chance he is unsuccessful, and I follow and join the boat in Naples. Good gracious! I see something else now."
"What is that?"
"Simply this. I could not help thinking at the time that your bout of sea-sickness between Naples and this infernal place was extraordinary. Well, if I'm not very much mistaken, you were physicked, and it was Baxter's doing."
"Ah! That's yet to be discovered. But you may bet your bottom dollar it was some part of their devilish conspiracy. I'm as certain of that as that we are here now. Now here's another point. Do you remember my running out of the Casino last night? Well, that was because I saw Nikola standing in the roadway."
"Are you certain? How could he have got here? And what could his reasons be for watching us?"
"Why, can't you see? To find out how his plot is succeeding, to be sure."
"And that brings us back to our original question—what is that plot?"
"That's rather more difficult to answer! But if you ask my candid opinion I should say nothing more nor less than to make you prisoner and blackmail your father for a ransom."
For some few minutes neither of us spoke. The outlook seemed too hopeless for words, and the Marquis was still too weak to keep up an animated conversation for any length of time. He sat leaning his head on his hand. But presently he looked up again. "My poor father!" he said. "What a state he will be in!"
"And what worries me more," I answered, "is how he will regret ever having listened to my advice. What a dolt I was not to have told him of my suspicions."
"You must not blame yourself for that. I am sure my father would hold you as innocent as I do. Now let us consider our position. In the first place, where are we, do you think? In the second, is there any possible chance of escape?"
"To the first my answer is, 'don't know'; to the second, 'can't say.' I have discovered one thing, however, and that is that the street does not lie outside that window, but runs along on the other side of this wall behind me. The window, I suspect, looks out on to some sort of a courtyard. But unfortunately that information is not much use to us, as we can neither of us move away from where we are placed."
"Is there no other way?"
"Not one, as far as I can tell. Can you see anything on your side?"
"Nothing at all, unless we could get at the door. But what's that sticking out of the wall near your feet?"
To get a better view of it I stooped as much as I was able. "It looks like a pipe."
The end of a pipe it certainly was, and sticking out into the room, but where it led to, and why it had been cut off in this peculiar fashion, were two questions I could no more answer than I could fly.
"Does it run out into the street, do you think?" was Beckenham's immediate query. "If so, you might manage to call through it to some passer-by, and ask him to obtain assistance for us!"
"A splendid notion if I could get my mouth anywhere within a foot of it, but as this chain will not permit me to do that, it might as well be a hundred miles off. It's as much as I can do to touch it with my fingers."
"Do you think if you had a stick you could push a piece of paper through? We might write a message."
"Possibly, but there's another drawback to that. I haven't the necessary piece of stick."
"Here is a stiff piece of straw; try that."
He harpooned a piece of straw, about eight inches long, across the room towards me, and, when I had received it, I thrust it carefully into the pipe. A disappointment, however, was in store for us.
"It's no use," I reported sorrowfully, as I threw the straw away. "It has an elbow half-way down, and that would prevent any message from being pushed through."
"Then we must try to discover some other plan. Don't lose heart!"
"Hush! I hear somebody coming."
True enough a heavy footfall was approaching down the passage. It stopped at the door of the room in which we were confined, and a key was inserted in the lock. Next moment the door swung open and a tall man entered the room. A ray of sunlight, penetrating between the boards that covered the window, fell upon him, and showed us that his hair was white and that his face was deeply pitted with smallpox marks. Now, where had I met or heard of a man with those two peculiarities before? Ah! I remembered!
He stood for a moment in the doorway looking about him, and then strolled into the centre of the room.
"Good-morning, gentlemen," he said, with an airy condescension that stung like an insult; "I trust you have no fault to find with the lodging our poor hospitality is able to afford you."
"Mr. Prendergast," I answered, determined to try him with the name of the man mentioned by my sweetheart in her letter. "What does this mean? Why have we been made prisoners like this? I demand to be released at once. You will have to answer to our consul for this detention."
For a brief space he appeared to be dumbfounded by my knowledge of his name. But he soon recovered himself and leaned his back against the wall, looking us both carefully over before he answered.
"I shall be only too pleased," he said sneeringly, "but if you'll allow me to say so, I don't think we need trouble about explanations yet awhile."
"Pray, what do you mean by that?"
"Exactly what I say; as you are likely to be our guests for some considerable time to come, there will be no need for explanation."
"You mean to keep us prisoners, then, do you? Very well, Mr. Prendergast, be assured of this, when I do get loose I'll make you feel the weight of my arm."
"I think it's very probable there will be a fight if ever we do meet," he answered, coolly taking a cigarette from his pocket and lighting it. "And it's my impression you'd be a man worth fighting, Mr. Hatteras."
"If you think my father will let me remain here very long you're much mistaken," said Beckenham. "And as for the ransom you expect him to pay, I don't somehow fancy you'll get a halfpenny."
At the mention of the word "ransom" I noticed that a new and queer expression came into our captor's face. He did not reply, however, except to utter his usual irritating laugh. Having done so he went to the door and called something in Arabic. In answer a gigantic negro made his appearance, bearing in his hands a tray on which were set two basins of food and two large mugs of water. These were placed before us, and Prendergast bade us, if we were hungry, fall to.
"You must not imagine that we wish to starve you," he said. "Food will be served to you twice a day. And if you want it, you can even be supplied with spirits and tobacco. Now, before I go, one word of advice. Don't indulge in any idea of escape. Communication with the outside world is absolutely impossible, and you will find that those collars and chains will stand a good strain before they will give way. If you behave yourselves you will be well looked after; but if you attempt any larks you will be confined in different rooms, and there will be a radical change in our behaviour."
So saying he left the room, taking the precaution to lock the door carefully behind him.
When we were once more alone, a long silence fell upon us. It would be idle for me to say that the generous behaviour of the young Marquis with regard to my share in this wretched business had set my mind at rest. But if it had not done that it had at least served to intensify another resolution. Come what might, I told myself, I would find a way of escape, and he should be returned to his father safe and sound, if it cost me my life to do it. But how were, we to escape? We could not move from our places on account of the chains that secured us to the walls, and, though I put all my whole strength into it, I found I could not dislodge the staple a hundredth part of an inch from its holding-place.
The morning wore slowly on, mid-day came and went, the afternoon dragged its dismal length, and still there was no change in our position. Towards sundown the same gigantic negro entered the room again, bringing us our evening meal. When he left we were locked up for the night, with only the contemplation of our woes, and the companionship of the multitudes of mice that scampered about the floor, to enliven us.
The events of the next seven days are hardly worth chronicling, unless it is to state that every morning at daylight the same cock crew and the same dog barked, while at six o'clock the same cripple invariably made his way down the street behind me. At eight o'clock almost to the minute, breakfast was served to us, and, just as punctually, the evening meal made its appearance as the sun was declining behind the opposite house-top. Not again did we see any sign of Mr. Prendergast, and though times out of number I tugged at my chain I was never a whit nearer loosening it than I had been on the first occasion. One after another plans of escape were proposed, discussed, and invariably rejected as impracticable. So another week passed and another, until we had been imprisoned in that loathsome place not less than twenty days. By the end of that time, as may be supposed, we were as desperate as men could well be. I must, however, admit that anything like the patience and pluck of my companion under such circumstances I had never in my life met with before.
One fact had repeatedly struck me as significant, and that was the circumstance that every morning between six and half-past, as already narrated, the same cripple went down the street; and in connexion with this, within the last few days of the time, a curious coincidence had revealed itself to me. From the tapping of his crutches on the stones I discovered that while one was shod with iron, the other was not. Now where and when had I noticed that peculiarity in a cripple before? That I had observed it somewhere I felt certain. For nearly half the day I turned this over and over in my mind, and then, in the middle of our evening meal, enlightenment came to me. I remembered the man whose piteous tale had so much affected Beckenham on the day of our arrival, and the sound his crutches made upon the pavement as he left us. If my surmise proved correct, and we could only manage to communicate with him, here was a golden opportunity. But how were we to do this? We discussed it, and discussed it, times out of number, but in vain. That he must be stopped on his way down the street need not to be argued at all. In what way, however, could this be done? The window was out of the question, the door was not to be thought of; in that case the only communicating place would be the small pipe by my side. But as I have already pointed out, by reason of the elbow it would be clearly impossible to force a message through it. All day we devoted ourselves to attempts to solve what seemed a hopeless difficulty. Then like a flash a brilliant inspiration burst upon me.
"By Jove, I have it!" I said, taking care to whisper lest any one might be listening at the door. "We must manage by hook or crook to catch a mouse and let him carry our appeal for help to the outside world."
"A magnificent idea! If we can catch one I do believe you've saved us!"
But to catch a mouse was easier said than done. Though the room was alive with them they were so nimble and so cunning, that, try how we would, we could not lay hold of one. But at length my efforts were rewarded, and after a little struggle I held my precious captive in my hand. By this time another idea had come to me. If we wanted to bring Nikola and his gang to justice, and to discover their reason for hatching this plot against us, it would not do to ask the public at large for help—and I must own, in spite of our long imprisonment, I was weak enough to feel a curiosity as to their motive. No! It must be to the beggar who passed the house every morning that we must appeal.
"This letter concerns you more than me," I said to my fellow-prisoner. "Have you a lead pencil in your pocket?"
He had, and immediately threw it across to me. Then, taking a small piece of paper from my pocket, I set myself to compose the following in French and English, assisted by my companion:—
"If this should meet the eye of the individual to whom a young Englishman gave half a sovereign in charity three weeks ago, he is implored to assist one who assisted him, and who has been imprisoned ever since that day in the room with the blank wall facing the street and the boarded-up window on the right-hand side. To do this he must obtain a small file and discover a way to convey it into the room by means of the small pipe leading through the blank wall into the street; perhaps if this could be dislodged it might be pushed in through the aperture thus made. On receipt of the file an English five-pound note will be conveyed to him in the same way as this letter, and another if secrecy is observed and those in the house escape."
This important epistle had hardly been concocted before the door was unlocked and our dusky servitor entered with the evening meal. He had long since abandoned his first habit of bringing us our food in separate receptacles, but conveyed it to us now in the saucepan in which it was cooked, dividing it thence into our basins. These latter, it may be interesting to state, had not been washed since our arrival.
All the time that our jailer was in the room I held my trembling prisoner in my hand, clinging to him as to the one thing which connected us with liberty. But the door had no sooner closed upon him than I had tilted out my food upon the floor and converted my basin into a trap.
It may be guessed how long that night seemed to us, and with what trembling eagerness we awaited the first signs of breaking day. Directly it was light I took off and unravelled one of my socks. The thread thus obtained I doubled, and having done this, secured one end of it to the note, which I had rolled into a small compass, attaching the other to my captive mouse's hind leg. Then we set ourselves to wait for six o'clock. The hour came; and minute after minute went by before we heard in the distance the tapping of the crutches on the stones. Little by little the sound grew louder, and then fainter, and when I judged he was nearly at my back, I stooped and thrust our curious messenger into the pipe. Then we sat down to await the result.
As the mouse, only too glad to escape, ran into the aperture, the thread, on which our very lives depended, swiftly followed, dragging its message after it. Minutes went by; half an hour; an hour; and then the remainder of the day; and still nothing came to tell us that our appeal had been successful.
That night I caught another mouse, wrote the letter again, and at six o'clock next morning once more despatched it on its journey. Another day went by without reply. That night we caught another, and at six-o'clock next morning sent it off; a third, and even a fourth, followed, but still without success. By this time the mice were almost impossible to catch, but our wits were sharpened by despair, and we managed to hit upon a method that eventually secured for us a plentiful supply. For the sixth time the letter was written and despatched at the moment the footsteps were coming down the street. Once more the tiny animal crawled into the pipe, and once more the message disappeared upon its journey.
Another day was spent in anxious waiting, but this time we were not destined to be disappointed. About eight o'clock that night, just as we were giving up hope, I detected a faint noise near my feet; it was for all the world as if some one were forcing a stick through a hole in a brick wall. I informed Beckenham of the fact in a whisper, and then put my head down to listen. Yes, there was the sound again. Oh, if only I had a match! But it was no use wishing for what was impossible, so I put my hand down to the pipe. It was moving! It turned in my hand, moved to and fro for a brief space and then disappeared from my grasp entirely; next moment it had left the room. A few seconds later something cold was thrust into my hand, and from its rough edge I knew it to be a file. I drew it out as if it were made of gold and thrust it into my pocket. A piece of string was attached to it, and the reason of this I was at first at some loss to account for. But a moment's reflection told me that it was to assist in the fulfilment of our share of the bargain. So, taking a five-pound note from the secret pocket in which I carried my paper money, I tied the string to it, and it was instantly withdrawn. A minute could not have elapsed before I was at work upon the staple of my collar, and in less than half an hour it was filed through and the iron was off my neck.
If I tried for a year I could not make you understand what a relief it was to me to stand upright. I stretched myself again and again, and then crossed the room on tip-toe in the dark to where the Marquis lay.
"You are free," he whispered, clutching and shaking my hand. "Oh, thank God!"
"Hush! Put down your head and let me get to work upon your collar before you say anything more."
As I was able this time to get at my work standing up, it was not very long before Beckenham was as free as I was. He rose to his feet with a great sigh of relief, and we shook hands warmly in the dark.
"Now," I said, leading him towards the door, "we will make our escape, and I pity the man who attempts to stop us."
DR. NIKOLA PERMITS US A FREE PASSAGE
The old saying, "Don't count your chickens before they're hatched," is as good a warning as any I know. For if we had not been so completely occupied filing through the staples of our collars we should not have omitted to take into consideration the fact that, even when we should have removed the chains that bound us, we would still be prisoners in the room. I'm very much afraid, however, even had we remembered this point, we should only have considered it of minor importance and one to be easily overcome. As it was, the unwelcome fact remained that the door was locked, and, what was worse, that the lock itself had, for security's sake, been placed on the outside, so that there was no chance of our being able to pick it, even had our accomplishments lain in that direction.
"Try the window," whispered Beckenham, in answer to the heavy sigh which followed my last discovery.
Accordingly we crossed the room, and I put my hands upon one of the boards and pulled. But I might as well have tried to tow a troopship with a piece of cotton, for all the satisfactory result I got; the planks were trebly screwed to the window frame, and each in turn defied me. When I was tired Beckenham put his strength to it, but even our united efforts were of no avail, and, panting and exhausted, we were at length obliged to give it up as hopeless.
"This is a pretty fix we've got ourselves into," I said as soon as I had recovered sufficient breath to speak. "How on earth are we to escape?"
"I can't say, unless we manage to burst that door and fight our way out. I wonder if that could be done."
"First, let's look at the door."
We crossed the room again, and I examined the door carefully. It was not a very strong one; but I was sufficient of a carpenter to know that it would withstand a good deal of pressure before it would give way.
"I've a good mind to try it," I said; "but in that case, remember, it will probably mean a hand-to-hand fight on the other side, and, unarmed and weak as we are, we shall be pretty sure to get the worst of it."
"Never mind that," my intrepid companion replied, with a confidence in his voice that I was very far from feeling. "In for a penny, in for a pound; even if we're killed it couldn't be worse than being buried alive."
"That's so, and if fighting's your idea, I'm your man," I answered. "Let me first take my bearings, and then I'll see what I can do against it. You get out of the way, but be sure to stand by to rush the passage directly the door goes."
Again I felt the door and wall in order that I might be sure where it lay, and having done so crossed the room. My heart was beating like a Nasmyth hammer, and it was nearly a minute before I could pull myself together sufficiently for my rush. Then summoning every muscle in my body to my assistance, I dashed across and at it with all the strength my frame was capable of. Considering the darkness of the room, my steering was not so bad, for my shoulder caught the door just above its centre; there was a great crash—a noise of breaking timbers—and amid a shower of splinters and general debris I fell headlong through into the passage. By the time it would have taken me to count five, Beckenham was beside me helping me to rise.
"Now stand by for big trouble!" I said, rubbing my shoulder, and every moment expecting to see a door open and a crowd of Prendergast's ruffians come rushing out. "We shall have them on us in a minute."
But to our intense astonishment it was all dead silence. Not a sound of any single kind, save our excited breathing, greeted our ears. We might have broken into an empty house for all we knew the difference.
For nearly five minutes we stood, side by side, waiting for the battle which did not come.
"What on earth does it mean?" I asked my companion. "That crash of mine was loud enough to wake the dead. Can they have deserted the place, think you, and left us to starve?"
"I can't make it out any more than you can," he answered. "But don't you think we'd better take advantage of their not coming to find a way out?"
"Of course. One of us had better creep down the passage and discover how the land lies. As I'm the stronger, I'll go. You wait here."
I crept along the passage, treading cautiously as a cat, for I knew that both our lives depended on it. Though it could not have been more than sixty feet, it seemed of interminable length, and was as black as night. Not a glimmer of light, however faint, met my eyes.
On and on I stole, expecting every moment to be pounced upon and seized; but no such fate awaited me. If, however, our jailers did not appear, another danger was in store for me.
In the middle of my walk my feet suddenly went from under me, and I found myself falling I knew not where. In reality it was only a drop of about three feet down a short flight of steps. Such a noise as my fall made, however, was surely never heard, but still no sound came. Then Beckenham fumbled his way cautiously down the steps to my side, and whispered an inquiry as to what had happened. I told him in as few words as possible, and then struggled to my feet again.
Just as I did so my eyes detected a faint glimmer of light low down on the floor ahead of us. From its position it evidently emanated from the doorway of a room.
"Oh! if we only had a match," I whispered.
"It's no good wishing," said Beckenham. "What do you advise?"
"It's difficult to say," I answered; "but I should think we'd better listen at that door and try to discover if there is any one inside. If there is, and he is alone, we must steal in upon him, let him see that we are desperate, and, willy-nilly, force him to show us a way out. It's ten chances to one, if we go on prowling about here, we shall stumble upon the whole nest of them—then we'll be caught like rats in a trap. What do you think?"
"I agree with you. Go on."
Without further ado we crept towards the light, which, as I expected, came from under a door, and listened. Some one was plainly moving about inside; but though we waited for what seemed a quarter of an hour, but must in reality have been less than a minute and a half, we could hear no voices.
"Whoever he is, he's alone—that's certain," whispered my companion. "Open the door softly, and we'll creep in upon him."
In answer, and little by little, a cold shiver running down my back lest it should creak and so give warning to the person within, I turned the handle, pushed open the door, and we looked inside. Then—but, my gracious! if I live to be a thousand I shall never forget the sight that met my eyes.
The room itself was a long and low one: its measurements possibly sixty feet by fifteen. The roof—for there was no ceiling—was of wood, crossed by heavy rafters, and much begrimed with dirt and smoke. The floor was of some highly polished wood closely resembling oak, and was completely bare. But the shape and construction of the room itself were as nothing compared with the strangeness of its furniture and occupants. Words would fail me if I tried to give you a true and accurate description of it. I only know that, strong man as I was, and used to the horrors of life and death, what I saw before me then made my blood run cold and my flesh creep as it had never done before.
To begin with, round the walls were arranged, at regular intervals, more than a dozen enormous bottles, each of which contained what looked, to me, only too much like human specimens pickled in some light-coloured fluid resembling spirits of wine. Between these gigantic but more than horrible receptacles were numberless smaller ones, holding other and even more dreadful remains; while on pedestals and stands, bolt upright and reclining, were skeletons of men, monkeys, and quite a hundred sorts of animals. The intervening spaces were filled with skulls, bones, and the apparatus for every kind of murder known to the fertile brain of man. There were European rifles, revolvers, bayonets, and swords; Italian stilettos, Turkish scimitars, Greek knives, Central African spears and poisoned arrows, Zulu knobkerries, Afghan yataghans, Malay krises, Sumatra blow-pipes, Chinese dirks, New Guinea head-catching implements, Australian spears and boomerangs, Polynesian stone hatchets, and numerous other weapons the names of which I cannot now remember. Mixed up with them were implements for every sort of wizardry known to the superstitious; from old-fashioned English love charms to African Obi sticks, from spiritualistic planchettes to the most horrible of Fijian death potions.
In the centre of the wall, opposite to where we stood, was a large fireplace of the fashion usually met with in old English manor-houses, and on either side of it a figure that nearly turned me sick with horror. That on the right hand was apparently a native of Northern India, if one might judge by his dress and complexion. He sat on the floor in a constrained attitude, accounted for by the fact that his head, which was at least three times too big for his body, was so heavy as to require an iron tripod with a ring or collar in the top of it to keep it from overbalancing him and bringing him to the floor. To add to the horror of this awful head, it was quite bald; the skin was drawn tensely over the bones, and upon this veins stood out as large as macaroni stems.
On the other side of the hearth was a creature half-ape and half-man—the like of which I remember once to have seen in a museum of monstrosities in Sydney, where, if my memory serves me, he was described upon the catalogue as a Burmese monkey-boy. He was chained to the wall in somewhat the same fashion as we had been, and was chattering and scratching for all the world like a monkey in a Zoo.
But, horrible as these things were, the greatest surprise of all was yet to come. For, standing at the heavy oaken table in the centre of the room, was a man I should have known anywhere if I had been permitted half a glance at him. It was Dr. Nikola.
When we entered he was busily occupied with a scalpel, dissecting an animal strangely resembling a monkey. On the table, and watching the work upon which his master was engaged, sat his constant companion, the same fiendish black cat I have mentioned elsewhere; while at the end nearest us, standing on tip-toe, the better to see what was going on, was an albino dwarf, scarcely more than two feet eight inches high. So stealthily, however, had our approach been made, and so carefully had I opened the door, that we were well into the room before our appearance was discovered, and also before I had realized into whose presence we had stumbled. Then my foot touched a board that creaked, and Dr. Nikola looked up from the work upon which he was engaged.
His pale, thin face did not show the slightest sign of surprise as he said, in his usual placid tone,—
"So you have managed to escape from your room, gentlemen. Well, and pray what do you want?"
For a moment I was so much overcome with surprise that my tongue refused to perform its office. Then I said, advancing towards him as I spoke, closely followed by the Marquis,—
"So, Dr. Nikola, we have met at last!"
"At last, Mr. Hatteras, as you say," this singular being replied, still without showing a sign of either interest or embarrassment. "All things considered, I suppose you would deem me ironical if I ventured to say that I am pleased to see you about again. However, don't let me keep you standing; won't you sit down? My lord, let me offer you a chair."
All this time we were edging up alongside the table, and I was making ready for a rush at him. But he was not to be taken off his guard. His extraordinary eyes had been watching me intently, taking in my every movement; and a curious effect they had upon me.
"Dr. Nikola," I said, "the game is up. You beat me last time; but now you must own I come out on top. Don't utter a word or call for assistance—if you do you're a dead man. Now drop that knife you hold in your hand, and show us the way out!"
The Marquis was on his right, I was on his left, and we were close upon him as I spoke. Still he showed no sign of fear, though he must have known the danger of his position. But his eyes glowed in his head like living coals.
You will ask why we did not rush at him? Well, if I am obliged to own it, I must—the truth was, such was the power that emanated from this extraordinary man, that though we both knew the crucial moment of our enterprise had arrived, while his eyes were fixed upon us, neither of us could stir an inch. When he spoke his voice seemed to cut like a knife.
"So you think my game is up, Mr. Hatteras, do you? I'm afraid once more I must differ from you. Look behind you."
I did so, and that glance showed me how cleverly we'd been trapped. Leaning against the door, watching us with cruel, yet smiling eyes, was our old enemy Prendergast, revolver in hand. Just behind me were two powerful Soudanese, while near the Marquis was a man looking like a Greek—and a very stalwart Greek at that. Observing our discomfiture, Nikola seated himself in a big chair near the fireplace and folded his hands in the curious fashion I have before described; as he did so his black cat sprang to his shoulder and sat there watching us all. Dr. Nikola was the first to speak.
"Mr. Hatteras," he said, with devilish clearness and deliberation, "you should really know me better by this time than to think you could outwit me so easily. Is my reputation after all so small? And, while I think of it, pray let me have the pleasure of returning to you your five pound note and your letters. Your mice were perfect messengers, were they not?" As he spoke he handed me the selfsame Bank of England note I had despatched through the pipe that very evening in payment for the file; then he shook from a box he had taken from the chimney-piece all the communications I had written imploring assistance from the outside world. To properly estimate my chagrin and astonishment would be very difficult. I could only sit and stare, first at the money and then at the letters, in blankest amazement. So we had not been rescued by the cripple after all. Was it possible that while we had been so busy arranging our escape we had in reality been all the time under the closest surveillance? If that were so, then this knowledge of our doings would account for the silence with which my attack upon the door had been received. Now we were in an even worse position than before. I looked at Beckenham, but his head was down and his right hand was picking idly at the table edge. He was evidently waiting for what was coming next.
In sheer despair I turned to Nikola. "Since you have outwitted us again, Dr. Nikola, do not play with us—tell us straight out what our fate is to be."
"If it means going back to that room again," said Beckenham, in a voice I hardly recognized, "I would far rather die and be done with it."
"Do not fear, my lord, you shall not die," Nikola said, turning to him with a bow. "Believe me, you will live to enjoy many happier hours than those you have been compelled to spend under my roof!"
"What do you mean?"
The doctor did not answer for nearly a moment; then he took what looked to me suspiciously like a cablegram form from his pocket and carefully examined it. Having done so, he said quietly,——
"Gentlemen, you ask what I mean? Well, I mean this—if you wish to leave this house this very minute, you are free to do so on one condition!"
"And that condition is?"
"That you allow yourselves to be blindfolded in this room and conducted by my servants to the harbour side. I must furthermore ask your words of honour that you will not seek to remove your bandages until you are given permission to do so. Do you agree to this?"
Needless to say we both signified our assent.
This free permission to leave the house was a second surprise, and one for which we were totally unprepared.
"Then let it be so. Believe me, my lord Marquis, and you, Mr. Hatteras, it is with the utmost pleasure I restore your liberty to you again!"
He made a sign to Prendergast, who instantly stepped forward. But I had something to say before we were removed.
"One word first, Dr. Nikola. You have——"
"Mr. Hatteras, if you will be guided by me, you will keep a silent tongue in your head. Let well alone. Take warning by the proverb, and beware how you disturb a sleeping dog. Why I have acted as I have done towards you, you may some day learn; in the meantime rest assured it was from no idle motive. Now take me at my word, and go while you have the chance. I may change my mind in a moment, and then——"
He stopped and did not say any more. At a sign, Prendergast clapped a thick bandage over my eyes, while another man did the same for Beckenham; a man on either side of me took my arms, and next moment we had passed out of the room, and before I could have counted fifty were in the cool air of the street.
How long we were walking, after leaving the house, I could not say, but at last our escort called a halt. Prendergast was evidently in command, for he said,—
"Gentlemen, before we leave you, you will renew your words of honour not to remove your bandages for five full minutes?"
We complied with his request, and instantly our arms were released; a moment later we heard our captors leaving us. The minutes went slowly by. Presently Beckenham said,—
"How long do you think we've been standing here?"
"Nearly the stipulated time, I should fancy," I answered. "However, we'd better give them a little longer, to avoid any chance of mistake."
Again a silence fell on us. Then I tore off my bandage, to find Beckenham doing the same.
"They're gone, and we're free again," he cried. "Hurrah!"
We shook hands warmly on our escape, and having done so looked about us. A ship's bell out in the stream chimed half an hour after midnight, and a precious dark night it was. A number of vessels were to be seen, and from the noise that came from them it was evident they were busy coaling.
"What's to be done now?" asked Beckenham.
"Find an hotel, I think," I answered; "get a good night's rest, and first thing in the morning hunt up our consul and the steamship authorities."
"Come along, then. Let's look for a place. I noticed one that should suit us close to where we came ashore that day."
Five minutes' walking brought us to the house we sought. The proprietor was not very fastidious, and whatever he may have thought of our appearances he took us in without demur. A bath and a good meal followed, and then after a thorough overhauling of all the details connected with our imprisonment we turned into bed, resolved to thrash it out upon the morrow.
Next morning, true to our arrangement, as soon as breakfast was over, I set off for the steamship company's office, leaving the Marquis behind me at the hotel for reasons which had begun to commend themselves to me, and which will be quite apparent to you.
I found the Saratoga's agent hard at work in his private office. He was a tall, thin man, slightly bald, wearing a pair of heavy gold pince-nez, and very slow and deliberate in speech.
"I beg your pardon," he began, when I had taken possession of his proffered chair, "but did I understand my clerk to say that your name was Hatteras?"
"That is my name," I answered. "I was a passenger in the Saratoga for Australia three weeks ago, but had the misfortune to be left behind when she sailed."
"Ah! I remember the circumstances thoroughly," he said. "The young Marquis of Beckenham went ashore with you, I think, and came within an ace of being also left behind."
"Within an ace!" I cried; "but he was left behind."
"No, no! there you are mistaken," was the astounding reply; "he would have been left behind had not his tutor and I gone ashore at the last moment to look for him and found him wandering about on the outskirts of Arab Town. I don't remember ever to have seen a man more angry than the tutor was, and no wonder, for they only just got out to the boat again as the gangway was being hauled aboard."
"Then you mean to tell me that the Marquis went on to Australia after all!" I cried. "And pray how did this interesting young gentleman explain the fact of his losing sight of me?"
"He lost you in a crowd, he said," the agent continued. "It was a most extraordinary business altogether."
It certainly was, and even more extraordinary than he imagined. I could hardly believe my ears. The world seemed to be turned upside down. I was so bewildered that I stumbled out a few lame inquiries about the next boat sailing for Australia, and what would be done with my baggage, and then made my way as best I could out of the office. Hastening back to the hotel, I told my story from beginning to end to my astonished companion, who sat on his bed listening open-mouthed. When I had finished he said feebly,—"But what does it all mean? Tell me that! What does it mean?"
"It means," I answered, "that our notion about Nikola's abducting us in order to blackmail your father was altogether wrong, and, if you ask me, I should say not half picturesque enough. No, no! this mystery is a bigger one by a hundred times than even we expected, and there are more men in it than those we have yet seen. It remains with you to say whether you will assist in the attempt to unravel it or not."
"What do you mean by saying it remains with me? Do I understand that you intend following it up?"
"Of course I do. Nikola and Baxter between them have completely done me—now I'm going to do my best to do them. By Jove!"
"What is it now?"
"I see it all as plain as a pikestaff. I understand exactly now why Baxter came for you, why he telegraphed that the train was laid, why I was drugged in Plymouth, why you were sea-sick between Naples and this place, and why we were both kidnapped!"
"Then explain, for mercy's sake!"
"I will. See here. In the first place, remember your father's peculiar education of yourself. If you consider that, you will see that you are the only young nobleman of high rank whose face is not well known to his brother peers. That being so, Nikola wants to procure you for some purpose of his own in Australia. Your father advertises for a tutor; he sends one of his agents—Baxter—to secure the position. Baxter, at Nikola's instruction, puts into your head a desire for travel. You pester your father for the necessary permission. Just as this is granted I come upon the scene. Baxter suspects me. He telegraphs to Nikola 'The train is laid,' which means that he has begun to sow the seeds of a desire for travel, when a third party steps in—in other words, I am the new danger that has arisen. He arranges your sailing, and all promises to go well. Then Dr. Nikola finds out I intend going in the same boat. He tries to prevent me; and I—by Jove! I see another thing. Why did Baxter suggest that you should cross the Continent and join the boat at Naples? Why, simply because if you had started from Plymouth you would soon have got over your sickness, if you had ever been ill at all, and in that case the passengers would have become thoroughly familiar with your face by the time you reached Port Said. That would never have done, so he takes you to Naples, drugs you next morning—for you must remember you were ill after the coffee he gave you—and by that means kept you ill and confined to your cabin throughout the entire passage to Port Said. Then he persuades you to go ashore with me. You do so, with what result you know. Presently he begins to bewail your non-return, invites the agent to help in the search. They set off, and eventually find you near the Arab quarter. You must remember that neither the agent, the captain, nor the passengers have seen you, save at night, so the substitute, who is certain to have been well chosen and schooled for the part he is to play, is not detected. Then the boat goes on her way, while we are left behind languishing in durance vile."
"What do you advise me to do? Remember, Baxter has letters to the different Governors from my father."
"I know what I should do myself!"
"Go to the consul and get him to warn the authorities in Australia, I suppose?"
"No. That would do little or no good—remember, they've got three weeks' start of us."
"Then what shall we do? I'm in your hands entirely, and whatever you advise I promise you I'll do."
"If I were you I should doff my title, take another name, and set sail with me for Australia. Once there, we'll put up in some quiet place and set ourselves to unmask these rascals and to defeat their little game, whatever it may be. Are you prepared for so much excitement as that?"
"Of course I am. Come what may, I'll go with you, and there's my hand on it."
"Then we'll catch the next boat—not a mail-steamer—that sails for an Australian port, and once ashore there we'll set the ball a-rolling with a vengeance."
"That scoundrel Baxter! I'm not vindictive as a rule, but I feel I should like to punish him."
"Well, if they've not flown by the time we reach Australia, you'll probably be able to gratify your wish. It's Nikola, however, I want."
Beckenham shuddered as I mentioned the Doctor's name. So to change the subject I said,——
"I'm thinking of taking a little walk. Would you care to accompany me?"
"Where are you going?" he asked.
"I'm going to try and find the house where we were shut up," I answered. "I want to be able to locate it for future reference, if necessary."
"Is it safe to go near it, do you think?"
"In broad daylight, yes! But, just to make sure, we'll buy a couple of revolvers on the way. And, what's more, if it becomes necessary, we'll use them."
"Come along, then."
With that we left our hotel and set off in the direction of the Casino, stopping, however, on the way to make the purchases above referred to.
We passed down one thoroughfare and up another, and at last reached the spot where I had commented on the sign-boards, and where we had been garrotted. Surely the house must be near at hand now? But though we hunted high and low, up one street and down another, not a single trace of any building answering the description of the one we wanted could we discover. At last, after nearly an hour's search, we were obliged to give it up, and return to our hotel, unsuccessful.
As we finished lunch a large steamer made her appearance in the harbour, and brought up opposite the town. When we questioned our landlord, who was an authority on the subject, he informed us that she was the s.s. Pescadore, of Hull, bound to Melbourne.
Hearing this we immediately chartered a boat, pulled off to her, and interviewed the captain. As good luck would have it, he had room for a couple of passengers. We therefore paid the passage money, went ashore again and provided ourselves with a few necessaries, rejoined her, and shortly before nightfall steamed into the Canal. Port Said was a thing of the past. Our eventful journey was resumed—what was the end of it all to be?
WE REACH AUSTRALIA, AND THE RESULT
The Pescadore, if she was slow, was certainly sure, and so the thirty-sixth day after our departure from Port Said, as recorded in the previous chapter, she landed us safe and sound at Williamstown, which, as all the Australian world knows, is one of the principal railway termini, and within an hour's journey of Melbourne. Throughout the voyage nothing occurred worth chronicling, if I except the curious behaviour of Lord Beckenham, who, for the first week or so, seemed sunk in a deep lethargy, from which neither chaff nor sympathy could rouse him. From morning till night he mooned aimlessly about the decks, had visibly to pull himself together to answer such questions as might be addressed to him, and never by any chance sustained a conversation beyond a few odd sentences. To such a pitch did this depression at last bring him that, the day after we left Aden, I felt it my duty to take him to task and to try to bully or coax him out of it.
"Come," I said, "I want to know what's the matter with you. You've been giving us all the miserables lately, and from the look of your face at the present moment I'm inclined to believe it's going to continue. Out with it! Are you homesick, or has the monotony of this voyage been too much for you?"
He looked into my face rather anxiously, I thought, and then said: "Mr. Hatteras, I'm afraid you'll think me an awful idiot when I do tell you, but the truth is I've got Dr. Nikola's face on my brain, and do what I will I cannot rid myself of it. Those great, searching eyes, as we saw them in that terrible room, have got on my nerves, and I can think of nothing else. They haunt me night and day!"
"Oh, that's all fancy!" I cried. "Why on earth should you be frightened of him? Nikola, in spite of his demoniacal cleverness, is only a man, and even then you may consider that we've seen the last of him. So cheer up, take as much exercise as you possibly can, and believe me, you'll soon forget all about him."
But it was no use arguing with him. Nikola had had an effect upon the youth that was little short of marvellous, and it was not until we had well turned the Leuwin, and were safely in Australian waters, that he in any way recovered his former spirits.
And here, lest you should give me credit for a bravery I did not possess, I must own that I was more than a little afraid of another meeting with Nikola, myself. I had had four opportunities afforded me of judging of his cleverness—once in the restaurant off Oxford Street, once in the Green Sailor public-house in the East India Dock Road, once in the West of England express, and lastly, in the house in Port Said. I had no desire, therefore, to come to close quarters with him again.
Arriving in Melbourne we caught the afternoon express for Sydney, reaching that city the following morning a little after breakfast. By the time we had arrived at our destination we had held many consultations over our future, and the result was a decision to look for a quiet hotel on the outskirts of the city, and then to attempt to discover what the mystery, in which we had been so deeply involved, might mean. The merits of all the various suburbs were severally discussed, though I knew but little about them, and the Marquis less. Paramatta, Penrith, Woolahra, Balmain, and even many of the bays and harbours, received attention, until we decided on the last named as the most likely place to answer our purpose.
This settled, we crossed Darling harbour, and, after a little hunting about, discovered a small but comfortable hotel situated in a side street, called the General Officer. Here we booked rooms, deposited our meagre baggage, and having installed ourselves, sat down and discussed the situation.
"So this is Sydney," said Beckenham, stretching himself out comfortably upon the sofa as he spoke. "And now that we've got here, what's to be done first?"
"Have lunch," I answered promptly.
"And then?" he continued.
"Hunt up the public library and take a glimpse of the Morning Herald's back numbers. They will tell us a good deal, though not all we want to know. Then we'll make a few inquiries. To-morrow morning I shall ask you to excuse me for a couple of hours. But in the afternoon we ought to have acquired sufficient information to enable us to make a definite start."
"Then let's have lunch at once and be off. I'm all eagerness to get to work."
We accordingly ordered lunch, and, when it was finished, set off in search of a public library. Having found it—and it was not a very difficult matter—we sought the reading room and made for a stand of Sydney Morning Heralds in the corner. Somehow I felt as certain of finding what I wanted there as any man could possibly be, and as it happened I was not disappointed. On the second page, beneath a heading in bold type, was a long report of a horse show, held the previous afternoon, at which it appeared a large vice-regal and fashionable party were present. The list included His Excellency the Governor and the Countess of Amberley, the Ladies Maud and Ermyntrude, their daughters, the Marquis of Beckenham, Captain Barrenden, an aide-de-camp, and Mr. Baxter. In a voice that I hardly recognized as my own, so shaken was it with excitement, I called Beckenham to my side and pointed out to him his name. He stared, looked away, then stared again, hardly able to believe his eyes.