"What does it mean?" he whispered, just as he had done in Port Said. "What does it mean?"
I led him out of the building before I answered, and then clapped him on the shoulder. "It means, my boy," I said, "that there's been a hitch in their arrangements, and that we're not too late to circumvent them after all."
"But where do you think they are staying—these two scoundrels?"
"At Government House, to be sure. Didn't you see that the report said, 'The Earl and Countess of Amberley and a distinguished party from Government House, including the Marquis of Beckenham,' etc.?"
"Then let us go to Government House at once and unmask them. That is our bounden duty to society."
"Then all I can say is, if it is our duty to society, society will have to wait. No, no! We must find out first what their little game is. That once decided, the unmasking will fall in as a natural consequence. Don't you understand?"
"I am afraid I don't quite. However, I expect you're right."
By this time we were back again at the ferry. It was not time for the boat to start, so while we waited we amused ourselves staring at the placards pasted about on the wharf hoardings. Then a large theatrical poster caught my eye and drew me towards it. It announced a grand vice-regal "command" night at one of the principal theatres for that very evening, and further set forth the fact that the most noble the Marquis of Beckenham would be amongst the distinguished company.
"Here we are," I called to my companion, who was at a little distance. "We'll certainly go to this. The Marquis of Beckenham shall honour it with his patronage and presence after all."
We went back to our hotel for dinner, and as soon as it was eaten returned to the city to seek the theatre.
When we entered it the building was crowded, and the arrival of the Government House party was momentarily expected. Presently the Governor and a brilliant party entered the vice-regal box. You may be sure of all that vast concourse of people there were none who stared harder then Beckenham and myself. And it was certainly enough to make any man stare, for there, sitting on her ladyship's right hand, faultlessly dressed, was the exact image of the young man by my side. The likeness was so extraordinary that for a moment I could hardly believe that Beckenham had not left me to go up and take his seat there. And if I was struck by the resemblance, you may be sure that he was a dozen times more so. Indeed, his bewilderment was most comical, and must have struck those people round us, who were watching, as something altogether extraordinary. I looked again, and could just discern behind the front row the smug, self-satisfied face of the tutor Baxter. Then the play commenced, and we were compelled to turn and give it our attention.
Here I must stop to chronicle one circumstance that throughout the day had struck me as peculiar. When our vessel arrived at Williamstown, it so happened that we had travelled up in the train to Melbourne with a tall, handsome, well-dressed man of about thirty years of age. Whether he, like ourselves, was a new arrival in the Colony, and only passing through Melbourne, I cannot say; at any rate he went on to Sydney in the mail train with us. Then we lost sight of him, only to find him standing near the public library when we had emerged from it that afternoon, and now here he was sitting in the stalls of the theatre not half a dozen chairs from us. Whether this continual companionship was designed or only accidental, I could not of course say, but I must own that I did not like the look of it. Could it be possible, I asked myself, that Nikola, learning our departure for Australia in the Pescadore, had cabled from Port Said to this man to watch us?
The performance over, we left the theatre, and set off for the ferry, only reaching it just as the boat was casting off. As it was I had to jump for it, and on reaching the deck should have fallen in a heap but for a helping hand that was stretched out to me. I looked up to tender my thanks, when to my surprise I discovered that my benefactor was none other than the man to whom I have just been referring. His surprise was even greater than mine, and muttering something about "a close shave," he turned and walked quickly aft. My mind was now made up, and I accordingly reported my discovery to Beckenham, pointing out the man and warning him to watch for him when he was abroad without me. This he promised to do.
Next morning I donned my best attire (my luggage having safely arrived), and shortly before eleven o'clock bade Beckenham good-bye and betook myself to Potts Point to call upon the Wetherells.
It would be impossible for me to say with what varied emotions I trod that well-remembered street, crossed the garden, and approached the ponderous front door, which somehow had always seemed to me so typical of Mr. Wetherell himself. The same butler who had opened the door to me on the previous occasion opened it now, and when I asked if Miss Wetherell were at home, he gravely answered, "Yes, sir," and invited me to enter.
I was shown into the drawing-room—a large double chamber beautifully furnished and possessing an elegantly painted ceiling—while the butler went in search of his mistress. A few moments later I heard a light footstep outside, a hand was placed upon the handle of the door, and before I could have counted ten, Phyllis—my Phyllis!—was in the room and in my arms! Over the next five minutes, gentle reader, we will draw a curtain with your kind permission. If you have ever met your sweetheart after an absence of several months, you will readily understand why!
When we had become rational again I led her to a sofa, and, seating myself beside her, asked if her father had in any way relented. At this she looked very unhappy, and for a moment I thought was going to burst into tears.
"Why! What is the matter, Phyllis, my darling?" I cried in sincere alarm. "What is troubling you?"
"Oh, I am so unhappy," she replied. "Dick, there is a gentleman in Sydney now to whom papa has taken an enormous fancy, and he is exerting all his influence over me to induce me to marry him."
"The deuce he is, and pray who may——" but I got no farther in my inquiries, for at that moment I caught the sound of a footstep in the hall, and next moment Mr. Wetherell opened the door. He remained for a brief period looking from one to the other of us without speaking, then he advanced, saying, "Mr. Hatteras, please be so good as to tell me when this persecution will cease? Am I not even to be free of you in my own house. Flesh and blood won't stand it, I tell you, sir—won't stand it! You pursued my daughter to England in a most ungentlemanly fashion, and now you have followed her out here again."
"Just as I shall continue to follow her all my life, Mr. Wetherell," I replied warmly, "wherever you may take her. I told you on board the Orizaba, months ago, that I loved her: well, I love her ten thousand times more now. She loves me—won't you hear her tell you so? Why then should you endeavour to keep us apart?"
"Because an alliance with you, sir, is distasteful to me in every possible way. I have other views for my daughter, you must learn." Here Phyllis could keep silence no longer, and broke in with—"If you mean by that that you will force me into this hateful marriage with a man I despise, papa, you are mistaken. I will marry no one but Mr. Hatteras, and so I warn you."
"Silence, Miss! How dare you adopt that tone with me! You will do as I wish in this and all other matters, and so we'll have no more talk about it. Now, Mr. Hatteras, you have heard what I have to say, and I warn you that, if you persist in this conduct, I'll see if something can't be found in the law to put a stop to it. Meanwhile, if you show yourself in my grounds again, I'll have my servants throw you out into the street! Good-day."
Unjust as his conduct was to me, there was nothing for it but to submit, so picking up my hat I bade poor little frightened Phyllis farewell, and went towards the door. But before taking my departure I was determined to have one final shot at her irascible parent, so I said, "Mr. Wetherell, I have warned you before, and I do so again: your daughter loves me, and, come what may, I will make her my wife. She is her own mistress, and you cannot force her into marrying any one against her will. Neither can you prevent her marrying me if she wishes it. You will be sorry some day that you have behaved like this to me."
But the only answer he vouchsafed was a stormy one. "Leave my house this instant," he said. "Not another word, sir, or I'll call my servants to my assistance!"
The stately old butler opened the front door for me, and assuming as dignified an air as was possible, I went down the drive and passed out into the street.
When I reached home again Beckenham was out, for which I was not sorry, as I wanted to have a good quiet think by myself. So lighting a cigar, I pulled a chair into the verandah and fell to work. But I could make nothing of the situation, save that, by my interview this morning, my position with the father was, if possible, rendered even more hopeless than before. Who was this more fortunate suitor? Would it be any use my going to him and—but no, that was clearly impossible. Could I induce Phyllis to run away with me? That was possible, of course, but I rather doubted if she would care to take such an extreme step until every other means had proved unsuccessful. Then what was to be done? I began to wish that Beckenham would return in order that we might consult together.
Half an hour later our lunch was ready, but still no sign came of the youth. Where could he have got to? I waited an hour and then fell to work. Three o'clock arrived and still no sign—four, five, and even six. By this time I was in a fever of anxiety. I remembered the existence of the man who had followed us from Melbourne, and Beckenham's trusting good nature. Then and there I resolved, if he did not return before half-past seven, to set off for the nearest police-station and have a search made for him. Slowly the large hand of the clock went round, and when, at the time stated, he had not appeared, I donned my hat and, inquiring the way, set off for the home of the law.
On arriving there and stating my business I was immediately conducted to the inspector in charge, who questioned me very closely as to Beckenham's appearance, age, profession, etc. Having done this, he said:—
"But what reason have you, sir, for supposing that the young man has been done away with? He has only been absent from his abode, according to your statement, about eight or nine hours."
"Simply because," I answered, "I have the best of reasons for knowing that ever since his arrival in Australia he has been shadowed. This morning he said he would only go for a short stroll before lunch, and I am positively certain, knowing my anxiety about him, he would not have remained away so long of his own accord without communicating with me."
"Is there any motive you can assign for this shadowing?"
"My friend is heir to an enormous property in England. Perhaps that may assist you in discovering one?"
"Very possibly. But still I am inclined to think you are a little hasty in coming to so terrible a conclusion, Mr. ——?"
"Hatteras is my name, and I am staying at the General Officer Hotel in Palgrave Street."
"Well, Mr. Hatteras, if I were you I would go back to your hotel. You will probably find your friend there eating his dinner and thinking about instituting a search for you. If, however, he has not turned up, and does not do so by to-morrow morning, call here again and report the matter, and I will give you every assistance."
Thanking him for his courtesy I left the station and walked quickly back to the hotel, hoping to find Beckenham safely returned and at his dinner. But when the landlady met me in the verandah, and asked if I had any news of my friend, I realized that a disappointment was in store for me. By this time the excitement and worry were getting too much for me. What with Nikola, the spy, Beckenham, Phyllis, the unknown lover, and old Mr. Wetherell, I had more than enough to keep my brain occupied. I sat down on a chair on the verandah with a sigh and reviewed the whole case. Nine o'clock struck by the time my reverie was finished. Just as I did so a newspaper boy came down the street lustily crying his wares. To divert my mind from its unpleasant thoughts, I called him up and bought an Evening Mercury. Having done so I passed into my sitting-room to read it. The first, second, and third pages held nothing of much interest to me, but on the fourth was an item which was astonishing enough to almost make my hair stand on end. It ran as follows:
IMPORTANT ENGAGEMENT IN HIGH LIFE.
We have it on the very best authority that an engagement will shortly be announced between a certain illustrious young nobleman, now a visitor in our city, and the beautiful daughter of one of Sydney's most prominent politicians, who has lately returned from a visit to England. The Evening Mercury tenders the young couple their sincerest congratulations.
Could this be the solution of the whole mystery? Could it be that the engagement of Baxter, the telegram, the idea of travel, the drugging, the imprisonment in Port Said, the substitution of the false marquis, were all means to this end? Was is possible that this man, who was masquerading as a man of title, was to marry Phyllis (for there could be no possible doubt as to the person to whom that paragraph referred)? The very thought of such a thing was not to be endured.
There must be no delay now, I told myself, in revealing all I knew. The villains must be unmasked this very night. Wetherell should know all as soon as I could tell him. As I came to this conclusion I crushed my paper into my pocket and set off, without a moment's delay, for Potts Point. The night was dark, and now a thick drizzle was falling.
Though it really did not take me very long, it seemed an eternity before I reached the house and rang the bell. The butler opened the door, and was evidently surprised to see me. "Is Mr. Wetherell at home?" I asked.
For a moment he looked doubtful as to what he should say, then compromising matters, answered that he would see.
"I know what that means," I said in reply. "Mr. Wetherell is in, but you don't think he'll see me. But he must! I have news for him of the very utmost importance. Will you tell him that?"
He left me and went along the hall and upstairs. Presently he returned, shaking his head.
"I am very sorry, sir, but Mr. Wetherell's answer is, if you have anything to tell him you must put it in writing; he cannot see you."
"But he must! In this case I can accept no refusal. Tell him, will you, that the matter upon which I wish to speak to him has nothing whatsoever to do with the request I made to him this morning. I pledge him my word on that."
Again the butler departed, and once more I was left to cool my heels in the portico. When he returned it was with a smile upon his face. "Mr. Wetherell will be glad if you will step this way, sir."
I followed him along the hall and up the massive stone staircase. Arriving at the top he opened a door on the left-hand side and announced "Mr. Hatteras."
I found Mr. Wetherell seated in a low chair opposite the fire, and from the fact that his right foot was resting on a sort of small trestle, I argued that he was suffering from an attack of his old enemy the gout.
"Be good enough to take a chair, Mr. Hatteras," he said, when the door had been closed. "I must own I am quite at a loss to understand what you can have to tell me of so much importance as to bring you to my house at this time of night."
"I think I shall be able to satisfy you on that score, Mr. Wetherell," I replied, taking the Evening Mercury from my pocket and smoothing it out. "In the first place, will you be good enough to tell me if there is any truth in the inference contained in that paragraph."
I handed the paper to him and pointed to the lines in question. Having put on his glasses he examined it carefully. "I am sorry they should have made it public so soon, I must admit," he said. "But I don't deny that there is a considerable amount of truth in what that paragraph reports."
"You mean by that that you intend to try and marry Phyllis to the Marquis of Beckenham?"
"The young man has paid her a very considerable amount of attention ever since he arrived in the colony, and only last week he did me the honour of confiding his views to me. You see I am candid with you."
"I thank you for it. I, too, will be candid with you. Mr. Wetherell, you may set your mind at rest at once, this marriage will never take place!"
"And pray be so good as to tell me your reason for such a statement?"
"If you want it bluntly, because the young man now staying at Government House is no more the Marquis of Beckenham than I am. He is a fraud, an impostor, a cheat of the first water, put up to play his part by one of the cleverest scoundrels unhung."
"Mr. Hatteras, this is really going too far. I can quite understand your being jealous of his lordship, but I cannot understand your having the audacity to bring such a foolish charge against him. I, for one, must decline to listen to it. If he had been the fraud you make him out, how would his tutor have got those letters from his Grace the Duke of Glenbarth? Do you imagine his Excellency the Governor, who has known the family all his life, would not have discovered him ere this? No, no, sir! It won't do! If you think so, who has schooled him so cleverly? Who has pulled the strings so wonderfully?"
"Why, Nikola, to be sure!"
Had I clapped a revolver to the old gentleman's head, or had the walls opened and Nikola himself stepped into the room, a greater effect of terror and consternation could not have been produced in the old gentleman's face than did those five simple words. He fell back in his chair gasping for breath, his complexion became ashen in its pallor, and for a moment his whole nervous system seemed unstrung. I sprang to his assistance, thinking he was going to have a fit, but he waived me off, and when he had recovered himself sufficiently to speak, said hoarsely—"What do you know of Dr. Nikola? Tell me, for God's sake!—what do you know of him? Quick, quick!"
Thereupon I set to work and told him my story, from the day of my arrival in Sydney from Thursday Island up to the moment of my reaching his house, described my meeting and acquaintance with the real Beckenham, and all the events consequent upon it. He listened, with an awful terror growing in his face, and when I had finished my narrative with the disappearance of my friend he nearly choked.
"Mr. Hatteras," he gasped, "will you swear this is the truth you are telling me?"
"I solemnly swear it," I answered. "And will do so in public when and where you please."
"Then before I do anything else I will beg your pardon for my conduct to you. You have taken a noble revenge. I cannot thank you sufficiently. But there is not a moment to lose. My daughter is at a ball at Government House at the present moment. I should have accompanied her, but my gout would not permit me. Will you oblige me by ringing that bell?"
I rang the bell as requested, and then asked what he intended doing.
"Going off to his Excellency at once, gout or no gout, and telling him what you have told me. If it is as you have said, we must catch these scoundrels and rescue your friend without an instant's delay!"
Half an hour later we were at Government House waiting in his Excellency's study for an interview. The music of the orchestra in the ball-room came faintly in to us, and when Lord Amberley entered the room he seemed surprised, as well he might be, to see us. But as soon as he had heard what we had to tell him his expression changed. "Mr. Wetherell, this is a very terrible charge you bring against my guest. Do you think it can possibly be true?"
"I sadly fear so," said Mr. Wetherell. "But perhaps Mr. Hatteras will tell you the story as he told it to me."
I did so, and, when I had finished, the Governor went to the door and called a servant.
"Find Lord Beckenham, Johnson, at once, and ask him to be so good as to come to me here. Stay—on second thoughts I'll go and look for him myself."
He went off, leaving us alone again to listen to the ticking of the clock upon the mantelpiece, and to wonder what was going to happen next. Five minutes went by and then ten, but still he did not return. When he did so it was with a still more serious countenance.
"You are evidently right, gentlemen. Neither the spurious marquis, nor his tutor, Mr. Baxter, can be found anywhere. I have discovered, too, that all their valuables and light luggage have been smuggled out of the house to-night without the knowledge of my servants. This is a terrible business. But I have given instructions, and the police will be communicated with at once. Now we must do our best to find the real Beckenham."
"Lord Amberley," said Wetherell, in a choking voice, "do you think one of your servants could tell my daughter to come to me at once? I am not feeling very well."
The Governor hesitated a moment, and then said—
"I am sorry to say, Mr. Wetherell, your daughter left the House an hour ago. A message was brought to her that you had been suddenly taken ill and needed her. She went off at once."
Wetherell's anxiety was piteous to see.
"My God!" he cried in despair. "If that is so, I am ruined. This is Nikola's revenge."
Then he uttered a curious little sigh, moved a step forward, and fell in a dead faint upon the floor.
ON THE TRAIL
As soon as Wetherell was able to speak again he said as feebly as an old man of ninety, "Take me home, Mr. Hatteras, take me home, and let us think out together what is best to be done to rescue my poor child."
The Governor rose to his feet and gave him his arm.
"I think you're right, Mr. Wetherell," he said. "It is of course just probable that you will find your daughter at her home when you arrive. God grant she may be! But in case she is not I will communicate all I know to the Police Commissioner on his arrival, and send him and his officers on to you. We must lose no time if we wish to catch these scoundrels." Then turning to me, he continued: "Mr. Hatteras, it is owing to your promptness that we are able to take such early steps. I shall depend upon your further assistance in this matter."
"You may do so with perfect confidence," I answered. "If you knew all you would understand that I am more anxious perhaps than any one to discover the whereabouts of the young lady and my unfortunate friend."
Next moment we were being whirled down the drive at a pace which at any other time I should have thought dangerous. Throughout the journey we sat almost silent, wrapped in our anxieties and forebodings; hoping almost against hope that when we arrived at Potts Point we should find Phyllis awaiting us there. At last we turned into the grounds, and on reaching the house I sprang out and rang the bell, then I went down to help my companion to alight. The butler opened the door and descended the steps to take the rugs. Wetherell stopped him almost angrily, crying:
"Where is your mistress? Has she come home?"
The expression of surprise on the man's face told me, before he had time to utter a word, that our hopes were not to be realized. "Miss Phyllis, sir?" the man said. "Why, she's at the ball."
Wetherell turned from him with a deep sigh, and taking my arm went heavily up the steps into the hall.
"Come to my study, Mr. Hatteras," he said, "and let me confer with you. For God's sake don't desert me in my hour of need!"
"You need have no fear of that," I answered. "If it is bad for you, think what it is for me." And then we went upstairs together.
Reaching his study, Mr. Wetherell led the way in and sat down. I went across to the hearthrug and stood before him. "Now," I said, "we must think this out from the very beginning, and to do that properly we must consider every detail. Have you any objection to answering my questions?"
"Ask any questions you like," he replied, "and I will answer them."
"In the first place, then, how soon after his arrival in the colony did your daughter get to know that sham Beckenham?"
"Three days," he answered.
"At a dance, dinner party, picnic, or what?"
"At none of these things. The young man, it appears, had seen my daughter in the street, and having been struck with her beauty asked one of the aides-de-camp at Government House, with whom we are on intimate terms, to bring him to call. At the time, I remember, I thought it a particularly friendly action on his part."
"I don't doubt it," I answered. "Well that, I think, should tell us one thing."
"And what is that?"
"That his instructions were to get to know your daughter without delay."
"But what could his reason have been?"
"Ah, that I cannot tell you just yet. Now you must pardon what I am going to say: do you think he was serious in his intentions regarding Phyllis—I mean your daughter?"
"Perfectly, as far as I could tell. His desire, he said, was, if she would have him, to be allowed to marry her on his twenty-first birthday, which would be next week, and in proof of permission he showed me a cablegram from his father."
"A forgery, I don't doubt. Well, then, the only construction I can put upon it is that the arrival of the real Beckenham in Sydney must have frightened him, thus compelling the gang to resort to other means of obtaining possession of her at once. Now our next business must be to find out how that dastardly act was accomplished. May I ring the bell and have up the coachman who drove your daughter to the ball?"
"By all means. Please act in every way in this matter as if this house were your own."
I rang the bell, and when the butler appeared to answer it Mr. Wetherell instructed him to find the man I wanted and send him up. The servant left the room again, and for five minutes we awaited his reappearance in silence. When he did come back he said, "Thompson has not come home yet, sir."
"Not come home yet! Why, it's nearly eleven o'clock! Send him in directly he arrives. Hark! What bell is that?"
"Front door, sir."
"Go down and answer it then, and if it should be the Commissioner of Police show him up here at once."
As it turned out it was not the Commissioner of Police, but an Inspector.
"Good-evening," said Mr. Wetherell. "You have come from Government House, I presume?"
"Exactly so, sir," replied the Inspector. "His Excellency gave us some particulars and then sent us on."
"You know the nature of the case?"
"His Excellency informed us himself."
"And what steps have you taken?"
"Well, sir, to begin with, we have given orders for a thorough search throughout the city and suburbs for the tutor and the sham nobleman, at the same time more men are out looking for the real Lord Beckenham. We are also trying to find your coachman, who was supposed to have driven Miss Wetherell away from Government House, and also the carriage, which is certain to be found before very long."
He had hardly finished speaking before there was another loud ring at the bell, and presently the butler entered once more. Crossing to Mr. Wetherell, he said—
"Two policemen are at the front door, and they have brought Thompson home, sir."
"Ah! We are likely to have a little light thrown upon the matter now. Let them bring him up here."
"He's not in a very nice state, sir."
"Never mind that. Bring him up here, instantly!"
Again the butler departed, and a few moments later heavy footsteps ascended the stairs and approached the study door. Then two stalwart policemen entered the room supporting between them a miserable figure in coachman's livery. His hat and coat were gone and his breeches were stained with mud, while a large bruise totally obscured his left eye.
"Stand him over there opposite me," said Mr. Wetherell, pointing to the side of the room furthest from the door. The policemen did as they were ordered, while the man looked more dead than alive.
"Now, Thompson," said Wetherell, looking sternly at him, "what have you got to say for yourself?"
But the man only groaned. Seeing that in his present state he could say nothing, I went across to the table and mixed him a glass of grog. When I gave it to him he drank it eagerly. It seemed to sharpen his wits, for he answered instantly—
"It wasn't my fault, sir. If I'd only ha' known what their game was I'd have been killed afore I'd have let them do anything to hurt the young lady. But they was too cunnin' for me, sir."
"Be more explicit, sir!" said Wetherell sternly. "Don't stand there whining, but tell your story straight-forwardly and at once."
The poor wretch pulled himself together and did his best. "It was in this way, sir," he began. "Last week I was introduced by a friend of mine to as nice a spoken man as ever I saw. He was from England, he said and having a little money thought he'd like to try his 'and at a bit o' racing in Australia, like. He was on the look-out for a smart man, he said, who'd be able to put him up to a wrinkle or two, and maybe train for him later on. He went on to say that he'd 'eard a lot about me, and thought I was just the man for his money. Well, we got more and more friendly till the other night, Monday, when he said as how he'd settled on a farm a bit out in the country, and was going to sign the agreement, as they called it, for to rent it next day. He was goin' to start a stud farm and trainin' establishment combined, and would I take the billet of manager at three 'undred a year? Anyway, as he said, 'Don't be in a 'urry to decide; take your time and think it over. Meet me at the Canary Bird 'Otel on Thursday night (that's to-night, sir) and give me your decision.' Well, sir, I drove Miss Wetherell to Government 'Ouse, sir, according to orders, and then, comin' 'ome, went round by the Canary Bird, to give 'im my answer, thinkin' no 'arm could ever come of it. When I drove up he was standin' at the door smoking his cigar, an' bein' an affable sort of fellow, invited me inside to take a drink. 'I don't like to leave the box,' I said. 'Oh, never mind your horse,' says he. ''Ere's a man as will stand by it for five minutes.' He gave a respectable lookin' chap, alongside the lamp-post, a sixpence, and he 'eld the 'orse; so in I went. When we got inside I was for goin' to the bar, but 'e says, 'No. This is an important business matter, and we don't want to be over'eard.' With that he leads the way into a private room at the end of the passage and shuts the door. 'What's yours?' says he. 'A nobbler o' rum,' says I. Then he orders a nobbler of rum for me and a nobbler of whisky for 'imself. And when it was brought we sat talkin' of the place he'd thought o' takin' an' the 'orses he was goin' to buy, an' then 'e says, ''Ullo! Somebody listenin' at the door. I 'eard a step. Jump up and look.' I got up and ran to the door, but there was nobody there, so I sat down again and we went on talking. Then he says, takin' up his glass: ''Ere's to your 'ealth, Mr. Thompson, and success to the farm.' We both drank it an' went on talkin' till I felt that sleepy I didn't know what to do. Then I dropped off, an' after that I don't remember nothin' of what 'appened till I woke up in the Domain, without my hat and coat, and found a policeman shakin' me by the shoulder."
"The whole thing is as plain as daylight," cried Wetherell bitterly. "It is a thoroughly organized conspiracy, having me for its victim. Oh, my poor little girlie! What has my obstinacy brought you to!"
Seeing the old man in this state very nearly broke me down, but I mastered myself with an effort and addressed a question to the unfortunate coachman—
"Pull yourself together, Thompson, and tell me as correctly as you can what this friend of yours was like."
I fully expected to hear him give an exact description of the man who had followed us from Melbourne, but I was mistaken.
"I don't know, sir," said Thompson, "as I could rightly tell you, my mind being still a bit dizzy-like. He was tall, but not by any manner of means big made; he had very small 'ands 'an feet, a sort o' what they call death's-'ead complexion; 'is 'air was black as soot, an' so was 'is eyes, an' they sparkled like two diamonds."
"Do you remember noticing if he had a curious gold ring on his little finger, like a snake?"
"He had, sir, with two eyes made of some black stone. That's just as true as you're born."
"Then it was Nikola," I cried in an outburst of astonishment, "and he followed us to Australia after all!"
Wetherell gave a deep sigh that was more like a groan than anything; then he became suddenly a new man.
"Mr. Inspector," he cried to the police officer, "that man, or traces of him, must be found before daylight. I know him, and he is as slippery as an eel; if you lose a minute he'll be through your fingers."
"One moment first," I cried. "Tell me this, Thompson: when you drove up to the Canary Bird Hotel where did you say this man was standing?"
"In the verandah, sir."
"Had he his hat on?"
"And then you went towards the bar, but it was crowded, so he took you to a private room?"
"And once there he began giving you the details of this farm he proposed starting. Did he work out any figures on paper?"
"On a letter or envelope; I'm not certain which."
"Which of course he took from his pocket?"
"Very good," I said. Then turning to the police officer, "Now, Mr. Inspector, shall we be off to the Canary Bird?"
"If you wish it, sir. In the meantime I'll send instructions back by these men to the different stations. Before breakfast time we must have the man who held the horse."
"You don't know him, I suppose?" I asked Thompson.
"No, sir; but I've seen him before," he answered.
"He's a Sydney fellow, then?"
"Oh yes, sir."
"Then there should be no difficulty in catching him. Now let us be going."
Mr. Wetherell rose to accompany us, but hard though it was to stop him I eventually succeeded in dissuading him from such a course.
"But you will let me know directly you discover anything, won't you, Mr. Hatteras?" he cried as we were about to leave the room. "Think of my anxiety."
I gave my promise and then, accompanied by the Inspector, left the house. Hailing a passing cab we jumped into it and told the driver to proceed as fast as he could to the hotel in question. Just as we started a clock in the neighbourhood struck twelve. Phyllis had been in Nikola's hands three hours.
Pulling up opposite the Canary Bird (the place where the coachman had been drugged), we jumped out and bade the cabman wait. The hotel was in complete darkness, and it was not until we had pealed the bell twice that we succeeded in producing any sign of life. Then the landlord, half dressed, carrying a candle in his hand, came downstairs and called out to know who was there and what we wanted. My companion immediately said "Police," and in answer to that magic word the door was unbarred.
"Good-evening, Mr. Bartrell," said the Inspector. "May we come in for a moment on business?"
"Certainly, Mr. Inspector," said the landlord, who evidently knew my companion. "But isn't this rather late for a call. I hope there is nothing the matter?"
"Nothing much," returned the Inspector: "only we want to make a few inquiries about a man who was here to-night, and for whom we are looking."
"If that is so I'm afraid I must call my barman. I was not in the bar this evening. If you'll excuse me I'll go and bring him down. In the meantime make yourselves comfortable."
He left us to kick our heels in the hall while he went upstairs again. In about ten minutes, and just as my all-consuming impatience was well-nigh getting the better of me, he returned, bringing with him the sleepy barman.
"These gentlemen want some information about a man who was here to-night," the landlord said by way of introduction. "Perhaps you can give it?"
"What was he like, sir?" asked the barman of the Inspector. The latter, however, turned to me.
"Tall, slim, with a sallow complexion," I said, "black hair and very dark restless eyes. He came in here with the Hon. Sylvester Wetherell's coachman."
The man seemed to recollect him at once.
"I remember him," he said. "They sat in No. 5 down the passage there, and the man you mention ordered a nobbler of rum and a whisky."
"That's the fellow we want," said the Inspector. "Now tell me this, have you ever seen him in here before?"
"Never once," said the barman, "and that's a solemn fact, because if I had I couldn't have forgotten it. His figure-head wouldn't let you do that. No, sir, to-night was the first night he's ever been in the Canary Bird."
"Did any one else visit them while they were in the room together?"
"Not as I know of. But stay, I'm not so certain. Yes; I remember seeing a tall, good-looking chap come down the passage and go in there. But it was some time, half an hour maybe, after I took in the drinks."
"Did you see him come out again?"
"No. But I know the coachman got very drunk, and had to be carried out to the carriage."
"How do you know that?"
"Because I saw the other two doing it."
The Inspector turned to me.
"Not very satisfactory, is it?"
"No," I answered. "But do you mind letting us look into No. 5—the room they occupied?"
"Not at all," said the landlord. "Come with me."
So saying he led the way down the passage to a little room on the right-hand side, the door of which he threw open with a theatrical flourish. It was in pitch darkness, but a few seconds later the gas was lit and we could see all that it contained. A small table stood in the centre of the room, and round the walls were ranged two or three wooden chairs. A small window was at the further end and a fireplace opposite the door. On the table was a half-smoked cigar and a torn copy of the Evening Mercury. But that was not what I wanted, so I went down on my hands and knees and looked about upon the floor. Presently I descried a small ball of paper near the grate. Picking it up I seated myself at the table and turned to the barman, who was watching my movements attentively.
"Was this room used by any other people after the party we are looking for left?"
"No, sir. There was nobody in either of these two bottom rooms."
"You are quite certain of that?"
I took up the ball of paper, unrolled it and spread it out upon the table. To my disgust it was only the back half of an envelope, and though it had a few figures dotted about upon it, was of no possible use to us.
"Nothing there?" asked the Inspector.
"Nothing at all," I answered bitterly, "save a few incomprehensible figures."
"Well, in that case, we'd better be getting up to the station and see if they've discovered anything yet."
"Come along, then," I answered. "We must be quick though, for we've lost a lot of precious time, and every minute counts."
I took up the Evening Mercury and followed him out to the cab, after having sincerely thanked the hotel proprietor and the barman for their courtesy. The Inspector gave the driver his orders and we set off. As we went we discussed our next movements, and while we were doing so I idly glanced at the paper I held in my hand. There was a lamp in the cab, and the light showed me on the bottom right-hand corner a round blue india-rubber stamp mark, "W. E. Maxwell, stationer and newsagent, 23, Ipswell Street, Woolahra."
"Stop the cab!" I almost shouted. "Tell the man to drive us back to the Canary Bird quickly."
The order was given, the cab faced round, and in less than a minute we were on our way back.
"What's up now?" asked the astonished Inspector.
"Only that I believe I've got a clue," I cried.
I did not explain any further, and in five minutes we had brought the landlord downstairs again.
"I'm sorry to trouble you in this fashion," I cried, "but life and death depend on it. I want you to let me see No. 5 again."
He conducted us to the room, and once more the gas was lit. The small strip of envelope lay upon the table just as I had thrown it down. I seated myself and again looked closely at it. Then I sprang to my feet.
"I thought so!" I cried excitedly, pointing to the paper; "I told you I had a clue. Now, Mr. Inspector, who wrote those figures?"
"The man you call Nikola, I suppose."
"That's right. Now who would have bought this newspaper? You must remember that Thompson only left his box to come in here."
"Nikola, I suppose."
"Very good. Then according to your own showing Nikola owned this piece of envelope and this Evening Mercury. If that is certain, look here!"
He came round and looked over my shoulder. I pointed to what was evidently part of the gummed edge of the top of the envelope. On it were these three important words, "——swell Street, Woolahra."
"Well," he said, "what about it?"
"Why, look here!" I said, as I opened the Evening Mercury and pointed to the stamp-mark at the bottom. "The man who bought this newspaper at Mr. Maxwell's shop also bought this envelope there. The letters 'swell' before 'street' constitute the last half of Ipswell, the name of the street. If that man be Nikola, as we suspect, the person who served him is certain to remember him, and it is just within the bounds of possibility he may know his address."
"That's so," said the Inspector, struck with the force of my argument. "I know Mr. Maxwell's shop, and our best plan will be to go on there as fast as we can."
Again thanking the landlord for his civility, we returned to our cab and once more set off, this time for Mr. Maxwell's shop in Ipswell Street. By the time we reached it it was nearly three o'clock, and gradually growing light. As the cab drew up alongside the curb the Inspector jumped out and rang the bell at the side door. It was opened after awhile by a shock-headed youth, who stared at us in sleepy astonishment.
"Does Mr. Maxwell live at the shop?" asked the Inspector.
"Ponson Street—third house on the left-hand side."
Once more we jumped into the cab and rattled off. It seemed to me, so anxious and terrified was I for my darling's safety, that we were fated never to get the information we wanted; the whole thing was like some nightmare, in which, try how I would to move, every step was clogged.
A few minutes' drive brought us to Ponson Street, and we drew up at the third house on the left-hand side. It was a pretty little villa, with a nice front garden and a creeper-covered verandah. We rang the bell and waited. Presently we heard some one coming down the passage, and a moment later the door was unlocked.
"Who is there?" cried a voice from within.
"Police," said my companion as before.
The door was immediately opened, and a very small sandy-complexioned man, dressed in a flaring suit of striped pyjamas, stood before us. "Is anything wrong, gentlemen?" he asked nervously.
"Nothing to affect you, Mr. Maxwell," my companion replied. "We only want a little important information, if you can give it us. We are anxious to discover a man's whereabouts before daylight, and we have been led to believe that you are the only person who can give us the necessary clue."
"Good gracious! But I shall be happy to serve you if I can," the little man answered, leading the way into his dining-room with an air of importance his appearance rather belied. "What is it?"
"Well, it's this," I replied, producing the piece of envelope and the Evening Mercury. "You see these letters on the top of this paper, don't you?" He nodded, his attention at once secured by seeing his own name. "Well, that envelope was evidently purchased in your shop. So was this newspaper."
"How can you tell that?"
"In the case of the envelope, by these letters; in that of the paper, by your rubber stamp on the bottom."
"Ah! Well, now, and in what way can I help you?"
"We want to know the address of the man who bought them."
"That will surely be difficult. Can you give me any idea of what he was like?"
"Tall, slightly foreign in appearance, distinctly handsome, sallow complexion, very dark eyes, black hair, small hands and feet."
As my description progressed the little man's face brightened. Then he cried with evident triumph—"I know the man; he came into the shop yesterday afternoon."
"And his address is?"
His face fell again. His information was not quite as helpful as he had expected it would be.
"There I can't help you, I'm sorry to say. He bought a packet of paper and envelopes and the Evening Mercury and then left the shop. I was so struck by his appearance that I went to the door and watched him cross the road."
"And in which direction did he go?"
"Over to Podgers' chemist shop across the way. That was the last I saw of him."
"I'm obliged to you, Mr. Maxwell," I said, shaking him by the hand. "But I'm sorry you can't tell us something more definite about him." Then turning to the Inspector: "I suppose we had better go off and find Podgers. But if we have to spend much more time in rushing about like this we shall be certain to lose them altogether."
"Let us be off to Podgers', then, as fast as we can go."
Bidding Mr. Maxwell good-bye, we set off again, and in ten minutes had arrived at the shop and had Mr. Podgers downstairs. We explained our errand briefly, and gave a minute description of the man we wanted.
"I remember him perfectly," said the sedate Podgers. "He came into my shop last night and purchased a bottle of chloroform."
"You made him sign the poison book, of course?"
"Naturally I did, Mr. Inspector. Would you like to see his signature?"
"Very much," we both answered at once, and the book was accordingly produced.
Podgers ran his finger down the list.
"Brown, Williams, Davis—ah! here it is. 'Chloroform: J. Venneage, 22, Calliope Street, Woolahra.'"
"Venneage!" I cried. "Why, that's not his name!"
"Very likely not," replied Podgers; "but it's the name he gave me."
"Never mind, we'll try 22, Calliope Street, on the chance," said the Inspector.
Again we drove off, this time at increased pace. In less than fifteen minutes we had turned into the street we wanted, and pulled up about a hundred yards from the junction. It was a small thoroughfare, with a long line of second-class villa residences on either side. A policeman was sauntering along on the opposite side of the way, and the Inspector called him over. He saluted respectfully, and waited to be addressed.
"What do you know of number 22?" asked the Inspector briefly. The constable considered for a few moments, and then said—
"Well, to tell you the truth, sir, I didn't know until yesterday that it was occupied."
"Have you seen anybody about there?"
"I saw three men go in just as I came on the beat to-night."
"What were they like?"
"Well, I don't know that I looked much at them. They were all pretty big, and they seemed to be laughing and enjoying themselves."
"Did they! Well, we must go in there and have a look at them. You had better come with us."
We walked on down the street till we arrived at No. 22. Then opening the gate we went up the steps to the hall door. It was quite light enough by this time to enable us to see everything distinctly. The Inspector gave the bell a good pull and the peal re-echoed inside the house. But not a sound of any living being came from within in answer. Again the bell was pulled, and once more we waited patiently, but with the same result.
"Either there's nobody at home or they refuse to hear," said the Inspector. "Constable, you remain where you are and collar the first man you see. Mr. Hatteras, we will go round to the back and try to effect an entrance from there."
We left the front door, and finding a path reached the yard. The house was only a small one, with a little verandah at the rear on to which the back door opened. On either side of the door were two fair-sized windows, and by some good fortune it chanced that the catch of one of these was broken.
Lifting the sash up, the Inspector jumped into the room, and as soon as he was through I followed him. Then we looked about us. The room, however, was destitute of furniture or occupants.
"I don't hear anybody about," my companion said, opening the door that led into the hall. Just at that moment I heard a sound, and touching his arm signed to him to listen. We both did so, and surely enough there came again the faint muttering of a human voice. In the half-dark of the hall it sounded most uncanny.
"Somebody in one of the front rooms," said the Inspector. "I'll slip along and open the front door, bring in the man from outside, and then we'll burst into the room and take our chance of capturing them."
He did as he proposed, and when the constable had joined us we moved towards the room on the left.
Again the mutterings came from the inside, and the Inspector turned the handle of the door. It was locked, however. "Let me burst it in," I whispered.
He nodded, and I accordingly put my shoulder against it, and bringing my strength to bear sent it flying in.
Then we rushed into the room, to find it, at first glance, empty. Just at that moment, however, the muttering began again, and we looked towards the darkest corner; somebody was there, lying on the ground. I rushed across and knelt down to look. It was Beckenham; his mouth gagged and his hands and feet bound. The noise we had heard was that made by him trying to call us to his assistance.
In less time than it takes to tell I had cut his bonds and helped him to sit up. Then I explained to the Inspector who he was.
"Thank God you're found!" I cried. "But what does it all mean? How long have you been like this? and where is Nikola?"
"I don't know how long I've been here," he answered, "and I don't know where Nikola is."
"But you must know something about him!" I cried. "For Heaven's sake tell me all you can! I'm in awful trouble, and your story may give me the means of saving a life that is dearer to me than my own."
"Get me something to drink first, then," he replied; "I'm nearly dying of thirst; after that I'll tell you."
Fortunately I had had the foresight to put a flask of whisky into my pocket, and I now took it out and gave him a stiff nobbler. It revived him somewhat, and he prepared to begin his tale. But the Inspector interrupted—
"Before you commence, my lord, I must send word to the Commissioner that you have been found."
He wrote a message on a piece of paper and despatched the constable with it. Having done so he turned to Beckenham and said—
"Now, my lord, pray let us hear your story."
Beckenham forthwith commenced.
LORD BECKENHAM'S STORY
"When you left me, Mr. Hatteras, I remained in the house for half an hour or so reading. Then, thinking no harm could possibly come of it, I started out for a little excursion on my own account. It was about half-past eleven then.
"Leaving the hotel I made for the ferry and crossed Darling Harbour to Millers Point; then, setting myself for a good ramble, off I went through the city, up one street and down another, to eventually bring up in the botanical gardens. The view was so exquisite that I sat myself down on a seat and resigned myself to rapturous contemplation of it. How long I remained there I could not possibly say. I only know that while I was watching the movements of a man-o'-war in the cove below me I became aware, by intuition—for I did not look at him—that I was the object of close scrutiny by a man standing some little distance from me. Presently I found him drawing closer to me, until he came boldly up and seated himself beside me. He was a queer-looking little chap, in some ways not unlike my old tutor Baxter, with a shrewd, clean-shaven face, grey hair, bushy eyebrows, and a long and rather hooked nose. He was well dressed, and when we had been sitting side by side for some minutes he turned to me and said—
"'It is a beautiful picture we have spread before us, is it not?'
"'It is, indeed,' I answered. 'And what a diversity of shipping!'
"'You may well say that,' he continued. 'It would be an interesting study, would it not, to make a list of all the craft that pass in and out of this harbour in a day—to put down the places where they were built and whence they hail, the characters of their owners and commanders, and their errands about the world. What a book it would make, would it not? Look at that man-o'-war in Farm Cove; think of the money she cost, think of where that money came from—the rich people who paid without thinking, the poor who dreaded the coming of the tax collector like a visit from the Evil One; imagine the busy dockyard in which she was built—can't you seem to hear the clang of the riveters and the buzzing of the steam saws? Then take that Norwegian boat passing the fort there; think of her birthplace in far Norway, think of the places she has since seen, imagine her masts growing in the forests on the mountain side of lonely fiords, where the silence is so intense that a stone rolling down and dropping into the water echoes like thunder.'
"He went on like this for some time, until I said: 'You seem to have studied it very carefully.'
"'Perhaps I have,' he answered. 'I am deeply interested in the life of the sea—few more so. Are you a stranger in New South Wales?'
"'Quite a stranger,' I replied. 'I only arrived in Australia a few days since.'
"'Indeed! Then you have to make the acquaintance of many entrancing beauties yet. Forgive my impertinence, but if you are on a tour, let me recommend you to see the islands before you return home.'
"'The South-Sea Islands, I presume you mean?' I said.
"'Yes; the bewitching islands of the Southern Seas! The most entrancingly beautiful spots on God's beautiful earth! See them before you go. They will amply repay any trouble it may cost you to reach them.'
"'I should like to see them very much,' I answered.
"'Perhaps you are interested in them already?' he continued.
"'Very much indeed,' I replied.
"'Then, in that case, I may not be considered presumptuous if I offer to assist you. I am an old South-Sea merchant myself, and I have amassed a large collection of beautiful objects from the islands. If you would allow me the pleasure I should be delighted to show them to you.'
"'I should like to see them very much indeed,' I answered, thinking it extremely civil of him.
"'If you have time we might perhaps go and over-haul them now. My house is but a short distance from the Domain, and my carriage is waiting at the gates.'
"'I shall be delighted,' I said, thinking there could be no possible harm in my accepting his invitation.
"'But before we go, may I be allowed to introduce myself?' the old gentleman said, taking a card-case from his pocket and withdrawing a card. This he handed to me, and on it I read—
'Mr. Mathew Draper.'
"'I am afraid I have no card to offer you in return,' I said; 'but I am the Marquis of Beckenham.'
"'Indeed! Then I am doubly honoured,' the old gentleman said, with a low bow. 'Now shall we wend our way up towards my carriage?'
"We did so, chatting as we went. At the gates a neat brougham was waiting for us, and in it we took our places. "'Home,' cried my host, and forthwith we set off down the street. Up one thoroughfare and down another we passed, until I lost all count of our direction. Throughout the drive my companion talked away in his best style; commented on the architecture of the houses, had many queer stories to tell of the passers-by, and in many other ways kept my attention engaged till the carriage came to a standstill before a small but pretty villa in a quiet street.
"Mr. Draper immediately alighted, and when I had done so, dismissed his coachman, who drove away as we passed through the little garden and approached the dwelling. The front door was opened by a dignified man-servant, and we entered. The hall, which was a spacious one for so small a dwelling, was filled with curios and weapons, but I had small time for observing them, as my host led me towards a room at the back. As we entered it he said 'I make you welcome to my house, my lord. I hope, now that you have taken the trouble to come, I shall be able to show you something that will repay your visit.' Thereupon, bidding me seat myself for a few moments, he excused himself and left the room. When he returned he began to do the honours of the apartment. First we examined a rack of Australian spears, nulla-nullas, and boomerangs, then another containing New Zealand hatchets and clubs. After this we crossed to a sort of alcove where reposed in cases a great number of curios collected from the further islands of the Pacific. I was about to take up one of these when the door on the other side of the room opened and some one entered. At first I did not look round, but hearing the new-comer approaching me I turned, to find myself, to my horrified surprise, face to face with Dr. Nikola. He was dressed entirely in black, his coat was buttoned and displayed all the symmetry of his peculiar figure, while his hair seemed blacker and his complexion even paler than before. He had evidently been prepared for my visit, for he held out his hand and greeted me without a sign of astonishment upon his face.
"'This is indeed a pleasure, my lord,' he said, still with his hand out-stretched, looking hard at me with his peculiar cat-like eyes. 'I did not expect to see you again so soon. And you are evidently a little surprised at meeting me.'
"'I am more than surprised,' I answered bitterly. 'I am horribly mortified and angry.'
"Mr. Draper said nothing, but Dr. Nikola dropped into a chair and spoke for him.
"'You must not blame my old friend Draper,' he said suavely. 'We have been wondering for the last twenty-four hours how we might best get hold of you, and the means we have employed so successfully seemed the only possible way. Have no fear, my lord, you shall not be hurt. In less than twenty-four hours you will enjoy the society of your energetic friend Mr. Hatteras again.'
"'What is your reason for abducting me like this?' I asked. 'You are foolish to do so, for Mr. Hatteras will leave no stone unturned to find me.'
"'I do not doubt that at all,' said Dr. Nikola quietly; 'but I think Mr. Hatteras will find he will have all his work cut out for him this time.'
"'If you imagine that your plans are not known in Sydney you are mistaken,' I cried. 'The farce you are playing at Government House is detected, and Mr. Hatteras, directly he finds I am lost, will go to Lord Amberley, and reveal everything.'
"'I have not the slightest objection,' returned Dr. Nikola quietly. 'By the time Mr. Hatteras can take those steps—indeed, by the time he discovers your absence at all—we shall be beyond his reach.'
"I could not follow his meaning, of course, but while he had been speaking I had been looking stealthily round me for a means of escape. The only way out of the room was, of course, by the door, but both Nikola and his ally were between me and that. Then a big stone hatchet hanging on the wall near me caught my eye. Hardly had I seen it before an idea flashed through my brain. Supposing I seized it and fought my way out. The door of the room stood open, and I noticed with delight that the key was in the lock on the outside. One rush, armed with the big hatchet, would take me into the passage; then before my foes could recover their wits I might be able to turn the key, and, having locked them in, make my escape from the house.
"Without another thought I made up my mind, sprang to the wall, wrenched down the hatchet, and prepared for my rush. But by the time I had done it both Nikola and Draper were on their feet.
"'Out of my way!' I cried, raising my awful weapon aloft. 'Stop me at your peril!'
"With my hatchet in the air I looked at Nikola. He was standing rigidly erect, with one arm out-stretched, the hand pointing at me. His eyes glared like living coals, and when he spoke his voice came from between his teeth like a serpent's hiss.
"'Put down that axe!' he said.
"With that the old horrible fear of him which had seized me on board ship came over me again. His eyes fascinated me so that I could not look away from them. I put down the hatchet without another thought. Still he gazed at me in the same hideous fashion.
"'Sit down in that chair,' he said quietly. 'You cannot disobey me.' And indeed I could not. My heart was throbbing painfully, and an awful dizziness was creeping over me. Still I could not get away from those terrible eyes. They seemed to be growing larger and fiercer every moment. Oh! I can feel the horror of them even now. As I gazed his white right hand was moving to and fro before me with regular sweeps, and with each one I felt my own will growing weaker and weaker. That I was being mesmerized, I had no doubt, but if I had been going to be murdered I could not have moved a finger to save myself.
"Then there came a sudden but imperative knock at the door, and both Nikola and Draper rose. Next moment the man whom we had noticed in the train as we came up from Melbourne, and against whom you, Mr. Hatteras, had warned me in Sydney, entered the room. He crossed and stood respectfully before Nikola.
"'Well, Mr. Eastover, what news?' asked the latter. 'Have you done what I told you?'
"'Everything,' the man answered, taking an envelope from his pocket. 'Here is the letter you wanted.'
"Nikola took it from his subordinate's hand, broke the seal, and having withdrawn the contents, read it carefully. All this time, seeing resistance was quite useless, I did not move. I felt too sick and giddy for anything. When he had finished his correspondence Nikola said something in an undertone to Draper, who immediately left the room. During the time he was absent none of us spoke. Presently he returned, bringing with him a wine glass filled with water, which he presented to Nikola.
"'Thank you,' said that gentleman, feeling in his waistcoat pocket. Presently he found what he wanted and produced what looked like a small silver scent-bottle. Unscrewing the top, he poured from it into the wine glass a few drops of some dark-coloured liquid. Having done this he smelt it carefully and then handed it to me. 'I must ask you to drink this, my lord,' he said. 'You need have no fear of the result: it is perfectly harmless.'
"Did ever man hear such a cool proposition? Very naturally I declined to do as he wished.
"'You must drink it!' he reiterated. 'Pray do so at once. I have no time to waste bandying words.'
"'I will not drink it!' I cried, rising to my feet, and prepared to make a fight for it if need should be.
"Once more those eyes grew terrible, and once more that hand began to make the passes before my face. Again I felt the dizziness stealing over me. His will was growing every moment too strong for me. I could not resist him. So when he once more said, 'Drink!' I took the glass and did as I was ordered. After that I remember seeing Nikola, Draper, and the man they called Eastover engaged in earnest conversation on the other side of the room. I remember Nikola crossing to where I sat and gazing steadfastly into my face, and after that I recollect no more until I came to my senses in this room, to find myself bound and gagged. For what seemed like hours I lay in agony, then I heard footsteps in the verandah, and next moment the sound of voices. I tried to call for help, but could utter no words. I thought you would go away without discovering me, but fortunately for me you did not do so. Now, Mr. Hatteras, I have told you everything."
For some time after the Marquis had concluded his strange story both the Inspector and I sat in deep thought. That Beckenham had been kidnapped in order that he should be out of the way while the villainous plot for abducting Phyllis was being enacted there could be no doubt. But why had he been chosen? and what clues were we to gather from what he had told us? I turned to the Inspector and said—
"What do you think will be the best course for us to pursue now?"
"I have been wondering myself. I think, as there is nothing to be learned from this house, the better plan would be for you two gentlemen to go back to Mr. Wetherell, while I return to the detective office and see if anything has been discovered by the men there. As soon as I have found out I will join you at Potts Point. What do you think?"
I agreed that it would be the best course; so, taking the Marquis by the arms (for he was still too weak to walk alone), we left the house, and were about to step into the street when I stopped, and asking them to wait for me ran back into the room again. In the corner, just as it had been thrown down, lay the rope with which Beckenham had been bound and the pad which had been fitted over his mouth. I picked both up and carried them into the verandah.
"Come here, Mr. Inspector," I cried. "I thought I should learn something from this. Look at this rope and this pad, and tell me what you make of them."
He took each up in turn and looked them over and over. But he only shook his head.
"I don't see anything to guide us," he said.
"Don't you?" I cried. "Why, they tell me more than I have learnt from anything else I've seen. Look at the two ends of this. They're seized!"
I looked triumphantly at him, but he only stared at me in surprise, and said, "What do you mean by 'seized'?"
"Why, I mean that the ends are bound up in this way—look for yourself. Now not one landsman in a hundred seizes a rope's end. This line was taken from some ship in the harbour, and——By Jove! here's another discovery!"
"What now?" he cried, being by this time almost as excited as I was myself.
"Why, look here," I said, holding the middle of the rope up to the light, so that we could get a better view of it. "Not very many hours ago this rope was running through a block, and that block was an uncommon one."
"How do you know that it was an uncommon one?"
"Because it has been newly painted, and what's funnier still, painted green, of all other colours. Look at this streak of paint along the line; see how it's smudged. Now, let's review the case as we walk along."
So saying, with the Marquis between us, we set off down the street, hoping to be able to pick up a cab.
"First and foremost," I said, "remember old Draper's talk of the South Seas—remember the collection of curios he possessed. Probably he owns a schooner, and it's more than probable that this line and this bit of canvas came from it."
"I see what you're driving at," said the Inspector. "It's worth considering. Directly I get to the office I will set men to work to try and find this mysterious gentleman. You would know him again, my lord?"
"I should know him anywhere," was Beckenham's immediate reply.
"And have you any idea at all where this house, to which he conducted you, is located?"
"None at all. I only know that it was about half-way down a street of which all the houses, save the one at the corner—which was a grocer's shop—were one-storied villas."
"Nothing a little more definite, I suppose?"
"Stay! I remember that there was an empty house with broken windows almost opposite, and that on either side of the steps leading up to the front door were two stone eagles with out-stretched wings. The head of one of the eagles—the left, I think—was missing."
The Inspector noted these things in his pocket-book, and just as he had finished we picked up a cab and called it to the side walk. When we had got in and given the driver Mr. Wetherell's address, I said to the Inspector—"What are you going to do first?"
"Put some men on to find Mr. Draper, and some more to find a schooner with her blocks newly painted green."
"You won't be long in letting us know what you discover?" I said. "Remember how anxious we are."
"You may count on my coming to you at once with any news I may procure," he answered.
A few moments later we drew up at Mr. Wetherell's door. Bidding the Inspector good-bye we went up the steps and rang the bell. By the time the cab was out in the street again we were in the house making our way, behind the butler, to Mr. Wetherell's study.
The old gentleman had not gone to bed, but sat just as I had left him so many hours before. As soon as we were announced he rose to receive us.
"Thank God, Mr. Hatteras, you have come back!" he said. "I have been in a perfect fever waiting for you. What have you to report?"
"Not very much, I'm afraid," I answered. "But first let me have the pleasure of introducing the real Marquis of Beckenham to you, whom we have had the good fortune to find and rescue."
Mr. Wetherell bowed gravely and held out his hand.
"My lord," he said, "I am thankful that you have been discovered. I look upon it as one step towards the recovery of my poor girl. I hope now that both you and Mr. Hatteras will take up your abode with me during the remainder of your stay in the colony. You have had a scurvy welcome to New South Wales. We must see if we can't make up to you for it. But you look thoroughly worn out; I expect you would like to go to bed."
He rang the bell, and when his butler appeared, gave him some instructions about preparing rooms for us.
Ten minutes later the man returned and stated that our rooms were ready, whereupon Mr. Wetherell himself conducted Beckenham to the apartment assigned to him. When he returned to me, he asked if I would not like to retire too, but I would not hear of it. I could not have slept a wink, so great was my anxiety. Seeing this, he seated himself and listened attentively while I gave him an outline of Beckenham's story. I had hardly finished before I heard a carriage roll up to the door. There was a ring at the bell, and presently the butler, who, like ourselves, had not dreamt of going to bed, though his master had repeatedly urged him to do so, entered and announced the Inspector.
Wetherell hobbled across to receive him with an anxious face. "Have you any better tidings for me?" he asked.
"Not very much, I'm afraid, sir," the Inspector said, shaking his head. "The best I have to tell you is that your carriage and horse have been found in the yard of an empty house off Pitt Street."
"Have you been able to discover any clue as to who put them there?"
"Not one! The horse was found out of the shafts tied to the wall. There was not a soul about the place."
Wetherell sat down again and covered his face with his hands. At that instant the telephone bell in the corner of the room rang sharply. I jumped up and went across to it. Placing the receivers to my ears, I heard a small voice say, "Is that Mr. Wetherell's house, Potts Point?"
"Yes," I answered.
"Who is speaking?"
"Mr. Hatteras. Mr. Wetherell, however, is in the room. Who are you?"
"Detective officer. Will you tell Mr. Wetherell that Mr. Draper's house has been discovered?"
I communicated the message to Mr. Wetherell, and then the Inspector joined me at the instrument and spoke. "Where is the house?" he inquired.
"83, Charlemagne Street—north side."
"Very good. Inspector Murdkin speaking. Let plain clothes men be stationed at either end of the street, and tell them to be on the look out for Draper, and to wait for me. I'll start for the house at once."
He rang off and then turned to me.
"Are you too tired to come with me, Mr. Hatteras?" he inquired.
"Of course not," I answered. "Let us go at once."
"God bless you!" said Wetherell. "I hope you may catch the fellow."
Bidding him good-bye, we went downstairs again, and jumped into the cab, which was directed to the street in question.
Though it was a good distance from our starting-point, in less than half an hour we had pulled up at the corner. As the cab stopped, a tall man, dressed in blue serge, who had been standing near the lamp-post, came forward and touched his hat.
"Good-morning, Williams," said the Inspector. "Any sign of our man?"
"Not one, sir. He hasn't come down the street since I've been here."
"Very good. Now come along and we'll pay the house a visit."
So saying he told the cabman to follow us slowly, and we proceeded down the street. About half-way along he stopped and pointed to a house on the opposite side.
"That is the house his lordship mentioned, with the broken windows, and this is where Mr. Draper dwells, if I am not much mistaken—see the eagles are on either, side of the steps, just as described."
It was exactly as Beckenham had told us, even to the extent of the headless eagle on the left of the walk. It was a pretty little place, and evidently still occupied, as a maid was busily engaged cleaning the steps.
Pushing open the gate, the Inspector entered the little garden and accosted the girl.
"Good-morning," he said politely. "Pray, is your master at home?"
"Yes, sir; he's at breakfast just now."
"Well, would you mind telling him that two gentlemen would like to see him?"
The girl rose to her feet, and, wiping her hands on her apron, led the way into the house. We followed close behind her. Then, asking us to wait a moment where we were, she knocked at a door on the right, and opening it, disappeared within.
"Now," said the Inspector, "our man will probably appear, and we shall have him nicely."
The Inspector had scarcely spoken before the door opened again, and a man came out. To our surprise, however, he was very tall and stout, with a round, jovial face, and a decided air of being satisfied with himself and the world in general.
"To what do I owe the honour of this visit?" he said, looking at the Inspector.
"I am an Inspector of Police, as you see," answered my companion, "and we are looking for a man named Draper, who yesterday was in possession of this house."
"I am afraid you have made some little mistake," returned the other. "I am the occupier of this house, and have been for some months past. No Mr. Draper has anything at all to do with it."
The Inspector's face was a study for perfect bewilderment. Nor could mine have been much behind it. The Marquis had given such a minute description of the dwelling opposite and the two stone birds on the steps, that there could be no room for doubt that this was the house. And yet it was physically impossible that this man could be Draper; and, if it were the place where Beckenham had been drugged, why were the weapons, etc., he had described not in the hall?
"I cannot understand it at all," said the Inspector, turning to me. "This is the house, and yet where are the things with which it ought to be furnished?"
"You have a description of the furniture, then?" said the owner. "That is good, for it will enable me to prove to you even more clearly that you are mistaken. Pray come and see my sitting-rooms for yourselves."
He led the way into the apartment from which he had been summoned, and we followed him. It was small and nicely furnished, but not a South-Sea curio or native weapon was to be seen in it. Then we followed him to the corresponding room at the back of the house. This was upholstered in the latest fashion; but again there was no sign of what Beckenham had led us to expect we should find. We were completely nonplussed.
"I am afraid we have troubled you without cause," said the Inspector, as we passed out into the hall again.
"Don't mention it," the owner answered; "I find my compensation in the knowledge that I am not involved in any police unpleasantness."
"By the way," said the Inspector suddenly, "have you any idea who your neighbours may be?"
"Oh, dear, yes!" the man replied. "On my right I have a frigidly respectable widow of Low Church tendencies. On my left, the Chief Teller of the Bank of New Holland."
"In that case we can only apologize for our intrusion and wish you good-morning."
"Pray don't apologize. I should have been glad to have assisted you. Good-morning."
We went down the steps again and out into the street. As we passed through the gate, the Inspector stopped and examined a mark on the right-hand post. Then he stooped and picked up what looked like a pebble. Having done so we resumed our walk.
"What on earth can be the meaning of it all?" I asked. "Can his lordship have made a mistake?"
"No, I think not. We have been cleverly duped, that's all."
"What makes you think so?"
"I didn't think so until we passed through the gate on our way out. Now I'm certain of it. Come across the street."
I followed him across the road to a small plain-looking house, with a neatly-curtained bow window and a brass plate on the front door. From the latter I discovered that the proprietress of the place was a dressmaker, but I was completely at a loss to understand why we were visiting her. As soon as the door was opened the Inspector asked if Miss Tiffins were at home, and, on being told that she was, inquired if we might see her. The maid went away to find out, and presently returned and begged us to follow her. We did so down a small passage towards the door of the room which contained the bow window.
Miss Tiffins bade us be seated, and then asked in what way she could be of service to us.
"In the first place, madam," said the Inspector, "a serious crime has been perpetrated, and I have reason to believe that it may be in your power to give us a clue to the persons who committed it."
"You frighten me, sir," replied the lady. "I cannot at all see in what way I can help you. I lead a life of the greatest quietness."
"I do not wish to imply that you do know anything of them. I only want you to carry your memory back as far as yesterday, and to answer me the few simple questions I may ask you."
"I will answer them to the best of my ability."
"Well, in the first place, may I ask if you remember seeing a brougham drive up to that house opposite about mid-day yesterday?"
"No, I cannot say that I do," the old lady replied after a moment's consideration.
"Do you remember seeing a number of men leave the house during the afternoon?"
"No. If they came out I did not notice them."
"Now, think for one moment, if you please, and tell me what vehicles, if any, you remember seeing stop there."
"Let me try to remember. There was Judge's baker's cart, about three, the milk about five, and a furniture van about half-past six."
"That's just what I want to know. And have you any recollection whose furniture van it was?"
"Yes. I remember reading the name as it turned round. Goddard & James, George Street. I wondered if the tenant was going to move."
The Inspector rose, and I followed his example.
"I am exceedingly obliged to you, Miss Tiffins. You have helped me materially."
"I am glad of that," she answered; "but I trust I shall not be wanted to give evidence in court."
"You need have no fear on that score," the Inspector answered. "Good-day."
When we had left the house the Inspector turned to me and said—
"It was a great piece of luck finding a dressmaker opposite. Commend me to ladies of that profession for knowing what goes on in the street. Now we will visit Messrs. Goddard & James and see who hired the things. Meantime, Williams," (here he called the plain-clothes constable to him), "you had better remain here and watch that house. If the man we saw comes out, follow him, and let me know where he goes."
"Very good, sir," the constable replied, and we left him to his vigil.
Then, hailing a passing cab, we jumped into it and directed the driver to convey us to George Street. By this time it was getting on for mid-day, and we were both worn out. But I was in such a nervous state that I could not remain inactive. Phyllis had been in Nikola's hands nearly fourteen hours, and so far we had not obtained one single definite piece of information as to her whereabouts.
Arriving at the shop of Messrs. Goddard & James, we went inside and asked to see the chief partner. An assistant immediately conveyed us to an office at the rear of the building, where we found an elderly gentleman writing at a desk. He looked up as we entered, and then, seeing the Inspector's uniform, rose and asked our business.
"The day before yesterday," began my companion, "you supplied a gentleman with a number of South-Sea weapons and curios on hire, did you not?"
"I remember doing so—yes," was the old gentleman's answer. "What about it?"
"Only I should be glad if you would favour me with a description of the person who called upon you about them—or a glimpse of his letter, if he wrote."
"He called and saw me personally."
"Ah! That is good. Now would you be so kind as to describe him?"
"Well, in the first place, he was very tall and rather handsome; he had, if I remember rightly, a long brown moustache, and was decidedly well dressed."
"That doesn't tell us very much, does it? Was he alone?"
"No. He had with him, when he came into the office, an individual whose face remains fixed in my memory—indeed I cannot get it out of my head."
Instantly I became all excitement.
"What was this second person like?" I asked.
"Well, I can hardly tell you—that is to say, I can hardly give you a good enough description of him to make you see him as I saw him. He was tall and yet very slim, had black hair, a sallow complexion, and the blackest eyes I ever saw in a man. He was clean-shaven and exquisitely dressed, and when he spoke, his teeth glittered like so many pearls. I never saw another man like him in my life."
"Nikola, for a thousand!" I cried, bringing my hand down with a thump upon the table.
"It looks as if we're on the track at last," said the Inspector. Then, turning to Mr. Goddard again: "And may I ask now what excuse they made to you for wanting these things!"
"They did not offer any; they simply paid a certain sum down for the hire of them, gave me their address, and then left."
"And the address was?"
"83, Charlemagne Street. Our van took the things there and fetched them away last night."
"Thank you. And now one or two other questions. What name did the hirer give?"
"When they left your shop how did they go away?"
"A cab was waiting at the door for them, and I walked out to it with them."
"There were only two of them, you think?"
"No. There was a third person waiting for them in the cab, and it was that very circumstance which made me anxious to have my things brought back as soon as possible. If I had been able to, I should have even declined to let them go."
"Well, to tell you that would involve a story. But perhaps I had better tell you. It was in this way. About three years ago, through a distant relative, I got to know a man named Draper."
"Draper!" I cried. "You don't mean—but there, I beg your pardon. Pray go on."
"As I say, I got to know this man Draper, who was a South-Sea trader. We met once or twice, and then grew more intimate. So friendly did we at last become, that I even went so far as to put some money into a scheme he proposed to me. It was a total failure. Draper proved a perfect fraud and a most unbusiness-like person, and all I got out of the transaction was the cases of curios and weapons which this man Eastover hired from me. It was because—when I went out with my customers to their cab—I saw this man Draper waiting for them that I became uneasy about my things. However, all's well that ends well, and as they returned my goods and paid the hire I must not grumble."
"And now tell me what you know of Draper's present life," the Inspector said.
"Ah! I'm afraid of that I can tell you but little. He has been twice declared bankrupt, and the last time there was some fuss made over his schooner, the Merry Duchess."
"He possesses a schooner, then?"
"Oh, yes! A nice boat. She's in harbour now."
"Thank you very much, Mr. Goddard. I am obliged to you for your assistance in this matter."
"Don't mention it. I hope that what I have told you may prove of service to you."
"I'm sure it will. Good-day."
He accompanied us to the door, and then bade us farewell. "Now what are we to do?" I asked.
"Well, first, I am going back to the office to put a man on to find this schooner, and then I'm going to take an hour or two's rest. By that time we shall know enough to be able to lay our hands on Dr. Nikola and his victim, I hope."
"God grant we may!"
"Where are you going now?"
"Back to Potts Point," I answered.
We thereupon bade each other farewell and set off in different directions.
When I reached Mr. Wetherell's house I learned from the butler that his master had fallen asleep in the library. Not wishing to disturb him, I inquired the whereabouts of my own bedroom, and on being conducted to it, laid myself down fully dressed upon the bed. So utterly worn out was I, that my head had no sooner touched the pillow than I was fast asleep. How long I lay there I do not know, but when I woke it was to find Mr. Wetherell standing beside me, holding a letter in his hand. He was white as a sheet, and trembling in every limb. "Read this, Mr. Hatteras," he cried. "For Heaven's sake tell me what we are to do!"
I sat up on the side of the bed and read the letter he handed to me. It was written in what was evidently a disguised hand, on common note-paper, and ran:——
"TO MR. WETHERELL, "POTTS POINT, SYDNEY
"This is to inform you that your daughter is in very safe keeping. If you wish to find her you had better be quick about it. What's more, you had better give up consulting the police, and such like, in the hope of getting hold of her. The only way you can get her will be to act as follows: At eight o'clock to-night charter a boat and pull down the harbour as far as Shark Point. When you get there, light your pipe three times, and some one in a boat near by will do the same. Be sure to bring with you the sum of one hundred thousand pounds in gold, and—this is most important—bring with you the little stick you got from China Pete, or do not come at all. Above all, do not bring more than one man. If you do not put in an appearance you will not hear of your daughter again.
Yours obediently, "THE MAN WHO KNOWS."
FOLLOWING UP A CLUE
For some moments after I had perused the curious epistle Mr. Wetherell had brought to my room I remained wrapped in thought.
"What do you make of it?" my companion asked.
"I don't know what to say," I answered, looking at it again. "One thing, however, is quite certain, and that is that, despite its curious wording, it is intended you should take it seriously."
"You think so?"
"I do indeed. But I think when the Inspector arrives it would be just as well to show it to him. What do you say?"
"I agree with you. Let us defer consideration of it until we see him."
When, an hour later, the Inspector put in an appearance, the letter was accordingly placed before him, and his opinion asked concerning it. He read it through without comment, carefully examined the writing and signature, and finally held it up to the light. Having done this he turned to me and said:
"Have you that envelope we found at the Canary Bird, Mr. Hatteras?"
I took it out of my pocket and handed it to him. He then placed it on the table side by side with the letter, and through a magnifying-glass scrutinized both carefully. Having done so, he asked for the envelope in which it had arrived. Mr. Wetherell had thrown it into the waste-paper basket, but a moment's search brought it to light. Again he scrutinized both the first envelope and the letter, and then compared them with the second cover. "Yes, I thought so," he said. "This letter was written either by Nikola, or at his desire. The paper is the same as that he purchased at the stationer's shop we visited."