"And what had we better do now?" queried Wetherell, who had been eagerly waiting for his opinion.
"We must think," said the Inspector. "In the first place, I suppose you don't feel inclined to pay the large sum mentioned here?"
"Not if I can help it, of course," answered Wetherell. "But if the worst comes to the worst, and I cannot rescue my poor girl any other way, I would sacrifice even more than that."
"Well, we'll see if we can find her without compelling you to pay anything at all," the Inspector cried. "I've got an idea in my head."
"And what is that?" I cried; for I, too, had been thinking out a plan.
"Well, first and foremost," he answered, "I want you, Mr. Wetherell, to tell me all you can about your servants. Let us begin with the butler. How long has he been with you?"
"Nearly twenty years."
"A good and trustworthy servant, I presume?"
"To the last degree. I have implicit confidence in him."
"Then we may dismiss him from our minds. I think I saw a footman in the hall. How long has he been with you?"
"Just about three months."
"And what sort of a fellow is he?"
"I really could not tell you very much. He seems intelligent, quick and willing, and up to his work."
"Is your cook a man or a woman?"
"A woman. She has been with me since before my wife's death—that is to say, nearly ten years. You need have no suspicion of her."
"Two. Both have been with me some time, and seem steady, respectable girls. There is also a kitchen maid; but she has been with me nearly as long as my cook, and I would stake my reputation on her integrity."
"Well, in that case, the only person who seems at all suspicious is the footman. May we have him up?"
"With pleasure. I'll ring for him."
Mr. Wetherell rang the bell, and a moment later it was answered by the man himself.
"Come in, James, and shut the door behind you," his master said.
The man did as he was ordered, but not without looking, as I thought, a little uncomfortable. The Inspector I could see had noticed this too, for he had been watching him intently ever since he had appeared in the room.
"James," said Mr. Wetherell, "the Inspector of Police wishes to ask you a few questions. Answer him to the best of your ability."
"To begin with," said the Inspector, "I want you to look at this envelope. Have you seen it before?"
He handed him the envelope of the anonymous letter addressed to Mr. Wetherell. The man took it and turned it over in his hands.
"Yes, sir," he said, "I have seen it before; I took it in at the front door."
"From a little old woman, sir," the man answered.
"A little old woman!" cried the Inspector, evidently surprised. "What sort of woman?"
"Well, sir, I don't know that I can give you much of a description of her. She was very small, had a sort of nut-cracker face, a little black poke bonnet, and walked with a stick."
"Should you know her again if you saw her?"
"Oh yes, sir."
"Did she say anything when she gave you the letter?"
"Only, 'For Mr. Wetherell, young man.' That was all, sir."
"And you didn't ask if there was an answer? That was rather a singular omission on your part, was it not?"
"She didn't give me time, sir. She just put it into my hand and went down the steps again."
"That will do. Now, Mr. Wetherell, I think we'd better see about getting that money from the bank. You need not wait, my man."
The footman thereupon left the room, while both Mr. Wetherell and I stared at the Inspector in complete astonishment. He laughed.
"You are wondering why I said that," he remarked.
"I must confess it struck me as curious."
"Well, let me tell you I did it with a purpose. Did you notice that young man's face when he entered the room and when I gave him the letter? There can be no doubt about it, he is in the secret."
"You mean that he is in Nikola's employ? Then why don't you arrest him?"
"Because I want to be quite certain first. I said that about the money because, if he is Nikola's agent, he will carry the information to him, and by so doing keep your daughter in Sydney for at least a day longer. Do you see?"
"I do, and I admire your diplomacy. Now what is your plan?"
"May I first tell mine?" I said.
"Do," said the Inspector, "for mine is not quite matured yet."
"Well," I said, "my idea is this. I propose that Mr. Wetherell shall obtain from his bank a number of gold bags, fill them with lead discs to represent coin, and let it leak out before this man that he has got the money in the house. Then to-night Mr. Wetherell will set off for the water-side. I will row him down the harbour disguised as a boatman. We will pick up the boat, as arranged in that letter. In the meantime you must start from the other side in a police boat, pull up to meet us, and arrest the man. Then we will force him to disclose Miss Wetherell's whereabouts, and act upon his information. What do you say?"
"It certainly sound feasible," said the Inspector, and Mr. Wetherell nodded his head approvingly. At that moment the Marquis entered the room, looking much better than when we had found him on the preceding night, and the conversation branched off into a different channel.
My plot seemed to commend itself so much to Mr. Wetherell's judgment, that he ordered his carriage and drove off there and then to his bank, while I went down to the harbour, arranged about a boat, and having done so, proceeded up to the town, where I purchased a false beard, an old dungaree suit, such as a man loafing about the harbour might wear, and a slouch hat of villainous appearance. By the time I got back to the house Mr. Wetherell had returned. With great delight he conducted me to his study, and, opening his safe, showed me a number of canvas bags, on each of which was printed L1,000.
"But surely there are not L100,000 there?"
"No," said the old gentleman with a chuckle. "There is the counterfeit of L50,000 there; for the rest I propose to show him these."
So saying, he dived his hand into a drawer and produced a sheaf of crisp bank-notes.
"There—these are notes for the balance of the amount."
"But you surely are not going to pay? I thought we were going to try to catch the rascals without letting any money change hands."
"So we are, do not be afraid. If you will only glance at these notes you will see that they are dummies, every one of them. They are for me to exhibit to the man in the boat; in the dark they'll pass muster, never fear."
"Very good indeed," I said with a laugh. "By the time they can be properly examined we shall have the police at hand ready to capture him."
"I believe we shall," the old gentleman cried, rubbing his hands together in delight—"I believe we shall. And a nice example we'll make of the rascals. Nikola thinks he can beat me; I'll show him how mistaken he is!"
And for some time the old gentleman continued in this strain, confidently believing that he would have his daughter with him again by the time morning came. Nor was I far behind him in confidence. Since Nikola had not spirited her out of the country my plot seemed the one of all others to enable us to regain possession of her; and not only that, but we hoped it would give us an opportunity of punishing those who had so schemed against her. Suddenly an idea was born in my brain, and instantly I acted on it.
"Mr. Wetherell," I said, "supposing, when your daughter is safe again, I presume so far as once more to offer myself for your son-in-law, what will you say?"
"What will I say?" he cried. "Why, I will tell you that you shall have her, my boy, with ten thousand blessings on your head. I know you now; and since I've treated you so badly, and you've taken such a noble revenge, why, I'll make it up to you, or my name's not Wetherell. But we won't talk any more about that till we have got possession of her; we have other and more important things to think of. What time ought we to start to-night?"
"The letter fixes the meeting for ten o'clock; we had better be in the boat by half-past nine. In the meantime I should advise you to take a little rest. By the way, do you think your footman realizes that you have the money?"
"He ought to, for he carried it up to this room for me; and, what's more, he has applied for a holiday this afternoon."
"That's to carry the information. Very good; everything is working excellently. Now I'm off to rest for a little while."
"I'll follow your example. In the meantime I'll give orders for an early dinner."
We dined at seven o'clock sharp, and at half-past eight I went off to my room to don my disguise; then, bidding the Marquis good-bye—much to the young gentleman's disgust, for he was most anxious to accompany us—I slipped quietly out of my window, crossed the garden—I hoped unobserved—and then went down to the harbour side, where the boat I had chartered was waiting for me. A quarter of an hour later Wetherell's carriage drove up, and on seeing it I went across and opened the door. My disguise was so perfect that for a moment the old gentleman seemed undecided whether to trust me or not. But my voice, when I spoke, reassured him, and then we set to work carrying the bags of spurious money down to the boat. As soon as this was accomplished we stepped in. I seated myself amid-ships and got out the oars, Mr. Wetherell taking the yoke-lines in the stern. Then we shoved off, and made our way out into the harbour.
It was a dull, cloudy night, with hardly a sign of a star in the whole length and breadth of heaven, while every few minutes a cold, cheerless wind swept across the water. So chilly indeed was it that before we had gone very far I began to wish I had added an overcoat to my other disguises. We hardly spoke, but pulled slowly down towards the island mentioned in the letter. The strain on our nerves was intense, and I must confess to feeling decidedly nervous as I wondered what would happen if the police boat did not pull up to meet us, as we had that morning arranged.
A quarter to ten chimed from some church ashore as we approached within a hundred yards of our destination. Then I rested on my oars and waited. All round us were the lights of bigger craft, but no rowing-boat could I see. About five minutes before the hour I whispered to Wetherell to make ready, and in answer the old gentleman took a matchbox from his pocket. Exactly as the town clocks struck the hour he lit a vesta; it flared a little and then went out. As it did so a boat shot out of the darkness to port. He struck a second, and then a third. As the last one burned up and then died away, the man rowing the boat I have just referred to struck a light, then another, then another, in rapid succession. Having finished his display, he took up his oars and propelled his boat towards us. When he was within talking distance he said in a gruff voice:
"Is Mr. Wetherell aboard?"
To this my companion immediately answered, with a tremble in his voice, "Yes, here I am!"
"Money all right?"
"Can you see if I hold it up?" asked Mr. Wetherell. As he spoke a long, black boat came into view on the other side of our questioner, and pulled slowly towards him. It was the police boat.
"No, I don't want to see," said the voice again. "But this is the message I was to give you. Pull in towards Circular Quay and find the Maid of the Mist barque. Go aboard her, and take your money down into the cuddy. There you'll get your answer."
"Nothing more?" cried Mr. Wetherell.
"That's all I was told," answered the man, and then said, "Good-night."
At the same moment the police boat pulled up alongside him and made fast. I saw a dark figure enter his boat, and next moment the glare of a lantern fell upon the man's face. I picked up my oars and pulled over to them, getting there just in time to hear the Inspector ask the man his name.
"James Burbidge," was the reply. "I don't know as how you've got anything against me. I'm a licensed waterman, I am."
"Very likely," said the Inspector; "but I want a little explanation from you. How do you come to be mixed up in this business?"
"What—about this 'ere message, d'you mean?"
"Yes, about this message. Where is it from? Who gave it to you?"
"Well, if you'll let me go, I'll tell you all about it," growled the man. "I was up at the Hen and Chickens this evenin', just afore dark, takin' a nobbler along with a friend. Presently in comes a cove in a cloak. He beckons me outside and says, 'Do you want to earn a sufring?'—a sufring is twenty bob. So I says, 'My word, I do!' Then he says, 'Well, you go out on the harbour to-night, and be down agin Shark Point at ten?' I said I would, and so I was. 'You'll see a boat there with an old gent in it,' says he. 'He'll strike three matches, and you do the same. Then ask him if he's Mr. Wetherell. If he says "Yes," ask him if the money's all right? And if he says "Yes" to that, tell him to pull in towards Circular Quay and find the Maid of the Mist barque. He's to take his money down to the cuddy, and he'll get his answer there.' That's the truth so 'elp me bob! I don't know what you wants to go arrestin' of an honest man for."
The Inspector turned to the water police.
"Does any man here know James Burbidge?"
Two or three voices immediately answered in the affirmative, and this seemed to decide the officer, for he turned to the waterman again and said, "As some of my men seem to know you, I'll let you off. But for your own sake go home and keep a silent tongue."
He thereupon clambered back into his own boat and bade the man depart. In less time than it takes to tell he was out of sight. We then drew up alongside the police boat.
"What had we better do, Mr. Inspector?" asked Mr. Wetherell.
"Find the Maid of the Mist at once. She's an untenanted ship, being for sale. You will go aboard, sir, with your companion, and down to the cuddy. Don't take your money, however. We'll draw up alongside as soon as you're below, and when one of their gang, whom you'll despatch for it, comes up to get the coin, we'll collar him, and then come to your assistance. Do you understand?"
"Perfectly. But how are we to know the vessel?"
"Well, the better plan would be for you to follow us. We'll pull to within a hundred yards of her. I learn from one of my men here that she's painted white, so you'll have no difficulty in recognizing her."
"Very well, then, go on, and we'll follow you."
The police boat accordingly set off, and we followed about fifty yards behind her. A thick drizzle was now falling, and it was by no means an easy matter to keep her in sight. For some time we pulled on. Presently we began to get closer to her. In a quarter of an hour we were alongside.
"There's your craft," said the Inspector, pointing as he spoke to a big vessel showing dimly through the scud to starboard of us. "Pull over to her."
I followed his instructions, and, arriving at the vessel's side, hitched on, made the painter fast, and then, having clambered aboard, assisted Mr. Wetherell to do the same. As soon as we had both gained the deck we stood and looked about us, at the same time listening for any sound which might proclaim the presence of the men we had come to meet; but save the sighing of the wind in the shrouds overhead, the dismal creaking of blocks, and the drip of moisture upon the deck, no sign was to be heard. There was nothing for it, therefore, but to make our way below as best we could. Fortunately I had had the forethought to bring with me a small piece of candle, which came in very handily at the present juncture, seeing that the cuddy, when we reached the companion ladder, was wrapt in total darkness. Very carefully I stepped inside, lit the candle, and then, with Mr. Wetherell at my heels, made my way down the steps.
Arriving at the bottom we found ourselves in a fair-sized saloon of the old-fashioned type. Three cabins stood on either side, while from the bottom of the companion ladder, by which we had descended, to a long cushioned locker right aft under the wheel, ran a table covered with American cloth. But there was no man of any kind to be seen. I opened cabin after cabin, and searched each with a like result. We were evidently quite alone in the ship.
"What do you make of it all?" I asked of Mr. Wetherell.
"It looks extremely suspicious," he answered. "Perhaps we're too early for them. But see, Mr. Hatteras, there's something on the table at the farther end."
So there was—something that looked very much like a letter. Together we went round to the end of the table, and there, surely enough, found a letter pinned to the American cloth, and addressed to my companion in a bold but rather quaint handwriting.
"It's for you, Mr. Wetherell," I said, removing the pins and presenting it to him. Thereupon we sat down beside the table, and he broke the seal with trembling fingers. It was not a very long epistle, and ran:—
"MY DEAR MR. WETHERELL,—
"Bags of imitation money and spurious bank-notes will not avail you, nor is it politic to arrange that the Water Police should meet you on the harbour for the purpose of arresting me. You have lost your opportunity, and your daughter accordingly leaves Australia to-night. I will, however, give you one more chance—take care that you make the most of it. The sum I now ask is L150,000 with the stick given you by China Pete, and must be paid without inquiry of any sort. If you are agreeable to this, advertise as follows, 'I will Pay—W., and give stick!' in the agony column Sydney Morning Herald, on the 18th, 19th, and 20th of this present month. Arrangements will then be made with you.
"THE MAN WHO KNOWS."
"Oh, my God, I've ruined all!" cried Mr. Wetherell as he put the letter down on the table; "and—who knows?—I may have killed my poor child!"
Seeing his misery, I did my best to comfort him; but it was no use. He seemed utterly broken down by the failure of our scheme, and, if the truth must be told, my own heart was quite as heavy. One thing was very certain, there was a traitor in our camp. Some one had overheard our plans and carried them elsewhere. Could it be the footman? If so, he should have it made hot for him when I got sufficient proof against him; I could promise him that most certainly. While I was thinking over this, I heard a footstep on the companion stairs, and a moment later the Inspector made his appearance. His astonishment at finding us alone, reading a letter by the light of one solitary candle, was unmistakable, for he said, as he came towards us and sat down, "Why, how's this? Where are the men?"
"There are none. We've been nicely sold," I answered, handing him the letter. He perused it without further remark, and when he had done so, sat drumming with his fingers upon the table in thought.
"We shall have to look in your own house for the person who has given us away, Mr. Wetherell!" he said at last. "The folk who are running this affair are as cute as men are made nowadays; it's a pleasure to measure swords with them."
"What do you think our next move had better be?"
"Get home as fast as we can. I'll return with you, and we'll talk it over. It's no use our remaining here."
We accordingly went on deck, and descended to our wherry again. This time the Inspector accompanied us, while the police boat set off down the harbour on other business. When we had seen it pull out into the darkness, we threw the imitation money overboard, pushed off for the shore, landed where we had first embarked, and then walked up to Mr. Wetherell's house. It was considerably after twelve o'clock by the time we reached it, but the butler was still sitting up for us. His disappointment seemed as keen as ours when he discovered that we had returned without his young mistress. He followed us up to the study with spirits and glasses, and then at his master's instruction went off to bed.
"Now, gentlemen," began Mr. Wetherell, when the door had closed upon him, "let us discuss the matter thoroughly. But, before we begin, may I offer you cigars?"
The Inspector took one, but I declined, stating that I preferred a pipe. But my pipe was in my bedroom, which was on the other side of the passage; so asking them to wait for me, I went to fetch it. I left the room, shutting the door behind me. But it so happened that the pipe-case had been moved, and it was some minutes before I could find it. Having done so, however, I blew out my candle, and was about to leave the room, which was exactly opposite the study, when I heard the green baize door at the end of the passage open, and a light footstep come along the corridor. Instantly I stood perfectly still, and waited to see who it might be. Closer and closer the step came, till I saw in the half dark the pretty figure of one of the parlour maids. On tip-toe she crept up to the study door, and then stooping down, listened at the keyhole. Instantly I was on the alert, every nerve strained to watch her. For nearly five minutes she stood there, and then with a glance round, tiptoed quietly along the passage again, closing the baize door after her.
When she was safely out of hearing I crossed to the study. Both the Inspector and Mr. Wetherell saw that something had happened, and were going to question me. But I held up my hand.
"Don't ask any questions, but tell me as quickly, and as nearly as you can, what you have been talking about during the last five minutes," I said.
"Don't stop to ask questions. Believe in the importance of my haste. What was it?"
"I have only been giving Mr. Wetherell a notion of the steps I propose to take," said the Inspector.
"Thank you. Now I'm off. Don't sit up for me, Mr. Wetherell; I'm going to follow up a clue that may put us on the right scent at last. I don't think you had better come, Mr. Inspector, but I'll meet you here again at six o'clock."
"You can't explain, I suppose?" said the latter, looking a little huffed.
"I'm afraid not," I answered; "but I'll tell you this much—I saw one of the female servants listening at this door. She'll be off, if I mistake not, with the news she has picked up, and I want to watch her. Good-night."
"Good-night, and good luck to you."
Without another word I slipped off my boots, and carrying them in my hand, left the room, and went downstairs to the morning-room. This apartment looked out over the garden, and possessed a window shaded by a big tree. Opening it, I jumped out and carefully closed it after me. Then, pausing for a moment to resume my boots, I crept quietly down the path, jumped a low wall, and so passed into the back street. About fifty yards from the tradesmen's entrance, but on the opposite side of the road, there was a big Moreton Bay fig-tree. Under this I took my stand, and turned a watchful eye upon the house. It was a dark night, so that it would have been extremely difficult for any one across the way to have detected my presence.
For some minutes I waited, and was beginning to wonder if I could have been deceived, when I heard the soft click of a latch, and next moment a small dark figure passed out into the street, and closed the gate after it. Then, pausing a moment as if to make up her mind, for the mysterious person was a woman, she set off quickly in the direction of the city. I followed about a hundred yards behind her.
With the exception of one policeman, who stared very hard at me, we did not meet a soul. Once or twice I nearly lost her, and when we reached the city itself I began to see that it would be well for me to decrease the difference that separated us, if I did not wish to bid good-bye to her altogether. I accordingly hastened my steps, and in this fashion we passed up one street and down another, until we reached what I cannot help thinking must have been the lowest quarter of Sydney. On either hand were Chinese names and sign-boards, marine stores, slop shops, with pawnbrokers and public-houses galore; while in this locality few of the inhabitants seemed to have any idea of what bed meant. Groups of sullen-looking men and women were clustered at the corners, and on one occasion the person I was pursuing was stopped by them. But she evidently knew how to take care of herself, for she was soon marching on her way again.
At the end of one long and filthily dirty street she paused and looked about her. I had crossed the road just before this, and was scarcely ten yards behind her. Pulling my hat well down to shade my face, and sticking my hands in my pockets, I staggered and reeled along, doing my best to imitate the gait of a drunken man. Seeing only me about, she went up to the window of a corner house and tapped with her knuckles thrice upon the glass. Before one could have counted twenty the door of the dwelling was opened, and she passed in. Now I was in a nasty fix—either I must be content to abandon my errand, or I must get inside the building, and trust to luck to procure the information I wanted. Fortunately, in my present disguise the girl would be hardly likely to recognize her master's guest. So giving them time to get into a room, I also went up to the door and turned the handle. To my delight it was unlocked. I opened it, and entered the house.
The passage was in total darkness; but I could make out where the door of the room I wanted to find was located by a thin streak of light low down upon the floor. As softly as I possibly could, I crept up to it, and bent down to look through the keyhole. The view was necessarily limited, but I could just make out the girl I had followed sitting upon a bed; while leaning against the wall, a dirty clay pipe in her mouth, was the vilest old woman I have ever in my life set eyes on. She was very small, with a pinched-up nut-cracker face, dressed in an old bit of tawdry finery, more than three sizes too large for her. Her hair fell upon her shoulders in a tangled mass, and from under it her eyes gleamed out like those of a wicked little Scotch terrier ready to bite. As I bent down to listen I heard her say:—
"Well, my pretty dear, and what information have you got for the gentleman, that brings you down at this time of night?"
"Only that the coppers are going to start at daylight looking for the Merry Duchess. I heard the Inspector say so himself."
"At daylight, are they?" croaked the old hag. "Well, I wish 'em joy of their search, I do—them—them! Any more news, my dear?"
"The master and that long-legged slab of a Hatteras went out to-night down the harbour. The old man brought home a lot of money bags, but what was in 'em was only dummies."
"I know that, too, my dear. Nicely they was sold. Ha! ha!"
She chuckled like an old fiend, and then began to cut up another pipe of tobacco in the palm of her hand like a man. She smoked negro head, and the reek of it came out through the keyhole to me. But the younger woman was evidently impatient, for she rose and said:—
"When do they sail with the girl, Sally?"
"They're gone, my dear. They went at ten to-night."
At this news my heart began to throb painfully.
"They weren't long about it," said the younger girl.
"That Nikola's not long about anything," remarked the old woman.
"I hope Pipa Lannu will agree with her health—the stuck-up minx—I do!" the younger remarked spitefully. "Now where's the money he said I was to have. Give it to me and let me be off. I shall get the sack if this is found out."
"It was five pound I was to give yer, wasn't it?" the elder woman said.
"Ten," said the younger sharply. "No larks, Sally. I know too much for you!"
"Oh, you know a lot, honey, don't you? Of course you'd be expected to know more than old Aunt Sally, who's never seen anything at all, wouldn't you? Go along with you!"
"Hand me over the money, I say, and let me be off!"
"Of course you do know a lot more, don't you? There's a pound!"
While they were wrangling over the payment I crept down the passage again to the front door. Once I had reached it, I opened it softly and went out, closing it carefully behind me. Then I took to my heels and ran down the street in the direction I had come. Inquiring my way here and there from policemen, I eventually reached home, scaled the wall, and went across the garden to the morning-room window. This I opened, and by its help made my way into the house and upstairs. As I had expected that he would have gone to bed, my astonishment was considerable at meeting Mr. Wetherell on the landing.
"Well, what have you discovered?" he asked anxiously as I came up to him.
"Information of the greatest importance," I answered; "but one other thing first. Call up your housekeeper, and tell her you have reason to believe that one of the maids is not in the house. Warn her not to mention you in the matter, but to discharge the girl before breakfast. By the time you've done that I'll have changed my things and be ready to tell you everything."
"I'll go and rouse her at once; I'm all impatience to know what you have discovered."
He left me and passed through the green baize door to the servants' wing; while I went to my bedroom and changed my things. This done, I passed into the study, where I found a meal awaiting me. To this I did ample justice, for my long walk and the excitement of the evening had given me an unusual appetite.
Just as I was cutting myself a third slice of beef Mr. Wetherell returned, and informed me that the housekeeper was on the alert, and would receive the girl on her reappearance.
"Now tell me of your doings," said the old gentleman.
I thereupon narrated all that had occurred, and when I had finished, he said:—
"Do you believe then that my poor girl has been carried off by Nikola to this island called Pipa Lannu?"
"Well, then, what are we to do to rescue her? Shall, I ask the Government to send a gunboat down?"
"If you think it best; but, for my own part, I must own I should act independently of them. You don't want to make a big sensation, I presume; and remember, to arrest Nikola would be to open the whole affair."
"Then what do you propose?"
"I propose," I answered, "that we charter a small schooner, fit her out, select half a dozen trustworthy and silent men, and then take our departure for Pipa Lannu. I am well acquainted with the island, and, what's more, I hold a master's certificate. We would sail in after dark, arm all our party thoroughly, and go ashore. I expect they will be keeping your daughter a prisoner in a hut. If that is so, we will surround it and rescue her without any trouble, and, what is better still, without any public scandal. What do you think?"
"I quite agree with what you say. I think it's an excellent idea; and, while you've been speaking, I too have been thinking of something. There's my old friend McMurtough, who has a nice steam yacht. I'm sure he'd be willing to let us have the use of her."
"Where does he live?—far from here?"
"His office would be best; we'll go over and see him directly after breakfast if you like."
"By all means. Now I think I'll go and take a little nap; I feel quite worn out. When the Inspector arrives you will be able to explain all that has happened; but I think I should ask him to keep a quiet tongue in his head about the island. If it leaks out at all, it may warn them, and they'll be off elsewhere—to a place perhaps where we may not be able to find them."
"I'll remember," said Mr. Wetherell, and thereupon I retired to my room, and, having partially undressed, threw myself upon my bed. In less than two minutes I was fast asleep, never waking until the first gong sounded for breakfast; then, after a good bath, which refreshed me wonderfully, I dressed in my usual habiliments, and went downstairs. Mr. Wetherell and the Marquis were in the dining-room, and when I entered both he and the Marquis, who held a copy of the Sydney Morning Herald in his hand, seemed prodigiously excited.
"I say, Mr. Hatteras," said the latter (after I had said "Good-morning"), "here's an advertisement which is evidently intended for you!"
"What is it about?" I asked. "Who wants to advertise for me?"
"Read for yourself," said the Marquis, giving me the paper.
I took it, and glanced down the column to which he referred me until I came to the following:—
"Richard Hatteras.—If this should meet the eye of Mr. Richard Hatteras, of Thursday Island, Torres Straits, lately returned from England, and believed to be now in Sydney; he is earnestly requested to call at the office of Messrs. Dawson & Gladman, Solicitors, Castlereagh Street, where he will hear of something to his advantage."
There could be no doubt at all that I was the person referred to; but what could be the reason of it all? What was there that I could possibly hear to my advantage, save news of Phyllis, and it would be most unlikely that I would learn anything about the movements of the gang who had abducted her from a firm of first-class solicitors such as I understood Messrs. Dawson & Gladman to be. However, it was no use wondering about it, so I dismissed the matter from my mind for the present, and took my place at the table. In the middle of the meal the butler left the room, in response to a ring at the front door. When he returned, it was to inform me that a man was in the hall, who wished to have a few moments' conversation with me. Asking Mr. Wetherell to excuse me, I left the room.
In the hall I found a seedy-looking individual of about middle age. He bowed, and on learning that my name was Hatteras, asked if he might be permitted five minutes alone with me. In response, I led him to the morning-room, and having closed the door, pointed to a seat. "What is your business?" I inquired, when he had sat down.
"It is rather a curious affair to approach, Mr. Hatteras," the man began. "But to commence, may I be permitted to suggest that you are uneasy in your mind about a person who has disappeared?"
"You may certainly suggest that, if you like," I answered cautiously.
"If it were in a man's power to furnish a clue regarding that person's whereabouts, it might be useful to you, I suppose," he continued, craftily watching me out of the corners of his eyes.
"Very useful," I replied. "Are you in a position to do so?"
"I might possibly be able to afford you some slight assistance," he went on. "That is, of course, provided it were made worth my while."
"What do you call 'worth your while'?"
"Well, shall we say five hundred pounds? That's not a large sum for really trustworthy information. I ought to ask a thousand, considering the danger I'm running in mixing myself up with the affair. Only I'm a father myself, and that's why I do it."
"I see. Well, let me tell you, I consider five hundred too much."
"Well then I'm afraid we can't trade. I'm sorry."
"So am I. But I'm not going to buy a pig in a poke."
"Shall we say four hundred, then?"
"No. Nor three—two, or one. If your information is worth anything, I don't mind giving you fifty pounds for it. But I won't give a halfpenny more."
As I spoke, I rose as if to terminate the interview. Instantly my visitor adopted a different tone.
"My fault is my generosity," he said. "It's the ruin of me. Well, you shall have it for fifty. Give me the money, and I'll tell you."
"By no means," I answered. "I must hear the information first. Trust to my honour. If what you tell me is worth anything, I'll give you fifty pounds for it. Now what is it?"
"Well, sir, to begin with, you must understand that I was standing at the corner of Pitt Street an evening or two back, when two men passed me talking earnestly together. One of 'em was a tall strapping fellow, the other a little chap. I never saw two eviller looking rascals in my life. Just as they came alongside me, one says to the other, 'Don't be afraid; I'll have the girl at the station all right at eight o'clock sharp.' The other said something that I could not catch, and then I lost sight of them. But what I had heard stuck in my head, and so I accordingly went off to the station, arriving there a little before the hour. I hadn't been there long before the smallest of the two chaps I'd seen in the street came on to the platform, and began looking about him. By the face of him he didn't seem at all pleased at not finding the other man waiting for him. A train drew up at the platform, and presently, just before it started, I saw the other and a young lady wearing a heavy veil come quickly along. The first man saw them, and gave a little cry of delight. 'I thought you'd be too late,' says he. 'No fear of that,' says the other, and jumps into a first-class carriage, telling the girl to get in after him, which she does, crying the while, as I could see. Then the chap on the platform says to the other who was leaning out of the window, 'Write to me from Bourke, and tell me how she gets on.' 'You bet,' says his friend. 'And don't you forget to keep your eye on Hatteras.' 'Don't you be afraid,' answered the man on the platform. Then the guard whistled, and the train went out of the station. Directly I was able to I got away, and first thing this morning came on here. Now you have my information, and I'll trouble you for that fifty pound."
"Not so fast, my friend. Your story seems very good, but I want to ask a few questions first. Had the bigger man—the man who went up to Bourke, a deep cut over his left eye?"
"Now I come to think of it, he had. I'd forgotten to tell you that."
"So it was he, then? But are you certain it was Miss Wetherell? Remember she wore a veil. Could you see if her hair was flaxen in colour?"
"Very light it was; but I couldn't see rightly which colour it was."
"You're sure it was a light colour?"
"Quite sure. I could swear to it in a court of law if you wanted me to."
"That's all right then, because it shows me your story is a fabrication. Come, get out of this house or I'll throw you out. You scoundrel, for two pins I'd give you such a thrashing as you'd remember all your life!"
"None o' that, governor. Don't you try it on. Hand us over that fifty quid."
With that the scoundrel whipped out a revolver and pointed it at me. But before he could threaten again I had got hold of his wrist with one hand, snatched the pistol with the other, and sent him sprawling on his back upon the carpet.
"Now, you brute," I cried, "what am I going to do with you, do you think? Get up and clear out of the house before I take my boot to you."
He got up and began to brush his clothes.
"I want my fifty pound," he cried.
"You'll get more than you want if you come here again," I said. "Out you go!"
With that I got him by the collar and dragged him out of the room across the hall, much to the butler's astonishment, through the front door, and then kicked him down the steps. He fell in a heap on the gravel.
"All right, my fine bloke," he said as he lay there; "you wait till I get you outside. I'll fix you up, and don't you make no mistake."
I went back to the dining-room without paying any attention to his threats. Both Mr. Wetherell and Beckenham had been witnesses of what had occurred, and now they questioned me concerning his visit. I gave them an outline of the story the man had told me and convinced them of its absurdity. Then Mr. Wetherell rose to his feet.
"Now shall we go and see McMurtough?"
"Certainly," I said; "I'll be ready as soon as you are."
"You will come with us, I hope, Lord Beckenham?" Wetherell said.
"With every pleasure," answered his lordship, and thereupon we went off to get ready.
Three-quarters of an hour later we were sitting in Mr. McMurtough's office. The upshot of the interview was that Mr. McMurtough fell in with our plans as soon as we had uttered them, and expressed himself delighted to lend his yacht in such a good cause.
"I only wish I could come with you," he said; "but unfortunately that is quite impossible. However, you are more than welcome to my boat. I will give you a letter, or send one to the Captain, so that she may be prepared for sea to-day. Will you see about provisioning her, or shall I?"
"We will attend to that," said Wetherell. "All the expenses must of course be mine."
"As you please about that, my old friend," returned McMurtough.
"Where is she lying?" asked Wetherell.
The owner gave us the direction, and then having sincerely thanked him, we set off in search of her. She was a nice craft of about a hundred and fifty tons burden, and looked as if she ought to be a good sea boat. Chartering a wherry, we were pulled off to her. The captain was below when we arrived, but a hail brought him on deck. Mr. Wetherell then explained our errand, and gave him his owner's letter. He read it through, and having done so, said—
"I am at your service, gentlemen. From what Mr. McMurtough says here I gather that there is no time to lose, so with your permission I'll get to work at once."
"Order all the coal you want, and tell the steward to do the same for anything he may require in his department. The bills must be sent in to me."
"Very good, Mr. Wetherell. And what time will you be ready?"
"As soon as you are. Can you get away by three o'clock this afternoon, think you?"
"Well, it will be a bit of a scramble, but I think we can manage it. Anyhow, I'll do my best, you may be sure of that, sir."
"I'm sure you will. There is grave need for it. Now we'll go back and arrange a few matters ashore. My man shall bring our baggage down later on."
"Very good, sir. I'll have your berths prepared."
With that we descended to the boat again, and were pulled ashore. Arriving there, Mr. Wetherell asked what we should do first.
"Hadn't we better go up to the town and purchase a few rifles and some ammunition?" I said. "We can have them sent down direct to the boat."
"A very good suggestion. Let us go at once."
We accordingly set off for George Street—to a shop I remembered having seen. There we purchased half a dozen Winchester repeaters, with a good supply of ammunition. They were to be sent down to the yacht without fail that morning. This done, we stood on the pavement debating what we should do next. Finally it was decided that Mr. Wetherell and Beckenham should go home to pack, while I made one or two other small purchases, and then join them. Accordingly, bidding them good-bye, I went on down the street, completed my business, and was about to hail a cab and follow them, when a thought struck me: Why should I not visit Messrs. Dawson & Gladman, and find out why they were advertising for me? This I determined to do, and accordingly set off for Castlereagh Street.
In a small room leading off the main passage, three clerks were seated. To them I addressed myself, asking if I might see the partners.
"Mr. Dawson is the only one in town, sir," said the boy to whom I spoke. "If you'll give me your name, I'll take it in to him."
"My name is Hatteras," I said. "Mr. Richard Hatteras."
In less than two minutes the clerk returned, and begged me to follow him, which I did. At the end of a long passage we passed through a curtained doorway, and I stood in the presence of the chief partner.
"I have great pleasure in making your acquaintance, Mr. Hatteras," he said, as I came to an anchor in a chair. "You noticed our advertisement, I presume?"
"I saw it this morning," I answered. "And it is on that account I am here."
"One moment before we proceed any further. Forgive what I am about to say—but you will see yourself that it is a point I am compelled not to neglect. Can you convince me as to your identity?"
"Very easily," I replied, diving my hand into my breast-pocket and taking out some papers. "First and foremost, here is my bank-book. Here is my card-case. And here are two or three letters addressed to me by London and Sydney firms. The Hon. Sylvester Wetherell, Colonial Secretary, will be glad, I'm sure, to vouch for me. Is that sufficient to convince you?"
"More than sufficient," he answered, smiling. "Now let me tell you for what purpose we desired you to call upon us." Here he opened a drawer and took out a letter. "First and foremost, you must understand that we are the Sydney agents of Messrs, Atwin, Dobbs & Forsyth, of Furnival's Inn, London. From them, by the last English mail, we received this letter. I gather that you are the son of James Dymoke Hatteras, who was drowned at sea in the year 1880?"
"Your father was the third son of Sir Edward Hatteras of Murdlestone, in the county of Hampshire?"
"And the brother of Sir William, who had one daughter, Gwendoline Mary?"
"That is so."
"Well, Mr. Hatteras, it is my sad duty to inform you that within a week of your departure from England your cousin, the young lady just referred to, was drowned by accident in a pond near her home, and that her father, who had been ailing for some few days, died of heart disease on hearing the sad tidings. In that case, so my correspondents inform me, there being no nearer issue, you succeed to the title and estates—which I also learn are of considerable value, including the house and park, ten farms, and a large amount of house property, a rent roll of fifteen thousand a year, and accumulated capital of nearly a hundred thousand pounds."
"Good gracious! Is this really true?"
"Quite true. You can examine the letter for yourself."
I took it up from the table and read it through, hardly able to believe my eyes.
"You are indeed a man to be envied, Mr. Hatteras," said the lawyer. "The title is an old one, and I believe the property is considered one of the best in that part of England."
"It is! But I can hardly believe that it is really mine."
"There is no doubt about that, however. You are a baronet as certainly as I am a lawyer. I presume you would like us to take whatever action is necessary?"
"By all means. This afternoon I am leaving Sydney, for a week or two, for the Islands. I will sign any papers when I come back."
"I will bear that in mind. And your address in Sydney is——"
"Care of the Honourable Sylvester Wetherell, Potts Point."
"Thank you. And, by the way, my correspondents have desired me on their behalf to pay in to your account at the Oceania the sum of five thousand pounds. This I will do to-day."
"I am obliged to you. Now I think I must be going. To tell the truth, I hardly know whether I am standing on my head or my heels."
"Oh, you will soon get over that."
"Good-morning, Sir Richard."
With that, I bade him farewell, and went out of the office, feeling quite dazed by my good fortune. I thought of the poor idiot whose end had been so tragic, and of the old man as I had last seen him, shaking his fist at me from the window of the house. And to think that that lovely home was mine, and that I was a baronet, the principal representative of a race as old as any in the country-side! It seemed too wonderful to be true!
Hearty were the congratulations showered upon me at Potts Point, you may be sure, when I told my tale, and my health was drunk at lunch with much goodwill. But our minds were too much taken up with the arrangements for our departure that afternoon to allow us to think very much of anything else. By two o'clock we were ready to leave the house, by half-past we were on board the yacht, at three-fifteen the anchor was up, and a few moments later we were ploughing our way down the harbour.
Our search for Phyllis had reached another stage.
THE ISLANDS, AND WHAT WE FOUND THERE
To those who have had no experience of the South Pacific the constantly recurring beauties of our voyage would have seemed like a foretaste of Heaven itself. From Sydney, until the Loyalty Group lay behind us, we had one long spell of exquisite weather. By night under the winking stars, and by day in the warm sunlight, our trim little craft ploughed her way across smooth seas, and our only occupation was to promenade or loaf about the decks and to speculate as to the result of the expedition upon which we had embarked.
Having sighted the Isle of Pines we turned our bows almost due north and headed for the New Hebrides. Every hour our impatience was growing greater. In less than two days, all being well, we should be at our destination, and twenty-four hours after that, if our fortune proved in the ascendant, we ought to be on our way back with Phyllis in our possession once more. And what this would mean to me I can only leave you to guess.
One morning, just as the faint outline of the coast of Aneityum was peering up over the horizon ahead, Wetherell and I chanced to be sitting in the bows. The sea was as smooth as glass, and the tinkling of the water round the little vessel's nose as she turned it off in snowy lines from either bow, was the only sound to be heard. As usual the conversation, after wandering into other topics, came back to the subject nearest our hearts. This led us to make a few remarks anent Nikola and his character. I could not help asking him for an explanation.
"You want to know how it is that I am so frightened of Nikola?" he asked. "Well, to give you my reason will necessitate my telling you a story. I don't mind doing that at all, but what I am afraid of is that you may be inclined to doubt its probability. However, if you want to hear it you shall."
"I should like to above all things," I replied. "I have been longing to ask you about it for some time past, but could not quite screw up my courage."
"Well, in the first place," Mr. Wetherell said, "you must understand that before I became a Minister of the Crown, or indeed a Member of Parliament at all, I was a barrister with a fairly remunerative practice. That was before my wife's death and when Phyllis was at school. Up to the time I am going to tell you about I had taken part in no very sensational case. But my opportunity for earning notoriety was, though I did not know it, near at hand. One day I was briefed to defend a man accused of the murder of a Chinaman aboard a Sydney vessel on a voyage from Shanghai. At first there seemed to be no doubt at all as to his guilt, but by a singular chance, with the details of which I will not bore you, I hit upon a scheme which got him off. I remember the man perfectly, and a queer fellow he was, half-witted, I thought, and at the time of the trial within an ace of dying of consumption. His gratitude was the more pathetic because he had not the wherewithal to pay me. However, he made it up to me in another way.
"One wet night, a couple of months or so after the trial, I was sitting in my drawing-room listening to my wife's music, when a servant entered to tell me that a woman wanted to see me. I went out into the passage to find waiting there a tall buxom lass of about five-and-twenty years of age. She was poorly dressed, but in a great state of excitement.
"'Are you Mr. Wetherell?' she said; 'the gentleman as defended China Pete in the trial the other day?'
"'I am,' I answered. 'What can I do for you? I hope China Pete is not in trouble again?'
"'He's in a worse trouble this time, sir,' said the woman. 'He's dyin', and he sent me to fetch you to 'im before he goes.'
"'But what does he want me for?' I asked rather suspiciously.
"'I'm sure I dunno,' was the girl's reply. 'But he's been callin' for you all this blessed day: "Send for Mr. Wetherell! send for Mr. Wetherell!" So off I came, when I got back from work, to fetch you. If you're comin', sir, you'd best be quick, for he won't last till mornin'.'
"'Very well, I'll come with you at once,' I said. Then, having told my wife not to sit up for me, I followed my strange messenger out of the house.
"For nearly an hour we walked on and on, plunging deeper into the lower quarter of the town. All through the march my guide maintained a rigid silence, walking a few paces ahead, and only recognizing the fact that I was following her by nodding in a certain direction whenever we arrived at cross thoroughfares or interlacing lanes.
"At last we arrived at the street she wanted. At the corner she came suddenly to a standstill, and putting her two first fingers into her mouth blew a shrill whistle, after the fashion of street boys. A moment later a shock-headed urchin about ten years old made his appearance from a dark alley and came towards us. The woman said something to him, which I did not catch, and then turning sharply to her left hand beckoned to me to follow her.
"From the street itself we passed, by way of a villainous alley, into a large courtyard, where brooded a silence like that of death. Indeed, a more weird and desolate place I don't remember ever to have met with. Not a soul was to be seen, and though it was surrounded by houses, only two feeble lights showed themselves. Towards one of these my guide made her way, stopping on the threshold. Upon a panel she rapped with her fingers, and as she did so a window on the first floor opened, and the boy we had met in the street looked out.
"'How many?' inquired the woman, who had brought me, in a loud whisper.
"'None now,' replied the boy; 'but there's been a power of Chinkies hereabouts all the evenin', an' 'arf an hour ago there was a gent in a cloak.'
"Without waiting to hear any more the woman entered the house and I followed close on her heels. The adventure was clearly coming to a head now.
"When the door had been closed behind us the boy appeared at the top of a flight of stairs with a lighted candle. We accordingly ascended to him, and having done so made our way towards a door at the end of the abominably dirty landing. At intervals I could hear the sound of coughing coming from a room at the end. My companion, however, bade me stop, while she went herself into the room, shutting the door after her. I was left alone with the boy, who immediately took me under his protection, and for my undivided benefit performed a series of highly meritorious acrobatic performances upon the feeble banisters, to his own danger, but apparent satisfaction. Suddenly, just as he was about to commence what promised to be the most successful item in his repertoire, he paused, lay flat on his stomach upon the floor, and craned his head over the side, where once banisters had been, and gazed into the half dark well below. All was quiet as the grave. Then, without warning, an almond-eyed, pigtailed head appeared on the stairs and looked upwards. Before I could say anything to stop him, the youth had divested himself of his one slipper, taken it in his right hand, leaned over a bit farther, and struck the ascending Celestial a severe blow on the mouth with the heel of it. There was the noise of a hasty descent and the banging of the street door a moment later, then all was still again, and the youngster turned to me.
"'That was Ah Chong,' he said confidentially. 'He's the sixth Chinkie I've landed that way since dark.'
"This important piece of information he closed with a double-jointed oath of remarkable atrocity, and, having done so, would have recommenced the performance of acrobatic feats had I not stopped him by asking the reason of his action. He looked at me with a grin,—
"'I dunno, but all I cares is that China Pete in there gives me a sprat (sixpence) for every Chinkie what I keeps out of the 'ouse. He's a rum one is China Pete; an' can't he cough—my word!" he concluded.
"I was about to put another question when the door opened and the girl who had brought me to the house beckoned me into the room. I entered and she left me alone with the occupant.
"Of all the filthy places I have ever seen—and I have had the ill-luck to discover a good many in my time—that one eclipsed them all. On the bed, propped up by pillows and evidently in the last stage of collapse, was the man called China Pete. When we were alone together he pointed to a box near the bed and signified that I should seat myself. I did so, at the same time taking occasion to express my sorrow at finding him in this lamentable condition. He made no reply to my civilities, but after a little pause found strength enough to whisper. 'See if there's anybody at the door.' I went across, opened the door and looked into the passage, but save the boy, who was now sitting on the top step of the stairs at the other end, there was not a soul in sight. I told him this, and having again closed the door, sat down on the box and waited for him to speak.
"'You did me a good turn, Mr. Wetherell, over that trial,' the invalid said at last, 'and I couldn't make it worth your while.'
"'Oh, you mustn't let that worry you,' I answered soothingly. 'You would have paid me if you had been able.'
"'Perhaps I should, perhaps I shouldn't, anyhow I didn't, and I want to make it up to you now. Feel under my pillow and bring out what you find there.'
"I did as he directed me and brought to light a queer little wooden stick about three and a half inches long, made of some heavy timber and covered all over with Chinese inscriptions; at one end was a tiny bit of heavy gold cord much tarnished. I gave it to him and he looked at it fondly.
"'Do you know the value of this little stick?' he asked after a while.
"'I have no possible notion,' I replied.
"'Make a guess,' he said.
"To humour him I guessed five pounds. He laughed with scorn.
"'Five pounds! O ye gods! Why, as a bit of stick it's not worth five pence, but for what it really is there is not money enough in the world to purchase it. If I could get about again I would make myself the richest and most powerful man on earth with it. If you could only guess one particle of the dangers I've been through to get it you would die of astonishment. And the irony of it all is that now I've got it I can't make use of it. On six different occasions the priests of the Llamaserai in Peking have tried to murder me to get hold of it. I brought it down from the centre of China disguised as a wandering beggar. That business connected with the murder of the Chinaman on board the ship, against which you defended me, was on account of it. And now I lie here dying like a dog, with the key to over ten millions in my hand. Nikola has tried for five years to obtain it, without success however. He little dreams I've got it after all. If he did I'd be a dead man by now.'
"'Who is this Nikola then?' I asked.
"'Dr. Nikola? Well, he's Nikola, and that's all I can tell you. If you're a wise man you'll want to know no more. Ask the Chinese mothers nursing their almond-eyed spawn in Peking who he is; ask the Japanese, ask the Malays, the Hindoos, the Burmese, the coal porters in Port Said, the Buddhist priests of Ceylon; ask the King of Corea, the men up in Thibet, the Spanish priests in Manilla, or the Sultan of Borneo, the ministers of Siam, or the French in Saigon—they'll all know Dr. Nikola and his cat, and, take my word, they fear him.'
"I looked at the little stick in my hand and wondered if the man had gone mad.
"'What do you wish me to do with this?' I asked.
"'Take it away with you,' he answered, 'and guard it like your life, and when you have occasion, use it. Remember you have in your hand what will raise a million men and the equivalent of over ten mil——'
"At this point a violent fit of coughing seized him and nearly tore him to pieces. I lifted him up a little in the bed, but before I could take my hands away a stream of blood had gushed from his lips. Like a flash of thought I ran to the door to call the girl, the boy on the stairs re-echoed my shout, and in less time than it takes to tell the woman was in the room. But we were too late—China Pete was dead.
"After giving her all the money I had about me to pay for the funeral, I bade her good-bye, and with the little stick in my pocket returned to my home. Once there I sat myself down in my study, took my legacy out of my pocket and carefully examined it. As to its peculiar power and value, as described to me by the dead man, I hardly knew what to think. My own private opinion was that China Pete was not sane at the time he told me. And yet, how was I to account for the affray with the Chinaman on the boat, and the evident desire the Celestials in Sydney had to obtain information concerning it? After half an hour's consideration of it I locked it up in a drawer of my safe and went upstairs to bed.
"Next day China Pete was buried, and by the end of the month I had well-nigh forgotten that he had ever existed, and had hardly thought of his queer little gift, which still reposed in the upper drawer of my safe. But I was to hear more of it later on.
"One night, about a month after my coming into possession of the stick, my wife and I entertained a few friends at dinner.
"As the clock struck eleven I said good-night to the last of my guests upon the door-step. The carriage had not gone fifty yards down the street before a hansom drew up before my door and a man dressed in a heavy cloak jumped out. Bidding the driver wait for him he ran up my steps.
"'Mr. Wetherell, I believe?' he said. I nodded and wished him 'good-evening,' at the same time asking his business.
"'I will tell you with pleasure,' he answered, 'if you will permit me five minutes alone with you. It is most important, and as I leave Sydney early to-morrow morning you will see that there is not much time to spare.'
"I led the way into the house and to my study, which was in the rear, overlooking the garden. Once there I bade him be seated, taking up my position at my desk.
"Then, in the light of the lamp, I became aware of the extraordinary personality of my visitor. He looked at me very searchingly for a moment and then said: 'My business will surprise you a little I expect, Mr. Wetherell. First, if you will allow me I will tell you something about myself and then ask you a question. You must understand that I am pretty well known as an Eastern traveller; from Port Said to the Kuriles there is hardly a place with which I am not acquainted. I have a hobby. I am a collector of Eastern curios, but there is one thing I have never been able to obtain.'
"'And that is?'
"'A Chinese executioner's symbol of office.'
"'But how can I help you in that direction?' I asked, completely mystified.
"'By selling me one that has lately come into your possession,' he said. 'It is a little black stick, about three inches long and covered with Chinese characters. I happened to hear, quite by chance, that you had one in your possession, and I have taken a journey of some thousands of miles to endeavour to purchase it from you.'
"I went across to the safe, unlocked it, and took out the little stick China Pete had given me. When I turned round I almost dropped it with surprise as I saw the look of eagerness that rose in my visitor's face. But he pulled himself together and said, as calmly as he had yet addressed me:
"'That is the very thing. If you will allow me to purchase it, it will complete my collection. What value do you place upon it?'
"'I have no sort of notion of its worth,' I answered, putting it down on the table and looking at it. Then in a flash a thought came into my brain, and I was about to speak when he addressed me again.
"'Of course my reason for wishing to buy it is rather a hare-brained one, but if you care to let me have it I will give you fifty pounds for it with pleasure.'
"'Not enough, Dr. Nikola,' I said with a smile.
"He jumped as if he had been shot, and then clasped his hands tight on the arm of his chair. My random bolt had gone straight to the heart of the bulls-eye. This man then was Dr. Nikola, the extraordinary individual against whom China Pete had warned me. I was determined now that, come what might, he should not have the stick.
"'Do you not consider the offer I make you a good one then, Mr. Wetherell?' he asked.
"'I'm sorry to say I don't think the stick is for sale,' I answered. 'It was left to me by a man in return for a queer sort of service I rendered him, and I think I should like to keep it as a souvenir.'
"'I will raise my offer to a hundred pounds in that case,' said Nikola.
"'I would rather not part with it,' I said, and as I spoke, as if to clinch the matter, I took it up and returned it to the safe, taking care to lock the door upon it.
"'I will give you five hundred pounds for it,' cried Nikola, now thoroughly excited. 'Surely that will tempt you?'
'I'm afraid an offer of ten times that amount would make no difference,' I replied, feeling more convinced than ever that I would not part with it.
"He laid himself back in his chair, and for nearly a minute and a half stared me full in the face. You have seen Nikola's eyes, so I needn't tell you what a queer effect they are able to produce. I could not withdraw mine from them, and I felt that if I did not make an effort I should soon be mesmerized. So, pulling myself together, I sprang from my chair, and, by doing so, let him see that our interview was at an end. However, he was not going without a last attempt to drive a bargain. When he saw that I was not to be moved his temper gave way, and he bluntly told me that I would have to sell it.
"'There is no compulsion in the matter,' I said warmly. 'The curio is my own property, and I will do just as I please with it.'
"He thereupon begged my pardon, asked me to attribute his impatience to the collector's eagerness, and after a few last words bade me 'good-night,' and left the house.
"When his cab had rolled away I went back to my study and sat thinking for awhile. Then something prompted me to take the stick out from the safe. I did so, and sat at my table gazing at it, wondering what the mystery might be to which it was the key. That it was not what Dr. Nikola had described it I felt certain.
"At the end of half an hour I put it in my pocket, intending to take it upstairs to show my wife, locked the safe again and went off to my dressing-room. When I had described the interview and shown the stick to my wife I placed it in the drawer of the looking-glass and went to bed.
"Next morning, about three o'clock, I was awakened by the sound of some one knocking violently at my door. I jumped out of bed and inquired who it might be. To my intense surprise the answer was 'Police!' I therefore donned my dressing-gown, and went out to find a sergeant of police on the landing waiting for me.
"'What is the matter?' I cried.
"'A burglar!' was his answer. 'We've got him downstairs; caught him in the act.'
"I followed the officer down to the study. What a scene was there! The safe had been forced, and its contents lay scattered in every direction. One drawer of my writing-table was wide open, and in a corner, handcuffed, and guarded by a stalwart constable, stood a Chinaman.
"Well, to make a long story short, the man was tried, and after denying all knowledge of Nikola—who, by the way, could not be found—was convicted, and sentenced to five years' hard labour. For a month I heard no more about the curio. Then a letter arrived from an English solicitor in Shanghai, demanding from me, on behalf of a Chinaman residing in that place, a little wooden stick covered with Chinese characters, which was said to have been stolen by an Englishman, known in Shanghai as China Pete. This was very clearly another attempt on Nikola's part to obtain possession of it, so I replied to the effect that I could not entertain the request.
"A month or so later—I cannot, however, be particular as to the exact date—I found myself again in communication with Nikola, this time from South America. But there was this difference this time: he used undisguised threats, not only against myself, in the event of my still refusing to give him what he wanted, but also against my wife and daughter. I took no notice, with the result that my residence was again broken into, but still without success. Now I no longer locked the talisman up in the safe, but hid it in a place where I knew no one could possibly find it. My mind, you will see, was perfectly made up; I was not going to be driven into surrendering it.
"One night, a month after my wife's death, returning to my house I was garrotted and searched within a hundred yards of my own front door, but my assailants could not find it on me. Then peculiar pressure from other quarters was brought to bear; my servants were bribed, and my life became almost a burden to me. What was more, I began to develop that extraordinary fear of Nikola which seems to seize upon every one who has any dealings with him. When I went home to England some months back, I did it because my spirits had got into such a depressed state that I could not remain in Australia. But I took care to deposit the stick with my plate in the bank before I left. There it remained till I returned, when I put it back in its old hiding-place again.
"The day after I reached London I happened to be crossing Trafalgar Square. Believing that I had left him at least ten thousand miles away, you may imagine my horror when I saw Dr. Nikola watching me from the other side of the road. Then and there I returned to my hotel, bade Phyllis pack with all possible despatch, and that same afternoon we started to return to Australia. The rest you know. Now what do you think of it all?"
"It's an extraordinary story. Where is the stick at the present moment?"
"In my pocket. Would you like to see it?"
"Very much, if you would permit me to do so."
He unbuttoned his coat, and from a carefully contrived pocket under the arm drew out a little piece of wood of exactly the length and shape he had described. I took it from him and gazed at it carefully. It was covered all over with Chinese writing, and had a piece of gold silk attached to the handle. There was nothing very remarkable about it; but I must own I was strangely fascinated by it when I remembered the misery it had caused, the changes and chances it had brought about, the weird story told by China Pete, and the efforts that had been made by Nikola to obtain possession of it. I gave it back to its owner, and then stood looking out over the smooth sea, wondering where Phyllis was and what she was doing. Nikola, when I met him, would have a heavy account to settle with me, and if my darling reported any further cruelty on his part I would show no mercy. But why had Mr. Wetherell brought the curio with him now? I put the question.
"For one very good reason," he answered. "If it is the stick Nikola is after, as I have every right to suppose, he may demand it as a ransom for my girl, and I am quite willing to let him have it. The wretched thing has caused sufficient misery to make me only too glad to be rid of it."
"I hope, however, we shall be able to get her without giving it up," I said. "Now let us go aft to lunch."
The day following we were within a hundred miles of our destination, and by mid-day of the day following that again were near enough to render it advisable to hold a council over our intended movements. Accordingly, a little before lunch time the Marquis, Wetherell, the skipper and myself, met under the after awning to consider our plan of war.
"The first matter to be taken into consideration, I think, Mr. Wetherell," said the skipper, "is the point as to which side of the island we shall bring up on."
"You will be able to settle that," answered Wetherell, looking at me. "You are acquainted with the place, and can best advise us."
"I will do so to the best of my ability," I said, sitting down on the deck and drawing an outline with a piece of chalk. "The island is shaped like this. There is no reef. Here is the best anchorage, without doubt, but here is the point where we shall be most likely to approach without being observed. The trend of the land is all upward from the shore, and, as far as I remember, the most likely spot for a hut, if they are detaining Miss Wetherell there, as we suppose, will be on a little plateau looking south, and hard by the only water on the island."
"And what sort of anchorage shall we get there, do you think?" asked the skipper, who very properly wished to run no risk with his owner's boat.
"Mostly coral. None too good, perhaps, but as we shall have steam up, quite safe enough."
"And how do you propose that we shall reach the hut when we land?"
"I have been thinking that out," I said, "and I have come to the conclusion that the best plan would be for us to approach the island after dark, to heave to about three miles out and pull ashore in the boat. We will then ascend the hill by the eastern slope and descend upon them. They will probably not expect us from that quarter, and it will at least be easier than climbing the hill in the face of a heavy fire. What do you say?"
They all agreed that it seemed practicable.
"Very good then," said the skipper, "we'll have lunch, and afterwards begin our preparations." Then turning to me, "I'll get you to come into my cabin, Mr. Hatteras, by-and-by and take a look at the Admiralty chart, if you will. You will be able probably to tell me if you think it can be relied on."
"I'll do so with pleasure," I answered, and then we went below.
Directly our meal was over I accompanied the skipper to look at the chart, and upon it we marked our anchorage. Then an adjournment was made aft, and our equipment of rifles and revolvers thoroughly overhauled. We had decided earlier that our landing party should consist of eight men—Wetherell, Beckenham, the mate of the yacht, myself, and four of the crew, each of whom would be supplied with a Winchester repeating rifle, a revolver, and a dozen cartridges. Not a shot was to be fired, however, unless absolutely necessary, and the greatest care was to be taken in order to approach the hut, if possible, without disturbing its inmates.
When the arms had been distributed and carefully examined, the sixteen foot surf-boat was uncovered and preparations made for hoisting her overboard. By the time this was done it was late in the afternoon, and almost soon enough for us to be thinking about overcoming the distance which separated us from our destination.
About dusk I was standing aft, leaning against the taff-rail, when Beckenham came up and stood beside me. It was wonderful what a difference these few months had made in him; he was now as brown as a berry, and as fine-looking a young fellow as any man could wish to see.
"We shall be picking up the island directly," I said as he came to an anchor alongside me. "Do you think you ought to go to-night? Remember you will run the risk of being shot!"
"I have thought of that," he said. "I believe it's my duty to do my best to help you and Mr. Wetherell."
"But what would your father say if he knew?"
"He would say that I only did what was right. I have just been writing to him, telling him everything. If anything should happen to me you will find the letter on the chest of drawers in your cabin. I know you will send it on to him. But if we both come out of it safely and rescue Miss Wetherell I'm going to ask a favour."
"Granted before I know what it is!"
"It isn't a very big one. I want you to let me be your best man at your wedding?"
"So you shall. And a better I could not possibly desire."
"I like to hear you say that. We've been through a good deal together since we left Europe, haven't we?"
"We have, and to-night will bring it to a climax, or I'm much mistaken."
"Do you think Nikola will show fight?"
"Not a doubt about it I should think. If he finds himself cornered he'll probably fight like a demon."
"It's Baxter I want to meet."
"Nikola is my man. I've a big grudge against him, and I want to pay it."
"How little we thought when we were cruising about Bournemouth Bay together that within such a short space of time we should be sailing the South Pacific on such an errand! It seems almost too strange to be possible."
"So it does! All's well that ends well, however. Let's hope we're going to be successful to-night. Now I'm going on the bridge to see if I can pick the land up ahead."
I left him and went forward to the captain's side. Dusk had quite fallen by this time, rendering it impossible to see very far ahead. A hand had been posted in the fore-rigging as a look-out, and every moment we expected to hear his warning cry; but nearly an hour passed, and still it did not come.
Then suddenly the shout rang out, "Land ahead!" and we knew that our destination was in sight. Long before this all our lights had been obscured, and so, in the darkness—for a thick pall of cloud covered the sky—we crept up towards the coast. Within a couple of minutes of hearing the hail every man on board was on deck gazing in the direction in which we were proceeding.
By tea time we had brought the land considerably nearer, and by eight o'clock were within three miles of it. Not a sign, however, of any craft could we discover, and the greatest vigilance had to be exercised on our part to allow no sign to escape us to show our whereabouts to those ashore. Exactly at nine o'clock the shore party, fully armed, assembled on deck, and the surf-boat was swung overboard. Then in the darkness we crept down the gangway and took our places. The mate was in possession of the tiller, and when all was ready we set off for the shore.
Once we had left her side and turned our boat's nose towards the land, the yacht lay behind us, a black mass, nearly absorbed in the general shadow. Not a light showed itself, and everything was as still as the grave; the only noise to be heard was the steady dip, dip of the oars in the smooth water and now and then the chirp of the rowlocks. For nearly half an hour we pulled on, pausing at intervals to listen, but nothing of an alarming nature met our ears. The island was every moment growing larger, the beach more plain to the eye, and the hill more clearly defined.
As soon as the boat grounded we sprang out and, leaving one hand to look after her, made our way ashore. It was a strange experience that landing on a strange beach on such an errand and at such an hour, but we were all too much taken up with the work which lay before us to think of that. Having left the water's edge we came to a standstill beneath a group of palms and discussed the situation. As the command of the expedition had fallen upon me I decided upon the following course of action: To begin with, I would leave the party behind me and set out by myself to ascertain the whereabouts of the hut. Having discovered this I would return, and we would thereupon make our way inland and endeavour to capture it. I explained the idea in as few words as possible to my followers, and then, bidding them wait for me where they were, at the same time warning them against letting their presence be discovered, I set off up the hill in the direction I knew the plateau to lie. The undergrowth was very thick and the ground rocky; for this reason it was nearly twenty minutes before I readied the top of the hill. Then down the other side I crept, picking my way carefully, and taking infinite precautions that no noise should serve to warn our foes of my coming.
At last I reached the plateau and looked about me. A small perpendicular cliff, some sixty feet in height, was before me, so throwing myself down upon my stomach, I wriggled my way to its edge. When I got there I looked over and discovered three well-built huts on a little plateau at the cliff's base. At the same moment a roar of laughter greeted my ears from the building on the left. It was followed by the voice of a man singing to the accompaniment of a banjo. Under cover of his music I rose to my feet and crept back through the bushes, by the track along which I had come. I knew enough to distribute my forces now.
Having reached my friends again I informed them of what I had seen, and we then arranged the mode of attack as follows: The mate of the yacht, with two of the hands, would pass round the hill to the left of the plateau, Wetherell and another couple of men would take the right side, while Beckenham and myself crept down from the back. Not a sound was to be made or a shot fired until I blew my whistle. Then, with one last word of caution, we started on our climb.
By this time the clouds had cleared off the sky and the stars shone brightly. Once more I arrived at the small precipice behind the huts, and, having done so, sat down for a few moments to give the other parties time to take up their positions. Then, signing to Beckenham to accompany me, I followed the trend of the precipice along till I discovered a place where we might descend in safety. In less than a minute we were on the plateau below, creeping towards the centre hut. Still our approach was undetected. Bidding Beckenham in a whisper wait for me, I crept cautiously round to the front, keeping as much as possible in the shadow. As soon as I had found the door, I tiptoed towards it and prepared to force my way inside but I had an adventure in store for me which I had not anticipated.
Seated in the doorway, almost hidden in the shadow, was the figure of a man. He must have been asleep, for he did not become aware of my presence until I was within a foot of him. Then he sprang to his feet and was about to give the alarm. Before he could do so, however, I was upon him. A desperate hand-to-hand struggle followed, in which I fought solely for his throat. This once obtained I tightened my fingers upon it and squeezed until he fell back unconscious. It was like a horrible nightmare, that combat without noise in the dark entry of the hut, and I was more than thankful that it ended so satisfactorily for me. As soon as I had disentangled myself, I rose to my feet and proceeded across his body into the hut itself. A swing door led from the porch, and this I pushed open.
"Who is it, and what do you want?" said a voice which I should have recognized anywhere.
In answer I took Phyllis in my arms and, whispering my name, kissed her over and over again. She uttered a little cry of astonishment and delight. Then, bidding her step quietly, I passed out into the starlight, leading her after me. As we were about to make for the path by which I had descended, Beckenham stepped forward, and at the same instant the man with whom I had been wrestling came to his senses and gave a shout of alarm. In an instant there was a noise of scurrying feet and a great shouting of orders.
"Make for the boats!" I cried at the top of my voice, and, taking Phyllis by the hand, set off as quickly as I could go up the path, Beckenham assisting her on the other side.
If I live to be a hundred I shall never forget that rush up the hill. In and out of trees and bushes, scratching ourselves and tearing our clothes, we dashed; conscious only of the necessity for speed. Before we were half-way down the other side Phyllis's strength was quite exhausted, so I took her in my arms and carried her the remainder of the distance. At last we reached the boat and jumped on board. The rest of the party were already there, and the word being given we prepared to row out to the yacht. But before we could push off a painful surprise was in store for us. The Marquis, who had been counting the party, cried: "Where is Mr. Wetherell?"
We looked round upon each other, and surely enough the old gentleman was missing. Discovering this, Phyllis nearly gave way, and implored us to go back at once to find him. But having rescued her with so much difficulty I did not wish to run any risk of letting her fall into her enemies' hands again; so selecting four volunteers from the party, I bade the rest pull the boat out to the yacht and give Miss Wetherell into the captain's charge, while the others accompanied me ashore again in search of her father. Having done this the boat was to return and wait for us.
Quickly we splashed our way back to the beach, and then, plunging into the undergrowth, began our search for the missing man. As we did not know where to search, it was like looking for a needle in a bundle of hay, but presently one of the hands remembered having seen him descending the hill, so we devoted our attentions to that side. For nearly two hours we toiled up and down, but without success. Not a sign of the old gentleman was to be seen. Could he have mistaken his way and be even now searching for us on another beach? To make sure of this we set off and thoroughly searched the two bays in the direction he would most likely have taken. But still without success. Perhaps he had been captured and carried back to the huts? In that case we had better proceed thither and try to rescue him. This, however, was a much more serious undertaking, and you may imagine it was with considerable care that we approached the plateau again.
When we reached it the huts were as quiet as when I had first made their acquaintance. Not a sound came up to the top of the little precipice save the rustling of the wind in the palms at its foot. It seemed difficult to believe that there had been such a tumult on the spot so short a time before.
Again with infinite care we crept down to the buildings, this time, however, without encountering a soul. The first was empty, so was the second, and so was the third. This result was quite unexpected, and rendered the situation even more mysterious than before.
By the time we had thoroughly explored the plateau and its surroundings it was nearly daylight, and still we had discovered no trace of the missing man. Just as the sun rose above the sea line we descended the hill again and commenced a second search along the beach, with no better luck, however, than on the previous occasion. Wetherell and our assailants seemed to have completely disappeared from the island.