A Bid for Fortune/Chapter 11< A Bid for Fortune
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 there 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 stop these scoundrels." Then turning to me, he continued: "Mr. Hatteras, it is by 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, my lord," I answered. "If you knew all you would understand that I am more anxious perhaps than even you are to discover the whereabouts of the young lady and my unfortunate friend."
If his Excellency thought anything he did not give utterance to it, and Mr. Wetherell's carriage being at the door we went out to it without another word. As we stepped into it Mr. Wetherell cried to the coach man:
"Home, and as fast as you can go."
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 up 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 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 destined to be realised.
"Miss Phyllis, sir?" the man said. "Why, she's at the ball at Government 'Ouse."
Wetherell turned from him with a great 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. On a side table I noticed a decanter of whisky and some glasses. Without asking permission I went across to them and poured out a stiff nobbier for him.
"Drink this," I said; "it will pull you together a little; and you will want all your strength for the work that is before us."
Like a child he did as he was told, and then sank back into his chair. I helped myself to a glass and then 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 we must consider every detail. Have you any objection to answering my questions?"
"Ask any questions you like, Mr. Hatteras," 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 this 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 being struck with her beauty asked one of the aides-de-camp at Government House, with whom we were 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 that is?"
"That his instructions were to get to know your daughter without delay."
"But what could his reason have been do you think?"
"Ah, that I cannot tell you just yet. Now you must pardon what I am going to say, but 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 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 all 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 in answer to 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 re-appearance in silence. "When he did come back he said, "Thompson has not come home yet, sir."
"Not come home yet! And 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, accompanied by a detective.
"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 to you."
"You know the nature of the case then?"
"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 having a thorough search made for your coach man, who was supposed to have driven Miss Wetherell away from Government House, and also for 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 again entered the room. 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 instantly."
"He's not in a very nice state, sir."
"Never mind that. Let them bring him up here, I say, and that 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. His master surveyed him with unmitigated disgust.
"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 groaned.
"Now, Thompson," said Wetherell, looking sternly at him, "what have you got to say for yourself?"
Again 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 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 bit o' 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 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 little farm a bit out in the country, and was going to sign the agreement, as he called it, for to rent it next day. He was goin' to start a stud farm and trainin' establishment combined, he said, 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 in side 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, standin' by 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 so 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-organised conspiracy, having me for its victim. Oh, my girlie! my poor little girlie! what have I brought you to through my obstinacy!"
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 try and tell me straightforwardly, and 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 in 'is 'ead."
"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 else; 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 slip 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 into 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 in our hands."
"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 what my anxiety will be."
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 footman had been drugged), I, Richard Hatteras, and the inspector 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, and with 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 politely. "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 a late hour 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 roust out my bar man. 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 exhausted 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. Mr. 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 for his friend and a whisky for himself."
"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 figurehead wouldn't let you do that. No, sir, to-night was the first night he's ever been in here."
"Did anyone 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 sometime, 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. "Will you 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 all 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 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 on 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 on the table. To my disgust it was only the back half of an envelope, and though it had a few figures dotted about on it, was of no possible use to me.
"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, 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 of the paper 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 as fast as he can go."
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 lit the gas. 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 brought this newspaper? You must remember 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 opened the Evening Mercury as I spoke 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, who was 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 was gradually growing light.
As the cab drew up alongside the curb the inspector jumped out and rang the bell of the side door of the shop. It was opened after awhile by a shock-headed youth, about eighteen years of age, 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, as if we were fated never to get the information we wanted; the whole thing was like some dreadful 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 someone coming down the passage, and the door was unlocked.
"Who is there?" cried a voice from within.
"Police," said my companion once more.
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! I never heard of such a thing. But I shall be happy to serve you if I can," the little man answered, leading the way into his dining-room and opening the shutters 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 expected it to 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 some thing 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 as briefly as possible, 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. "Come along, Mr. Hatteras."
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 other 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."
"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. Again the bell was pulled, and once more we waited patiently 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."
We left the front door, and finding a path reached the yard. The house was only a small one with a little verandah 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 was 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 all I can."
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 nobbier. 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.