Open main menu

Wikisource β

A Bid for Fortune/Chapter 5

< A Bid for Fortune

CHAPTER V.

MYSTERY.

The following morning I was sitting in my room at the hotel idly scanning the Standard and wondering in what way I should employ myself until the time arrived for me to board the yacht, when I heard a carriage roll up the drive.

On looking out I discovered a gorgeous landau drawn by a pair of fine thoroughbreds and resplendent with much gilded and crested harness, standing before the steps. A footman opened the door and I was at the window just in time to see a tall soldierly man alight from it. To my astonishment, two minutes later a waiter entered my room and announced "His Grace the Duke of Glenbarth." It was the owner of the carriage and the father of my young friend, if by such a title I might designate the Marquis of Beckenham.

"Mr. Hatteras, I presume," said he, advancing towards me and using that dignified tone that only an English gentleman can assume with anything approaching success.

"Yes! That is my name. I am honoured by your visit. "Won't you sit down?"

"Thank you."

He paused for a moment and then continued:

"Mr. Hatteras, I have to offer you an apology. I should have called upon you yesterday to express the gratitude I feel to you for having saved the life of my son, but I was unavoidably prevented."

"I beg you will not mention it," I said. "His lordship thanked me sufficiently himself. And after all, when you look at it, it was not very much to do. I would, however, venture one little suggestion. Is it not dangerous to let him swim so far unaccompanied by a boat? The same thing might happen again and no one be near enough to render him any assistance."

"He will not do so again. He has learned a lesson from this experience. And now, Mr. Hatteras, I trust you will forgive what I am about to say. My son has told me that you have just arrived in England from Australia. Is there any way I can be of service to you? If there is, and you will acquaint me of it, you will be conferring a great favour upon me."

"I thank your Grace," I replied—I hope with some little touch of dignity—"It is indeed kind of you, but I could not think of such a thing. But, stay, there is one service perhaps you could do for me."

"I am delighted to hear it, sir. And pray what may it be?"

"Your son's tutor, Mr. Baxter! His face is strangely familiar to me. I have seen him somewhere before, but I cannot recall where. Could you tell me anything of his history?"

"Very little, I fear, save that he seems a worthy and painstaking man, an excellent scholar, and very capable in his management of young men. I received excellent references with him, but of his past history I know very little. I believe, however, that he was a missionary in the South Seas for some time, and that he was afterwards for many years in India. I'm sorry I cannot tell you more since you are interested in him."

"I've met him somewhere, I'm certain. His face haunts me. But to return to your son—I hope he is none the worse for his adventure?"

"Not at all, thank you. Thanks to the system I have adopted in his education, the boy is seldom ailing."

"Pardon my introducing the subject. But do you think it is quite wise to keep a youth so ignorant of the world? I am an Australian and perhaps rather presumptuous, but I cannot help feeling that such a fine young fellow would be all the better for a few companions."

"You hit me on rather a tender spot, Mr. Hatteras. But, as you have been frank with me, I will be frank with you. I am one of those strange beings who govern their lives by theories. I was brought up by my father, I must tell you, in a fashion totally different to that I am employing with my son. I feel now that I was allowed a dangerous amount of license in my youth. And what was the result? I mixed with everyone, was pampered and flattered far beyond what was good for me, derived a false notion of my own importance, and when I came to man's estate was, to all intents and purposes, quite unprepared and unfitted to undertake the duties and responsibilities of my position.

"Fortunately I had the wit to see where the fault lay, and there and then I resolved that if ever I were blessed with a son, I would conduct his education on far different lines. My boy has not met a dozen strangers in his life. His education has been my tenderest care. His position, his duties towards his fellow men, the responsibilities of his rank, have always been kept rigorously before him. He has been brought up to understand that to be a Duke is not to be a titled nonentity or a pampered roué, but to be one whom Providence has blessed with an opportunity of benefiting and watching over the welfare of those less fortunate than himself in the world's good gifts.

"He has no exaggerated idea of his own importance; a humbler lad, I feel justified in saying, you would nowhere find. He has been educated thoroughly, and he has all the best traditions of his race kept continually before his eyes. But you must not imagine, Mr. Hatteras, that because he has not mixed with the world he is ignorant of its temptations. He may not have come into personal contact with them, but he will be warned against their insidious influences, and I shall trust to his personal pride and good instincts to help him to withstand them when he has to encounter them himself. Now, what do you think of my plan for making a nobleman?"

"A very good one, with such a youth as your son, I should think, your Grace; but I would like to make one more suggestion, if you would allow me?"

"And that is?"

"That you should let him travel before he settles down. Choose some fit person to accompany him. Let him have introductions to good people abroad, then he will derive different impressions from different countries, view men and women from different standpoints, and enter gradually into the great world and station which he is some day to adorn."

"I had thought of that myself, and his tutor has lately spoken to me a good deal on the subject. I must own it is an idea that commends itself strongly to me. I will think it over. And now, sir, I must wish you good-day. You will not let me thank you, as I should have wished, for the service you have rendered my house, but believe me, I am none the less grateful. By the way, your name is not a common one. May I ask if you have any relatives in this county?"

"Only one at present, I fancy—my father's brother, Sir William Hatteras, of Murdlestone, in the New Forest."

"Ah! I never met him. I knew his brother James very well in my younger days. But he got into sad trouble, poor fellow, and was obliged to fly the country."

"You are speaking of my father. And you knew him?"

"Knew him? indeed, I did. And a better fellow never stepped; but, like most of us in those days, too wild—much too wild! And so you are James's son? Well, well! This is indeed a strange coincidence. But, if that is so, I must beg your pardon for speaking so candidly of your father."

"No offence, I'm sure."

"And pray tell me where my old friend is now?"

"Dead, your Grace! He was drowned at sea."

The worthy old gentleman seemed really distressed at this news. He shook his head, and I heard him murmur:

"Poor Jim! Poor Jim!"

Then, turning to me again, he took my hand.

"This makes our bond a doubly strong one. You must let me see more of you! How long do you propose remaining in England?"

"Not very much longer, I fear. I am already beginning to hunger for the South again."

"Well, you must not go before you have paid us a visit. Remember we shall always be pleased to see you. You know our house, I think. Good-day, sir, good-day."

So, shaking me warmly by the hand, the old gentleman accompanied me downstairs to his carriage and departed.

Again I had cause to ponder on the strangeness of the fate that had led me to Hampshire—first to the village where my father was born, and then to Bournemouth, where by saving this young man's life I had made a firm friend of a man who again had known my father. By such small coincidences are the currents of our lives diverted.

That same afternoon, while tacking slowly down the bay, I met the Marquis again. He was pulling himself in a small skiff, and when he saw me he made haste to come alongside and hitch on. At first I wondered whether it would not be against his father's wishes that he should enter into conversation with such a worldling as myself. But he evidently saw what was passing in my mind, and banished all doubts about it by saying:

"I have been on the look out for you, Mr. Hatteras. My father has given me permission to cultivate your acquaintance, if you will allow me?"

"That is very kind of you," I answered. "Won't you come aboard and have a chat? I'm not going out of the bay this afternoon."

He clambered over the side and seated himself in the well, clear of the boom, as nice-looking and pleasant a young fellow as any man could wish to set eyes on. "Well," I thought to myself, "if all Peers were like this boy there'd be less talk of abolishing the House of Lords."

"You can't imagine how I've been thinking over all you told me the other day," he began very earnestly when we were fairly on our way. "I want you to tell me more about Australia and the life you lead there, if you will?"

"I'll tell you all I can with pleasure. But you ought to go and see the places and things for yourself. That's better than any telling. I wish I could take you up and carry you off with me now; away down to where you can make out the green islands peeping up out of the water, to port and starboard, like bits of the Garden of Eden gone astray and floated out to sea. I'd like you to smell the breezes that come off from them towards evening, to hear the "trades" whistling overhead, and the thunder of the surf breaking on the reef. Or at another time to get inside that selfsame reef and look down through the still, transparent water, at the rainbow-coloured fish dashing among the coral boulders, and into the most beautiful fairy grottoes the brain of man can conceive."

"Oh, it must be lovely! And to think I may live my life and never see these wonders. Please go on; what else can you tell me?"

"What more do you want to hear? There is the pick of every sort of life for you out there. Would you know what real excitement is? Then I shall take you to a new gold rush. You must imagine yourself setting off for the field, with your trusty mate marching step by step beside you, pick and shovel on your shoulders, and both resolved to make your fortunes in the twinkling of an eye. When you get there, there's the digger crowd, composed of every nationality. There's the warden and his staff, the police officers, the shanty keepers, the blacks, and dogs.

"There's the tented valley stretching away to right and left of you, with the constant roar of sluice boxes and cradles, the creak of windlasses, the perpetual noise of human voices. There's the excitement of pegging out your claim and sinking your first shaft, wondering all the time if it will turn up trumps or nothing. There's the honest, manly labour from dawn to dusk. And then, when daylight fails, and the lamps begin to sparkle over the field, songs drift up the hillside from the drinking shanties in the valley, and you and your mate weigh up your day's returns, and, having done so, turn into your blankets to dream of the monster nugget you intend to find upon the morrow. Isn't that real life for you?"

He did not answer, but there was a sparkle in his eyes that told me I was understood.

"Then if you want other sorts of enterprise, there is Thursday Island, where I hail from, with its extraordinary people. Suppose we wander down the Front at nightfall, past the Kanaka billiard saloons and the Chinese stores, into, say, the Hotel of All Nations. Who is that handsome, dark, mysterious fellow, smoking a cigarette and idly flirting with the pretty bar girl? You don't know him, but I do! There's indeed a history for you. You didn't notice, perhaps, that rakish schooner that came to anchor in the bay early in the forenoon. What lines she had! Well, that's his craft. To-morrow she'll be gone, it is whispered, to try for pearl in prohibited Dutch waters. Can't you imagine her slinking round the islands, watching for the patrolling gunboat, and ready, directly she has passed, to slip into the bay, skim its shell, and put to sea again. Sometimes they're chased—and then?"

"What then?"

"Well, a clean pair of heels or trouble with the authorities, and possibly a year in a Dutch prison before you're brought to trial! Or would you do a pearling trip in less exciting but more honest fashion? Would you ship aboard a lugger with five good companions, and go a-cruising down the New Guinea coast, working hard all day long, and lying out on deck at night, smoking and listening to the lip-lap of the water against the counter, and spinning yarns of all the world?"

"What else?"

"Why, what more do you want? Do you hanker after a cruise aboard a stinking bêche-de-mer boat inside the Barrier Reef, or a run with the sandal-wood cutters or tortoiseshell gatherers to New Guinea; or do you want to go ashore again and try an overlanding trip half across the continent, riding behind your cattle all day long, and standing your watch at night under dripping boughs, your teeth chattering in your head, waiting for the bulls to break, while every moment you expect to hear the Bunyip calling in that lonely water-hole beyond the fringe of Mulga scrub?"

"You make me almost mad with longing."

"And yet, somehow, it doesn't seem so fine when you're at it. It's when you come to look back upon it all from a distance of twelve thousand miles that you feel its real charm. Then it calls you to return in every rustle of the leaves ashore, in the blue of the sky, in the ripple of the waves at sea. And it eats into your heart, so that you begin to think you'll never be happy till you're back in the old tumultuous devil-may-care existence again."

"What a life you've led. And how much better it seems than the dull monotony of our existence here in sleepy old England."

"Don't you believe it. If you wanted to change I could tell you of dozens of men, living exactly the sort of life I've described, who would only too willingly oblige you. No, no! You've got chances of doing things we could never dream of. Do them, then, and let the other go. But all the same, I think you ought to see more of the world I've told you of before you settle down. In fact, I hinted as much to your father yesterday."

"He said that you had spoken of it to him. Oh, how I wish he would let me go!"

"Somehow, d'you know, I think perhaps he will."

I put the cutter over on another tack, and we went crashing back through the blue water towards the pier. The strains of the band came faintly off to us. I had enjoyed my sail, for I had taken a great fancy to this bright young fellow sitting by my side. I felt I should like to have finished the education his father had so gallantly begun. There was something irrisistibly attractive about him, so modest, so unassuming, and yet so straightforward and gentlemanly.

Dropping him opposite the bathing machines, I went on to my own anchorage on the other side of the pier. Then I pulled myself ashore and went up to the town. I had forgotten to write an important letter that morning, and as it was essential that the business should be attended to at once, to repair my carelessness, I crossed the public gardens and went up the hill to the post office.

I must tell you here that since my meeting with Mr. Baxter, the young Marquis's tutor, I had been thinking a great deal about him, and the more I thought of him the more certain I became that we had met somewhere before. To tell the truth, a great distrust of the man was upon me. It was one of those peculiar antipathies that no one can explain. I did not like his face, and I felt sure that he did not possess any too much love for me.

As my thoughts were still centred on him, my astonishment may be imagined, on arriving at the building, at meeting him face to face upon the steps. He seemed dumbfounded at seeing me, and hummed and hawed over his "good afternoon" for all the world as if I had caught him in the middle of some guilty action.

Returning his salutation, I entered the building and looked about me for a desk at which to write my wire. There was only one vacant, and I noticed that the pencil suspended on the string was still swinging to and fro as it had been dropped. Now Baxter had only just left the building, so I settled it in my own mind that it must have been he who had last used the stand. I pulled the form towards me and prepared to write. But as I did so I noticed that the previous writer had pressed so hard upon his pencil as to leave the exact impression of his message plainly visible upon the pad. It ran as follows:


"Letter received. You omitted reverend. The train is laid, but a new element of danger has arisen."


It was addressed to "Nikola, Green Sailor Hotel, East India Dock Road, London," and was signed "Nineveh."

The message was so curious that I looked at it again, and the longer I looked the more certain I became that Baxter was the sender. Partly because its wording interested me and partly for another reason which will become apparent later on, I inked the message over, tore it from the pad, and placed it carefully in my pocketbook. One thing at least was certain, and that was if Baxter were the sender there was something underhand going on. If he were not, well, then there could be no possible harm in my keeping the form as a little souvenir of a very curious experience.

I wrote my own message, and having paid for it, left the office. But I was not destined to enjoy the society of my own thoughts for long. Hardly had I reached the Invalids' Walk before I felt my arm touched. To my supreme astonishment I found myself again confronted by Mr. Baxter. He was now perfectly calm and greeted me with extraordinary civility.

"Mr. Hatteras, I believe," he said. "I think I had the pleasure of meeting you on the sands a few days ago. What a beautiful day it is, isn't it? Are you proceeding this way? Yes? Then perhaps I may be permitted the honour of walking a little way with you."

"With pleasure," I replied, "I am going up the cliff to my hotel, I shall be glad of your company. I think we met in the telegraph office just now."

"In the post office, I think. I had occasion to go in there to register a letter."

His speech struck me as remarkable. My observation was so trivial that it hardly needed an answer, and yet not only did he vouchsafe me one, but he corrected my statement and volunteered a further one on his own account. What reason could he have for wanting to make me understand that he had gone in there to post a letter? What would it have mattered to me if he had been there, as I suggested, to send a telegram?

"Mr. Baxter," I thought to myself, "I've got a sort of conviction that you're not the man you pretend to be, and what's more I'd like to bet a shilling to a halfpenny that, if the truth were only known, you're this mysterious Nineveh."

We walked for some distance in silence. Presently my friend began to talk again—this time, however, in a new strain and perhaps with a little more caution.

"You have been a great traveller, I understand, Mr. Hatteras."

"A fairly great one, Mr. Baxter. You also, I am told, have seen something of the world."

"A little—very little."

"The South Seas, I believe. D'you know Papeete?"

"I have been there."

"D'you know New Guinea at all?"

"No. I was never near it. I am better acquainted with the Far East—India, China, Japan, etc."

Suddenly something, I shall never be able to tell what, prompted me to say:

"And the Andamans?"

The effect on my companion was as sudden as it was extraordinary. For a moment he staggered on the path like a drunken man; his face grew ashen white, and he had to give utterance to a hoarse choking sound before he could get out a word. Then he said:

"No—no—you are quite mistaken, I assure you, I never knew the Andamans."

Now, on the Andamans, as all the world knows, are located the Indian penal establishments, and noting his behaviour, I became more and more convinced in my own mind that there was some mystery about Mr. Baxter that had yet to be explained. I had still a trump card to play.

"I'm afraid you are not very well, Mr. Baxter. Perhaps the heat is too much for you, or we are walking too fast? This is my hotel. Won't you come inside and take a glass of wine or something to revive you?"

He nodded his head eagerly. Large drops of perspiration stood on his forehead, and I saw that he was quite unstrung.

"I am not well—not at all well."

As soon as we reached the smoking-room I rang for two brandies and sodas. When they arrived he drank his off almost at a gulp, and in a few seconds was pretty well himself again.

"Thank you for your kindness, Mr. Hatteras. I think we must have walked up the hill a little too fast for my strength. Now, I must be going back to the town. I find I have forgotten something."

Almost by instinct I guessed his errand. He was going to despatch another telegram. Resolved to try the effect of one parting shot, I said:

"Perhaps you do not happen to be going near the telegraph office again? If you are, should I be taxing your kindness too much if I asked you to leave a message there for me. I find I have forgotten one."

He bowed, and simply said:

"With much pleasure."

He pronounced it "pleesure," and as he said it he licked his lips in his usual self-satisfied fashion. I wondered how he would conduct himself when he saw the message I was going to write.

Taking a form from a table near where I sat, I wrote the following:


"John Nicholson,

"Langham Hotel, London.

"The train is laid. You are detected. A new
danger has arisen. Hatteras."

 

Blotting it carefully, I gave it into his hands, at the same time asking him to read it, lest my writing should not be decipherable and any question might be asked concerning it. As he read I watched his face intently. Never shall I forget the expression that swept over it. I had scored a complete victory. The shaft went home. But only for an instant. With wonderful alacrity he recovered himself and, shaking me feebly by the hand, bade me good-bye, promising to see that my message was properly delivered.

When he had gone I laid myself back in my chair for a good think. The situation was a peculiar one in every way. If he were up to some devilry I had probably warned him. If not, why had he betrayed himself so openly.

Half an hour later an answer to my first telegram arrived and, such is the working of Fate, it necessitated my immediate return to London. I had been thinking of going for some days past, but had put it off. Now it was arranged for me.

As I did not know whether I should return to Bournemouth again, I determined to call upon the Marquis to bid him good-bye. Accordingly, donning my hat, I set off for the house.

If Burke may be believed, the Duke of Glenbarth possesses houses in half the counties of the kingdom; but I am told his seaside residence takes precedence of them all in his affections. Standing well out on the cliffs, it commands a lovely view of the bay—looks towards the Purbeck Hills on the right, and the Isle of Wight and Hengestbury Head on the left. The house itself, as far as I could tell, left nothing to be desired, and the grounds had been beautified and cultivated in the highest form of landscape gardening.

I found my friend and his father in a summer house upon the lawn. Both appeared unaffectedly glad to see me, and equally sorry to hear that I had come to wish them good-bye. Mr. Baxter was not visible, and it was with no little surprise I learned that he, too, was contemplating a trip to the Metropolis.

"I hope, if ever you visit Bournemouth again, you will come and see us," said the Duke as I rose to leave.

"Thank you," said I, "and I hope if ever your son visits Australia you will permit me to be of some service to him."

"You are very kind. I will bear your offer in mind."

Shaking hands with them both, I wished them good-bye and went out through the gate.

But I was not to escape without an interview with my clerical friend after all. As I left the grounds and turned into the public road I saw a man emerge from a little wicket gate some fifty yards or so further down the hedge. From the way he made his exit, it was obvious he had been waiting for me to leave the house.

It was, certainly enough, my old friend Baxter. As I came up with him he said, with the same sanctimonious grin that usually encircled his mouth playing round it now:

"A nice evening for a stroll, Mr. Hatteras."

"A very nice evening, as you say, Mr. Baxter."

"May I intrude myself upon your privacy for five minutes?"

"With pleasure. What is your business?"

"Of small concern to you, sir, but of immense importance to me. Mr. Hatteras, I have it in my mind that you do not like me."

"I hope I have not given you cause to think so. Pray what can have put such a notion into your head?"

I half hoped that he would make some allusion to the telegram he had despatched for me that morning, but he was far too cunning for that. He looked me over and over out of his small ferrety eyes before he replied:

"I can not tell you why I think so, Mr. Hatteras, but instinct generally makes us aware when we are not quite all we might be to other people. Forgive me for speaking in this way to you, but you must surely see how much it means to me to be on good terms with friends of my employer's family."

"You are surely not afraid lest I should prejudice the Duke against you?"

"Not afraid, Mr. Hatteras! I have too much faith in your sense of justice to believe that you would willingly deprive me of my means of livelihood—for of course that is what it would mean in plain English."

"Then you need have no fear. I have just said good-bye to them. I am going away to-morrow, and it is very improbable that I shall ever see either of them again."

"You are leaving for Australia?"

"Very shortly, I think."

"I am much obliged to you for the generous way you have spoken to me. I shall never forget your kindness."

"Pray don't mention it. Is that all you have to say to me? Then good-evening!"

"Good evening, Mr. Hatteras."

He turned back by another gate into the garden, and I continued my way along the cliff, reflecting on the curious interview I had just passed through. If the truth must be known, I was quite at a loss to understand what he meant by it! Why had he asked that question about Australia? Was it only chance that had led him to put it, or was it done designedly, and for some reason connected with that mysterious "train" mentioned in his telegram?

I was to find out later, and only too thoroughly!