A Bid for Fortune/Chapter 6
I MEET DR. NIKOLA AGAIN.
It is strange with what ease, rapidity, and apparent unconsciousness the average man jumps from crisis to crisis in this strange medley he is accustomed so flippantly to call Life. It was so in my case. For two days after my return from Bournemouth I was completely immersed in the toils of Hatton Garden, had no thought above the sale of pearls and the fluctuations in the price of shell; yet, notwithstanding all this, the afternoon of the third day found me kicking my heels on the pavement of Trafalgar Square, my mind quite made up, my passage booked, and my ticket for Australia stowed away in my pocket.
The grim, stone faces of the lions above me were somehow seen obscurely, Nelson's monument was equally unregarded, for my thoughts were far away with my mind's eye, and both were completely occupied following a steamer as she threaded her tortuous way between the Heads and along the placid waters of Sydney Harbour.
So wrapped up was I in the folds of this agreeable reverie that when I felt a heavy hand upon my shoulder and heard a masculine voice say joyfully in my ear, "Dick Hatteras, or I'm a Dutchman," I started as if I had been shot.
Brief as was the time given me for reflection, it was long enough for that voice to conjure up a wealth of reminiscence in my mind. The last time I had heard it was on the bridge of the steamer Yarraman, lying in the land-locked harbour of Cairns, on the Eastern Queensland coast; a canoeful of darkies were jabbering alongside, and a cargo of bananas was being shipped aboard.
I turned and held out my hand.
"Jim Percival!" I cried, with as much pleasure as astonishment. "How on earth does it come about that you are here?"
"Arrived three days ago," the good-looking young fellow replied. "We're lying off the West India Docks. The old man kept us at it like galley slaves till I began to think we should never get the cargo out. Been up to the office this morning, coming back saw you standing here looking as if you were thinking of something ten thousand miles away, nearly jumped out of my skin with astonishment, thought there couldn't be two men with the same face and build, so smacked you on the back, discovered I was right, and here we are. Now spin your yarn. But stay, let's first find a more convenient place than this."
We strolled down the Strand together, and at last had the good fortune to discover a "house of call" that met with even his critical approval. Here I narrated as much of my doings since we had last met as I thought would satisfy his curiosity. My meeting with that mysterious individual at the French restaurant and my suspicions of Baxter particularly amused him.
"What a rum beggar you are, to be sure," was his disconcerting criticism when I had finished. "What earthly reason have you for thinking that this chap, Baxter, has any designs upon your young swell, Beckenham, or whatever his name may be?"
"What makes you stand by to shorten sail when you see a suspicious look about the sky? Instinct, isn't it?"
"That's a poor way out of the argument, to my thinking."
"Well, at any rate, time will show how far I'm right or wrong; though I don't suppose I shall hear any more of the affair, as I return to Australia in the Saratoga on Friday next."
"And what are you going to do now?"
"I haven't the remotest idea. My business is completed and I'm just kicking my heels in idleness till Friday comes and it is time for me to set off for Plymouth."
"Then I have it. You'll just come along down to the docks with me; I'm due back at the old hooker at five sharp. You'll dine with us—pot luck, of course. Your old friend Riley is still chief officer; I'm second; young Cleary, whom you remember as apprentice, is now third, and, if I'm not very much mistaken, we'll find old Donald Maclean aboard too, tinkering away at his beloved engines. I don't believe that fellow could take a holiday away from his thrust blocks and piston rods if he were paid to. We'll have a palaver about old times, and I'll put you ashore myself when you want to go. There, what do you say?"
"I'm your man," said I, jumping at his offer, with an alacrity that must have been flattering to him.
The truth was, I was delighted to have secured some sort of companionship, for London, despite its multitudinous places of amusement, and its five millions of inhabitants, is but a dismal caravanserai to be left alone in. Moreover, the Yarraman's officers and myself were old friends, and, if the truth must be told, my heart yearned for the sight of a ship and a talk about days gone by.
Accordingly, we made our way down to the Embankment, took the underground train at Charing Cross for Fenchurch Street, thence by "The London and Blackwall" to the West India Docks.
The Yarraman, travel-stained and bearing on her weather-beaten plates the evidences of the continuous tramp-like life she had led, lay well out in the stream. Chartering a waterman, we were put on board, and I had the satisfaction of renewing my acquaintance with her chief officer, Riley, at the yawning mouth of the for'ard hatch. The whilom apprentice, Cleary, now raised to the dignity of third officer, grinned a welcome to me from among the disordered raffle of the fo'c's'le head, while that excellent artificer, Maclean, oil-can and spanner in hand, greeted me affectionately in Gaelic from the entrance to the engine-room. The skipper was ashore, so I seated myself on the steps leading to the hurricane deck, and felt at home immediately.
Upon the circumstances attending that reunion there is no necessity for me to dwell. Suffice it that we dined in the deserted wastes of the saloon, and adjourned later to my friend Percival's cabin in the alley way just for'ard of the engine-room, where a bottle of Scotch whisky, a strange collection of glass ware, and an assortment of excellent cigars, were produced. Percival and Cleary, being juniors, ensconced themselves on the top bunk; Maclean (who had been induced to abandon his machinery in honour of our meeting) was given the washhandstand. Riley took the cushioned locker in the corner, while I, as guest, was permitted the luxury of a canvas-backed deck chair, the initials on the back of which were not those of its present owner. At first the conversation was circumscribed, and embraced Plimsoll, the attractions of London, and the decline in the price of freight; but, as the contents of the second bottle waned, speech became more unfettered, and the talk drifted into channels and latitudes widely different. Circumstances connected with bygone days were recalled; the faces of friends long hidden in the mists of time were brought again to mind; anecdotes illustrative of native character succeeded each other in brisk succession, till Maclean, without warning, finding his voice, burst into incongruous melody. One song suggested another; a banjo was produced, and tuned to the noise of clinking glasses; and every moment the atmosphere grew thicker, and the din waxed greater.
How long this concert would have lasted I cannot say, but I remember, after the third repetition of the chorus of a sea-chanty that might have been heard a mile away, glancing at my watch and discovering to my astonishment that it was after ten o'clock. Then rising to my feet I resisted all temptations to stay the night and reminded my friend Percival of his promise to put me ashore again. He was true to his word, and five minutes later we were shoving off from the ship's side amid the valedictions of my hosts. I have a recollection to this day of the face of the chief engineer gazing down upon me from above the bulwarks, and of his quavering voice asserting the fact, in dolorous tones, that
"Aft hae I rov'd by bonny Doon,
To see the rose and woodbine twine;
And ilka bird sang o' its luve,
And fondly sae did I o' mine."
With this amorous farewell still ringing in my ears I landed at Limehouse Pier, and bidding my friend good-bye betook myself by the circuitous route of Emmett and Ropemaker Streets and Church Row to that aristocratic thoroughfare known as the East India Dock Road.
The night was dark and a thick rain was falling, presenting the mean-looking houses, muddy road, and foot-stained pavements in an aspect that was even more depressing than was usual to them. Despite the inclemency of the weather and the lateness of the hour, however, the street was crowded; blackguard men and foul-mouthed women, such a class as I had never in all my experience of rough folk encountered before, jostled each other on the pavements with scant ceremony; costermongers cried their wares, small boys dashed in and out of the crowd at top speed, and flaring gin palaces took in and threw out continuous streams of victims.
For some minutes I stood watching this melancholy picture, contrasting it with others in my mind. Then turning to my left hand I pursued my way in the direction I imagined the Stepney railway station to lie. It was not pleasant walking, but I was interested in the life about me—the people, the shops, the costermongers' barrows, and I might even say the public-houses. To an Australian there was something very depressing yet very novel about it all.
I had not made my way more than a hundred yards along the street when an incident occurred that brought with it a train of highly important circumstances. As I crossed the entrance to a small side street, the door of an ill-looking tavern was suddenly thrust open and the body of a man was propelled from it, with a considerable amount of violence, directly into my arms. Having no desire to act as his support I pushed him from me, and as I did so glanced at the door through which he had been ejected. Upon the glass was a picture, presumably nautical, and under it this legend "The Green Sailor." In a flash Bournemouth post office rose before my mind's eye, the startled face of Baxter on the doorstep, the swinging pencil on the telegraph stand, and the imprint of the mysterious message addressed to "Nikola, Green Sailor Hotel, East India Dock Road." So complete was my astonishment that at first I could do nothing but stand stupidly staring at it, then my curiosity asserted itself and, seeking the private entrance, I stepped inside. A short passage conducted me to a small and evil-smelling room abutting on the bar. On the popular side of the counter the room was crowded; in the place where I found myself I was the sole customer. A small table stood in the centre, round this two or three chairs were ranged, whilst several pugnacious prints lent an air of decoration to the walls.
On the other side, to the left of that through which I had entered, a curtained doorway hinted at a similar room beyond. A small but heavily built man, whom I rightly judged to be the landlord, was busily engaged with an assistant in dispensing liquor at the counter, but when I rapped upon the table he forsook his customers, and came to learn my wishes. I called for a glass of whisky, and seated myself at the table preparatory to commencing my enquiries as to the existence of Baxter's mysterious friend. But at the moment that I was putting my first question the door behind the half-drawn curtain, which must have been insecurely fastened, opened about an inch, and a voice greeted my ears that brought me up all standing with surprise. It was the voice of Baxter himself.
"I assure you," he was saying, "it was desperate work from beginning to end, and I was never so relieved in my life as when I discovered that he had really come to say good-bye."
At this juncture one of them must have realised that the door was open, for I heard someone rise from his chair and come towards it. Acting under the influence of a curiosity, which was as baneful to him as it was fortunate to me, before closing it he opened the door wider and looked into the room where I sat. It was Baxter, and if I live to be a hundred I shall not forget the expression on his face as his eyes fell on me.
"Mr. Hatteras," he gasped, clutching at the wall for support.
Resolved to take him at a disadvantage, I rushed towards him and shook him warmly by the hand, at the same time noticing that he had discarded his clerical costume. It was too late now for him to pretend that he did not know me, and as I had taken the precaution to place my foot against it, it was equally impossible for him to shut the door. Seeing this he felt compelled to surrender, and I will do him the justice to admit that he did it with as good a grace as possible.
"Mr. Baxter," I said, "this is the last place I should have expected to meet you in. May I come in and sit down?"
Without giving him time to reply I entered the room, resolved to see who his companion might be. Of course, in my own mind I had quite settled that it was the person to whom he had telegraphed from Bourne mouth—in other words, Nikola. But who was Nikola? And had I ever seen him before?
My curiosity was destined to be satisfied, and in a most unexpected fashion. For there, sitting at the table, a half-smoked cigarette between his fingers, and his face turned towards me, was the man whom I had seen playing chess in the restaurant, the man who had told me my name by the cards in my pocket, and the man who had warned me in such a mysterious way about my sweetheart's departure. He was Baxter's correspondent! He was Nikola!
Whatever my surprise may have been, he was not in the least disconcerted, but rose calmly from his seat and proffered me his hand, saying as he did so:
"Good evening, Mr. Hatteras. I am delighted to see you, and still more pleased to learn that you and my worthy old friend, Baxter, have met before. Won't you sit down?"
I seated myself on a chair at the further end of the table; Baxter meanwhile looked from one to the other of us as if uncertain whether to go or stay. Presently, however, he seemed to make up his mind, and advancing towards Nikola, said, with an earnestness that I could see was assumed for the purpose of putting me off the scent:
"And so I cannot induce you, Dr. Nikola, to fit out an expedition for the work I have named?"
"If I had five thousand pounds to throw away," replied Nikola, "I might think of it, Mr. Baxter, but as I haven't you must understand that it is impossible." Then seeing that the other was anxious to be going, he continued, "Must you be off? then good-night."
Baxter shook hands with us both with laboured cordiality and then slunk from the room. When the door closed upon him Nikola turned to me.
"There must be some fascination about a missionary's life after all," he said. "My old tutor, Baxter, as you are aware, has a comfortable position with the young Marquis of Beckenham, which if he conducts himself properly may lead to something really worth having in the future, and yet here he is anxious to surrender it in order to go back to his missionary work in New Guinea, to his hard life, insufficient food, and almost certain death."
"He was in New Guinea then?"
"Five years—so he tells me."
"Are you certain of that?"
"Then all I can say is that in spite of his cloth, Mr. Baxter does not always tell the truth."
"I am sorry you should think that. Pray what reason have you for saying so?"
"Simply because in a conversation I had with him at Bournemouth he deliberately informed me that he had never been near New Guinea in his life."
"You must have misunderstood him. However that has nothing to do with us. Let us turn to a pleasanter subject."
He rang the bell, and when the landlord appeared ordered more refreshment. When it arrived he lit another cigarette, and leaning back in his chair glanced at me through half-closed eyes.
Then occurred one of the most curious and weird circumstances connected with this meeting. Hardly had he laid himself back in his chair before I heard a faint scratching against the table leg, and next moment an enormous cat, black as the Pit of Tophet, sprang with a bound upon the table and stood there steadfastly regarding me, its eyes flashing and its back arched. I have seen cats without number, Chinese, Persian, Manx, the Australian wild cat, and the English tabby, but never in the whole course of my existence have I met with such another as the cat owned by Dr. Nikola. When it had regarded me with evil eyes for more than a minute, it stepped daintily across to its master, and rubbed itself backwards and forwards against his arm, then to my astonishment it clambered up on to his shoulder and again gave me the benefit of its fixed attention. Dr. Nikola must have observed the amazement depicted in my face, for he smiled in a curious fashion, and coaxing the beast down into his lap fell to stroking its fur with his long, white fingers. It was as uncanny a performance as ever I had the privilege of witnessing.
"And so, Mr. Hatteras," he said slowly, "you are thinking of leaving us."
"I am," I replied, with a little start of natural astonishment. "But how did you know it?"
"After the conjuring tricks we agreed to call them conjuring tricks, I think I showed you a week or two ago, I wonder that you should ask such a question. You have the ticket in your pocket even now."
All the time he had been speaking his extraordinary eyes had never left my face; they seemed to be reading my very soul, and his cat ably seconded his efforts.
"I should like to ask you a few questions about those self-same conjuring tricks," I said. "Do you know you gave me a most peculiar warning?"
"I am glad to hear it; I hope you profited by it."
"It cost me a good deal of uneasiness, if that's any consolation to you. I want to know how you did it?"
"My fame as a wizard would soon evaporate if I revealed my methods," he answered, still looking steadfastly at me. "However, I will give you another exhibition of my powers, if you like. In fact, another warning. Have you confidence enough in me to accept it?"
"I'll wait and see what it is first," I replied cautiously, trying to remove my eyes from his.
"Well, my warning to you is this—you intend to sail in the Saratoga for Australia on Friday next, don't you? Well, then, don't go; as you love your life, don't go."
"Good gracious! and why on earth not?" I cried.
He stared fixedly at me for more than half a minute before he answered. There was no escaping those dreadful eyes, and the regular sweep of those long white fingers on the cat's black fur seemed to send a cold shiver right down my spine. Bit by bit I began to feel a curious sensation of dizziness creeping over me.
"Because you will not go. You cannot go. I forbid you to go."
I roused myself with an effort, and sprang to my feet, crying as I did so:
"And what the devil right have you to forbid me to do anything? I'll go on Friday, come what may. And I'd like to see the man who will prevent me."
He must have realised that his attempt to hypnotise me (for attempt it certainly was) had proved a failure. But he was not in the least disconcerted.
"My dear fellow," he murmured gently, knocking off the ash of his cigarette against the table edge as he did so, "no one is seeking to prevent you. I gave you, at your own request—you will do me the justice to admit that—a little piece of advice. If you do not care to follow it, that is your concern, not mine; but pray do not blame me. Must you really go now? Then good night, and good-bye, for I don't suppose I shall see you this side of the line again."
I took his proffered hand, and wished him good night. Having done so, I left the house, heartily glad to have said good-bye to the only man in my life whom I have really feared.
When in the train, on my way back to town, I came to review the meeting in the "Green Sailor," I found myself face to face with a series of problems very difficult to work out. How had Nikola first learnt my name? How had he heard of the Wetherells? Was he the mysterious person his meeting with whom had driven Wetherell out of England? Why had Baxter telegraphed to him that "the train was laid"? Was I the new danger that had arisen? How had Baxter come to be at the "Green Sailor" in non-clerical costume? Why had he been so disturbed at my entry? Why had Nikola invented such a lame excuse to account for his presence there? Why had he warned me not to sail in the Saratoga? and, above all, why had he resorted to hypnotism to secure his ends?
I asked myself these questions one by one, and one by one I failed to answer them to my satisfaction. But whatever other conclusion I might have come to, one thing at least was certain: that was, that my original supposition was a correct one. There was a tremendous mystery somewhere. Whether or not I was to lose my interest in it after Friday remained to be seen.
Arriving at Fenchurch Street, I again took the Underground, and bringing up at the Temple, walked to my hotel off the Strand. It was nearly twelve o'clock by the time I entered the hall; but late as it was I found time to examine the letter rack. It contained two envelopes bearing my name, and taking them out I carried them with me to my room. One, to my delight, bore the postmark of Port Said, and was addressed in my sweetheart's handwriting. You may guess how eagerly I tore it open, and with what avidity I devoured its contents. From it I gathered that they had arrived at the entrance of the Suez Canal safely; that her father seemed to have recovered his spirits more and more with every mile that separated them from Europe. He was now almost himself again, she said, but still refused with characteristic determination to entertain the smallest notion of me as a son-in-law. But Phyllis herself did not despair of being able to talk him round. Then came a paragraph which struck me as being so peculiar as to warrant my reproducing it here:
"The passengers, what we have seen of them, appear to be, with one exception, a nice enough set of people. That exception, however, is intolerable; his name is Prendergast, and his personal appearance is as objectionable as his behaviour is extraordinary; his hair is snow-white, and his face is deeply pitted with small-pox. This is, of course, not his fault, but it seems somehow to aggravate the distaste I have for him. Unfortunately we were thrown into his company in Naples, and since then the creature has so far presumed upon that introduction, that he scarcely leaves me alone for a moment. Papa does not seem to mind him so much, but I continually thank goodness that, as he leaves the boat in Port Said, the rest of the voyage will be performed without him."
The remainder of the letter has no concern for anyone but myself. I folded it up and put it in my pocket, feeling that if I had been on board the boat I should in all probability have allowed Mr. Prendergast to understand that his company was distasteful and not in the least required. If I could only have foreseen that within a fortnight I was to be enjoying the doubtful pleasure of that very gentleman's society, under circumstances as important as life and death, I should have thought still more strongly on the subject.
The handwriting of the second envelope was bold, full of character, but quite unknown to me. I opened it with a little feeling of curiosity, and glanced at the signature, "Beckenham."
It ran as follows:
"West Cliff, Bournemouth, Tuesday Evening.
"My dear Mr. Hatteras: I have great and wonderful news to tell you! This week has proved an extraordinarily eventful one for me, for what do you think? My father has suddenly decided that I shall travel. All the details have been settled in a great hurry. You will understand this when I tell you that Mr. Baxter and I sail for Sydney in the steamship Saratoga next week. My father telegraphed to Mr. Baxter, who is in London, to book our passages and to choose our cabins this morning. I can only say that my greatest wish is that you were coming with us. Is it so impossible? Cannot you make your arrangements and do this? We shall travel overland to Naples and join the boat there. This is Mr. Baxter's proposition, and you may be sure, considering what I shall see en route, I have no objection to urge against it. Our tour will be an extensive one. We visit Australia and New Zealand, go thence to Honolulu, thence to San Francisco, returning across the United States, viâ Canada, to Liverpool.
"You may imagine how excited I am at the prospect, and as I feel that I owe a great measure of my good fortune to you, I want to be the first to acquaint you of it. Yours ever sincerely,
I read the letter through a second time, and then sat down on my bed to think it out. One thing was self-evident. I knew now how Nikola became aware that I was going to sail in the mail boat on Friday; Baxter had seen my name in the passenger list, and informed him.
I undressed and went to bed, but not to sleep. I had a problem to work out, and a more than usually difficult one it was. Here was the young Marquis of Beckenham, I told myself, only son of his father, induced to travel by my representations. There was a conspiracy afoot in which, I could not help feeling certain, the young man was involved. And yet I had no right to be certain about it after all, for my theories at best were only suppositions. Now the question was, ought I to warn the Duke or not? If I did I might be frightening him without cause, and might stop his son's journey; and if I did not, and things went wrong—well, in that case, I might be the innocent means of bringing a great and lasting sorrow upon his house. Hour after hour I turned this question over and over in my mind, uncertain how to act. The clocks chimed their monotonous round, the noises died down and rose again in the streets, and daylight found me just come to a decision. I would not tell him; but at the same time I would make doubly sure that I sailed aboard that ship myself, and that throughout the voyage I would be by the young man's side to guard him from all ill.
Breakfast time came and I rose from my bed wearied with thought. Even a bath failed to restore my spirits. I went downstairs and, crossing the hall again, examined the rack. Another letter awaited me. I passed into the dining-room and, seating myself at my table, ordered breakfast. Having done so, I turned to my correspondence. Fate seemed to pursue me. On this occasion the letter was from the lad's father, the Duke of Glenbarth himself, and ran as follows:
"Sandridge Castle, Bournemouth, August 3rd.
"Dear Mr. Hatteras: My son tells me he has acquainted you with the news of his departure for Australia next week. I don't doubt this will cause you some little surprise; but it has been brought about by a curious combination of circumstances. Two days ago I received a letter from my old friend, the Earl of Amberley, who, as you know, has for the past five years been Governor of the colony of New South Wales, telling me that his term of office will expire in four months. Though he has not seen my boy since the latter was two years old, I am anxious that he should be at the head of affairs when my son visits the colony. Hence the haste. I should have liked nothing better than to have accompanied him myself, but business of the utmost importance detains me in England. I am sending Mr. Baxter with him, with powerful credentials, and if it should be in your power to do anything to assist them you will be adding materially to the debt of gratitude I already owe you.
"Believe me, my dear Mr. Hatteras, to be,
"Very truly yours,
My breakfast finished, I answered both these letters, informed them of my contemplated departure by the same steamer, and promised that I would do all that lay in my power to ensure both the young traveller's pleasure and safety.
The rest of the morning was occupied by me in inditing a letter to my sweetheart, informing her of my return to the Colonies, and telling her of the curious circumstances that had occurred since her departure.
The afternoon was spent in saying good-bye to the few business friends I had made in London, and in the evening I went for the last time to a theatre.
Five minutes to eleven next morning found me at Waterloo sitting in a first-class compartment of the West of England express, bound for Plymouth and Australia. Though the platform was crowded to excess, I had the carriage so far to myself and was about to congratulate myself on my good fortune, when a porter appeared on the scene, and deposited a bag in the opposite corner. A moment later, and just as the train was in motion, a man jumped in the carriage, tipped the servant, and then placed a basket upon the rack. The train was half-way out of the station before he turned round, and my suspicions were confirmed. It was Dr. Nikola!
Though he must have known who his companion was, he affected great surprise.
"Mr. Hatteras," he cried, "I think this is the most extraordinary coincidence I have ever experienced in my life."
"Why so?" I asked. "You knew I was going to Plymouth to-day, and one moment's reflection must have told you, that as my boat sails at eight, I would be certain to take the morning express, which lands me there at five. Should I be indiscreet if I asked where you may be going?"
"Like yourself, I am also visiting Plymouth," he answered, taking the basket, before mentioned, down from the rack, and drawing a French novel from his coat pocket. "I expect an old Indian friend home by the mail boat that arrives to-night. I am going down to meet him."
I felt relieved to hear that he was not thinking of sailing in the Saratoga, and after a few polite common places, we both lapsed into silence. I was suspicious, and he was too wary, to appear over friendly. Clapham, Wimbledon, Surbiton, came and went. Weybridge and Woking flashed by at lightning speed, and even Basingstoke was reached before we spoke again. That station behind us, Dr. Nikola took the basket before mentioned on his knee, and opened it. When he had done so, the same enormous black cat, whose acquaintance I had made in the East India Dock Road, stepped proudly forth. In the daylight the brute looked even larger and certainly fiercer than before. I felt I should have liked nothing better than to have taken it by the tail and hurled it out of the window. Nikola, on the other hand, seemed to entertain for it the most extraordinary affection.
Now, such was this marvellous man's power of fascination that by the time we reached Andover Junction his conversation had roused me quite out of myself, had made me forget my previous distrust of him, and enabled me to tell myself that this railway journey was one of the most enjoyable I had ever undertaken.
In Salisbury we took luncheon baskets on board, with two bottles of champagne, for which my companion, in spite of my vigorous protest, would insist upon paying.
As the train rolled along the charming valley, in which lie the miniature towns of Wilton, Dinton, and Tisbury, we pledged each other in right good fellowship, and by the time Exeter was reached would have journeyed round the world together.
Exeter behind us, I began to feel drowsy, and before the engine came to a standstill at Okehampton was fast asleep.
I remember no more of that ill-fated journey; nor, indeed, have I any recollection of anything at all, until I woke up in Room No. 37 of the Ship and Vulture Hotel in Plymouth.
The sunshine was streaming in through the slats of the Venetian blinds, and a gentleman with a dignified aspect, a rosy face, and grey hair was standing by my bedside, holding my wrist in his hand, and calmly scrutinising me. A nurse in hospital dress stood beside him.
"I think he'll do now," he said to her as he rubbed his plump hands together; "but I'll look round in the course of the afternoon."
"One moment," I said feebly, for I found I was too weak almost to speak. "Would you mind telling me where I am, and what is the matter with me?"
"I should very much like to be able to," was the doctor's reply. "My own opinion is, if you want me to be candid, that you have been drugged and well-nigh poisoned, in a remarkably clever manner. But what the drug and the poison were, and who administered it to you and their motive, is more than I can tell you. From what I can learn from the hotel proprietors you were brought here from the railway station in a cab last night by a gentleman who happened to find you in the carriage in which you travelled down from London. You were in such a curious condition that I was sent for and this nurse procured. Now you know all about it."
"What day did you say this is?"
"Saturday, to be sure."
"Saturday!" I cried. "You don't mean that! Then, by Jove, I've missed the Saratoga after all. Here, let me get up! And tell them downstairs to send for the Inspector of Police. I have got to get to the bottom of this."
I sat up in bed, but was only too glad to lie down again, for my weakness was extraordinary. I looked at the doctor.
"How long before you can have me fit for travelling?"
"Give yourself three days' rest and quiet," he replied, "and we'll see what we can do."
"Three days? And two days and a half to cross the Continent, that's five and a half—say six days. Good! I'll catch the boat in Naples, and then, Dr. Nikola, if you're aboard, as I suspect, I should advise you to look out."