Stories of the Gold Star Line/In the Jaw of the Dog
IV.—IN THE JAW OF THE DOG.
A FEW days before the Christmas of 1891 the North Star dropped her anchor at Tilbury. She was not to leave again before the 6th of January, so I had what was, for me, a fairly long spell ashore. I was debating in my mind where I should spend it, when I found a letter at my club from a lady whom I happened to know very well. It ran as follows:—
The Red Grange,
Dear Mr. Conway, I hope you have not forgotten our pleasant intercourse of last year. I have just seen by the papers that the North Star has arrived at Tilbury. If you are not already engaged for Christmas, I wish you would come to the Grange and spend it with us. We shall have a large party, and the great Mr. Moss Rucher, to whom my daughter Violet is engaged, will be with us. Please wire on receipt of this.
Yours very truly,
I turned this letter over many times before replying to it. I had never cared much for Mrs. Harley, who was a shallow and somewhat artificial person. I had met her at more than one smart gathering in the previous summer and had formed very decided opinions with regard to her. Her daughter Violet, on the other hand, I admired extremely. She appeared to me to be all that her mother was not—sincere, gentle, affectionate, with a sweet manner and a great deal of earnestness about her. She was clever, too, and well educated, but she was not the sort of girl to intrude her knowledge in an unpleasant way. I could fancy a man loving her very much, and guessed, at the time of our last meeting, that the man of all others for her had already appeared on the scene. He was a certain Charlie Bruce, a rising doctor and a great toxicologist. Bruce was a handsome fellow, and he and Violet looked as attractive a pair, when they were seen together, as the heart could desire. It needed but to glance at her face, with its glowing colour, at her dark bright eyes and sweet mouth, to know how sincerely she was attached to Bruce.
No binding words had been spoken yet between the pair, but I expected to hear of their engagement any moment. My surprise, therefore, was very great to learn from her mother's letter that Violet Harley was engaged to Mr. Moss Rucher. Mr. Rucher, the new millionaire—Money Rucher, as they called him in the City—was, of course, well known to me. His immense fortune had been derived from successfully floating some large companies in the West Australian gold fields under the name of the Rucher Syndicate. He frequently travelled by our line to Albany, in West Australia, but had never been in the same ship as myself. I had heard nothing either for or against the man except that he was an astute financier, a synonym, however, nowadays for a person of no very refined scruples. In age he must have been between forty and fifty, and how, even from that point of view, pretty Violet, who was barely eighteen, could think of him, puzzled me a good deal.
Curiosity about her, and a certain dogged wish to know the rights of the case, induced me, therefore, to accept Mrs. Harley's invitation.
I arrived at Clapham the following evening and was surprised to find Bruce waiting for me at the station. The moment I glanced at his face I noticed a serious change there.
"Violet thought you might arrive by this train," he said at once, "so I came to meet you. I wanted to say that I am going out with you to Australia on the 6th."
"For a trip?" I asked.
"No, for good. I am sick of this country. The chances for a medical man here, unless he can buy a share in a good practice, are but poor, and I mean to start a fresh life in a place in New South Wales where I have heard of an opening."
"Well," I cried, "this is news, indeed. How completely you have changed your mind! I remember you said last year that nothing would induce you to leave London."
"But last year and this are different," was his reply. then he added, dropping his voice, "Although we have not met so very often, I feel inclined to trust you, Conway. The fact is this I have lost the only thing worth staying for. Have you heard that Miss Harley is engaged to Mr. Rucher?"
"Her mother mentioned it when she sent me my invitation. What is the man like?"
"You will see him when you get to the Grange; the thing is scandalous."
"Are not you coming with me?"
"No; I doubt if I should be welcome. Mrs. Harley knows what my feelings are for Violet, and does her best to keep us apart."
"What do you mean by the thing being scandalous?"
"Well, in the first place, there is not the least doubt that Violet is marrying the man under pressure."
"Oh, impossible!" I cried; "these sort of things are not done at the end of the nineteenth century. Besides, Miss Harley has too much character. I doubt if her mother could compel her to do anything she did not cordially approve of herself."
"You cannot tell what pressure may be put upon a young girl. Violet has strong affections and is deeply attached to her mother, worthless as I believe the woman to be. I happen to know that Mrs. Harley's financial affairs have been for a long time in a very critical state, and I am pretty sure that she is under a great obligation to Mr. Rucher. Anyhow, one thing is abundantly plain—Violet does not care two straws for him; indeed, I believe she dislikes him."
"You are cut up about this, old fellow," I said, "and look at the matter through blue spectacles. I sincerely trust you are wrong. I will own, however, that Miss Harley's engagement has disappointed me. I had hoped——"
"Don't say any more," he cried. "when I think of the marriage my blood boils. When I look at her face I sometimes feel that I shall lose my senses."
A few moments later I found myself walking up the avenue towards the Red Grange, an old house which at one time must have been in the heart of the country, but was now closely surrounded by modern villas.
Mrs. Harley received me with much cordiality, but I did not see Violet or the rest of the guests until just before dinner.
When I entered the large outer drawing-room I noticed that several people, all strangers to me, were present. A tall, heavily built man was standing on the hearthrug. His face immediately arrested my attention. Mrs. Harley, who was near him, beckoned me to her side.
"Mr. Conway," she said, a sparkle in her light blue eyes; "let me introduce you to my special friend, Mr. Moss Rucher."
I bowed an acknowledgment and fixed my eyes on the man's face. As I did so my heart sank. Was pretty, gentle little Violet to be sacrificed to an individual more than double her age, and who bore all over his face traces of a career the reverse of honourable? In his small, deep-set, and shifty eyes, his thin upper lip and lantern jaws, I read both cruelty and avarice. The man was well dressed and spoke with a certain evidence of good breeding, but with all his efforts he could not keep the soul which guided him quite below the surface. The meanness of that indwelling spirit shone in his eyes and reflected its emotions round those lips which could be, if the occasion warranted, so cruel.
"Before God!" I murmured under my breath, "Bruce is right; no girl would marry such a man were she not forced to do so. What can the mother mean?"
I was so taken aback that it was with some difficulty I could conceal my surprise by the usual conventional remarks.
"It was good of you to come, Mr. Conway," said my hostess, breaking the somewhat awkward pause with a silly and nervous laugh. "I wonder where Violet can be; she will be delighted to see you, and I have been so anxious to introduce you to Mr. Rucher."
"I have often travelled by your line, sir," said Rucher, now favouring me with a more attentive glance.
I was about to reply when I saw his eyes fixed on a distant door; I looked in the same direction and saw Violet. She came slowly up to where I was standing, and as she approached I saw Rucher's eyes twinkle with suppressed satisfaction. I disliked him for this expression more than ever. The young girl gave him a faint smile and then held out her hands to me.
"I am so glad to see you, Mr. Conway," she cried. "Mother, I hope that you have arranged that Mr. Conway takes me to dinner; I sha'n't go with anyone else."
"Come, come, Violet," said Mr. Rucher, "you forget yourself—that is my privilege." He spoke with a sort of heavy attempt at a joke, but I read displeasure in his glance.
"It is not your privilege to-night," she answered. "Mr. Conway is an old friend, and I am going to give him my company during dinner."
Rucher's cheeks flamed with an angry colour; he turned away from Violet and addressed Mrs. Harley.
"Come and stand in this window," said the girl to me; "the night is quite warm."
We crossed to the deep embrasure of a bay window—here she immediately lowered her voice.
"I asked Charlie Bruce to meet you at the station; did I guess the right train?"
"Yes," I answered; "I hoped that Bruce was staying in the house."
"Oh, no; he went back to London after seeing you here."
"He is much changed," I said.
Her pretty lips trembled; her eyes, wide open, clear and beautiful, fixed themselves without the least embarrassment on my face.
"He will be quite well when he goes to Australia," she said slowly; "he is very clever and will make a career for himself. Now, please, let us talk of something else."
The dinner signal was given and a moment later I found myself at Violet's side at a long and brilliantly decorated dining-table. As soon as the conversation had become general she dropped her voice and turned to me.
"He is going out in your ship," she said.
I did not need to inquire whom she meant.
"Yes," I answered.
"Perhaps you will see him sometimes in Australia?"
"Scarcely likely. He tells me that he is going to a place in New South Wales, quite away from the coast."
As I spoke I looked at her, saw that she was only playing with her food, and suddenly made up my mind to speak.
"Your engagement to Mr. Rucher has taken me by surprise," I said.
"Why should it?" she answered. "I am supposed to be making a very good match."
I was silent.
"Don't you think so?" she continued.
I looked at her and replied slowly—
"If having plenty of money means a good match, you are right, Miss Harley. If to secure happiness is a good match, then I don't think you are about to make it."
She turned very pale.
"I felt when you were coming that you would say something of this kind," she said; "you take Charlie's part."
"I do," I said boldly; "you love him and you ought to marry him."
"A girl cannot always think of herself. But please do not say any more; you will upset me. It is necessary that I should marry Mr. Rucher; I do it for——"
"For your mother's sake."
"You know too much, Mr. Conway, but I will answer you bravely. Yes, I do it for mother's sake. This thing means her happiness. Charlie will get over it some day, and I-well, the approval of one's conscience must go a good way towards securing a contented mind."
"In this case your conscience ought not to approve; but, as you say, it is no business of mine."
"I did not say so, but please do not let us talk of it any more just now. Girls cannot always please themselves, and I—I am not sorry."
"I must add one thing, and then I promise to drop the subject," I replied. "Your motives are mistaken; you are doing evil that good may come. That sort of thing never answered and never will."
Her next-door neighbour turned at this moment to speak to Miss Harley. She replied with a certain eagerness, and for the rest of dinner scarcely spoke a word to me.
Just before I retired for the night she found her way again to my side.
"How long are you going to stay?" she asked.
"To-morrow will be Christmas Day; I shall leave the day after."
"To-morrow," she said—"I shall be occupied all to-morrow; I may not have another opportunity. I wonder if you will promise me something."
"Then look after Charlie during the voyage; do what you can to cheer him up." Tears brimmed into her eyes. Just at that moment Mrs. Harley's voice was heard.
"Violet! Violet! where are you?" she said. "Mr. Rucher wants you to sing the 'Canadian Boat Song' again."
She left me without a word. The next moment her sweet voice filled the room. Rucher was standing near, turning the pages of her music. I felt sick at heart.
I saw hardly anything of Miss Harley the next day, and never for a moment alone. Early the following morning I left the Grange, and on the 6th of January Bruce and I started for Australia. Violet's wedding was, I understood, to take place soon. I resolved to say as little as possible of the matter to my friend.
During the early part of the voyage we met with rough weather, and my time was occupied with the wants of the different passengers; but shortly after leaving Colombo my duties became less heavy, and Bruce now constantly sought my company. I saw by his face that he was longing to unburden himself, and one night as we paced up and down he began to speak.
"It is terrible," he said, "that there is no law to prevent such abominable things."
"What do you mean?" I answered.
"You must know to what I am alluding—to Violet's marriage, to the fact that the whole future happiness of her life is at stake. She is too noble a girl to see her mother ruined and disgraced. There is no saving her, unless that brute Rucher were suddenly to lose all his money; but that would have to happen immediately, as they are to be married so soon. If I could only ruin him—my God! wouldn't I do it!"
"To expose him would be better," I said, speaking quietly.
He looked me full in the face.
"You feel about him as I do," he said.
"I cordially hate the man," I replied.
"Shake hands on that," cried the young fellow. He seized my hand and shook it violently.
"And, after all," I continued, in a meditative voice, "men like Rucher often lose money as quickly as they make it."
"I wish he might lose every penny he ever got. If he could only go smash before the wedding, Violet would be safe; but there is no such luck in store."
I tried to cheer him up as well as I could. After listening to my well-meant attempts at consolation for a few moments, he said in a voice which somehow completely shut me up—
"There's no use in it, Conway; I don't even listen when you attempt commonplace consolations. It is the bitterest pill of my whole life. I have got to swallow it, and, by God! I cannot smile over the thing. If it were only my happiness it would not greatly matter, but she is miserable, too."
"I am afraid she is," I replied; "there is no doubt whatever that she loves you and has not the smallest affection for that scoundrel Rucher."
"Then why, in the name of everything sacred, does she marry him? If I were a girl I wouldn't give myself away to a brute of that sort."
"She does it for her mother's sake."
"That's just it, Conway, and that's where the pull is so hard. The girl is determined to complete the sacrifice, being utterly in the dark as to what she is putting her hand to; and a fellow who would give his life for her has to stand by and do nothing. I tell you it's beastly, and sometimes I feel as if my mind were going."
I was called just then to attend to an immediate duty and left him. I had no more conversation with him on the subject of Violet for the rest of the voyage, and hoped that with all the hard work which lay before him he would partly forget his troubles.
We arrived in Sydney Harbour on Tuesday, the 18th of February, about five o'clock in the evening. Just before we arrived, Bruce came into my cabin to say good-bye. He looked very depressed and said he felt that by leaving the ship he was about to cut his last tie with the Old Country and his past life. He had arranged to go up country immediately, but I promised that if I got time I would see him again before he started.
"Remember one thing," I said, as we shook hands at parting, "there is not a girl on earth who ought to spoil a man's life. Show your affection for Miss Harley by doing the best you can with your life, Bruce."
"Aye, I will try," he answered. "I hope I'll see you again, Conway. I shall put up at the Prince's Hotel, and this is my final address. Send me a line now and then, and when you get home let me know how she is."
I gave him my promise to do this. He had hardly left me when a knock came to my door and a steward entered.
"Captain Meadows wants to see you on deck, sir."
I replied that I would go immediately.
"Ah, Conway," said the skipper when he saw me, "here you are; we are both wanted immediately at the office for some urgent reason; the launch is ready to take us ashore. Come along."
In some surprise I accompanied the skipper. This unusual summons evidently meant something of great importance. We reached the Circular Quay in a few moments and drove at once to the office of our Company in Peter's Street, where we were shown into the private room of the manager, Mr. Aldridge. The moment we entered he closed the door and turned towards us.
"I am sorry to have been obliged to summon you both in such an unusual manner," he said, "but circumstances have arisen which necessitate the North Star leaving here on its return voyage at the earliest possible moment. How soon can she unload?"
"Well, her cargo happens to be very little, and with extra hands it could be done in twenty-four hours," replied Captain Meadows. "As far as I know, there are no repairs necessary, so she would be ready for sea again the day after to-morrow, unless there is cargo to come in."
"There will be none. Her ballast will be coal. I have arranged that; and you, Mr. Conway, will please attend to the stores without a moment's delay. This is a very important Government matter; and if the North Star cannot be got ready in time another liner will be employed, which will mean considerable loss to our Company."
Re paused, and we both stared at him. Doubtless our astonishment was visible on our faces.
"I will tell you the exact state of affairs," continued Mr. Aldridge. "It is a matter not only of the greatest importance, but also of the profoundest secrecy. I must pledge you both, therefore, gentlemen, to promise that on no account whatsoever will you divulge to anyone what I am going to say."
We both at once gave our assurances, and I began to feel intensely curious to know what was coming. Mr. Aldridge leant forward in his chair and began to speak in a low tone.
"You have heard, of course, of the great Rucher Syndicate of the West Australian Goldfields?"
An exclamation that I could not repress broke involuntarily from my lips.
He stared at me in some curiosity.
"Perhaps, Mr. Conway, you have been bitten in that direction?"
"No," I answered, "those sort of speculations never tempt me; but I have, of course, heard of the Syndicate—indeed, I may as well own that I am much interested in this matter." Then, as he still continued to stare at me as if in alarm, I went on, "I happen to know someone who is also deeply interested in the Rucher Syndicate."
"Then I am truly sorry for him, and I am equally sorry for you, for by the promise you have just made me you have bound yourself not to inform him of the monstrosity of the whole scheme. It is simply a hideous imposture, a modern South Sea Bubble."
"What?" I exclaimed.
"Yes, it is a big financial swindle, and the exposure of the whole affair depends on our bringing safely to England one of the gang who is going to turn Queen's evidence. On this man's evidence in London the whole lot will be convicted, and the exposure will include I hardly dare to say how many men of reputed integrity who are involved in it. It will be a revelation to the public. The Treasury have entrusted us to bring this man home. He is at present under the closest police escort, and two detectives will travel with him. You see now what a serious matter it is; but what makes it far more serious is that the authorities fear that the whole circumstance of his betrayal will leak out, and if that is the case you may be sure that the rascals, with their reputation at stake and with enormous resources at their command, won't leave a stone unturned to prevent him arriving in England alive. They will stop at nothing. However, once on board he will be safe enough, as every precaution will be taken here that no one but those with unquestionable credentials will be allowed to go home by the North Star. Our agents at every port of call on the way will be advised, and it will be your business, Mr. Conway, to aid the authorities in every possible manner, and yours, Captain Meadows, to see that the ship is ready to sail the day after to-morrow, or, at latest, early on Friday morning. The arrangements are these. It will be given out to-morrow that Mr. Dixon Boys intends going overland to Albany to inspect the goldfields, or on some such business. This, of course, will be false, and on Thursday evening he will be secretly and quickly taken down to the North Star just before she is ready to sail. Any fresh instructions will be sent to you. Captain Meadows."
"I will do my best, Mr. Aldridge," he replied; "and the sooner I set to work the better."
We took our leave. The captain returned to the ship, and I, hailing a hansom, drove off in great haste to the Prince's Hotel. Fortune had turned with a vengeance. If Violet Harley's marriage could be delayed until after we got home, her mother's game would be put a stop to. How best to achieve this was the problem which now exercised my mind almost to the exclusion of anything else.
On reaching the hotel I heard that Bruce was in his room and went up to him at once. I found him surrounded by a miscellaneous assortment of luggage. He had just finished his final packing and was strapping a large portmanteau. As I entered he looked up.
"Hallo! Conway," he cried; "so you have come to see the last of me. I am off in half an hour to Wallengabba."
"No, Bruce, you are not," I answered, sitting down opposite to him.
He stared at me in blank surprise.
"What on earth do you mean?" was his reply.
I laid my hand on his shoulder.
"My dear boy," I said, "I am going to ask a big thing of you."
"Anything in my power," he replied, fixing his frank and still boyish eyes on my face.
"I want you to trust me completely."
"Trust you? I believe I do, Conway."
"I want you to trust me to the extent of throwing up that appointment of yours and returning with me in the North Star to England."
"Now, what do you mean?" he cried.
"I cannot explain, Bruce, and that is where your faith must come in. I believe that to your dying day you will never regret it. Just at the present moment I am so full of hope about you that I scarcely dare to express myself. you are wanted in England, and that place at Wallengabba must do without you."
"But you surely will tell me something more?" he cried. "I have spent money on this thing. I have said good-bye to all my friends, and Violet is lost to me. Do you mean," he continued, suddenly springing to his feet, "do you mean that that brute has lost his money? How? Quick, tell me."
"I cannot," I answered; "I am bound by a solemn promise. You must trust me and come home as it were in the dark, or you must go your own way."
He reeled back for a moment and I almost thought he would fall.
"Conway, you drive me nearly mad; but I—yes, of course, I trust you. Are you quite certain that I shall never regret this step?"
"As certain as man can be."
"I cannot live in the same country as Violet when she becomes Rucher's wife." He stared into my face as he spoke, then he took a step forward, "Do you mean-do you mean to imply that she will never be his wife?"
"I can say nothing," I answered. "Cancel your ticket, Bruce, and take your passage in the North Star. I will see that you get a berth."
"But can there be any doubt about that?" he asked in some surprise.
"Unless you are guaranteed by me, yes; but do what I say and don't ask questions. Now, then, which is it to be?"
"I have no choice in the matter; you put it so that I cannot refuse. I fail to understand you, but I will go with you,"
"You will never regret it, old chap; and now I must be off, for I have a tremendous lot to do, as we shall leave at the latest on Thursday night. Don't breathe a word of this to anyone at the hotel, keep your own counsel; the darker the thing is kept the better for our success."
"You may rely on me, Conway. This is all a complete upheaval, and I do not think I quite realise it, but at any rate I will do as you say and come on board to-morrow."
"By the way," I said, as I left the room, "can you tell me the exact date of Miss Harley's wedding?"
"The 15th of April; I remember it only too well."
I considered for a moment.
"We shall be home in time," I said then, and without waiting to read the expression on his face I hurriedly left him.
The news of our intended departure had evidently been already communicated to the crew, and when I reached the ship the greatest activity was manifest everywhere. My own work occupied me all day and nearly all night. Charlie Bruce came on board on Thursday afternoon, but I had not an instant to speak to him. We were ready to sail at ten o'clock that evening, and a few moments before the hour of starting Boys made his appearance. He was a quiet, slender, timorous-looking man, with sunken brown eyes and a long, cadaverous face. About his clean-shaven mouth was an expression at once of weakness and of obstinacy. He glanced round him in a half-frightened way, but I was relieved to see that he had not only the manners but the appearance of a gentleman. It was absolutely necessary that he should come on board as an ordinary passenger, and the detectives who accompanied him were supposed by the crew to be, one his private secretary and the other his servant. He was accommodated with a special cabin to himself and every comfort was given to him.
Boys had scarcely crossed the gangway, and under the escort of the two detectives was making his way towards the companion, before the North Star, without a single indication, or any signal to say that we were starting, slipped her moorings and quietly glided out of the harbour. As we cleared the promontory and I saw the harbour lights grow dimmer and dimmer behind us, I owned to a feeling of relief. The tension and strain and half-expectancy of some impossible disaster happening at the last moment had told upon me more than I cared to own, but now at last we were safe and I went below at once, for I needed a long sleep badly.
That there was something mysterious connected with our trip, and that this mystery in some unaccountable way surrounded Mr. Dixon Boys, the small number of our return passengers were evidently aware. But what that mystery was they could not possibly divine, as the secret was only known to Captain Meadows, the chief officer, and myself. All speculations were therefore fruitless. The prisoner was allowed every possible liberty and soon made friends with more than one of his fellow-passengers. Bruce in especial often sought the company of Dixon Boys, engaging him in long and earnest conversation. On one occasion, soon after we had started, he gave me his opinion very frankly with regard to our fellow-traveller.
"I cannot make him out," he said; "he is interesting, but also queer. The slightest thing makes him start as though he were pursued by some imaginary foe. Then he will tell me nothing about himself. I never saw anyone so reserved and yet apparently so unreserved. He begins to make a confidence and then breaks off abruptly. If ever a man seemed to have something weighing heavily on his mind, he is the person."
"Don't try to draw him out, that's all," I said. "The fact is, Bruce, the less you nave to do with Boys the better."
Bruce looked at me with curiosity. After a long pause he said abruptly—
"I wonder if I have been wise in throwing up my appointment. I have sunk a thousand pounds in it—I shall never see that money again."
"Ask me a week after we have landed my true opinion on that point," was my answer. "I cannot say any more at present."
"You puzzle me very nearly as much as Boys does, Conway. Ah, there he is; I shall go and have a smoke with him."
Day after day went by. We were steadily going northwards at our fullest speed. On the 5th of March we arrived at Colombo, but only stopped for an hour for the mails and again hastened on. It was, I remember, about ten o'clock on a moonless night—the exact date by the ship's log was the 8th of March, and our position latitude 11° 23' east, longitude 61° 5' north, nearly the centre of the Indian Ocean. Charlie Bruce and I were sitting together in the stern beneath the awning. The air was clear, as it only can be clear in the tropics. Except for a regular swell, the surface of the sea was as oil and smooth as a millpond. My companion moved restlessly, and I knew well from his manner the subject which was uppermost in his mind. Our conversation was broken by long pauses. Once I heard Bruce utter an impatient sigh. Moved by an impulse I laid my hand on his shoulder.
"I am sorry for you, old fellow," I said. "I know this waiting in the dark is hard; but, unless some absolutely impossible and improbable accident happens, take my word for it that everything will be right."
"Accident!" he cried; "how mysterious you are! What possible accident can happen?"
I was silent. He edged closer to me.
"If ever a man held a secret," he began, "Dixon Boys is the man."
"You think so?" I said cautiously.
"Think so—I am certain of it. I never saw anyone so wretched."
"He has not been confiding in you, Bruce?"
"No, I almost wish he had. I sometimes wonder if Boys holds my fortune in the hollow of his hand."
I did not reply. Bruce had guessed the truth, but my promise prevented my enlightening him.
"You will know all when you get home," I said, after a long pause; "but do not encourage Boys to make confidences."
"Then there is something spacial about him?"
"Yes, Charlie; but it is unfair to press me any more."
I had scarcely said the words when the look-out Lascar in the forecastle sounded his gong with a double blow, thus announcing a light on the port bow. The clang had scarcely died away on the still air when the deep boom of a gun reverberated across the sea.
We were on our feet in a moment and ran forward just in time to see a rocket towering up in a fiery line straight ahead of us. It burst in a shower of stars that floated down and died out one by one.
"By Jove! there's a ship in distress," I cried; "I wonder who she is."
The sound of the gun had brought the passengers hurrying on deck. I heard an order shouted from the bridge, and the next moment our whistle sounded, accompanied by an answering rocket.
"Who is she, captain?" I asked, as the skipper hurried past us.
"I don't know yet; some miserable tramp, I suppose," was his quick answer; "but we shall see directly."
We made straight for her, and as we drew near we could see that she was a small steam yacht, about five hundred tons, and evidently sinking fast—so fast, indeed, that we could almost see her taffrail nearing the water-line each moment. Not an instant was to be lost, and two lifeboats and the gig were lowered. They were only just in time, for before they were halfway back to the North Star with the crew, we saw the vessel heel over, and with a loud explosion that hid her for a moment in a cloud of steam, she plunged head down and disappeared in a vortex of broken water.
The excitement was intense, for it was evident that had we been a few moments later she would have gone down with all hands.
By this time the gangway had been lowered and the rescued men were coming on board. Their appearance was certainly not prepossessing, and belied the evanescent glimpse we had caught of their apparently aristocratic vessel. A more cut-throat, blackguard-looking set of men I had seldom seen. There was not a decent-looking fellow amongst them. The last to come on board was the skipper, a foreigner, from his appearance. He was accompanied by an ill-favoured mongrel, which he hauled up the gangway by its collar. He gave his name as Nicola Marini, and told us that he was a Sicilian by birth. He spoke English fluently, however, and was able to explain the nature of their disaster. The name of the vessel, he said, was the Seagull, a private yacht purchased from a gentleman in England by a Parsee. Marini and his crew were taking her to Bombay. They had, he said, six hours ago struck a derelict and sprung some of their bow plates, and though all hands had ceaselessly worked the pumps, nothing could save her.
I made arrangements at once for the accommodation of our unlooked-for passengers. To my surprise the skipper, Marini, announced his intention of taking his dog with him to his cabin. I protested against this, and after some heated words, in which I told him that it would be contrary to our regulations, he submitted with a surly expression of dissatisfaction, and the brute was consigned to the care of the butcher. The dog was as ugly and ill-favoured a creature as I had ever seen, with bloodshot eyes and a snarling expression.
As soon as the excitement had settled down a little, and the passengers had retired to their berths, I went to my own cabin. Eight bells had gone, and I was just about to turn in when Captain Meadows entered. His face was peculiarly grave and stern.
"Everything all right?" he asked.
"Yes, sir," I replied. "I have quartered them in the second saloon; I suppose we shall have to take them back to England."
"I suppose so," he said. "What do you think of them, Conway?"
"A pretty queer lot, from the look of them," I answered.
"Yes," he replied, "about as queer as their yarn about the derelict. Between you and me, I don't believe a word of it—it is the most impossible story I have ever listened to. I cannot make it out a bit."
"But what do you suppose struck the yacht?" I asked in some surprise
He shrugged his shoulders.
"I don't know; it's a mystery."
"There might have been a derelict drifting about," was my slow reply.
"Might! Very much might," he retorted. "I don't want to be over-suspicious, but you know whom we have got on board."
"You mean Dixon Boys?"
I started up and stared at him as I caught the drift of his thoughts.
"You mean that it is a plant, a put-up job? Impossible!" I said, aghast at his unspoken suggestion.
"Who knows? there are millions at stake; it is as likely as not."
"How could they have done it?" I cried.
"What easier? They knew our track. They had only to wait for us, send up a rocket, and, directly we answered it, scuttle the boat. We should be bound to take them in. More unlikely things have happened before now," he went on. "In any case, Conway, I want you to be closely on the look-out. I have warned the chief officer and told him what I think. I may be wrong, of course, but it won't do to allow our wits to slumber for a single moment now. All I say is, watch them."
He left me with these words, and I sat on the edge of my bunk thinking matters over. It would certainly never have occurred to me that any me, however desperate, would resort to such a method of waylaying a victim on the high seas. Still, the skipper was a man who rarely said anything without good reason, and it behoved me to give his words every consideration.
I passed a wakeful night. If Captain Meadows's suspicions were correct, not only was the life of our prisoner in jeopardy, and the exposure of the whole Rucher Syndicate likely to be foiled, but also the happiness of Bruce and Violet Harley would be imperilled. The issues dependent on Boys's life were certainly heavy.
I got up early and went on deck. The Lascars were still washing and cleaning, and I had scarcely reached my accustomed seat before Bruce and Boys joined me. It was their custom to do so every morning while in the tropics, and on this occasion they both showed unwonted excitement. The occurrence of the previous evening began to be discussed eagerly.
"The crew of the Seagull had a narrow shave," said Boys, lighting a cheroot.
"They had, indeed," I replied; "another ten minutes and I would not have given much for their chances."
"How are the men this morning?" asked Bruce.
"I have not seen anything of them yet," I replied. "Hallo! though, here comes the skipper with that brute of a mongrel."
As I spoke the words the man who had just mounted the ladder from the mizzen hatchway came sauntering towards us. I had seldom seen a more ill-favoured looking individual; with his swarthy complexion, irregular features and bull-dog head, and a cast in one eye, he looked as if no evil work would be too bad for him.
"Good morning, gentlemen," he said, coming up and seating himself unbidden in a chair close to us.
As I looked at him the force of the skipper's words came strongly upon me. "Come here and lie down, Juan," he called to the dog. The animal had been edging up to us snarling. He now crouched at his master's feet, blinked his bloodshot eyes at him, and cowered down.
"What sort of animal do you call that?" asked Boys, regarding the dog with unmistakable disfavour.
"He is not much to look at, I confess," laughed the man; "but I couldn't leave him to drown. He's been a faithful friend to me, and as to tricks, why he's half human. See here. Get up and walk round, Juan." As he spoke he gave the dog a savage kick with his foot. The brute never stirred but gave a surly growl.
"You won't, won't you? Too lazy, eh?" cried Captain Marini, flying into an instant passion. He caught the poor animal by the scruff of the neck and began to beat him unmercifully with his clenched fist.
"Here, stop that, you scoundrel!" cried Boys, his eyes flashing with rage at the brutal cruelty. "Stop it, or I'll——" He made a sudden dash forward, and the dog, now goaded to fury, and as if to protect his master, flew at Boys and bit him savagely just below the knee.
Marini, now in a perfect fury, seized the animal in both hands, and holding him up high above his head ran to the side to throw him overboard, but before he could carry out this most brutal act I had leapt across his path and hurled him back against the mast, while the dog ran howling down the deck.
The noise of the scuffle brought Captain Meadows from his cabin, and in a few words, interrupted by Marini's angry expostulations, I explained the situation. the skipper's face paled as I spoke, and he gave me a glance of reproach which I shall never forget. Then he turned to Marini. What he said I cannot repeat, but the man slunk away, wincing under the scathing lash of the captain's words.
By this time the dog had been secured by the quartermaster. Captain Meadows went up to him and said something in a low tone.
The man nodded.
"See you keep the brute safe," were his final words.
Leading Juan by a chain which had been brought on deck, the quartermaster disappeared down the hatchway.
"It is time for us to think of you, Boys," I said, turning to the injured man. "I hope the dog did not hurt you much?"
"Oh, nothing very bad," was his reply. He was standing up, looking pale, but quite composed.
"All the same, a bite is a bite," cried Bruce, "and you may as well let me cauterise it, or send for Martin, the ship's doctor, to do it, if you prefer."
At that moment Martin himself was seen hurrying towards us.
"What's up?" he said, "You been bitten, I hear, Boys. Let me look at the wound. I saw the dog; he looks queer enough, and——"
"Good God!" I muttered under my breath. I did not dare to say the awful thought which had flashed through my mind.
Boys sat down, pulled up his trouser, and allowed Martin and Bruce to examine the wound. It was not so deep as I had expected, and after it was cauterised Martin dressed it.
"You need not be at all anxious now," he said, looking at Boys; "we have cauterised the wound in time. Now Bruce and I will help you down to your cabin."
Boys stood up, and the two medical men gave him each an arm. But he had scarcely taken a couple of steps before, to our horror, he suddenly reeled and sank in a heap upon the deck.
"Good God, look here!" cried Bruce; "the man is poisoned." He bent over him and instantly grasped the situation, with all the keenness of his own special knowledge. I stared at the fallen man in horror; his face was flushed, his eyes glassy and prominent; he was mumbling and muttering noisily to himself. Bruce gave one eager look into his eyes and then rushed to his cabin. He returned in a few moments.
"What, in Heaven's name, can it be?" I said to him.
"Something in the belladonna line. Get out the way; this is his only chance!"
He knelt down, pulled up the sleeve of Boys's jacket, and injected something into his arm.
"There, now, let us get him into his cabin," he said, turning to Martin. "It is a bit of luck, my having my antidote-case and some pilocarpine discs. But he is not out of the wood yet, by any means. This is a queer go."
We carried the poor fellow to his cabin and laid him on his bunk. The captain had followed us. Bruce turned to me.
"It's lucky you prevented Marini throwing the dog overboard," he said; "I want to see his mouth."
"He is chained up in the hatchway," said the captain; "but you don't suppose he is mad, do you?"
"It cannot be that, the effect was too instantaneous. I may be wrong, but I have a certain suspicion. I must see the dog immediately, I must look into his mouth."
"I will go with you. I suspected it, I own, only I thought it would be hydrophobia. This is a development I cannot understand."
The two doctors, the captain, and I now went aft. There we found the dog tied up. He was perfectly quiet and was lying down with his head between his front paws; when he saw Bruce he wagged his tail. Bruce bent down and patted him, and then, putting his hand quietly under his lower jaw, he raised the upper lip, and, opening his mouth, examined his teeth one by one.
"Ah! here we are," he cried. "So this is why Marini wanted to throw him overboard. What a devilish idea!"
"But what is it?" cried the captain, bending down and looking also into the brute's open jaw.
"Why, this," cried Bruce, pointing to the great canine fang; "see! it is a false one." As he spoke he seized the tooth between his finger and thumb and with a little effort brought it out. With infinite skill the tooth had been kept in its place with a gold plate, and by a perfect piece of mechanism, on pressing the sharp end, which was hollow, a little receptacle was compressed behind it. This had evidently contained the poison which Bruce said most probably was hyoscyamine.
"An exact imitation of the rattlesnake's arrangement," he said. "Whatever can be the meaning of it all?"
The captain waited to hear no more.
"I'll have every one of those men in irons!" he cried, running quickly up the ladder. "Save Boys, for God's sake!"
We returned to the sick man's cabin, thunderstruck by our horrible discovery.
"See—he is opening his eyes—consciousness is returning!" said the ship's doctor. Just at that moment the skipper appeared in the doorway of the cabin.
"Well," he said, "is there any chance? If he dies, Marini shall swing for it. I will expose the whole dastardly scheme the moment we get ashore."
"Hush!" said Martin. "Don't speak so loud. I believe that he is better.
The rest of the story is soon told. Marini and his crew had been already placed in irons. Dixon Boys recovered very slowly under the watchful care of Bruce and Martin, and by the time we reached England he was nearly himself again.
Yes, we were in time. The wedding had not yet taken place. The Syndicate was exposed, and the villain, Moss Rucher, thought it best to secure safety in flight.
Bruce and Violet Harley were engaged. I met Violet soon afterwards and she was good enough to say she owed her happiness to me. I think she was prejudiced in my favour, and told her so, but she stuck to her opinion.