Stories of the Gold Star Line/The Sacred Chank
No. VI.—THE SACRED CHANK.
OF all the men I ever met in my long cosmopolitan acquaintance, Michel Quentin was the one who for many years puzzled me most. He was a middle-aged man, interesting to talk to, and extremely well informed. He had a high forehead and a somewhat long and narrow face, his eyes were watchful and keen, with a dare-devil gleam in them at times, but more often they wore an indolent and even sleepy expression. He was a man possessed of much tact, and it was evidently his rôle to do kindnesses and make friends. In consequence, he was popular, and most people spoke of him as a right good fellow. He and I had been many voyages together in the North Star, and I never knew whether I was glad or sorry to see his name on our passenger list. The man was a constant puzzle to me, repelling and attracting me alternately. About himself he was singularly reserved. He had constant business in Colombo, and occasionally he went with us as far as Sydney, but he spoke little or nothing about why he took these voyages or visited these distant lands. On one occasion, it is true, he told me that he was a confidential agent of many of the largest European dealers in Oriental treasures—as he spoke he led the way to his cabin, and we spent an interesting hour examining his spoils and curios.
Amongst these were to be seen ivory carvings, precious stones, rare coins, odd musical instruments, and even weapons of war for savage tribes.
"Do you spend all your time over this kind of thing?" I could not help asking.
"Oh, I have many strings to my bow," was his ambiguous answer, and glancing up I caught an expression in his eyes which for the moment startled me. There was a keen and almost bloodthirsty gleam in them. I decided on that occasion that I did not like Quentin, but the next time I had an opportunity of talking with him his fascination drew me once more, and often when he was not on board I found myself thinking of him.
It was late in the autumn of 1897 that I was destined to lift the veil from this curious personality and to discover the man as he really was. The circumstances which led me to a ghastly conclusion began in an apparently ordinary way. I was spending a week in London before starting on one of my usual voyages to Sydney. One afternoon it occurred to me to call on an old friend. This friend was no less a person than Professor Birchell, the great conchologist. Some years ago I had done him a small service and he had often asked me to visit him. I knew that Birchell was a man of slender means, but he had a mania for collecting shells, and his collection was, he told me, one of the finest in Europe. I now drove to his house in a hansom, and on my inquiring if the Professor were in, the servant replied in the affirmative, I entered a dark and dingy hall, and the next moment was shown into a fair-sized room packed with small tables upon which stood various glass-covered specimen cases which I say at a glance contained shells in countless variety.
Birchell was standing at the further end of the room, his black velvet skull cap on his head. He was engaged in earnest conversation with someone. In the half light I did not see who it was, but as I approached nearer, to my astonishment I recognised Michael Quentin.
"Ah, Conway," said Birchell, when he caught sight of me, "I am glad to see you. So at long last you have redeemed your promise. Quentin, let me introduce you to my friend Mr. Conway."
"Conway and I have met before," said Quentin, with that almost furtive smile which distorted rather than improved his face. He held out his hand to me. Birchell glanced from one of us to the other.
"It is a bit of luck, your dropping in just now, Conway," he said. "Had I known your address I should have written to you before. It lies in your power to do me a service."
"You may be sure if I can I will," I answered.
"It is this. The North Star sails in a week's time, does she not?"
"Next Thursday," I answered.
"My granddaughter, Lucy Borrodale, is one of the passengers. She is travelling alone, and I have just asked Quentin to look after her a bit, which he gladly promises to do, but if the ship's purser will also show her attention I shall not have an anxious moment with regard to her."
"I will do what I can for Miss Borrodale," was my reply. "But is it possible, Quentin," I added, turning to the other man, "that you are coming out again to Sydney?"
"Only to Colombo, this time," was his reply; "I have some special business there which will, not take very long. In all probability I shall be coming back with you on your return trip."
"And I earnestly hope that Lucy will also be coming back on the return trip," said the old man. "I can ill spare her, and the expense of keeping her at Colombo will be considerable. Well, it does cheer me to know that you will both look after her."
He rubbed his hands as he spoke.
"Has Miss Borrodale friends in Colombo?" I asked after a pause.
"I can say 'Yes' and 'No' to that, Mr. Conway," was Birchell's reply. "Old friends of her mother's will in all probability give Lucy a welcome. She bears a letter of introduction to them, but she is going out on important business, very important business." He glanced, as he spoke, at Quentin. On Quentin's lips again broke that disagreeable smile, and the watchful gleam in his eyes was very marked.
"As Quentin knows all about it, and as you and he are friends, and as I want you to be good to my girl, I have a great mind to confide in you, Mr. Conway," said old Birchell. "Eh, Quentin? what do you think?"
Quentin did not speak at all for a moment, then he said slowly—
"I naturally can have no objection. Yes; I think, on the whole, it would be well that Mr. Conway should know."
"Sit down, then, Conway," said Birchell, "and I will explain matters as briefly as I can."
He cleared a chair of a glass case and I dropped into it. He himself took a chair opposite to me. Quentin remained standing.
"Did you ever, Conway," said my host, "happen to hear of the great Kalkana Chank?"
"The what?" I cried.
"The great Turbinella Fusus, with the dextral helix, that was stolen from the Temple at Kalkana in India fifteen years ago?"
"Never," I answered; "your words are so much Greek to me."
"Then I will explain. The Turbinella is a certain kind of shell found by divers off the Andaman Islands. All these shells have a certain twist or spiral, generally from left to right, called a sinistral helix. Large shells, however, with the dextral helix—that is, from right to left—are very rare and therefore very valuable. The few that have been found are used in Hindoo temples by the priests to offer up incense to their idols. They are considered sacred and are called Chanks. Now in the end of the last century an enormous Chank was found, nearly twelve inches long. This was sold to the Nizam at Kalkana for half a lac of rupees—that is, five thousand pounds. Now to turn to the personal part of my narrative. I had one daughter—she was twice married. When very young she married a Mr. Harrison, a clerk in a City office, who died leaving her with one son, and a few years later she made a match which in point of position was considered good. Her husband was a Mr. Borrodale, who was at the time of the marriage English Resident at Kalkana. Immediately after the wedding he and she went out to Kalkana. There a daughter was born to them, the Lucy Borrodale who is to accompany you on your next voyage. My daughter inherited my mania for collecting shells. The shells you see around you have been largely collected by her. The great Chank was at that time in the Temple at Kalkana. and she wanted it, as it was the most unique specimen in the world. What the true story is has never been revealed, but the fact remains that the Chank disappeared. Suspicion pointed to my daughter, and the Nizam made a great fuss. Borrodale and his wife were obliged to leave Kalkana, and it was then proved that she had it in her possession. But before she arrived in England the shell was again stolen—by whom was never known. From that day to this the mystery remains unexplained; but one thing is certain, the Chank was never brought back to Kalkana.
"Just at the time of the theft the Nizam badly wanted funds, and Borrodale was an extremely rich man. In order to avoid open scandal Borrodale lent him four lacs of rupees, the Nizam at the same time giving him his bond that whenever the shell was restored the money should be returned. Borrodale was forced to be satisfied with this bond, which was duly attested, and which the present Nizam has since declared he is willing to meet whenever the shell is brought back to his sacred Temple at Kalkana by one of the family.
"Very soon after the theft Borrodale, through a series of misadventures, lost his money and died a poor man. His wife did not long survive him, and Lucy came to live with me. In Borrodale's will the rupees which the Nizam was to restore if ever the Chank was returned have been left to Lucy and her heirs, but were Lucy to die without children the money will become the property of my daughter's eldest son Walter. Do you follow me?"
"Perfectly," I answered. "It is an extraordinary story, but your statement is abundantly clear."
"Well, I have more to say. Pray listen. For years we have heard nothing of the Chank, but within the last fortnight an extraordinary thing has happened. I had a cablegram from a man at Colombo, a pearl dealer, a Parsee of high renown of the name of Bahajee. We have long corresponded, and I believe him, for an Oriental, to be a very straightforward, upright sort of man. From time to time he has sent me valuable shells and I have never known him play me false in any way. the cablegram which I received from him was to state that news of the shell had reached his ears, and he begged me not to lose an hour in coming to Colombo. I was much startled by this information and spoke of the matter to Lucy and Walter. Walter could not leave his employment in the City, and I am far too infirm to undertake such a long trip. Lucy, who is a very plucky girl, determined to take the matter into her own hands. I raised some of my last capital for the purpose, and she has taken her passage on board the North Star and goes out with you next Thursday. Should the Chank be recovered she will have a fortune of about thirty thousand pounds."
"By Jove!" I exclaimed, "it is a big business."
"It certainly is; but, nevertheless, I am nervous at Lucy leaving me. She is young and knows little of the world. If her mother's friends, the Challoners, are still at Colombo they will doubtless advise her to the best of their ability; but if not——"
"Have you cabled to find out if they are still there?" I asked.
"No, Mr. Conway," answered the old man; "cables are expensive things, and whether the Challoners are at Colombo or not Lucy must go. Failing them she will put up at the Oriental Hotel, and I have told her to take Bahajee into her confidence. It will undoubtedly be to his interest to recover the Chank for her, for I have promised him a large sum if he carries the matter satisfactorily through."
"Well, Mr. Birchell, "I answered, "I am obliged for your confidence, and you may be quite sure I will do what I can for your granddaughter."
"And I also will do my best for Miss Borrodale," said Quentin.
The old collector gripped us both by the hands.
"I know you will," he answered; "I trust you both. This is a lucky call of yours, Conway, for I feel that with two such champions my grandchild will be safe. But come into the next room; I should like to introduce you to her."
Old Birchell preceded us to the door, threw it open, and took us into a smaller apartment at the other side of the hall. This room was also shabby and painfully bare. The curtains to the windows were faded nearly white, and the pattern had long been worn off the carpet, but all the same the room had a clean, habitable, and almost homely look.
As we entered, a thin girl in a shabby black frock was standing by the fire. She turned on hearing our footsteps and put down a brass kettle which she was holding in her hand.
"Tea is not quite ready yet, grandfather, she said, looking at the old man.
"All right, Lucy," he answered; "plenty of time. I have brought two visitors to see you—they will be your companions on the voyage. Let me introduce them—Mr. George Conway, purser on the North Star. Make great friends with Mr. Conway, Lucy; he is a capital fellow, I know him well; and"—here he glanced at Quentin—"Mr. Michael Quentin."
The wrinkled old face peered anxiously up into Quentin's as the quavering voice made this latter introduction.
"Both these gentlemen know all about your mission to Colombo, Lucy, so you can freely confide in them," said Birchell; "and now tea, my dear."
The girl, having briefly replied to her grandfather's introductions, returned to her office of tea-making. Her movements were quiet and deliberate, and I thought I noticed even then a watchful expression in her young face. Certainly care, and care alone, had brought that deep furrow between her pretty eyebrows, and there were lines round the somewhat sad mouth which seemed to me infinitely pathetic. Had she been well fed and well dressed she might have been a pretty girl, for her eyes were large and of a soft grey colour; but her face was too pale and her cheeks too hollow to make her in the least beautiful now.
She had just poured out three cups of tea when I heard the click in the hall door latch, and at the same time I noticed a rosy colour fly into Miss Borrodale's pale cheeks.
"What can be the matter now?" I thought, my interest keenly aroused.
"Ah!" said the old man, an annoyed expression visiting his face, "what brings Walter back so early?"
He had scarcely said the words before the door was noisily opened and a young man of about eight-and-twenty came in.
"Hullo!" he cried on catching sight of Quentin, "you here? This is luck. I thought you might be looking in this afternoon and I got off an hour earlier on purpose. A cup of tea, please, Lucy. How close the room is! Why do you keep such big fires?"
"Grandfather is cold, and the room must be kept warm on his account, Walter," said the girl in a grave tone.
"Walter," said the old man, "let me introduce you to my friend Mr. Conway."
Harrison glanced at me, something like a scowl between his brows. He favoured me with a brief nod and then sat down on the sofa near Quentin. He began to talk to Quentin in a low tone, and the older man bent forward and replied in monosyllables. Walter Harrison's appearance by no means prepossessed me. He had loose, full lips and a shifty expression in his eyes. I thought that his whole appearance bore marks of a dissipated career.
Having drunk off my cup of tea I rose to depart.
"Trust me to look after your interests on board the North Star, Miss Borrodale," was my final remark. She looked me full in the face and a smile flitted across hers. She had a charming smile, sympathetic and tender.
"Ah, that's right, Conway," said the old man. "The knowledge that you will look after the child lifts a load from my mind. Thank you. God bless you!"
I left the house; but, during the remainder of that day, Lucy Borrodale's face, her old grandfather's anxiety, the peculiar expression which Michael Quentin had worn, returned to me again and again. How strange was the quest on which this young girl was going! What did it all mean? What was to be the upshot of this adventure? Above all, what sort of man was Harrison, and why did he hurry home in order to have a special word with Quentin? I had left Quentin behind when I took my departure.
After summing up all the different points of the story which I had just participated in, I came to the conclusion that I distrusted Walter Harrison and that I had seldom seen a more disagreeable face.
The next few days flew on the wings of time, and on Thursday morning Miss Borrodale came on board the North Star. Quentin had already arrived. When I came on deck I saw him talking to her. Old Birchell had not accompanied his granddaughter, but Harrison was seeing his sister off.
"Good luck to you, Lucy!" were his last words. "Get the Nizam to haul out the rupees and come back a rich woman." He gave her a leer, rather than a smile, and then called Quentin to accompany him to the gangway. They whispered together for a moment, the bell rang for all who were not passengers to return to the shore, and soon we were steaming away.
The voyage flew by without adventure, and Miss Borrodale and I became great friends. She soon lost her shyness with me and chatted eagerly about her grandfather and her home life.
"He is dreadfully poor, Mr. Conway," she said on one occasion. "He wants all the ordinary comforts of life. He is always denying himself for my sake. I have begged and implored of him many times to let me earn money, but he won't hear of it. He keeps on denying himself and selling his valuable shells from time to time. I know, as a matter of fact, that he sold some most unique specimens in order to provide money for this trip; but never mind, if I am successful he shall have them all back again. And I will be successful," she added, with an emphatic movement which sat prettily upon her. "I vow and declare that I won't come back to grandfather without the Chank."
"That is a somewhat rash vow to make," I answered. "Have you ever realised the difficulties of the quest on which you are going?"
"Oh, yes, but I also know that I have indomitable perseverance and determination, and that I do not think, brought face to face with danger, that I should know fear."
"I am glad to hear it," I answered; "such a spirit ought to lead to success. when you recover the Chank you will be a rich woman."
"Yes," she answered; "and I repeat again that I won't come back to grandfather without it."
Although Miss Borrodale made friends with me, I observed that she avoided Quentin. He was inclined to make himself agreeable to her, but his smartest anecdotes and his raciest stories never provoked a smile on her grave face. When he approached she invariably went away, not being exactly rude to him, but always very cold and distant. One day, as we were approaching Colombo, he spoke to me about it.
"What is the matter with Miss Borrodale?" he said; "anyone would think that she distrusted me."
"That surely is impossible," I answered; "she scarcely knows you."
"That is quite true; she does not know me at all," answered Quentin; "but, all the same, she may need my help at Colombo, and it is silly of her to be so cold and distant."
I myself began also to think that Miss Borrodale was scarcely acting wisely, and the day before we reached Colombo I spoke to her on the subject.
"Why do you always avoid Quentin?" I asked.
She started as I spoke, then said quietly—"Because I heartily distrust him."
"But have you any reason for this remarkable avowal?" I continued.
"Partly a woman's intuition," was her reply, "and partly because he is a great friend of my stepbrother, Walter Harrison."
"Ah! you have never spoken of your brother," I said.
"My stepbrother, Mr. Conway." She hesitated, then continued in a low voice, "It is dreadful to speak against one's own flesh and blood, but Walter has been the curse of my grandfather's life and mine. He is a bad man. I don't know how my mother came by such a son; but ah! she did wrong herself, dreadfully wrong, when she stole the Chank. Why did she do it? Even if we never recover the rupees, that Chank ought to be restored to the Nizam; it seems the only way of retrieving my mother's character. But to return to Walter—he is unprincipled, he drinks, he is a bad man, I hate and fear him."
"This is terrible," I said.
"Listen, Mr. Conway," continued the girl. She laid her hand for a moment on my arm. "If the Chank is recovered, and if the Nizam is true to his bond, and if I die, Walter will come in for the money, thirty thousand pounds. Mr. Quentin knows the whole story of the Chank—Walter and Mr. Quentin have been together more or less since that day a week before we sailed. I fear I don't know what, but of one thing I am determined, I will never give any confidences to Michael Quentin."
"Well, I am certain you exaggerate matters," I answered. "It seems a pity that you should not avail yourself of Mr. Quentin's services. He knows Colombo well. If your friends are there, well and good; but suppose they are not? You will then be thrown solely and entirely on your own resources."
"No, my grandfather's old friend Bahajee, the Parsee dealer, will help me. Anyhow, Mr. Conway, I repeat what I have just said—I will never confide in Mr. Quentin."
We arrived at Colombo, and there, to my distress and Miss Borrodale's own consternation, found that the Challoners had gone up country six months ago.
"What is to be done?" I said to her. At her request I had come on shore and we were having tiffin together at the Oriental Hotel.
"I shall stay here," was her quiet reply; "I shall be quite safe. Bahajee will advise me, and I shall be busy taking steps to recover the Chank."
"All the same, I don't like leaving you in Colombo alone," I said.
"Oh, I shall be all right," she answered, "and too busy even to have time for fear. What could harm me?"
"If I could only feel that you and Quentin were friends, and that I left you more or less in his hands——" I replied.
"Then I am very glad you are not leaving me in his hands, Mr. Conway, for then I might have real cause for alarm."
"Well," I said, as I took her hand, "I am sorry I must go now; but send me a letter—will you?—to Batavia; I shall pick it up on my return voyage. Who knows?—by then you may have been successful; but, whatever happens, write to me. I shall come to see you here the moment we touch Colombo again."
She thanked me heartily for this, promised to do what I wished, and I left her. She came to the door of the big hotel to see me off, and smiled as I went rapidly down the street. To all appearance she looked in the best of spirits, but I greatly disliked leaving her—her quest was a dangerous one, and she might be surrounded by those who would rob her of her rights. Still, she was a brave and sensible girl, and knew well how to take care of herself, and I thought that even in the event of an emergency she would know how to act.
The ship sailed from Colombo and we went south. We reached Sydney in good time, and on our return voyage I looked anxiously forward to our arrival at Batavia and to the letter which I expected to find there. I called immediately at our agents' office and asked if there were any letters for me. One was placed in my hands. It was from Miss Borrodale. I tore it open and read the following contents—
"Dear Mr. Conway,—Things are going well at last, and I hope by the time you arrive here I shall have been successful. Mr. Bahajee, my grandfather's old agent, has proved very kind and is moving heaven and earth to help me in my search. The cue about which he cabled to grandfather came, unfortunately, to nothing, and beyond the fact that the Chank has lately been in Colombo he had at first nothing to tell me definitely; but within the last few days a most important new development has taken place. Bahajee has told me that he believes he is at last really on the track. It seems that the shell was traced to the possession of an old merchant here, an American who lived alone and has lately died. Fearing that the emissaries of the Nizam would find and steal the Chank, he buried it in some place in the Cinnamon Gardens—at least, that is the story. The secret of its hiding-place has, to all appearance, died with the old merchant; but a Cingalese, a friend of Bahajee's, told him only yesterday that the merchant had a mania on the subject, and was constantly repeating the secret of the hiding-place to himself. He lived alone, with only one companion, a large grey parrot. The Cingalese swears that the bird picked up the words of his master's secret and used to repeat them at intervals, amusing the old man by dinning the secret into his ears at all sorts of unexpected moments; but since the merchant's death the bird has not once uttered the words, although the Cingalese is persuaded that they form part of his vocabulary. Bahajee believes that some means can be taken to induce the bird to repeat the secret, and is now arranging that he and I shall go the old merchant's house for the purpose. This is a little difficult to manage, as the relations of the old man guard his property day and night, and are naturally anxious to discover the hiding-place of the Chank for themselves, as it is worth money to anyone who finds it. They therefore watch the bird day and night, fearing to leave it a moment with strangers, and trusting to induce it to reveal its secret. Bahajee intends to outwit or to buy it off these people. What his exact mode of action is I cannot tell you, for I do not quite know; but he has every hope that he will succeed, and whatever he wishes me to do I intend to undertake. You know how I vowed that I would not return to grandfather without the Chank or the rupees, and I would go far now to keep that promise which I made to my own mind. By the time you reach Colombo I hope that success will have crowned our efforts. In the meantime wish me luck.
"P.S.—Mr. Quentin is still in Colombo; I met him only yesterday. He asked me how I was progressing with my search, but I told him nothing. I dislike and distrust him more than ever."
I read Miss Borrodale's letter over more than once. There was something about its contents that I did not like. The story of the parrot seemed to me queer and unlikely, and a horrible suspicion assailed me that Lucy was being led into some trap. The more I thought over matters the more uncomfortable did I grow. But there was nothing for it but to wait until I arrived in Colombo again.
At last, just at sunset one glorious evening, we reached Ceylon. I had told the skipper that I intended going immediately on shore, as I had important business to transact. He raised no objection, and I had scarcely set foot on the landing-stage before a Cingalese boy came up and handed me a note.
"Mr. Conway, sahib, from Mr. Bahajee.ready here for you, sir," he said.
I read the contents of the note quickly.
"Come to my house at once," wrote Bahajee; "there is trouble."
My heart sank and a vague fear clutched at it. I leapt into the jinrickshaw, and the runner darted out from among the carriages and sped rapidly into the town. In ten minutes I had arrived at the Parsee's house, and one of the servants received me. He led me at once through the verandah into a room almost dark, except for a small lamp which stood on a table. The dim light revealed a low couch upon which lay Bahajee. I had seen him last just before we started for Colombo, and was now startled at the change in his appearance. The dusky skin was drawn tightly over his emaciated face, the cheekbones had started into undue prominence, and the glassy, black eyes shone like lamps.
The moment he saw me he made an effort to rise, but fell back again with a cry.
"You have come, Mr. Conway," he said; "stoop down, I have something to tell you."
I bent down over his couch.
"Yes, Bahajee," I said; "speak. If you have anything to say, tell it quickly."
His eyes rolled anxiously round the apartment.
"There is no one present," I said; "say what you have to say at once."
"I will," he answered; "but there is a cloud over me—I am near death. My brain cannot think. Yes, now I remember—it is the English mees—she is in danger."
"What? How? What do you mean?" I interrupted.
"There is a plot to kill her," continued the old man. "I blame myself. I was tempted, and I helped to throw dust in her eyes. You may be in time to save her."
"You must tell me more, Bahajee, and quickly," I said. "Do you mean to imply that Miss Borrodale's life is in danger—in danger now?"
"Yes, now," he answered, "now. Perhaps this very minute. I counted the days until you returned. I thought your ship would be due to-night. I sent my messenger to ask you to come here. The English mees is good—she saved my little grandson, Bahajee the younger. Three days ago the child sickened with fever, and I thought him dying, but the young English mees came and nursed him all night; she saved his life. Then I vowed she should not be a victim. I cannot tell you much more; only go and save her."
"And you were in this plot?" I cried.
"I was bribed," he answered feebly, and beginning to whimper; "yes, bribed—a large sum. But I am dying now; he cannot hurt me."
"Whom do you mean?"
"I name no names," said the old Parsee; "but—but the English mees will never get the sacred Chank—never—and her life is in danger. Go to the house with the parrot. The parrot knows nothing, it is all a plot to throw dust in her eyes. Go at once."
"But where is the house?" I asked, my anxiety and perplexity rising to fever heat; "tell me at once."
The dying man gave a weird and crooked smile.
"The jinrickshaw boy will tell you; he will take you there. Say Bahajee bids—he will do my bidding. There is a revolver on that table—put it in your pocket. Go; you may be in time."
Without another word I seized the revolver and left him. His eyes, with that queer, dying gleam in them, followed me to the door of the room. I closed it behind me, rushed out, jumped into the jinrickshaw, and told the boy to take me to the house where the grey parrot was.
The lad started running as fast as ever he could. We seemed to fly through the streets. I soon saw that he was taking me in the direction of the native quarter. Presently we entered a road lined with palms; we alighted under the shadow of one, and, the boy still accompanying me, we made our way rapidly up a short entrance drive to what looked like a large private mansion. Without uttering a word the boy knocked on the front door. It was immediately opened by a wizened-faced old Cingalese woman. She had toothless gums, and looked at us both with apprehension, but before she could bar the way I had entered.
"I have reason to believe that the English lady Miss Borrodale is here," I said. "Take me to her immediately."
She smiled, shook her head, and pointed outside.
"No English mees here," she said.
"You lie, you old hag," I answered; "take me to her at once." As I spoke I took the revolver from my pocket. My action was significant, and the wretched creature fell back in terror against the wall.
"Tell her," I said, turning to the boy, "that unless she obeys and takes me to Miss Borrodale at once, I will shoot her."
The lad with a grimace translated my words into Cingalese. He evidently added to them, for the woman no longer resisted, but turning, led the way down a long corridor and, pointing solemnly to a closed door, disappeared down another passage to the left.
"You must come with me," I said to the hoy, "and if necessary you must help me. I will guarantee that you do not suffer for your actions."
The lad looked up at me with sparkling, soft, dark eyes, and as I entered the room followed me without a word. He and I now found ourselves on the threshold of a large apartment. At my first glance it seemed to be empty; then I saw a sight which I shall never forget to my dying day. In the faint gleam of a distant shaded lamp I perceived the figure of Miss Borrodale. She was standing in a listening attitude close to a table upon which stood a large cage containing a handsome West African grey parrot with a beautiful crimson tail The bird was lazily rubbing its beak against the wooden perch of its cage; now and then it fluttered its wings as if it meant to speak and then changed its mind. Crouching on his knees within a foot of the girl, and smoking an opium pipe, was a hideous-looking Cingalese—the fumes of the opium were entering the bird's cage.
Lucy Borrodale was standing at attention. She had not taken the slightest notice of my abrupt entrance, every faculty of her mind was intently occupied in watching the parrot. Would it reveal its secret, or would it remain obstinately silent?
I went quickly over to her and laid my hand on her shoulder.
"Miss Borrodale," I said, "I have come to fetch you. Thank God I am in time! you must come with me immediately."
"No, no," she said in a voice of distress; "why have you come to interrupt me? The parrot was just going to speak—I won't stir until it gives up its secret. Don't interrupt me, please; go, do go."
"You must come away at once," I said authoritatively; "the parrot knows no secret—it is all a blind—a blind; you must come away."
As I said the words the Cingalese rose, laid down his pipe, and approached my side. As he did so I saw him steal his hand into his belt, and in another instant his dagger would have been through my heart. But I was too quick for him. With a sudden movement I pinned his hands behind him and held him tight.
"Go out of this, Miss Borrodale," I shouted. "Go at once; I will be with you when I have settled this chap."
Brave as she was, a frightened look came into her eyes.
"But I cannot leave you like this," she said.
"Go! go!" I shouted.
She saw by my manner that I meant what I said, and reluctantly left the room. The jinrickshaw boy was standing by the entrance.
"Take the lady straight back to the Oriental Hotel, and return for me," I said to him. He seized Lucy's hand and ran with her out of the room.
"Now, you old villain," I said, turning to the Cingalese, "what do you mean by this?"
"Let me go," he whimpered.
"Not until you go on your knees and confess. What were you doing with the English lady?"
"I have a revolver with me and will shoot you dead on the spot if you do not confess immediately. If you tell me the truth I will spare your miserable life."
He looked me full in the face, saw that I was desperate, and went on his knees.
"I was paid to do it," he said. "She was meant to spend the night here. When the fumes of the opium made her sleepy I was to——" He made a significant gesture.
"And who put you up to this?" I said.
But before he could reply, almost before the words had passed my lips, there was a noise outside—it startled me, the Cingalese took advantage of the sudden loosening of my hands, made a deft movement, wrenched himself from my grasp, and fled from the room. Fortunately in his own terror he left the door open behind him. I went into the passage and the next instant had left the house. I went straight to the Oriental Hotel, where Miss Borrodale was. I found her in a state of extreme nervous tension.
"Why did you come?" she said; "why did you interrupt? I cannot imagine what this all means—the parrot would have told me his secret. He was fluttering his wings and going on just as he always did before he spoke. And Bahajee was ill and could not come with me, and I was too impatient to wait any longer. I wanted to secure the Chank and return home in the North Star with you. I insisted on going alone this evening to the house where the parrot was kept. Bahajee was queer and tried to prevent me, but I would not listen to him. I paid that old Cingalese to smoke the opium pipe as the merchant who died so often did. I hoped the fumes of the opium and the old associations would induce the parrot to tell his secret. He was getting accustomed to me, and he would assuredly have soon spoken; but now you have spoiled everything, Mr. Conway, and I cannot forgive you." The tears sprang to the angry girl's eyes.
"Listen to me," I said. "I went to seek you at the house with the parrot by Bahajee's desire."
"Bahajee's desire? What do you mean?"
"What I say. A letter from him was awaiting me when I landed this evening. The old man was dying and told me everything."
I then related the story which the dying Parsee had whispered in my ear.
"The parrot was a blind," I said in conclusion; "the whole scheme was concocted—by whom, God only knows! But one thing is certain, had I not appeared in time, you would never have left that place alive."
She turned very white. For a time she was silent, then she said gravely—
"And I lost my temper and did not believe in your kindness. Will you forgive me?"
"There is nothing I would not forgive now that your life is saved," was my answer. "I can tell you, Miss Borrodale, I went through an ugly hour this evening—I should not care to live through it again."
She was leaning up against the wall of the private sitting-room which she occupied, and I saw her hands tremble and a dimness pass over her eyes. After a pause she said, "What shall I do now?"
"There is but one thing to be done," I answered; "you must come back to England with me."
"What! without the Chank?"
"It is my belief that you will never now get the Chank. I fancy you are right about Quentin, and if anyone has got it he has."
"Then I return to England a failure?"
"At any rate, you come back. Had our voyage been delayed, had I not known … Miss Borrodale, I shudder even now to think what your fate might have been."
"I suppose I was mad to go," answered the poor girl; "but you can never realise what it all meant. Bahajee assured me that the parrot knew the secret, and would tell it if only we could devise some means of recalling the past to its memory. Bahajee thought of the opium pipe and everything was arranged. He and I were to go to the house this evening. But two nights ago the old dealer's little grandson got ill. I don't believe Bahajee loves any other creature on earth, but he was nearly mad about the little one. I know something of illness and I nursed the child, and I believe, with God's help, restored his health. Then, yesterday morning, Bahajee himself had a queer attack, a stroke or something, and when I saw him this morning he was too ill to come, and I found to my amazement that he had changed his mind and did not wish me to go either. That I would not consent to. I wanted the Chank, it seemed the last chance of finding it, and I wanted to give my grandfather comforts during the rest of his life."
"It was natural that you should go," I said; "but now I must leave you for a short time—I will be back again before long."
I went straight to the old dealer's house. I was anxious to force Bahajee to reveal the name of the man who had attempted Miss Borrodale's life, but I was too late. I was greeted by the news that Bahajee had breathed his last half an hour ago. I went into the bedroom and saw him. The jinrickshaw boy was there, and the little grandson, Bahajee the younger, sat on the old man's bed. He was playing with a toy which the English miss had given him, and looked bright and well, in startling contrast to the dead face which appeared more ghastly than ever in its last sleep.
After paying the jinrickshaw boy handsomely I left the house and returned to the hotel.
"Now," I said to Miss Borrodale, "I want you to do something for me."
"What is that?"
"I want you to come with me on board the North Star to-night."
"To-night?" she said.
"Yes; we sail before noon to-morrow; but I cannot rest until you are safe out of this place. You have to do with desperate people, and the Chank is of extreme value. Come, you will not be long putting your things together. I have a carriage outside."
She glanced at me in hesitation, then said abruptly—
"I believe you are right."
In less than half an hour Miss Borrodale had packed her things and we were whirling through the streets. When I lay down in my own cabin that night I had the satisfaction of knowing that she was safe on board the North Star. I was too excited to sleep, and although the life of the young English girl was saved, an extraordinary and inexplicable depression still lay at my heart.
The next day, just before the ship sailed, Quentin came on board. I was standing not far from Miss Borrodale when he crossed the gangway. He looked up and saw us together. It needed but one glance into his face to know the truth. It turned an ugly grey, his lips trembled, he almost tottered, then, quickly recovering himself, he came forward.
"This is luck," he said. "I always felt you would return in the same boat with me, Miss Borrodale. How do you do? What about your search—have you been successful?"
She only replied to his words by the faintest inclination of her head. I glanced at her and saw that she was deadly pale.
"Miss Borrodale is not well," I said gravely.
My first inclination was to seize the man, shout his treachery into his ears, and ask the skipper to make him his prisoner and bring him safe to England; but on reflection I knew that I had no warrant for such a course, and the idea suddenly flashed through me that in all probability he had secured the Chank and was bringing it home. If so, it behoved me to be wary, for even yet Miss Borrodale might recover the treasure.
I went to my cabin and thought carefully over the position. We were already pursuing our homeward course. In a short time we would be back in England. Quentin had no idea that I suspected him. I resolved that, if possible, he should remain in ignorance of my true feelings. I went to see Miss Borrodale and told her what I wanted her to do.
"Stay in your cabin as much as possible," I said. "You hate the man, and I also thoroughly distrust him. There is no doubt he was at the bottom of the foul game to murder you which I was just in time to prevent But now our object is to secure the Chank, which I firmly believe he has in his luggage. He would rather drop it in the sea than that it should get into your hands; but if possible we will outwit him."
"What do you mean to do? Why cannot you accuse him boldly?" said the girl.
"Because I have not a scrap of evidence," was my answer, "and the strongest suspicion goes for nothing without evidence. I am nearly convinced that he has the Chank. It is evident that it was to be found in Colombo, and a girl like yourself cannot outwit a man of Quentin's calibre."
She said nothing further, but a faint smile crossed her face. I went away to think out the problem of how I could possibly outwit Quentin. The man was clever; he had perfect control of himself, and bore, as far as I could tell, an excellent character; nevertheless, beyond doubt he was guilty, beyond doubt it had been at his instigation that the helpless girl, who was now accompanying us back to her native land, had been so nearly murdered. There was every reason to believe that the Chank was in his possession. How was it to pass into the hands of its rightful owner?
Suddenly, one evening, an idea struck me which seemed little short of an inspiration. If it succeeded it would be a certain way out of the difficulty By my scheme every piece of Quentin's luggage would be searched without his having the slightest suspicion of its being done with any but a natural object. Early on the voyage he had casually mentioned that he meant to disembark at Plymouth. As we drew near to Plymouth I went on deck, for I knew that I must act quickly when the moment came. We should stay there twenty-four hours before going on to London. As usual, Vernon, the harbour detective, came on board accompanied by another man. I went up to him at once.
"Look here," I said, "I want you to help me."
"Certainly, Mr. Conway," he replied.
"It is this," I continued. "I am not in a position to explain matters, but I want the luggage of every passenger who goes ashore to be searched at the Customs through and through."
"Contraband goods?" he queried.
"You may put that interpretation upon it if you like," was my reply; "but all I can say is this, that more important affairs depend on this matter than you can possibly guess. Can you help me? Can you drop a word to the officials?"
"I believe so," he answered slowly.
He went off and I told the skipper that I was going on shore in the tender with the other passengers, as I had some private business to attend to. As I went towards the gangway, the tender being alongside, Quentin came up, holding out his hand.
"Good-bye, old chap," he said. "Pray offer my adieux to Miss Borrodale. This has been a bad business; I hope she is not too bitterly disappointed."
"It is not good-bye, yet," I answered; "I am coming ashore with you."
"Really," he replied; "on business?" The slightest, almost imperceptible expression of fear flitted across his face.
"Yes," I answered. "Come, let us go—the tender is ready."
He made no further remark. We readied the wharf in a few minutes and stood watching the passengers' luggage as it was being removed to the Customs shed.
"Here comes mine," said Quentin. "I must go and see after it—good-bye."
"I am in no hurry,"I said; "I will come with you."
"Why?" he asked, suddenly turning round upon me. There was a ring of insolence in his tone which did not escape my ears, and I caught Vernon's eye, who was standing just behind me. My heart beat as without a word I followed him into the shed.
Quentin walked quickly up to where his luggage was piled on one of the long benches. An official came forward and I saw him dexterously slip a sovereign into the man's hand. The official flushed deeply as he caught sight of Vernon—he had evidently not seen him at first, and quickly handed the coin back to Quentin.
"I cannot take it, sir—it is against rules," he said in a low voice—then in a louder tone, "Have you anything to declare?"
"Yes," replied Quentin, laying his hand on a portmanteau, "there are two hundred cigars in that trunk."
The man unstrapped it and Quentin took the box out.
"There is nothing else," he continued. I glanced at his face. It was ashy white. I guessed by its expression that he knew I was watching him.
"We have orders to search all boxes, sir," said the man. "We suspect some lace, I think. Kindly unlock all your luggage."
Quentin glanced round. It was evident that all the boxes of the other passengers were being searched. There was no escape. In his eyes was the expression of a caged wild beast. Suddenly he turned round, seized me by the arm, and drew me aside. I felt his hand trembling.
"I want to speak to you for a moment," he said.
"What is it?" I asked.
"It is all up! My God! don't expose me. If you only knew! I was in terrible financial difficulties, and the temptation was too great, the bribe too big! I am ruined, utterly ruined!"
"Now, look here, Quentin," I said, "you have played as dastardly, as cowardly, as dark a trick as man could play, but it is not my business to bring you to justice. If I did, I believe I could prove——"
"Don't! don't!" he said. He was shaking so violently that he had to lean against the wall of the shed to steady himself. The passengers began to look round.
"Give me the shell," I said in a whisper, "and you can go to the devil; only never let me see your face again."
He remained silent for a moment, then went up to where the official was examining his box. No contraband goods were to be found there, but in one large box, carefully packed in cotton wool, was the sacred Chank. Quentin handed it to me without a word, and the next instant I saw him leave the shed.
What followed can be better imagined than described. I shall never forget Miss Borrodale's joy, nor the look of happiness on her young face. When last I heard of Birchell and his granddaughter they were people of means, and had moved into a large house, for the Chank had been returned to the Nizam, who had faithfully kept his bond and given back the rupees which Borrodale had lent his father. Miss Borrodale is therefore a rich woman, but Quentin has disappeared from England; and as to Walter Harrison, that unhappy youth has gone from bad to worse, and was arrested a few months ago on a charge of forgery. He is now serving his time in one of her Majesty's prisons. When I returned from my last voyage I went to see Miss Borrodale.
"And I owe it all to you!" she said on this occasion. "How can I thank you?"
I thought there was a way which I would tell her later on, but for the time I was silent.