Stories of the Gold Star Line/The Yellow Flag
No. V.—THE YELLOW FLAG.
ONE hot night in September, 1896, Dr. Martin, our ship's doctor, and I were having a quiet dinner at the Caulfield Hotel in Melbourne. The North Star was to sail for England on the following day, and amongst other matters we were discussing the possibilities of the voyage, what passengers we might expect on board, and what adventures we were likely to have. The meal proceeded cheerily, for we were both in the best of spirits. We had nearly finished, and were having a smoke with our coffee, when I suddenly noticed that Martin was gazing intently across the room. I heard him say, half aloud—
"Well, if that is not the man himself, it is his ghost."
"What do you mean?" I cried, turning in the direction in which he was looking.
Martin bent towards me.
"Do you see that fellow sitting at the table to your right—a sunburnt chap with black hair? He is either my old friend, Dudley Wilmot, or his ghost. I have not seen Wilmot for years, and what brings him here now is more than I can imagine. When last we met he was in London, and he was as jolly a young fellow as you could find in a day's march, but as wild as a hawk. I believe he was guilty of some boyish escapade, nothing very great in itself, but sufficiently bad in the eyes of all his people to make them send him out of England. By Jove! it is himself; he has spotted us and is coming over."
As Martin spoke a tall, broad-shouldered man of about thirty got up from his seat at the table where he had been dining and came towards us with a smile on his face. He was in a tweed suit, and in defiance of appearances was smoking a short black pipe. His deeply tanned face showed him to be no townsman.
"Hullo, Dudley! Where in the world did you spring from?" said Martin, rising and shaking hands with him. "I thought it must be you; let me introduce Mr. Conway, our purser."
Wilmot bowed to me and took a seat at our table.
"I only came down last Tuesday from Queensland," he said. "I have had a pretty rough time since I met you at my old uncle's house five years ago."
"What have you been doing?"
"Wandering up and down and to and fro on the earth, as usual; but I have been buried in the bush for four years, and am about sick of it. I am going home to-morrow. By the bye, you are still doctor on the North Star?"
"That is good; I am going in her, and I am right glad to see you. I believe I am in for a bit of luck."
He spoke in an excited manner and a flush had risen to his bronzed face.
"Well, you look pretty jolly," said Martin; "what is the luck?"
"You would like to have a chat alone?" I said, rising. Wilmot jumped up also.
"Not at all," he exclaimed; "in fact, I would rather you know, Mr. Conway, than otherwise. I will tell you both if you listen."
"I shall be much interested," I answered. I sat down again.
"It is the queerest story," he began. "I have had a rough time since I came out, and have been through the mire—Jackeroo, storekeeper, horseboy, drover—the usual round; then one season I struck a piece of luck and bought a small sheep station. For a year everything went well—plenty of water and grass, and wool at a high figure. Then last year came the drought, and on the top of it the floods. It is always the way in this country. One is always gambling with the weather; and of course I lost. Well, last month things were so bad that I mortgaged my station up to the hilt, and the outlook got worse and worse, and I thought it was a clear case for the bankruptcy court. But last week, just a fortnight ago, the wife and I were having supper in our little house, when she started and read something aloud from a paper which had been sent up from Brisbane. I tell you it astonished us both."
As he spoke he pulled a newspaper from his pocket, and. handing it across to Martin, invited us to look at it.
"This is the paragraph," he said.
Martin read aloud as follows:
"If Henry Dudley Wilmot, son of David Wilmot, of Grey Towers, Winchester, England, or Dr. Albert Dollory, his cousin, both of whom left England in 1891, will communicate with Fisher, Sands & Co., solicitors, Long Street, Melbourne, they may hear of something to their advantage. Anyone giving information as to their whereabouts will be rewarded."
"And what does this all mean?" said Martin: "it sounds good."
"I will tell you," he answered. "I came straight away down, you can bet, and went at once to Fisher & Co. They showed me a letter from their firm at home, asking them to find one of us, and for this reason. You know I have been cut off from all communication with the Old Country. I got into my father's black books, and he forbade any of the old folks to have the slightest communication with me. They never wrote to me, and I never wrote to them. My father, it seems, died last year, and, as I expected, he cut me off without even the proverbial shilling. But my old uncle, my mother's brother, William Seaforth, who was as mad as a hatter, but a right good sort at heart, died three months ago and left a will leaving his pile to either myself or his other nephew, Dr. Albert Dollory, provided that one of us came to claim it before the 4th of November this year. If neither of us turned up at the office in Lincoln's Inn by that date, the money was to go to St. Thomas's Hospital. You see, no one knew whether either of us was alive, because Dollory left home about the same time as myself. Now the will goes on to say that whichever of us two gets home first and satisfies the lawyers as to his claim, he is to have the money—a biggish sum, something like seventy thousand pounds, they say."
"By Jove! it is a big thing," I said. "How about the other man?"
"Dollory turned up yesterday," said Wilmot, shrugging his shoulders. "Just my luck! I saw Fisher this morning, and he told me that Dollory had seen the advertisement and had come to know all about it."
"Have you seen him yet, yourself?" asked Martin.
"No, but he is in town somewhere, and I suppose will come home by the North Star too."
"Then it is to be a race?" I said.
"I hope not. I think we shall have to come to some terms and divide the spoil. I have wired to the wife to say I am going home, and to keep up her heart till I return; but, by Jove! if Dollory won't come to terms it will be a queer sort of business, eh?"
"It will, indeed," I said.
"If I fail, I am absolutely ruined," he went on. "I have drawn my last cheque and have borrowed money to get my passage home—first class, too, for I thought I was certain to get the fortune, and felt sure I should have the start of Dollory, until Fisher's news this morning. Now the aspect of affairs is altogether changed, and my last chance is the hope that he will not come home by the North Star. If he does not he must be out of it, as the next boat home, the Tunis, an Orient liner, does not leave Melbourne for five days; thus I shall have five clear days' start of him. But he is certain to go by the North Star. I wish my uncle had had the sense to make a decent will, but he always was a crank."
As Wilmot spoke he knocked the ashes out of his pipe savagely and began cutting black Nail Rod for a refill. Martin and I glanced at each other, and for a moment we did not speak; then Martin, who was chewing the end of his cigar nonchalantly, bent across and said—
"Look here, Hal, you had better come on board to-night, and we will have a look at the passenger list and see if Dollory's name is in it. Do you happen to know anything about him? have you ever seen him?"
"I have never seen him, but I have heard of him. I heard something two years ago quite sufficient to make me think that he would not show his face in Australia again. They hang murderers in the Colonies, as well as at home, you know."
Martin whistled and looked hard at Wilmot.
"What do you mean, Hal?" he said.
"It is an ugly business. Even a black fellow is a human being. They say he flogged one of his blacks to death, and the poor fellow's wife, who was looking on, went mad and died. She was just about to have her first baby, and the baby died, too. Wholesale murder, I call it."
I could not help shuddering.
"Such a fellow belongs to the scum of the earth," continued Wilmot; "and I say, frankly, the more I think of his running a race with me for this property the less I like it."
"He will do you if he can," I could not help saying.
"Aye, that's just it; he will if he can. I must be even with him, and armed at every point."
"What is his business?" said Martin suddenly.
"Well, you see, he studied for the medical, and considers himself qualified, but I do not think he does much in that way. He has been about everywhere, travelling around the East. He was in the bush for a time, but after the affair of the black fellow he had to hook it. I am told that he has lately been at Singapore, Hong Kong, Colombo, Port Said, always moving about. Last year I heard that he was in Port Said, and had some medical appointment at the hospital there; but I think they found out what sort of man he was, and then I believe he took to dealing in precious stones. Anyway, he is not the kind who is likely to make a concession easy or to accept any terms."
"Bring your luggage and come straight on board now," he said.
"Yes, you had better do that," I added; "I shall be as anxious as you to see if Dollory's name is on the passenger list."
Wilmot went to his room, and Martin and I waited in the hall for him. In a few moments we all started for the quay and went on board. I rang the bell for the chief steward and told him to bring me the passenger list. We glanced anxiously down it. Yes, there was the name, almost last on the list, and out of alphabetical order, showing that the man had only just booked his passage. There was the name—Dr. Albert Dollory, and underneath it Mrs. Dollory.
"Married!" cried Wilmot, with a start. "I never knew it. I am sorry for the wife."
"Perhaps it will be all the better for you," was my answer.
He turned away, looking sadly crestfallen, and I went off to attend to other duties. I was too busy for the next twenty-four hours to give any thought to Wilmot and his affairs, and it was not until the next evening that I first saw Dr. Albert Dollory. He and Wilmot were standing together, smoking and talking earnestly. When the latter saw me he called out—
"Hullo, is that you, Conway? May I introduce you to my cousin, Dr. Albert Dollory?"
Dollory immediately shook hands, favouring me with a very sharp glance as he did so. At a first glance I thought him a rather handsome fellow. He was of powerful build and great stature, his features were dark and his black beard abundant. But a second glance showed me a deep scar across the forehead, which not only marred his beauty, but gave him a sinister aspect. Notwithstanding this defect, however, the man had a natural grace and decorum of manner which stamped him as one of gentle birth.
"Mr. Conway knows all about our queer position, Dollory," continued Wilmot. "The ship's doctor, Martin, is an old friend of mine. I met him and Mr. Conway last night at the Caulfield Hotel and we talked the thing through."
Dollory slightly raised his brows, but made no reply. I gave him another glance.
"You will forgive my interfering in this matter," I said, "but I earnestly hope you will both arrange to divide your luck."
"Thank you," answered Dollory, "but we have decided nothing as yet."
There was a supercilious tone in his voice, and he half turned on his heel. He evidently did resent my interference, but anxiety for Wilmot prompted me to say something more.
"As you will both arrive in England on the same day, surely that is the easiest and best solution of the difficulty, and 'half a loaf is better than no bread.'"
"I cannot agree with you," replied Dollory then. "For my part, I am quite content to abide by the terms of my uncle's will. As to you, Wilmot, you will be forced to do likewise, for I shall not consent to a division. We shall have a race home; there is nothing like a little excitement."
Half an hour afterwards Wilmot approached my side.
"I have failed to make any terms with my cousin," he said.
"Keep up your heart," I answered; "the lawyers will in all probability insist upon a division."
"Yes, if we arrive at the same time," was the reply. As he spoke he gave a harsh laugh. "Dollory said just after you left, 'There's never any knowing what accident may happen.' Then he stared me full in the face and continued, 'For my part, I think it would be very lame fun to fly a flag of truce when the chances of victory are so equal.'"
"I wonder what he means?" I said.
Before Wilmot could reply a little round-faced, bright-eyed woman was seen approaching. She came straight up to Wilmot.
"Do you know where my husband is?" she asked. "I want to speak to him about something of importance."
"I left Dollory on the hurricane deck," replied Wilmot. "Pray, before you go, Mrs. Dollory, let me introduce you to my friend, Mr. Conway."
Mrs. Dollory gave a quick glance into my face, as if she meant to read me through. She was a fresh-coloured, healthy-looking young woman of about two-and-thirty; her lips were firmly set, and her dark-brown eyes clear and honest in expression; but just for a moment I thought I saw a curious sort of veiled anxiety lurk in their depths. This may have been my fancy, for the queer position made me inclined to be suspicious about everything. The next moment her merry and ringing laugh dissipated my fears.
"Ah," she said, "what an adventure we are likely to have! But it is very nice to meet you, Dudley. I am, of course, deeply interested in this strange will; but rest assured of one thing—I am determined there shall be fair play."
She nodded to Wilmot in a cheery manner and went off in search of Dollory.
"How nice she is!" he said, glancing at me. "I have taken an immense fancy to her."
"I like her appearance infinitely better than that of her husband," I said. "I do not take to your cousin, Wilmot. I hope you don't think me rude for saying so?"
"Rude?" answered Wilmot. "I hate the fellow; he is a blackleg, if ever there was one! I pity that poor little woman. I wonder what induced her to marry him?"
For the next few days I did not see very much of the Dollorys; then, one afternoon, as I was talking to Wilmot, Mrs. Dollory suddenly came up and spoke to us. She said nothing in particular, and I cannot recall very much about the conversation; but when she had gone I turned and looked at Wilmot.
"What a change!" I said. "I should scarcely know her face."
In truth it was considerably altered; the round cheeks seemed to have fallen in, and most of the bright, healthy colour had vanished. The dark eyes seemed to have sunk into the head, and now the veiled anxiety could be no longer hidden; it had given place to a look almost of terror.
"What has come to the woman?" said Wilmot.
"She is completely altered," I said; "but it may be owing to sea-sickness; most of the passengers are bad for a day or two after we first sail."
"No, it is not that," said Wilmot—"I mean, it is more. There is something queer about her. She was happy enough when we came on board, and now she looks truly wretched. I wish to goodness I was safe in England. The more I see of Dollory the more I dislike him. To be his wife must be no joke; I can scarcely wonder that the poor little thing looks bad."
"Have you come to any sort of terms?" I asked.
"About the money? No; he is as obstinate as a mule. I am no coward, Conway, but frankly I don't believe he would be above playing me a nasty trick if he could."
"Too risky," I said, "seeing that Martin and I know your position. If anything happened to you, there would be too much motive to make things go easy for him."
"Well, at least, one thing is certain—he would stick at nothing, and I shall watch him closely. If we both get safe to London at the same time, there is no doubt, I suppose, that the lawyers will insist on a division of the property.
"I should say none whatever," was my reply.
"That is some sort of comfort." Wilmot sighed as he spoke; then he added, "I wish I could get that poor little woman's face out of my head; I cannot bear to meet that queer expression in her eyes."
"She is afraid about something," I replied; "and doubtless Dollory has terrified her."
"By a scheme for my undoing," said Wilmot.
"We must hope for the best, Wilmot, and both watch Dollory as closely as possible."
The voyage flew by. We had a pleasant set of passengers on the whole, and many amusements were organised.
After the first day or two, during which her cheerful presence had been much appreciated by the other ladies, Mrs. Dollory kept very much to herself. She spoke little to anyone except her husband, and was evidently uneasy in the presence of Wilmot, Martin, and myself.
Just about this time I began to notice that Dollory became great friends with a young sailor on board, one of the white crew. He was a nice, easy-going, happy-go-lucky sort of a lad of the name of Philbeach. Dollory was often seen talking to him, and once as the young quartermaster turned away I distinctly saw Dollory put his hand into his pocket and thrust something into the young fellow's palm. The lad grasped it, flushed up brightly, and a moment afterwards turned aside. I went up to Dollory.
"I saw you giving a tip to Philbeach just now," I said; "perhaps you are not aware that it is against the rules to tip the sailors—at any rate, until the voyage is over."
He stared at me and drew himself up.
"On my part, I was unaware," he said, "that I was answerable to you for my conduct, Mr. Conway. If I choose to be generous, it is, I presume, my own business." He paused for a moment, then he continued in a gentler tone, "I am interested in Philbeach. He has a sick mother and a couple of sisters. I have started a collection on the quiet for his benefit, and was just giving him a sovereign to add to the fund. But there," he continued, the purple flush rising again to his swarthy face, "I refuse to discuss this matter any further."
He walked away in the direction of the companion, where he called down to his wife—
"Alice, I want you. Why don't you come on deck?"
"Coming, Albert," was her quick reply. She came racing up the companion and joined him. He laid his hand heavily on her shoulder and they walked away by themselves in the direction of the engine-house.
Meanwhile Martin and I kept a sharp lookout. I had now not the slightest doubt that the man meant mischief, but I did not think that, with all his cleverness, he would find it possible to carry any sinister design into effect. He was very careful, too, and was on the whole rather a favourite with the rest of the passengers. He was a good raconteur, and had a fund of excellent stories to tell, which kept the smoking-room in roars of laughter. He was also particularly attentive to the ladies on board.
Day by day, however, the change for the worse in his wife became more apparent; she was getting thinner and thinner. I noticed that she scarcely touched her meals, that she avoided meeting other people's eyes, and whenever her husband spoke to her she started and trembled. There was not the slightest doubt that a terrible fear was weighing on her spirits. What could it be? Were we really on the eve of a tragedy? I hoped not, but it behoved those of us who were in the secret to guard Wilmot with all the skill at our command.
It was, I remember, one night in the Red Sea, and we were all somewhat run down by the extreme heat, when I noticed Wilmot and Mrs. Dollory standing alone by the wheel. They were talking earnestly together. In a few moments Mrs. Dollory went down the companion, but Wilmot remained where he was, leaning over the taffrail and looking out at our long white wake. He was evidently in deep thought, for he did not turn round at my approaching footsteps, and I had to touch him more than once on the shoulder before he looked up.
"You seem quite bowed down about something, my dear fellow," I said. "Any news? Any fresh developments?"
The puzzled and worn expression of his face did not vanish at my words. He was silent for a moment, then he said in a low voice—
"Aye, and queer ones, too. There is some deep game going on; I want your advice very badly."
"What has Mrs. Dollory been saying to you?" I asked.
"I have not the slightest idea what she means, but she came to me just now; there were tears in her eyes; she implored me most passionately to leave the ship at Port Said."
"To leave the ship at Port Said?" I answered. "Why, my dear Wilmot, this looks as if she were in league with her husband."
"You would think so at the first glance, but I don't believe so for a moment. That little woman is true, or there is no truth on earth. She is desperately unhappy and said that she was risking a great deal in speaking to me at all, but she felt she must. You may be sure I stared at her in amazement and asked her to explain herself. She did not answer directly, but then she said that if I did not take her advice I should lose the legacy. She also implored me in pity to her to say nothing of this to her husband. 'I risk much,' she said, 'much more than you imagine, in trying to save you, but I cannot see all your hopes dashed to the ground. you are a good man and he——' She did not add any more, but the look on her face was enough. We heard you approaching and she went away. It looks pretty black, don't you think?"
"I hardly know what to think," I replied; "but as to taking her advice, that is out of the question. Your leaving the vessel at Port Said would be sheer madness. Beyond doubt, Dollory wants you to do so in order to get to England first himself, and has probably, although you do not agree with me, made use of his wife as a cat's-paw. Just be watchful and careful, Wilmot, and stick to your post. I shall keep my eyes open, too; but as to the Port Said idea, put it out of your head once for all. It is a vile place, and full of scoundrels. You are perfectly safe on board the North Star, whatever villainy Dollory may be up to."
"All right; I am glad I have spoken to you, and I quite agree with you," he answered. "I'll do what you wish, but I long for the whole thing to be over, one way or another. I am getting sick of all this mystery and worry. By the way, have you noticed how thick Dollory is with that young sailor Philbeach? What do you make of that?"
"Nothing. My dear fellow, you are over-suspicious. Go and turn in and sleep if you can. It is more than I shall do to-night. They tell me the thermometer is 120° in the stoke-hole."
We arrived at Port Said on the 7th of October, and, according to my usual habit in connection with this port, I stayed on board. Dollory, however, and several other members of the party went ashore, but Wilmot, taking my advice, did not leave the ship. We were due to leave again at midday, and as the hour approached all the passengers came flocking back. Wilmot and I were on deck, and watched them streaming up the gangway laden with their different purchases. We were just about to start—in fact, the gangway was already up—when Mrs. Dollory came hurrying towards us. She had not landed at Port Said, and looked now full of intense excitement. Her face was ashy white, and there was a wild, startled look in her eyes; her breath was coming quickly in uncontrollable agitation.
"My husband!" she cried. "Oh, Mr. Conway, have you seen him? Has he come on board? I cannot find him anywhere. Surely he cannot be left behind. Oh, why are we starting without him? what shall I do if he is left behind?" An agonised look crossed her face.
"I really don't know anything about your husband, Mrs. Dollory," I replied. "I certainly did not see him come on board with the others, but I will make inquiries at once."
We were already rapidly leaving the shore. Wilmot and I hurried down the companion to the saloon. There I saw the chief steward.
"Do you happen to know if Dr. Dollory has come on board?" I said.
"I cannot tell you, sir," was his reply, "but I will make inquiries at once, and let you know." He left us and gave his orders to another steward to search the place. Just at that moment I happened to glance into Wilmot's face. I saw there a curious expression of surprise and ill-concealed delight. He would not meet my eyes, and turned away to hide his emotion. I laid my hand on his arm.
"What is up?" I said.
"By Jove!" he cried, "if Dollory has missed the boat he is done for—I am bound to be home first." His lips trembled and he dashed his hand across his forehead, for in his intense excitement the drops of perspiration stood out on it like beads.
"Yes, I am bound to be home first," he repeated.
"You certainly are," I answered; "but come to my cabin—I do not understand this business."
I took him away with me, being anxious to avoid meeting Mrs. Dollory just then. The moment we entered he sank down on my bunk, then started up as if unable to contain himself.
"You can never guess what it means," he said, "the intense relief from the most overpowering anxiety and fear. If Dollory has missed the boat I am a made man."
"I would not buoy myself up with too much hope," I answered, "your cousin is the last man on earth to do an idiotic thing of that kind; but we will be sure one way or the other when the steward brings the report."
In about half an hour Mallinson, the steward, entered the cabin.
"Dr. Dollory is not on board, sir," he said; "the whole ship has been searched. He must have been left behind at Port Said. He was on shore there, it is certain, for Philbeach, one of the quartermasters, was with him and had a drink with him."
"I must go and tell Mrs. Dollory at once," I said. I left my cabin without glancing at Wilmot and met the doctor's wife coming down the companion. She was evidently looking for me.
"Yes, Mr. Conway, I have heard," she said; "my husband is not on board. Things are as I feared; but do not question me, I won't be questioned." She spoke in a broken voice, her head slightly bowed. Before I could answer her she had passed me on her way to her cabin. In some surprise, and with a vague feeling of unaccountable alarm, I went in search of Philbeach. He was busy attending to some of his duties and looked up when I approached.
"How is it, Philbeach," I said, "that Dr. Dollory has not returned to the ship?"
"I don't know sir," was his reply. "He gave me a drink on shore, and said he would be back in good time."
"Are you hiding anything?" I said sternly. "Is anything the matter?"
Philbeach drew himself up and looked me full in the face.
"Certainly there is nothing the matter, sir," was his reply. "The doctor is a good friend to me. He takes an interest in my home affairs; he is one of the best men I ever met."
"Aye, so you think," was my innermost thought. I went back to my own cabin, where I was joined by Wilmot and Martin. I told Martin the state of affairs.
"Well, this is about the queerest thing I ever heard in my life," was his response.
"I can make nothing of it," I said.
Wilmot now interrupted us with a harsh, excited, jubilant laugh.
"I don't see anything so marvellous in it, after all," he said. "The very cleverest man may sometimes make a slip. Dollory miscalculated the time, or, perhaps—who can tell?—he got into some den of thieves in that horrid place. Anyhow, one thing is plain, he has lost and I have won."
"Time will prove," I answered.
"But it is all as clear as daylight," he continued, speaking impulsively. "I cannot make out why you and Martin look so sober. By no possibility can the man be home in time."
"I don't like Mrs. Dollory's face," was my reply. "I never saw any woman look more scared."
"Aye," responded the doctor; "but perhaps she, too, was playing a part. You said she tried to persuade you to go ashore at Port Said, Wilmot?"
"She certainly did," he answered; "but there, whatever she said to me, I trust that woman."
"You can never trust appearances in a case of this sort," said the doctor. "She is, in all probability, her husband's tool, and, whether she likes it or not, was urged to make a victim of you. Had you taken her advice you would now have been a lost man, and she is doubtless in her present distress because she sees that her husband's game is up."
Wilmot rubbed his hands joyfully.
"I wish I could communicate this good news to my own little wife," he said. "Yes, I am made, and just when I almost feared that all was lost. I feel as lighthearted as a sandboy; a load has been lifted from my mind."
Wilmot presently left us and the doctor and I found ourselves alone. We looked one at the other.
"It seems incredible that Dollory should have missed the boat," I repeated. "What can possibly have detained him at Port Said, when such important issues are at stake?"
"That is more than I can tell," was Martin's reply. "The whole thing is a puzzle; but I own I am right glad. Of course, Dollory has outwitted himself in some manner unknown to us, and my friend Wilmot is safe to win."
We talked a little further over the matter and then we turned to our respective duties.
The days flew by without incident, but one circumstance was remarked on by several of the passengers. Mrs. Dollory refused to leave her cabin or to see anyone. Her meals were brought to her there, and no information whatever could be gained about her. Martin inquired once or twice if she were ill, but the stewardess invariably replied in the negative. It was quite useless, therefore, to expect any explanation from her. There was nothing whatever to be done but to give up for the present further speculation on this queer matter. Wilmot told me that he intended to disembark at Brindisi, which place we should reach in two days, and then go straight overland to London.
"I feel as right as nails," he said. "I shall get the money and post back to join the wife by the earliest boat I can get."
He looked so radiant that the old proverb about the cup and the lip returned to my mind. A queer depression was over me which I could not account for, but I forbore to say anything to damp Wilmot's spirits.
At last the day dawned when we entered the harbour at Brindisi. Wilmot was early on deck; his face was lit up with a smile.
"I have just finished packing and everything is ready," he said. "How glad I shall be to be off! This suspense is almost past bearing."
The words had scarcely passed his lips before, to my amazement, I saw the chief officer tearing up the companion stairs, followed immediately by Dr. Martin. Martin was in such a frantic hurry that he cannoned against me and then flew past us both without speaking.
"Hullo! What's up, Martin?" I cried. But the men had disappeared into the captain's cabin in a flash.
The next moment the engine-bells rang and the throb of the screw ceased. We were still a good two miles from the shore. To stop abruptly like this was certainly most unusual.
"What can it mean?" said Wilmot.
"We will go forward and find out," was my answer.
We sauntered across the deck. The next instant I saw something that sent a sudden thrill of fear through me. At the mainmast, hauling a line, hand over hand, was the quartermaster, and above us, fluttering up higher and higher, I saw a yellow flag—the flag of quarantine! I gazed at it without speaking till it reached the top of the mast. Wilmot looked at it, too; then he said—
"What does it mean, Conway? What are they hoisting a yellow flag for?"
"It means that we are quarantined," I replied, and I ran to the captain's cabin. The chief officer and Dr. Martin were there.
"Come in, Conway," cried the skipper the moment he saw me. "I have just sent for you. Here's a pretty mess! There is a case of bubonic plague on board; no passengers can land here."
"Is it one of the passengers?" I asked.
"No; one of the men," said Martin—"young Philbeach. I cannot make it out at all, unless he got it at Aden; but if he had, he would have shown symptoms before now."
My heart sank at his words, and the outline of a consummately planned plot began to take shape. Dollory had been curiously friendly with Philbeach; they had been together at Port Said.
"If he contracted it at Port Said——?" I queried.
"Ah!" replied Martin. "In that case he would be ill about now."
Without uttering another word I hurried back to Wilmot, who had remained where I had left him. I don't think he had yet taken in the situation, but the news had spread like wildfire through the ship, and there was something very like a panic beginning already among the passengers.
"There is a case of plague on board," I said to him. "I am sorry to tell you you cannot go ashore here; you will have to come round to Plymouth with us."
He started back.
"Plague?" he echoed. "What an awful thing! But why may I not land? Surely the sooner I get away the better?"
"It is against the laws of quarantine," I answered. "You must stay where you are. I am very sorry, Wilmot, but there is no possible help for it."
I saw that he was trying to keep up his courage, and that even yet the worst had not dawned upon him.
"We are due at Plymouth on the 28th," he said, looking full at me with starting eyes. "I shall still be in time."
"The law is that we must be five days in quarantine," I replied.
He remained silent for a moment.
"Even so," he said then. "That will bring us to the second of November—a narrow shave. But even then I shall not be too late, unless, indeed, Dollory comes on and gets home first. Could he do that by coming on in another boat, I wonder? This is most infernal luck!"
I did not dare to communicate my suspicions to him yet, and went quickly back to the captain.
"Do you know, sir," I said, "if any boat left Port Said soon after us?"
"Yes," he replied—"the Evening Star, one of our boats on the Indian Line; she is just behind us." He shaded his eyes and looked out to sea. "That is she coming up now," he continued. "But why do you ask?"
"I will tell you, sir, in a moment," I answered.
I ran down the companion and went at once to Mrs. Dollory. I knocked at the door of her cabin. A voice inside called out—
"Who is there?"
"It is I—Conway," I replied. "I must speak to you at once."
"Come in," she answered; "I will see you."
I entered. Mrs. Dollory was standing in the middle of the cabin. She was staring straight at the door, and her eyes had a glassy appearance. Her face was so ashy white that it almost resembled that of a dead woman—the most horrible fear had spread over each feature.
"What is the matter?" I could not help exclaiming. "You look most fearfully ill. What is wrong, Mrs. Dollory? For Heaven's sake unburden yourself!"
The expression on the poor woman's face had made me for the moment almost forget the yellow flag and the downfall of all Wilmot's hopes.
"What is the matter?" I said again.
She shook her head, and her lips formed a voiceless word which I could not catch.
"Have you heard the bad news?" I said then.
She gave a violent start, clenched her hands, and at last found words.
"News?" she cried with a stifled scream; "this is no news to me. Yes, Mr. Conway, I will speak. I have borne much from my husband, but this is beyond endurance. Will that poor fellow die? Does Mr. Martin think he will die?"
"I do not know; I have not asked him," I replied. "I am thinking of Wilmot. This quarantine business will make him late; he will lose the property. What does it all mean?"
"It was planned," she replied; "the quarantine was planned in order to detain him."
"What do you mean?" I said. My heart gave a sudden clutch at the thought of the villainy which was about to be exposed.
She clasped her hands excitedly together. "Oh, if only Mr. Wilmot had taken my advice, and gone ashore at Port Said, all would have been well," she continued; "and I risked so much to tell him. He did not believe me, and he would not go, and I could not explain matters. Oh! I am a most wretched woman!"
"Do you say this thing has been planned?" I asked.
"Deliberately, devilishly planned by my husband," was her solemn answer. "Though I am his wife, I will bear testimony against him. I have suffered and borne much, but this I cannot and will not endure."
She shivered all over.
"Mrs. Dollory," I said, "if you are to do any good at all in this business, please understand there is not a moment to lose."
"What do you mean? Is the poor fellow really dying?"
"I know nothing about that, but I do know this—we shall be in quarantine for live days, and your husband, beyond doubt, is coming on in the Evening Star, which will pass us in a few moments."
She shivered again.
"He would kill me if he knew what I am going to do; but life has become intolerable. And as to money—oh! how men sin for money, and how little it is worth after all!"
"Go on," I said.
She pressed both her hands to her eyes, and then continued, with less excitement in her manner—
"You know what a curious friendship sprang up between my husband and that poor young quartermaster Philbeach. I heard Dr. Dollory propose to him to come on shore at Port Said, but for what purpose I know not. I only know that he told me that if he could succeed in a certain line of action which he had marked out for himself, he would not return to the ship. I replied, when he said those extraordinary words, 'Then you will be late?'
"'No, I shall be in time,' he answered; 'I have planned it all. Wilmot is no match for me when it comes to a question of brains. I shall be home first,' and he rubbed his hands excitedly.
"'If I succeed I shall not return to the ship,' he said. 'If I do not return, you will know that my plan has been crowned with success.'
"Oh, Mr. Conway, you can little guess my anguish when he did not come back; but what has happened I cannot tell you, although I can partly guess. When a man is a medical man, and also a devil, what awful ends can he not achieve? But will you not ask the poor fellow himself? Perhaps he will tell you the truth."
"I will see him at once," I said. "If he knows that you have told us so much, he may be induced to tell the rest. Perhaps you will come, too, Mrs. Dollory?"
"I do not fear infection," she said; "all I desire and want is to have that wicked man, my husband, punished for his awful crimes."
She followed me out of her cabin. We found Martin with Captain Meadows; they both decided to come with us to visit the sick man.
I need not describe here the horrible symptoms of his disease. He was in great suffering and in mortal danger, but he was not unconscious. He looked at us all with lack-lustre eyes when we entered his cabin, but when he saw Mrs. Dollory they began to dilate with that curious expression of fear which all those who came in contact with Dollory himself seemed to acquire.
"What is wrong?" he said in a low whisper.
The little woman bent over him.
"I mean to nurse you, Philbeach, and bring you back to health," she said, "but I want you now to tell us the truth. I am Dr. Dollory's wife, and I command you in his name, if necessary, to tell the truth."
"Of course I will tell you," said the poor fellow. "I went ashore with Dr. Dollory. It was for a purpose. He said he was a great man at tattooing, and had discovered a new and wonderful ink. I had always wanted to have an anchor tattooed on my arm, the same as Joe the boatswain, and he offered to do it for me if I went ashore with him. We went to a little hotel and he did it in a private room. See, that is where he did it. He gave me five pounds afterwards. I don't know why, but he told me that he was about to come in for a large property, and thought it might be of use to me. See my arm, where he did it; it hurts so dreadfully. Why should it hurt like that, doctor?"
"Great God!" cried Martin, "is it here?"
"Yes, where it has swollen."
The doctor's face turned ashy white.
"Dollory gave him the plague," he whispered to me. "That very place is the pustule, the typical pustule, there can be no doubt about it."
"You are prepared to swear this, Philbeach?" I said. "Martin, for Heaven's sake take down his affidavit."
Martin did so. The captain and I hastened on deck. The Evening Star was now rapidly nearing us. Even at the distance which separated the two big liners I could see the figure of Albert Dollory standing alone on the deck right up in the bows; he was eagerly gazing in our direction. Just then I heard Wilmot's step behind me.
"Good God! Conway, I am done for," he said; "I am ruined, utterly ruined. Did you see Dollory on board the Evening Star? He will land at Brindisi and be in London in forty-eight hours."
"No, he won't; leave things to me," I answered. "I will explain later on."
The captain and I now hurried towards the gangway; the company's launch was alongside, and the agent was standing at the bottom of the steps. Captain Meadows wrote a few hasty words on a piece of paper and thrust it into the agent's hands.
"Go full steam to the Evening Star he said, "and give that to Captain Baker. It is a matter of life and death. I will signal to stop her before she gets to the quay."
In an instant the launch swung off, and, getting up full steam, tore after the Evening Star. At our signal she suddenly stopped, and the launch went alongside.
"What did you write"?" I asked of the captain.
"This," he replied. "I have asked the captain to send Dollory back here at once. He is our passenger and must answer this charge to me."
In less than a quarter of an hour the launch was back again, bringing Dr. Albert Dollory. He was in irons. From this we knew that, mad with fear and a guilty conscience, he had offered resistance on board the Evening Star.
I shall never to my dying day forget the scene that followed. When he discovered that his own wife had laid information against him, his rage and passion knew no bounds. Perceiving that all was up, however, he confessed what he had done, but without a spark of regret.
"Had I succeeded," he said, "I should have considered myself the luckiest dog on the wide earth; as it is——" he turned his head aside.
The rest of this story can be told very briefly. Owing to the care and watchfulness which Mrs. Dollory herself expended on him, and to Martin's unceasing ministrations, Philbeach recovered; but, as if there were indeed in this life some even-handed justice that makes the criminal fall into the pit he has dug for another, the only other person on board the North Star who caught the plague was Albert Dollory himself. Of course everything that could be done was tried to save him, but he died before we reached Gibraltar. I don't believe anyone on board mourned his loss.
We were quarantined at Plymouth, but Wilmot was, after all, just in time to receive his fortune. Although he denied it, I am almost certain that a share of that fortune went to Mrs. Dollory, whom her brutal husband had left penniless.