A Bid for Fortune/Chapter 13
FOLLOWING UP A CLUE.
For some moments after I had perused the curious epistle Mr. Wetherell had brought into my room I remained wrapped in thought.
"What do you make of it?" my companion asked.
"I don't know what to say," I answered, looking at it again. "One thing, however, is quite certain, and that is, despite its curious wording, it is intended that you should take it seriously."
"You think that?"
"I do indeed. But I think when the inspector arrives it would'be just as well to show it to him. What do you say?"
"I agree with you. Let us defer consideration of it until we see him."
When, an hour later, the inspector put in an appearance, the letter was accordingly placed before him, and his opinion asked concerning it. He read it through without comment, carefully examined the writing and signature, and finally held it up to the light. When he had done this he turned to me and said:
"Have you that envelope we found at the Canary Bird, Mr. Hatteras?"
I took it out of my pocket and handed it to him. He then placed it on the table side by side with the letter and through a magnifying glass scrutinised both carefully. Having done so, he asked for the envelope in which it had arrived. Mr. Wetherell had thrown it into the waste-paper basket, but a moment's search brought it to light. Again he scrutinised both the first envelope and the letter, and then compared them with the second cover.
"Yes; I thought so," he said. "This letter was written either by Nikola or at his desire. The paper is the same as he purchased at the stationer's shop we visited."
"And what had we better do now?" queried Wetherell, who had been eagerly waiting for him to give his opinion.
"We must think," said the inspector. "In the first place, I suppose you don't feel inclined to pay the large sum mentioned here?"
"Not if I can help it, of course," answered Wetherell. "But if the worst comes to the worst, and I cannot rescue my poor girl in any other way, I would sacrifice even more than that."
"Well, we'll see if we can find her without paying anything," the inspector cried. "I've got an idea in my head."
"And what is that?" I cried, for I, too, had been thinking out a plan.
"Well, first and foremost," he answered, "I want you, Mr. Wetherell, to tell me all you can about your servants. Let us begin with the butler. How long has he been with you?"
"Nearly twenty years."
"A good servant, I presume, and a trustworthy man?"
"To the last degree. I have implicit confidence in him."
"Then we may dismiss him from our minds. I think I saw a footman in the hall. How long has he been with you?"
"Just about three months."
"And what sort of fellow is he?"
"I really could not tell you very much about him. He seems intelligent, quick, and willing, and up to his work."
"Is your cook a man or a woman?"
"A woman. She has been with me since before my wife's death that is to say, nearly ten years. You need have no suspicion of her."
"Two. Both have been with me some time, and seem steady, respectable girls. There is also a kitchen-maid; but she has been with me nearly as long as my cook, and I would stake my reputation on her integrity."
"Well, in that case the only person who seems at all suspicious is the footman. May we have him up?"
"With pleasure. I'll ring for him."
Mr. Wetherell rang the bell, and a moment later it was answered by the man himself.
"Come in, James, and shut the door behind you," said his master.
The man did as he was ordered, but not without looking, as I thought, a little uncomfortable. The inspector, I could see, had noticed this, for he had been watching him intently ever since he had appeared in the room.
"James," said Mr. Wetherell, the inspector of Police wishes to ask you a few questions. Answer him to the best of your ability."
"To begin with," said the Inspector, "I want you to look at this envelope. Have you seen it before?"
He handed him the envelope of the anonymous letter addressed to Mr. Wetherell. The man took it and turned it over in his hands.
"Yes, sir," he said, "I have seen it before; I took it in at the front door."
"From a little old woman, sir," the man answered.
"A little old woman!" cried the inspector, evidently surprised. "What sort of woman?"
"Well, sir, I don't know that I can give you much of a description of her. She was very small, had a sort of nut-cracker face, a little black poke bonnet, and walked with a stick."
"Should you know her again if you saw her?"
"Oh, yes, sir."
"Did she say anything when she gave you the letter?"
"Only, 'For Mr. Wetherell, young man.' That was all, sir."
"And you didn't ask if there was an answer? That was rather a singular omission on your part, was it not?"
"She didn't give me time, sir. She just put it into my hand and went down the steps again."
"That will do. Now, Mr. Wetherell, I think we'd better see about getting that money from the bank. You need not wait, my man."
The footman thereupon left the room, while both Mr. Wetherell and I stared at the inspector in complete surprise. He laughed.
"You are wondering why I said that," he said at length.
"It did strike me as curious," answered Wetherell.
"Well, let me tell you I did it with a purpose. Did you notice that young man's face when he entered the room and when I gave him the letter? There can be no doubt about it he is in the secret."
"You mean that he is in Nikola's employ? Then why don't you arrest him?"
"Because I want to be quite certain first. I said that about the money because, if he is Nikola's agent, he will carry the information to him, and by doing so keep your daughter in Sydney for at least a day longer. Do you see?"
"I do! and I admire your diplomacy. Now what is your plan?"
"May I first tell mine?" I said.
"Do!" said the inspector. "For mine is not quite matured yet."
"Well," I said; "my idea is this. I propose that Mr. Wetherell shall obtain from his bank a number of gold bags, fill them with lead discs to represent coin, and let it leak out before this man that he has got the money in the house. Then to-night Mr. Wetherell will set off for the water-side. I will row him down the harbour disguised as a waterman. We pick up the other boat as arranged in that letter. In the meantime you start from the other side in a police boat, pull up to meet us and arrest the man. Then we force him to disclose Miss Wetherell’s whereabouts, and act upon his information. What do you say?"
"It sounds feasible," said the inspector, and Mr. Wetherell nodded his head approvingly. At that moment the Marquis entered the room, looking in much better spirits than on the preceding night, and the conversation branched off into a different channel.
My plot seemed to commend itself so much to Mr. Wetherell's judgment that he ordered his carriage and drove off there and then to his bank, while I went down to the harbour, arranged about a boat, and having done so went up to the town, where I purchased a false beard, an old dugnaree suit, such as a man loafing about the harbour might wear, and an old slouch hat of villainous appearance. By the time I got back to the house Mr. Wetherell had returned. With great delight he conducted me to his study, and, opening his safe, showed me a number of canvas bags, on each of which was printed 1000.
"But surely there are not 100,000 there?"
"No," said the old gentleman with a chuckle.
"There is only the counterfeit of 50,000 there; for the rest I propose to show them these."
So saying he dived his hand into a drawer and produced a sheaf of crisp bank-notes.
"There these are the notes for the balance of the amount."
"But you surely are not going to pay? I thought we were going to try to catch them without letting any money pass."
"So we are; do not be afraid. If you glance at these notes you will see that they are only dummies, every one of them. They are for me to exhibit to the man in the boat; in the dark they'll pass muster, never fear."
"Very good indeed," I said with a laugh. "By the time they are examined properly we shall have the police at hand ready to capture him."
"I believe we shall," the old gentleman cried, rubbing his hands with delight "I believe we shall. And a nice example we'll make of the rascals. Nikola thinks he can beat me; I'll show him how mistaken he is!"
And for some time the old gentleman continued in this strain, confidently believing that he would have his daughter with him again before morning came. Nor was I far behind him in confidence. Since Nikola had not spirited her out of the country my plot seemed the one of all others that would enable us to get possession of her again; and not only that, but would give us the opportunity of punishing those who had so schemed against her. Suddenly an idea was born in my brain, and I acted on it instantly.
"Mr. Wetherell," I said, "supposing, when your daughter is safe with you again, I presume so far as again to offer myself for your son-in-law—what will you say?"
"What will I say?" he cried. "Why I will say that you shall have her, my boy. I know you now, and since I've treated you so badly, and you've taken such a noble revenge—why I'll make it up to you for it all, or my name's not Wetherell. But we won't talk any more of that till we have possession of her; we have other and more important things to think of. What time ought we to start to-night?"
"The letter fixes the meeting for ten o'clock; we had better be in the boat by half-past nine. In the meantime I should advise you to take a little rest. By the way, do you think your footman realises that you have the money?"
"He ought to, for he carried it up to this room for me; and, what's more, he has applied for a holiday this afternoon."
"That's to carry the information. Very good; everything is working excellently. Now I'm off to rest for awhile."
"I'll follow your example; in the meantime I'll give orders for an early dinner."
"We dined at seven o'clock sharp, and a little after eight I went off to my room to don my disguise; then, bidding the Marquis good-bye much to his disgust, for he was most anxious to accompany us I slipped quietly out of my window, crossed the garden I hoped unobserved and then went down to the harbour side, where the boat I had chartered was waiting for me. A quarter of an hour later Wetherell's carriage drove up, and seeing it I went across and opened the door. My disguise was so perfect that for a moment the old gentleman seemed undecided whether to trust me or not. But my voice, when I spoke, soon reassured him, and then we set to work carrying the bags of spurious money down to the boat. As soon as this was done we stepped in—I seated myself amidships and got out the oars, Mr. Wetherell taking the yolk-lines in the stern. Then, shoving off, we made our way out in the dark harbour. It was a dull cloudy night, with not a sign of a star, and a cold, chill wind swept across the water. So cold was it that before we had gone far I began to wish I had added an overcoat to my other disguises. We hardly spoke, but pulled slowly down towards the island mentioned in the letter. The excitement was intense, and I grew quite nervous as I wondered whether the police boat was pulling up to meet us as we had that morning arranged.
A quarter to ten chimed from some church ashore as we approached within a hundred yards of our destination. Then I rested on my oars and waited. All round us were the lights of bigger boats, but no rowing-boat could I see. About five minutes before the hour I whispered to Wetherell to make ready, and in answer the old gentleman took a matchbox from his pocket. Exactly as the town clocks struck the hour he lit a match; it flared a little and then blew out. As he did so a boat shot out of the darkness to port. He struck a second, and then a third. As the last one burned up and then died out, the man rowing the boat I have just referred to struck a light, then another, then another, in rapid succession. Having done so, he took up his oars and propelled his boat towards us. When he was within talking distance he said in a gruff voice: "Is Mr. Wetherell aboard?"
To which my companion answered immediately, not however without a tremble in his voice, "Yes, here I am!"
"Money all right?"
"Can you see if I hold it up?" asked Mr. Wetherell. As he did so a long black boat came into sight on the other side of our questioner and pulled slowly towards him. I had no doubt at all that it was the police boat.
"No, I don't want to see," said the voice again. "But this is the message I was to give you. Pull in towards Circular Quay and find the Maid of the Mist barque. Go aboard her and take your money down into the cuddy. There you'll get your answer."
"Nothing more to say?" Mr. Wetherell cried.
"That's all I was told," answered the man, and then cried, "Goodnight."
At the same moment the police boat pulled up along side him and made fast. I saw a dark figure enter his boat, and next moment the glare of a lantern fell upon the man's face. I picked up my oars and pulled over to them, getting there just in time to hear the inspector ask the man his name.
"James Burbidge," was the man's reply. "I don't know as how you've got anything against me. I'm a licensed waterman, I am."
"Very likely," said the inspector; "but I want a little explanation from you. How do you come to know anything about this business?"
"What—about this 'ere message, d'you mean?"
"Yes, about this message. Where is it from? Who gave it to you?"
"Well, I'll tell you all about it," growled the man. "I was up at the Hen and Chickens just afore dark takin' a nobbier along with a friend. Presently in comes a cove in a cloak. He beckons me outside and says, 'Do you want to earn a sufring?' A sufring is twenty bob; so I says, 'My word I do!' Then he says, 'Will you go out in the harbour to-night, and be down agin Shark Point at ten?' I said I would and so I was. 'You'll see a boat there with an old gent in it. He'll strike three matches and you do the same. Then ask him if he's Mr. Wetherell. If he says "Yes," ask him if the money's all right? And, if he says "Yes" to that, tell him to pull in towards Circular Quay and find the Maid of the Mist barque. He's to take his money down to the cuddy, and he'll get his answer there.' There, that's the truth so 'elp me bob. I don't know what you wants to go arrestin' of an honest man for."
The inspector turned to the water police.
"Does any man here know James Burbidge?"
Two or three voices answered in the affirmative, and this seemed to decide the officer, for he turned to the waterman again and said, "As some of my men seem to know you I'll let you go. But for your own sake keep a silent tongue in your head."
He thereupon got back into his own boat and bade the man be off. In less time than it takes to tell he was out of sight. We then drew up alongside the police boat.
"What had we better do, Mr. Inspector?" asked Mr. Wetherell.
"Find the Maid of the Mist at once. She's an untenanted ship, being for sale. You will go aboard, sir, with your companion to the cuddy. Don't take your money, however. We'll draw up alongside as soon as you're below, and when one of their gang, whom you'll despatch for it, comes up to get the coin, we'll collar him and then come down to your assistance. Do you understand?"
"Perfectly. But how are we to know the vessel?"
"Well, the better plan would be for you to follow us. We'll pull within a hundred yards of her. I learn from one of my men that she's painted white, so you'll have no difficulty at all in recognising her."
"Very well, then; we'll follow you."
The police boat accordingly set off and we followed about fifty yards behind her. A thick drizzle was beginning to fall, and it was by no means an easy task to keep her in sight. For some time we pulled on. Then we began to get closer to her. Presently we were alongside.
"There's your craft," said the inspector, pointing as he spoke to a big vessel showing dimly away to starboard of us. "Pull over to her."
I followed his instructions, and arriving at the vessel's side, hitched on, made the painter fast to her after-rigging, and then, having clambered aboard, assisted Mr. Wetherell to do the same. As soon as we had both gained the deck we stood and looked about us, at the same time listening for any sound which might proclaim the presence of the men we had come to meet. But save the sighing of the wind in the shrouds overhead, the dismal creaking of blocks, and the drip of moisture on the deck, nothing was to be heard. There was nothing for it, therefore, but to make our way below as best we could. Fortunately I had had the forethought to bring with me a small piece of candle, which came in very handily at the present juncture, seeing that the cuddy, when we reached the companion ladder, appeared to be wrapt in total darkness. Very carefully I stepped inside, lit the candle, and then with Mr. Wetherell at my heels betook myself down the steps.
Arriving at the bottom we found ourselves in a fair-sized saloon of the old-fashioned type. Three cabins stood on either side, while from the companion ladder, by which we had descended, to a long cushioned locker right aft, under the wheel, ran a table covered with American cloth. But not a sign of a man of any kind was to be seen. I opened cabin after cabin, and searched each with a like result. We were evidently quite alone in the ship.
"What do you make of it all?" I asked of Mr. Wetherell.
"It looks extremely suspicious," he answered. "But perhaps we're here too early for them. But see, Mr. Hatteras; there's something on the table at the farther end."
So there was—something that looked very much like a letter. Together we went round to the end of the table, and there, surely enough, was a letter pinned to the American cloth, and addressed to Mr. Wetherell in a bold and rather quaint handwriting.
"It's for you, Mr. Wetherell," I said, removing the pins and presenting it to him. Thereupon we sat down beside the table, and my companion broke the seal with trembling fingers. It was not a very long letter, and ran as follows:
"My Dear Mr. Wetherell: Bags of imitation money and spurious bank notes will not help you, nor is it politic to arrange that the water police should meet you at the harbour for the purpose of arresting me. You have lost your opportunity, and your daughter accordingly leaves Australia to-night. I will, however, give you one more chance—take care that you avail yourself of it. The sum I now ask is 150,000, with the stick given you by China Pete, and must be paid without enquiry of any sort. If you are agreeable to do this, advertise as follows, 'I-Will-Pay-W.,' in the agony column Sydney Morning Herald on the 18th, 19th, and 20th of this present month. Further arrangements will then be made with you.The Man who Knows."
"Oh, my God, I've ruined it all! "cried Mr. Wetherell, as he put the letter down on the table. "And perhaps killed my poor child."
Seeing his misery, I did my best to comfort him, but it was no use. He seemed utterly broken down by the failure of our scheme, and I must own that my own heart was quite as heavy. One thing was very evident, there was a traitor in our camp. Someone had overheard our plans and carried them elsewhere. Could it be the footman? If so, he should have it made hot for him, I could promise him that most certainly. While I was thinking over this, I had heard a footstep on the stairs, and a moment later the inspector made his appearance. His astonishment at seeing us alone, reading a letter by the light of one solitary candle, evidently surprised him, for he said, as he came towards us and sat down, "Why, what does this mean? Where are the men?"
"There are none. We've been nicely sold," I answered, handing him the letter to read. He perused it without further remark, and when he had done so, sat drumming with his fingers upon the table in thought.
"We'll have to look in your own house for the person who has given us away, Mr. Wetherell! "he said at last. The folk who are running this affair are as cute as men are made nowadays; it's a pleasure to measure swords with them."
"What do you think our next move had better be?" "Get home as fast as we can. I'll return with you and we'll talk it over there. It's no use our remaining here."
We accordingly went on deck, and descended to our boat again. This time the inspector accompanied us, while the police boat set off down the harbour on other business. When we had seen them push off and pull out into the darkness, we threw the imitation money overboard, set off for the shore, landed where we had first embarked, and then walked up to Mr. Wetherell's house. It was considerably after twelve o'clock by the time we reached it, but the butler was still sitting up for us. His disappointment seemed very keen when he saw that we had returned without his young mistress. He followed us up to the study with spirits and glasses, and then at his master's instruction went off to bed.
"Now, gentlemen," began Mr. Wetherell, when the door had closed upon the servant, "let us discuss this matter thoroughly. But before we begin let me offer you cigars."
The inspector took one, but I declined, stating that I preferred a pipe. But my pipe was in my bedroom, which was on the other side of the passage, so I asked them to wait for me while I went to fetch it. They promised to do so, and I left the room, shutting the door after me. But it so happened that I could not find it for a minute or two. When I did I blew out my candle, and was about to leave the room, which was exactly opposite the study, when I heard the green baize door at the end of the passage open, and a light footstep come along the corridor. Instantly I stood perfectly still, and waited to see who it might be. Closer and closer it came, till I saw in the half dark the pretty figure of one of the parlour maids. On tip toe she crept up to the door, and then stooping down listened at the keyhole. Instantly I was on the alert, every nerve strained to watch her. For nearly five minutes she listened, and then with a glance round tiptoed quietly along the passage again, closing the baize door after her.
When she was safely out of hearing I crossed to the study. Both the inspector and Mr. Wetherell saw something had happened, and were going to question me. "Don't say anything, but tell me as quickly and as nearly as you can what you have been talking about during the last five minutes," I said.
"Don't stop to ask me questions. Believe in the importance of my haste. What was it?"
"I have only been giving Mr. Wetherell my idea of the steps I propose to take," said the inspector.
"Thank you. Now I'm off. Don't sit up for me, Mr. Wetherell; I'm going to follow up a clue that may put us on the scent at last. I don't think you had better come, Mr. Inspector, but I'll meet you here again at six o'clock."
"You can't explain, I suppose," said the latter.
"I'm afraid not," I answered; "but I'll tell you this much I saw one of the female servants listening at this door just now. She'll be off, if I mistake not, with the news, and I want to watch her. Good-night."
"Good-night, and good luck to you."
Without another word I slipped off my boots, left the room, and went downstairs to the morning-room. This room looked out over the garden and possessed a window shaded by a big tree. Opening the window, I jumped out and carefully closed it after me. Then, pausing for a moment to resume my boots, I crept quietly down the path, jumped a low wall, and so passed into the back street. About fifty yards from the trades men's entrance, but on the opposite side of the road, a big Moreton Bay fig tree grew on the sidewalk. Under this I took my stand, at the same time keeping a watchful eye on the house. Fortunately it was a dark night, so that it would have been extremely difficult to detect my presence. For some minutes I waited, and was beginning to wonder if I could have been deceived, when I heard the soft click of a gate, and next moment a small dark figure passed out into the street and closed the gate after it. Then pausing a moment as if to make up her mind, for the mysterious person was a woman, she set off quickly in the direction of the city. I followed about a hundred yards behind her. With the exception of one policeman, who stared very hard at me, we did not meet a soul. Once or twice I nearly lost her, and when we reached the city itself I began to see that it would be well for me to decrease the difference that separated us. I accordingly did so, and in this fashion we passed up one street and down another until we reached what I cannot help thinking must have been the lowest quarter of Sydney. On all hands were Chinese names and signboards, marine stores, slop shops, and pawnbrokers, and in this locality few of the inhabitants seemed to know anything of bed. Groups of sullen-looking men and women were to be observed at the corners, and on one occasion the woman I was pursuing was stopped by them. But she evidently knew how to take care of herself, for she was soon marching on her way again.
At the end of one long and filthily dirty street she paused and looked about her. I had crossed the road just before this, and was scarcely ten yards behind her. I had pulled my hat well down to shade my face, and sticking my hands in my pockets, I staggered and reeled along, doing my level best to imitate the action of a very intoxicated man. Seeing only me about, she went to the window of the corner house and tapped with her knuckles thrice upon the glass. Before one could have counted twenty the door of the dwelling was opened, and she passed in. Now I was in a nasty fix either I must be content to abandon my search, or I must get inside the building, and trust to luck to get the information I wanted. Fortunately, in my present disguise the girl would be hardly likely to recognise her master's guest. So giving them time to get into a room, I also went up to the door, and turned the handle. To my delight it was unlocked. I opened it, and entered the house.
The passage was in total darkness; but I could make out where the door was by a thin streak of bright light low down. As softly as I possibly could, I crept up to it, and bent down to look through the keyhole. The view was necessarily limited, but I could just make out the girl I had followed sitting upon a bed; and leaning against the wall, a dirty clay pipe in her mouth, was the vilest old woman I ever in my life set eyes on. She was very small, with a pinched-up nut-cracker face, dressed in an old bit of tawdry finery that was, at the lowest calculation, three sizes too large for her. Her hair fell upon her shoulders in a tangled mass, and from under it her eyes gleamed out like those of a wicked little Scotch terrier getting ready to bite. As I bent down to listen I heard her say,
"Well, my dear, and what information have you got for the gentleman, that brings you down at this time of night?"
"Only that the coppers are going to start at daylight looking for the Merry Duchess. I heard the inspector say so himself."
"At daylight, are they?" croaked the elder woman. "Well I wish 'em joy of their search, I do—them—them! Any more news, my dear?"
"The master and that long-legged slab of a Hatteras went out to-night down the harbour. The old man brought home a lot of money bags, but what was in 'em was only dummies."
"I know that, too, my dear. Nicely they was sold. Ha! ha!"
She chuckled like an old fiend, and then began to cut up another pipe of tobacco in the palm of her hand like a man. She smoked negro head, and the reek of it came out through the keyhole to me. But the younger girl was evidently impatient, for she rose and said:
"When do they sail with the girl, Sally?"
"They're gone, my dear. They went at ten tonight."
At this piece of news my heart began to throb painfully, so much so that I could hardly listen for its beating.
"They weren't long about it," said the younger girl, critically.
"That Nikola's not long about anything," remarked the old woman.
"I hope Pipa Lannu will agree with her health—the stuck-up minx—I do!" the younger remarked spitefully. "Now where's the money he said I was to have. Let me have it and be off. I shall get the sack if this is found out."
"It was five pound I was to give yer, wasn't it?" the elder one said, pushing her hand deep down into her pocket.
"Ten," said the younger, sharply. "No larks, Sally. I know too much for you!"
"Oh, you know a lot, honey, don't you? Of course you'd be expected to know a sight more than old Aunt Sally whose never seen anything at all, wouldn't you? Go along with you!"
"Hand me over the money I say, and let me be gone."
"Of course you do know a lot more, don't you? There's a pound!"
While they were wrangling over the money I crept down the passage again to the front door. Once there I opened it softly and went out, closing it carefully behind me. Then I took to my heels and ran down the street the way I had come as fast as I could go. Enquiring my way here and there from policemen, I eventually reached home, scaled the wall, and went across the garden to the morning-room window. This I opened, and by means of it made my way into the house and up stairs. As I had expected he would have gone to bed, I was considerably surprised at meeting Mr. Wetherell on the landing.
"Well, what have you discovered?" he asked anxiously as I came up to him.
"Information of the greatest importance," I answered; "but one other thing first. Call up your housekeeper, tell her you have reason to believe that one of the housemaids is not in the house. Tell her not to mention you in the matter, but to discharge her before breakfast. By the time you've done that I'll have changed my things and be ready to tell you everything."
"I'll go and rouse her at once; I'm all impatience to know what you have discovered."
He left me and passed through the green baize door to the servants' portion of the house; I myself went to my bedroom and changed my things. This done I passed into the study, where I found a meal laid for me. To this I did ample justice, for my long walk and the excitement of the evening had given me an unusual appetite.
Just as I was helping myself to a second glass of grog Mr. Wetherell returned, and informed me that the housekeeper was on the alert, and would receive the girl on her reappearance.
"Now tell me of your doings," said the old gentleman.
I thereupon narrated all that had occurred since I left the study in search of my pipe—how I had seen the girl listening at the door, how I had followed her into the town; gave him a description of old Sally, their interview, and my subsequent return home. He listened eagerly, and, when I had finished, said:
"Do you believe then that my poor girl has been carried off by Nikola to this island called Pipa Lannu?"
"I do; there seems to be no doubt at all about it."
"Well, then, what are we to do to rescue her? Shall I ask the Government to send a gunboat down?"
"If you like; but, for my own part, I think I should act independently of them. You don't want to make a big scandal, I presume; and remember, to arrest Nikola would be to open the whole affair."
"Then what do you propose?"
"I propose," I answered, "that we should charter a small schooner, fit her out, select three trustworthy and silent men, and then take our departure to Pipa Lannu. I am well acquainted with the island, and, what's more, I hold a master's certificate. We would sail in after dark, arm all our party thoroughly, and go ashore. I expect they will be keeping your daughter a prisoner in a hut. If that is so we will surround it and rescue her without any trouble or fuss, and, what is better still, without any public scandal. What do you say?"
"I quite agree with what you say. I think it's an excellent idea; and, while you've been speaking, I too have been thinking of something. There's my old friend McMurtough, who has a nice schooner yacht. I'm sure he'd be willing to let us have the use of her for a few weeks."
"Where does he live?—far from here?"
"Just across the water; we'll go over and see him directly after breakfast if you like."
"By all means. Now I think I'll go and take a little nap; I feel quite worn out. When the inspector arrives you will be able to explain all that has happened; but I think I should ask him to keep a quiet tongue in his head about the island. If it leaks out at all it may warn them, and they'll be off elsewhere—to a place perhaps where we may not be able to find them."
"I'll remember," said Mr. Wetherell, and thereupon I retired to my room, and, having partially undressed, threw myself upon my bed. In less than two minutes I was fast asleep, not to wake until the first gong sounded for breakfast; then, after a good bath, which refreshed me wonderfully, I dressed in my usual habiliments and went downstairs. Mr. Wetherell and the Marquis were in the dining-room, and when I entered both he and the Marquis, who held a copy of the Sydney Morning Herald in his hand, seemed prodigiously excited.
"I say, Mr. Hatteras," said the latter (after I had said 'Good-morning'), "here's an advertisement intended for you!"
"What about?" I asked. "Who wants to advertise for me?"
"Read for yourself," said the Marquis, giving me the paper.
I took it, and glanced down the column to which he referred me until I came to the following:
"Richard Hatteras.—If this should meet the eye of Mr. Richard Hatteras, of Thursday Island, Torres Straits, lately returned from England and believed to be now in Sydney, he is earnestly requested to call at the office of Messrs. Dawson and Gladman, solicitors, Castlereagh Street, where he will hear of something to his advantage."
There could be no doubt at all that I was the person referred to; but what could it all mean? What was there that I could possibly hear to my advantage, save news of Phyllis, and it would be most unlikely that I would learn anything about the movements of the rascally gang who had abducted her, from a firm of first-class solicitors such as, I understood from Mr. Wetherell, Messrs. Dawson and Gladman might be considered. However, it was no use wondering about it, so I dismissed the matter from my mind for the present and took my place at the table. In the middle of the meal the butler left the room for a moment in response to a ring at the front door. When he returned, it was to inform me that a man was in the hall, and wished to have a few moments' conversation with me. Asking Mr. Wetherell to excuse me, I left the room.
In the hall I found a seedy-looking individual of middle age. He bowed, and on learning that I was Mr. Hatteras, asked if he might have five minutes' private conversation with me. In response, I led him to the morning-room and, having closed the door carefully, pointed to a seat.
"What is your business with me?" I enquired, when he had sat down.
"It is rather a curious business to approach, Mr. Hatteras," the man began. "But to commence, may I be permitted to suggest that you are uneasy in your mind about a person who has disappeared?"
"You may certainly suggest that, if you like," I answered.
"If it were in a person's power to furnish a clue regarding that person's whereabouts, it might be useful to you I expect," he continued, craftily watching me out of the corners of his eyes.
"Very useful to us," I replied. "Are you in a position to do so?"
"I might possibly be able to afford you some slight assistance," he went on. "That is, of course, provided it were made worth my while."
"What do you call 'worth your while'?"
"Well, shall we say five hundred pounds. That's not a large sum for really trustworthy information. I ought to ask a thousand, considering the danger I'm running in mixing myself up with the affair. Only I'm a father myself, and that's why I do it."
"I see. Well, let me tell you, I consider five hundred too much."
"Well, then I'm afraid we can't trade. I'm sorry."
"So am I. But I'm not going to buy a pig in a poke."
"Shall we say four hundred, then?"
"No. Nor three—two, or one. If your information is worth anything, I don't mind giving you fifty pounds for it. But I won't give a halfpenny more."
As I spoke, I rose as if to terminate the interview. Instantly my visitor assumed a different tone.
"My fault is my generosity," he said. "It's the ruin of me. Well, you shall have it for fifty. Give me the money, and I'll tell you."
"Not at all," I answered. "I must hear the information first. Trust to my honour. If what you tell me is worth anything, I'll give you fifty pounds for it. Now what is it?"
"Well, sir, to begin with, you must understand that I was standing at the corner of Pitt Street an evening or two back, when two men passed me talking earnestly together. One of 'em was a tall strapping fellow, the other a little chap. I never saw two eviller looking rascals in my life. Just as they came alongside me, one says to the other, 'Don't be afraid, I'll have the girl at the station all right at eight o'clock sharp.' The other said something that I could not hear, and then I lost sight of them. But what I had heard stuck in my head, and so I accordingly went off to the station, arriving there a little before the hour. I hadn't been there long before the smallest of the two chaps I'd seen came on to the platform, and began looking about him. By the face of him he didn't seem at all pleased at not finding the other man waiting for him. A train drew up at the platform, and presently, just afore it started, I saw the other cove and a young lady wearing a heavy veil come quickly along. The first man saw them, and gave a little cry of delight. 'I thought you'd be too late,' says he. 'No fear of that,' says the other, and jumps into a first-class carriage, telling the girl to get in after him, which she does, crying the while as I could see. Then the chap on the platform says to the other who was leaning out of the window, 'Write to me from Bourke, and tell me how she gets on.' 'You bet,' says his friend. 'And don't you forget to keep your eye on Hatteras.' 'Don't you be afraid,' answered the man on the platform. Then the guard whistled, and the train went out of the station. Directly I was able to I got away, and first thing this morning came on here. Now you know my information, I'll trouble you for that fifty pound."
"Not so fast, my friend. Your story seems very good, but I want to ask a few questions first. Had the bigger man the man who went up to Bourke, a big cut over his left eye?"
"Now I come to think of it, he had. I'd forgotten to tell you that."
"So it was him, then? But are you certain it was Miss Wetherell? Remember she wore a veil. Could you see whether her hair was black or brown?"
"Very dark it was; but I couldn't see rightly which colour it was."
"You're sure it was a dark colour?"
"Quite sure. I could swear to it in a court of law if you wanted me to."
"That's all right then. Because it shows me your story is a fabrication. Come, get out of this house or I'll throw you out. You scoundrel, for two pins I'd give you such a thrashing as you'd remember all your life."
"None o' that, governor. Don't you try it on. Hand us over that fifty quid."
With that the scoundrel whipped out a revolver and pointed it at me. But before he could threaten again I'd got hold of his wrist with one hand, snatched the pistol with the other, and sent him sprawling on his back upon the carpet.
"Now, you brute," I cried, "what am I going to do with you do you think? Get up and clear out of the house before I take my boot to you."
He got up and began to brush his clothes.
"I want my fifty pound," he cried.
"You'll get more than you want if you come here again," I said. "Out you go."
With that I got him by the collar and dragged him out of the room across the hall, much to the butler's astonishment, through the front door, and then kicked him down the steps. He fell in a heap on the gravel.
"All right, my fine bloke," he said as he lay there; "you wait till I get you outside. I'll fix you up, and don't you make no mistake."
But I went back to the dining-room without paying any attention to his threats. Both Mr. Wetherell and Beckenham had been witnesses of what had happened, and now they questioned me about it. I gave them an outline of the story the man had told me and convinced them of its absurdity. Mr. Wetherell then rose to his feet.
"Now shall we go and see McMurtough?"
"Certainly," I said; "I'll be ready as soon as you are."
"You will come with us, I hope, Lord Beckenham?" said Wetherell.
"With every pleasure," answered his lordship, and thereupon we went off to get ready.
Three-quarters of an hour later we were sitting in Mr. McMurtough's waiting-room, waiting for an interview. At the end of ten minutes a commissionaire came in to inform us that Mr. McMurtongh was disengaged, and forthwith conducted us to his room. We found him a small, gray-haired, pleasant-looking gentleman, full of life and fun. He received Mr. Wetherell as an old friend, and then waited to be introduced to us.
"Let me make you acquainted with my friends, McMurtough," said Wetherell "The Marquis of Beckenham and Mr. Hatteras."
He bowed and then shook hands with us, after which we sat down and Wetherell proceeded to business. The upshot of it all was that he immediately fell in with our plans and expressed himself as delighted to lend his yacht in such a good cause.
"I wish I were able to come with you," he said; "but unfortunately that is quite impossible. However, you are more than welcome to my boat. I will send down to the harbour at once and give orders that she is to be prepared for sea to-day. Will you see about provisioning her, or shall I?"
"We will see to all that," said Wetherell. "All the expenses must of course be mine."
"As you please about that, my old friend," returned McMurtough.
"Where is the craft lying?" asked Wetherell. The owner gave us the direction, and having sincerely thanked him, we set off to find her. She was a nice craft of about a hundred tons burthen, and looked as if she ought to be a good sea boat. Chartering a wherry we were pulled off to her. The captain was below when we arrived, but a hail brought him on deck. Mr. Wetherell then explained our errand, and gave him his owner's letter. He read it through, and then said:
"I am at your service, gentlemen. From what Mr. McMurtough says I gather there is no time to lose, so with your permission I'll get to work at once." "Order all the coal you want, and tell the steward to do the same for anything he may want in his department. The bills must be sent in to me." "Very good, Mr. Wetherell. And what time will you be ready?"
"As soon as you are. Can you get away by three o'clock this afternoon, think you?"
"Well, it will be a bit of a scramble, but I think we can manage it. Anyhow I'll do my best, you may be sure of that, sir."
"I'm sure you will. There is grave need for it. Now we'll go and arrange a few matters ashore. My man shall bring our baggage down later on."
"Very good, sir. I'll have your berths prepared."
With that we descended to the boat again, and we pulled ashore. Arriving there, Mr. Wetherell asked what we should do next.
"Hadn't we better go up to the town and purchase a few rifles and ammunition? We can have them sent down direct to the boat, and so save time."
"A very good suggestion. Let us go at once."
So saying, we set off for George Street—to a shop I had remembered seeing. There we purchased half a dozen Winchester repeaters, with a good supply of ammunition. These we ordered to be sent down to the yacht without fail that morning. That done, we stood on the pavement debating what we should do next. Finally it was decided that Mr. Wetherell and Beckenham should go home to pack, while I made one or two other small purchases, and then joined them. Accordingly bidding them good-bye, I went on down the street, did my business, and was about to hail a cab and follow them, when a thought struck me: Why should I not visit Messrs. Dawson & Gladman, and find out why they were advertising for me? This I determined to do, and accordingly set off for Castlereagh Street. Before very long I had discovered their office, and went inside.
In a small room leading off the main passage, three clerks were seated. To them I addressed myself, asking if I might see the partners.
"Mr. Dawson is the only one in, sir," said the boy to whom I spoke." If you'll give me your name I'll take it in to him."
"My name is Hatteras," I said, "Mr. Richard Hatteras."
"Indeed, sir," answered the boy. "If you'll wait Mr. Dawson will see you in a minute I'm sure."
On hearing my name the other clerks had begun whispering together, at the same time throwing furtive glances in my direction.
In considerably less than two minutes the clerk returned, and begged me to follow him, which I did. At the end of a long passage we passed through a curtained doorway, and I stood in the presence of the chief partner, Mr. Dawson. He was a short, podgy man, with white whiskers and a bald head, and painfully precise.
"I have great pleasure in making your acquaintance, Mr. Hatteras," he said. "You have noticed our advertisement, I presume?"
"I saw it this morning," I answered. "And it is on that account that I am here."
"One moment before we go any further. Forgive what I am going to say—but you will see yourself that it is a point I am compelled not to neglect. Can you convince me as to your identity?"
"Very easily," I replied, diving my hand into my breast-pocket and taking out some papers. "First and foremost, here is my cheque-book. Here is my card-case. And here are two or three letters addressed to me by London and Sydney firms. The Hon. Mr. Wetherell, Colonial Secretary, will be glad I'm sure to give you any information. Is that sufficient evidence to convince you?"
"More than sufficient," he answered, smiling. "Now, let me tell you for what purpose we desired you to call upon us." He opened a drawer and took out a letter.
"First and foremost, let me tell you that we are the Sydney agents of Messrs. Atwin, Dobbs and Forsyth of Furnival's Inn, London. From them, by the last English mail, we received this letter. From it I gather that you are the son of James Dymoke Hatteras who was drowned at sea—is that so?"
"Your father then was the third son of Sir Edward Hatteras of Murdlestone, in the county of Hampshire?"
"And the brother of Sir William, who had one daughter, Gwendoline Mary?"
"That is so!"
"Well, Mr. Hatteras, it is my sad duty to inform you that your cousin, the lady just referred to, was drowned by accident in a pond near her home, and that her father died of heart disease on hearing the sad tidings. In that case, my correspondents inform me that you succeed to the title and estates—which I am also told are of considerable value, including the house and park, ten farms, and a large amount of town property, a rent roll of fifteen thousand a year, and accumulated capital of nearly a hundred thousand pounds."
"Good gracious! Is this really true?"
"Quite true. You can examine the letter for your self."
I took it up and read it through, hardly able to believe my eyes.
"You are indeed a man to be envied, Mr. Hatteras," said the lawyer. "The title is an old one, and I believe the property is considered one of the best in that part of England."
"It is! But I can hardly believe that it is mine."
"There is no doubt about that however. You are a baronet as sure as I am a lawyer. I presume you would like us to take all necessary action in the matter."
"By all means. I am leaving Sydney for a week or two this afternoon, for the Islands. I will sign any necessary papers when I come back."
"I will bear that in mind. And your address in Sydney is ——"
"Care of The Honourable Mr. Wetherell, Potts Point."
"Thank you. And, by the way, my correspondents desire me to pay in to your account at the bank on their behalf the sum of five thousand pounds. This I will do to-day."
"I am obliged to you. Now I think I must be going. To tell the truth, I hardly know whether I am standing on my head or my heels."
"Oh, you will soon get over that."
"Good-morning, Sir Richard."
With that, I bade him farewell, and went out of the office, half stunned by my good fortune. I thought of the poor girl whose end had been so tragic, and of the old man as I had last seen him, shaking his fist at me out of the window. And to think that that lovely old home was mine, and that I was a baronet, the representative of a race as old as any in the country side! It seemed too wonderful to be true!
Hearty were the congratulations showered upon me at Potts Point, you may be sure, when I told my tale, and my health was drunk at lunch with much acclaim. But our minds were too much taken up with the arrangements for our departure that afternoon to allow us to think very much of anything else. By two o'clock we were ready to leave the house, by half-past we were on board the yacht, at three-fifteen the anchor was up, and we were ploughing our way down the harbour.Our search for Phyllis had reached another stage.