Read CHAPTER II of A Bid for Fortune / Dr. Nikola's Vendetta, free online book, by Guy Boothby, on ReadCentral.com.

LONDON

Now that I come to think the matter out, I don’t know that I could give you any definite idea of what my first impressions of London were. One thing at least is certain, I had never had experience of anything approaching such a city before, and, between ourselves, I can’t say that I ever want to again. The constant rush and roar of traffic, the crowds of people jostling each other on the pavements, the happiness and the misery, the riches and the poverty, all mixed up together in one jumble, like good and bad fruit in a basket, fairly took my breath away; and when I went down, that first afternoon, and saw the Park in all its summer glory, my amazement may be better imagined than described.

I could have watched the carriages, horsemen, and promenaders for hours on end without any sense of weariness. And when a bystander, seeing that I was a stranger, took compassion upon my ignorance and condescended to point out to me the various celebrities present, my pleasure was complete. There certainly is no place like London for show and glitter, I’ll grant you that; but all the same I’d no more think of taking up my permanent abode in it than I’d try to cross the Atlantic in a Chinese sampan.

Having before I left Sydney been recommended to a quiet hotel in a neighbourhood near the Strand, convenient both for sight-seeing and business, I had my luggage conveyed thither, and prepared to make myself comfortable for a time. Every day I waited eagerly for a letter from my sweetheart, the more impatiently because its non-arrival convinced me that they had not yet arrived in London. As it turned out, they had delayed their departure from Naples for two days, and had spent another three in Florence, two in Rome, and a day and a half in Paris.

One morning, however, my faithful watch over the letter rack, which was already becoming a standing joke in the hotel, was rewarded. An envelope bearing an English stamp and postmark, and addressed in a handwriting as familiar to me as my own, stared me in the face. To take it out and break the seal was the work of a moment. It was only a matter of a few lines, but it brought me news that raised me to the seventh heaven of delight.

Mr. and Miss Wetherell had arrived in London the previous afternoon, they were staying at the Hotel Metropole, would leave town for the country at the end of the week, but in the meantime, if I wished to see her, my sweetheart would be in the entrance hall of the British Museum the following morning at eleven o’clock.

How I conducted myself in the interval between my receipt of the letter and the time of the appointment, I have not the least remembrance; I know, however, that half-past ten, on the following morning, found me pacing up and down the street before that venerable pile, scanning with eager eyes every conveyance that approached me. The minutes dragged by with intolerable slowness, but at length the time arrived.

A kindly church clock in the neighbourhood struck the hour, and others all round it immediately took up the tale. Before the last stroke had died away a hansom turned towards the gates from Bury Street, and in it, looking the picture of health and beauty, sat the girl who, I had good reason to know, was more than all the world to me. To attract her attention and signal to the driver to pull up was the work of a second, and a minute later I had helped her to alight, and we were strolling together across the square towards the building.

“Ah, Dick,” she said, with a roguish smile, “you don’t know what trouble I had to get away this morning. Papa had a dozen places he wished me to go to with him. But when I told him that I had some very important business of my own to attend to before I could go calling, he was kind enough to let me off.”

“I’ll be bound he thought you meant business with a dressmaker,” I laughingly replied, determined to show her that I was not unversed in the ways of women.

“I’m afraid he did,” she answered, blushing, “and I feel horribly guilty. But my heart told me I must see you at once, whatever happened.”

Could any man desire a prettier speech than that? If so, I was not that man. We were inside the building by this time, ascending the great staircase.

As we entered the room at the top of the stairs, I thought it a good opportunity to ask the question I had been longing to put to her.

“Phyllis, my sweetheart,” I said, with a tremor in my voice, “it is a fortnight now since I spoke to you. You have had plenty of time to consider our position. Have you regretted giving me your love?”

We came to a standstill, and leant over a case together, but what it contained I’m sure I haven’t the very vaguest idea.

She looked up into my face with a sweet smile.

“Not for one single instant, Dick! Having once given you my love, is it likely I should want it back again?”

“I don’t know. Somehow I can’t discover sufficient reason for your giving it to me at all.”

“Well, be sure I’m not going to tell you. You might grow conceited. Isn’t it sufficient that I do love you, and that I am not going to give you up, whatever happens?”

“More than sufficient,” I answered solemnly. “But, Phyllis, don’t you think I can induce your father to relent? Surely as a good parent he must be anxious to promote your happiness at any cost to himself?”

“I can’t understand it at all. He has been so devoted to me all my life that his conduct now is quite inexplicable. Never once has he denied me anything I really set my heart upon, and he always promised me that I should be allowed to marry whomsoever I pleased, provided he was a good and honourable man, and one of whom he could in any way approve. And you are all that, Dick, or I shouldn’t have loved you, I know.”

“I don’t think I’m any worse than the ordinary run of men, dearest, if I am no better. At any rate I love you with a true and honourable love. But don’t you think he will come round in time?”

“I’m almost afraid not. He referred to it only yesterday, and seemed quite angry that I should have dared to entertain any thought of you after what he said to me on board ship. It was the first time in my life he ever spoke to me in such a tone, and I felt it keenly. No, Dick, there is something behind it all that I cannot understand. Some mystery that I would give anything to fathom. Papa has not been himself ever since we started for England. Indeed, his very reason for coming at all is an enigma to me. And now that he is here, he seems in continual dread of meeting somebody but who that somebody is, and why my father, who has the name and reputation of being such a courageous, determined, honourable man, should be afraid, is a thing I cannot understand.”

“It’s all very mysterious and unfortunate. But surely something can be done? Don’t you think if I were to see him again, and put the matter more plainly before him, something might be arranged?”

“It would be worse than useless at present, I fear. No, you must just leave it to me, and I’ll do my best to talk him round. Ever since my mother died I have been as his right hand, and it will be strange if he does not listen to me and see reason in the end.”

Seeing who it was that would plead with him I did not doubt it.

By this time we had wandered through many rooms and now found ourselves in the Egyptian Department, surrounded by embalmed dead folk and queer objects of all sorts and descriptions. There was something almost startling about our love-making in such a place, among these men and women, whose wooings had been conducted in a country so widely different to ours, and in an age that was dead and gone over two thousand years ere we were born. I spoke of this to Phyllis. She laughed and gave a little shiver.

“I wonder,” she said, looking down on the swathed-up figure of a princess of the royal house of Egypt, lying stretched out in the case beside which we sat, “if this great lady, who lies so still and silent now, had any trouble with her love affair?”

“Perhaps she had more than one beau to her string, and not being allowed to have one took the other,” I answered; “though from what we can see of her now she doesn’t look as if she were ever capable of exercising much fascination, does she?”

As I spoke I looked from the case to the girl and compared the swaddled-up figure with the healthy, living, lovely creature by my side. But I hadn’t much time for comparison. My sweetheart had taken her watch from her pocket and was glancing at the dial.

“A quarter to twelve!” she cried in alarm, “Oh, Dick, I must be going. I promised to meet papa at twelve, and I must not keep him waiting.”

She rose and was about to pull on her gloves. But before she had time to do so I had taken a little case from my pocket and opened it. When she saw what it contained she could not help a little womanly cry of delight.

“Oh, Dick! you naughty, extravagant boy!”

“Why, dearest? Why naughty or extravagant to give the woman I love a little token of my affection?” As I spoke I slipped the ring over her pretty ringer and raised the hand to my lips.

“Will you try,” I said, “whenever you look at that ring, to remember that the man who gave it to you loves you with his whole heart and soul, and will count no trouble too great, or no exertion too hard, to make you happy?”

“I will remember,” she said solemnly, and when I looked I saw that tears stood in her eyes. She brushed them hastily away, and after an interlude which it hardly becomes me to mention here, we went down the stairs again and out into the street, almost in silence.

Having called a cab, I placed her in it and nervously asked the question that had been sometime upon my mind: “When shall I see you again?”

“I cannot tell,” she answered. “Perhaps next week. But I’ll let you know. In the meantime don’t despair; all will come right yet. Good-bye.”

“Good-bye and God bless you!”

Having seen the last of her I wandered slowly down the pavement towards Oxford Street, then turning to my left hand, made my way citywards. My mind was full of my interview with the sweet girl who had just left me, and I wandered on and on, wrapped in my own thoughts, until I found myself in a quarter of London into which I had never hitherto penetrated. The streets were narrow, and, as if to be in keeping with the general air of gloom, the shops were small and their wares of a peculiarly sordid nature.

A church clock somewhere in the neighbourhood struck “One,” and as I was beginning to feel hungry, and knew myself to be a long way from my hotel, I cast about me for a lunching-place. But it was some time before I encountered the class of restaurant I wanted. When I did it was situated at the corner of two streets, carried a foreign name over the door, and, though considerably the worse for wear, presented a cleaner appearance than any other I had as yet experienced.

Pushing the door open I entered. An unmistakable Frenchman, whose appearance, however, betokened long residence in England, stood behind a narrow counter polishing an absinthe glass. He bowed politely and asked my business.

“Can I have lunch?” I asked.

“Oui, monsieur! Cer-tain-lee. If monsieur will walk upstairs I will take his order.”

Waving his hand in the direction of a staircase in the corner of the shop he again bowed elaborately, while I, following the direction he indicated, proceeded to the room above. It was long and lofty, commanded an excellent view of both thoroughfares, and was furnished with a few inferior pictures, half a dozen small marble-top tables, and four times as many chairs.

When I entered three men were in occupation. Two were playing chess at a side table, while the third, who had evidently no connection with them, was watching the game from a distance, at the same time pretending to be absorbed in his paper. Seating myself at a table near the door, I examined the bill of fare, selected my lunch, and in order to amuse myself while it was preparing, fell to scrutinizing my companions.

Of the chess-players, one was a big, burly fellow, with enormous arms, protruding rheumy eyes, a florid complexion, and a voluminous red beard. His opponent was of a much smaller build, with pale features, a tiny moustache, and watery blue eyes. He wore a pince-nez, and from the length of his hair and a dab of crimson lake upon his shirt cuff, I argued him an artist.

Leaving the chess-players, my eyes lighted on the stranger on the other side. He was more interesting in every way. Indeed, I was surprised to see a man of his stamp in the house at all. He was tall and slim, but exquisitely formed, and plainly the possessor of enormous strength. His head, if only from a phrenological point of view, was a magnificent one, crowned with a wealth of jet-black hair. His eyes were dark as night, and glittered like those of a snake. His complexion was of a decidedly olive hue, though, as he sat in the shadow of the corner, it was difficult to tell this at first sight.

But what most fascinated me about this curious individual was the interest he was taking in the game the other men were playing. He kept his eyes fixed upon the board, looked anxiously from one to the other as a move trembled in the balance, smiled sardonically when his desires were realized, and sighed almost aloud when a mistake was made.

Every moment I expected his anxiety or disappointment to find vent in words, but he always managed to control himself. When he became excited I noticed that his whole body quivered under its influence, and once when the smaller of the players made an injudicious move a look flew into his face that was full of such malignant intensity that I’ll own I was influenced by it. What effect it would have had upon the innocent cause of it all, had he seen it, I should have been sorry to conjecture.

Just as my lunch made its appearance the game reached a conclusion, and the taller of the two players, having made a remark in German, rose to leave. It was evident that the smaller man had won, and in an excess of pride, to which I gathered his nature was not altogether a stranger, he looked round the room as if in defiance.

Doing so, his eyes met those of the man in the corner. I glanced from one to the other, but my gaze rested longest on the face of the smaller man. So fascinated did he seem to be by the other’s stare that his eyes became set and stony. It was just as if he were being mesmerized. The person he looked at rose, approached him, sat down at the table and began to arrange the men on the board. Then he looked up again.

“May I have the pleasure of giving you a game?” he asked in excellent English, bowing slightly as he spoke, and moving a pawn with his long white fingers.

The little man found voice enough to murmur an appropriate reply, and they began their game, while I turned to my lunch. But, in spite of myself, I found my eyes continually reverting to what was happening at the other table. And, indeed, it was a curious sight I saw there. The tall man had thrown himself into the business of the game, heart and soul. He half sat, half crouched over the board, reminding me of a hawk hovering over a poultry yard.

His eyes were riveted first on the men before him and then on his opponent his long fingers twitched and twined over each move, and seemed as if they would never release their hold. Not once did he speak, but his attitude was more expressive than any words.

The effect on the little man, his companion, was overwhelming. He was quite unable to do anything, but sat huddled up in his chair as if terrified by his demoniacal companion. The result even a child might have foreseen. The tall man won, and the little man, only too glad to have come out of the ordeal with a whole skin, seized his hat and, with a half-uttered apology, darted from the room.

For a moment or two his extraordinary opponent sat playing with the chessmen. Then he looked across at me and without hesitation said, accompanying his remark with a curious smile, for which I could not at all account: “I think you will agree with me that the limitations of the fool are the birth gifts of the wise!”

Not knowing what reply to make to this singular assertion, I wisely held my tongue. This brought about a change in his demeanour; he rose from his seat, and came across to where I sat. Seating himself in a chair directly opposite me, he folded his hands in his lap, after the manner of a demure old spinster, and, having looked at me earnestly, said with an almost indescribable sweetness of tone:

“I think you will allow, Mr. Hatteras, that half the world is born for the other half to prey upon!”

For a moment I was too much astonished to speak; how on earth had he become aware of my name? I stumbled out some sort of reply, which evidently did not impress him very much, for he began again:

“Our friend who has just left us will most certainly be one of those preyed upon. I pity him because he will not have the smallest grain of pleasure in his life. You, Mr. Hatteras, on the other hand, will, unwittingly, be in the other camp. Circumstances will arrange that for you. Some have, of course, no desire to prey; but necessity forces it on them. Yourself, for instance. Some only prey when they are quite sure there will be no manner of risk. Our German friend who played the previous game is an example. Others, again, never lose an opportunity. Candidly speaking, to which class should you imagine I belong?”

He smiled as he put the question, and, his thin lips parting, I could just catch the glitter of the short teeth with which his mouth was furnished. For the third time since I had made his acquaintance I did not know which way to answer. However, I made a shot and said something.

“I really know nothing about you,” I answered. “But from your kindness in giving our artist friend a game, and now in allowing me the benefit of your conversation, I should say you only prey upon your fellow-men when dire extremity drives you to it.”

“And you would be wrong. I am of the last class I mentioned. There is only one sport of any interest to me in life, and that is the opportunity of making capital out of my fellow humans. You see, I am candid with you, Mr. Hatteras!”

“Pray excuse me. But you know my name! As I have never, to my knowledge, set eyes on you before, would you mind telling me how you became acquainted with it?”

“With every pleasure. But before I do so I think it only fair to tell you that you will not believe my explanation. And yet it should convince you. At any rate we’ll try. In your right-hand top waistcoat pocket you have three cards.” Here he leant his head on his hands and shut his eyes. “One is crinkled and torn, but it has written on it, in pencil, the name of Edward Braithwaite, Macquarrie Street, Sydney. I presume the name is Braithwaite, but the t and e are almost illegible. The second is rather a high-sounding one the Hon. Sylvester Wetherell, Potts Point, Sydney, New South Wales; and the third is, I take it, your own, Richard Hatteras. Am I right?”

I put my fingers in my pocket, and drew out what it contained a half-sovereign, a shilling, a small piece of pencil, and three cards. The first, a well-worn piece of pasteboard, bore, surely enough, the name of Edward Braithwaite, and was that of the solicitor with whom I transacted my business in Sydney; the second was given me by my sweetheart’s father the day before we left Australia; and the third was certainly my own.

Was this witchcraft or only some clever conjuring trick? I asked myself the question, but could give it no satisfactory answer. At any rate you may be sure it did not lessen my respect for my singular companion.

“Ah! I am right, then!” he cried exultingly. “Isn’t it strange how the love of being right remains with us, when we think we have safely combated every other self-conceit. Well, Mr. Hatteras, I am very pleased to have made your acquaintance. Somehow I think we are destined to meet again where I cannot say. At any rate, let us hope that that meeting will be as pleasant and successful as this has been.”

But I hardly heard what he said. I was still puzzling my brains over his extraordinary conjuring trick for trick I am convinced it was. He had risen and was slowly drawing on his gloves when I spoke.

“I have been thinking over those cards,” I said, “and I am considerably puzzled. How on earth did you know they were there?”

“If I told you, you would have no more faith in my powers. So with your permission I will assume the virtue of modesty. Call it a conjuring trick, if you like. Many curious things are hidden under that comprehensive term. But that is neither here nor there. Before I go would you like to see one more?”

“Very much, indeed, if it’s as good as the last!”

In the window stood a large glass dish, half full of water, and having a dark brown fly paper floating on the surface. He brought it across to the table at which I sat, and having drained the water into a jug near by, left the paper sticking to the bottom.

This done, he took a tiny leather case from his pocket and a small bottle out of that again. From this bottle he poured a few drops of some highly pungent liquid on to the paper, with the result that it grew black as ink and threw off a tiny vapour, which licked the edges of the bowl and curled upwards in a faint spiral column.

“There, Mr. Hatteras, this is a well, a trick I learned from an old woman in Benares. It is a better one than the last and will repay your interest. If you will look on that paper for a moment, and try to concentrate your attention, you will see something that will, I think, astonish you.”

Hardly believing that I should see anything at all I looked. But for some seconds without success. My scepticism, however, soon left me. At first I saw only the coarse grain of the paper and the thin vapour rising from it. Then the knowledge that I was gazing into a dish vanished. I forget my companion and the previous conjuring trick. I saw only a picture opening out before me that of a handsomely furnished room, in which was a girl sitting in an easy chair crying as if her heart were breaking. The room I had never seen before, but the girl I should have known among a thousand. She was Phyllis, my sweetheart!

I looked and looked, and as I gazed at her, I heard her call my name. “Oh, Dick! Dick! come to me!” Instantly I sprang to my feet, meaning to cross the room to her. Next moment I became aware of a loud crash. The scene vanished, my senses came back to me; and to my astonishment I found myself standing alongside the overturned restaurant table. The glass dish lay on the floor, shattered into a thousand fragments. My friend, the conjuror, had disappeared.

Having righted the table again, I went downstairs and explained my misfortune. When I had paid my bill I took my departure, more troubled in mind than I cared to confess. That it was only what he had called it, a conjuring trick, I felt I ought to be certain, but still it was clever and uncanny enough to render me very uncomfortable.

In vain I tried to drive the remembrance of the scene I had witnessed from my brain, but it would not be dispelled. At length, to satisfy myself, I resolved that if the memory of it remained with me so vividly in the morning I would take the bull by the horns and call at the Metropole to make inquiries.

I returned to my hotel in time for dinner, but still I could not rid myself of the feeling that some calamity was approaching. Having sent my meal away almost untouched, I called a hansom and drove to the nearest theatre, but the picture of Phyllis crying and calling for me in vain kept me company throughout the performance, and brought me home more miserable at the end than I had started. All night long I dreamed of it, seeing the same picture again and again, and hearing the same despairing cry, “Oh, Dick! Dick! come to me!”

In the morning there was only one thing to be done. Accordingly, after breakfast I set off to make sure that nothing was the matter. On the way I tried to reason with myself. I asked how it was that I, Dick Hatteras, a man who thought he knew the world so well, should have been so impressed with a bit of wizardry as to be willing to risk making a fool of myself before the two last people in the world I wanted to think me one. Once I almost determined to turn back, but while the intention held me the picture rose again before my mind’s eye, and on I went more resolved to solve the mystery.

Arriving at the hotel, a gorgeously caparisoned porter, who stood on the steps, said in response to my inquiry:

"They’ve left, sir. Started yesterday afternoon, quite suddenly, for Paris, on their way back to Australia!"