NOW that I come to think the matter out, I don't know that I could give yo_ny definite idea of what my first impressions of London were. One thing a_east is certain, I had never had experience of anything approaching such _ity 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 eac_ther on the pavements, the happiness and the misery, the riches and th_overty, all mixed up together in one jumble, like good and bad fruit in _asket, fairly took my breath away; and when I went down, that firs_fternoon, and saw the Park in all its summer glory, my amazement may b_etter imagined than described.
I could have watched the carriages, horsemen, and promenaders for hours on en_ithout any sense of weariness. And when a bystander, seeing that I was _tranger, took compassion upon my ignorance and condescended to point out t_e the various celebrities present, my pleasure was complete. There certainl_s no place like London for show and glitter, I'll grant you that; but all th_ame I'd no more think of taking up my permanent abode in it than I'd try t_ross the Atlantic in a Chinese sampan.
Having before I left Sydney been recommended to a quiet hotel in _eighbourhood near the Strand, convenient both for sightseeing and business, _ad my luggage conveyed thither, and prepared to make myself comfortable for _ime. Every day I waited eagerly for a letter from my sweetheart, the mor_mpatiently because its non-arrival convinced me that they had not yet arrive_n London. As it turned out, they had delayed their departure from Naples fo_wo days, and had spent another three in Florence, two in Rome, and a day an_ half in Paris.
One morning, however, my faithful watch over the letter rack, which wa_lready becoming a standing joke in the hotel, was rewarded. An envelop_earing an English stamp and postmark, and addressed in a handwriting a_amiliar to me as my own, stared me in the face. To take it out and break th_eal was the work of a moment. It was only a matter of a few lines, but i_rought me news that raised me to the seventh heaven of delight.
Mr and Miss Wetherell had arrived in London the previous afternoon, they wer_taying at the Hotel Metropole, would leave town for the country at the end o_he week, but in the meantime, if I wished to see her, my sweetheart would b_n the entrance hall of the British Museum the following morning at eleve_'clock.
How I conducted myself in the interval between my receipt of the letter an_he 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 an_own the street before that venerable pile, scanning with eager eyes ever_onveyance that approached me from the right or left. The minutes dragged b_ith intolerable slowness, but at length the time arrived.
A kindly church clock in the neighbourhood struck the hour, and others al_ound it immediately took up the tale. Before the last stroke had died away _ansom turned towards the gates from Bury Street, and in it, looking th_icture of health and dainty beauty, sat the girl who, I had good reason t_now, was more than all the world to me. To attract her attention and signa_o the driver to pull up was the work of a second, and a minute later I ha_elped her to alight, and we were strolling together across the square toward_he building.
"Ah, Dick," she said, with a roguish smile, in answer to a question of mine,
"you don't know what trouble I had to get away this morning. Papa had a doze_laces he wished me to go to with him. But when I told him that I had som_ery important business of my own to attend to before I could go calling, h_as kind enough to let me off."
"I'll be bound he thought you meant business with a dressmaker," I laughingl_eplied, determined to show her that I was not unversed in the ways of women.
"I'm afraid he did," she answered, blushing, "and for that very reason alone _eel horribly guilty. But my heart told me I must see you at once, whateve_appened."
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. _umber of pretty, well-dressed girls were to be seen moving about the room_nd corridors, but not one who could in any way compare with the fai_ustralian by my side. As we entered the room at the top of the stairs, _hought it a good opportunity to ask the question I had been longing to put t_er.
"Phyllis, my sweetheart," I said, with almost a tremor in my voice, "it is _ortnight now since I spoke to you. You have had plenty of time to conside_ur position. Have you regretted giving me your love?"
We came to a standstill, and leant over a case together, but what it containe_'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 likel_ should want it back again?"
"I don't know. Somehow I can't discover sufficient reason for your giving i_o me at all."
"Well, be sure I'm not going to tell you. You might grow conceited. Isn't i_ufficient 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 _an induce your father to relent? Surely as a good parent he must be anxiou_o 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 tha_is conduct now is quite inexplicable. Never once has he denied me anything _eally set my heart upon, and he always promised me that I should be allowe_o marry whomsoever I pleased, provided he was a good and honourable man, an_ne of whom he could in any way approve. And you are all that, Dick, or _houldn't have loved you, I know."
"I don't think I'm any worse than the ordinary run of men, dearest, if I am n_etter. At any rate I love you with a true and honourable love. But don't yo_hink he will come round in time?"
"I'm almost afraid not. He referred to it only yesterday, and seemed quit_ngry that I should have dared to entertain any thought of you after what h_aid to me on board ship. It was the first time in my life he ever spoke to m_n such a tone, and I felt it keenly. No, Dick, there is something behind i_ll that I cannot understand. Some mystery that I would give anything t_athom. 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, an_hy 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 plainl_efore him, something might be arranged?"
"It would be worse than useless at present, I fear. No, you must just leave i_o me, and I'll do my best to talk him round. Ever since my mother died I hav_een as his right hand, and it will be strange if he does not listen to me an_ee 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 i_he Egyptian Department, surrounded by embalmed dead folk and queer objects o_ll sorts and descriptions. There was something almost startling about ou_ove-making in such a place, among these men and women, whose wooings had bee_onducted in a country so widely different to ours, and in an age that wa_ead and gone over two thousand years ere we were born. I spoke of this t_hyllis. She laughed and gave a little shiver.
"I wonder," she said, looking down on the swathed-up figure of a princess o_he 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 wit_er love affair?"
"Perhaps she had more than one beau to her string, and not being allowed t_ave one took the other," I answered; "though from what we can see of her no_he 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-u_igure with the healthy, living, lovely creature by my side. But I hadn't muc_ime for comparison. My sweetheart had taken her watch from her pocket and wa_lancing at the dial.
"A quarter to twelve!" she cried in alarm. "Oh, Dick, I must be going. _romised to meet papa at twelve, and whatever happens I must not keep hi_aiting."
She rose and was about to pull on her gloves. But before she had time to do s_ had taken a little case from my pocket and opened it. When she saw what i_ontained 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 littl_oken of my affection?" As I spoke I slipped the ring over her pretty finge_nd raised the hand to my lips.
"Will you try," I said, "whenever you look at that ring, to remember that th_an who gave it to you loves you with his whole heart and soul, and will coun_o 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 stoo_n her eyes. She brushed them hastily away, and after an interlude which i_ardly becomes me to mention here, we went down the stairs again and out int_he street, almost in silence.
Having called a cab, I placed her in it and nervously asked the question tha_ad 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. I_he meantime don't despair; all will come right yet! Goodbye."
"Goodbye and God bless you!"
I lifted my hat, she waved her hand, and next moment the hansom ha_isappeared round the corner.
Having seen the last of her I wandered slowly down the pavement towards Oxfor_treet, then turning to my left hand, made my way citywards. My mind was ful_f my interview with the sweet girl who had just left me, and I wandered o_nd on, wrapped in my own thoughts, until I found myself in a quarter o_ondon 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 wer_mall and their wares of a peculiarly sordid nature; hand-carts, barrows, an_talls lined the grimy pavements, and the noise was deafening.
A church clock somewhere in the neighbourhood struck 'One,' and as I wa_eginning to feel hungry, and knew myself to be a long way from my hotel, _ast about me for a lunching-place. But it was some time before I encountere_he class of restaurant I wanted. When I did it was situated at the corner o_wo streets, carried a foreign name over the door, and, though considerabl_he worse for wear, presented a cleaner appearance than any other I had as ye_xperienced.
Pushing the door open I entered. An unmistakable Frenchman, whose appearance, however, betokened long residence in England, stood behind a narrow counte_olishing 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 hi_rder."
Waving his hand in the direction of a staircase in the corner of the shop h_gain bowed elaborately, while I, following the direction he indicated, proceeded to the room above. It was long and lofty, commanded an excellen_iew of both thoroughfares, and was furnished with a few inferior pictures, _uch worn oilcloth, half a dozen small marble-top tables, and four times a_any chairs.
When I entered three men were in occupation. Two were playing chess at a sid_able, while the third, who had evidently no connection with them, wa_atching the game from a distance, at the same time pretending to be absorbe_n his paper. Seating myself at a table near the door, I examined the bill o_are, 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. Hi_pponent 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 an_ 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 o_is 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 _hrenological point of view, was a magnificent one, crowned with a wealth o_et black hair. His eyes were dark as night, and glittered like those of _nake. His complexion was of a decidedly olive hue, though, as he sat in th_hadow of the corner, it was difficult to tell this at first sight.
But what most fascinated me about this curious individual was the interest h_as taking in the game the other men were playing. He kept his eyes fixed upo_he board, looked anxiously from one to the other as a move trembled in th_alance, smiled sardonically when his desires were realised, and sighed almos_loud 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 in time. When he became excited _oticed that his whole body quivered under its influence, and once when th_maller of the players made an injudicious move a look flew into his face tha_as 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 see_t, I should have been sorry to conjecture.
Just as my lunch made its appearance the game reached a conclusion, and th_aller of the two players, having made a remark in German, rose to leave. I_as evident that the smaller man had won, and in an excess of pride, to whic_ gathered his nature was not altogether a stranger, he looked round the roo_s if in defiance.
Doing so, his eyes met those of the man in the corner. I glanced from one t_he other, but my gaze rested longest on the face of the smaller man. S_ascinated did he seem to be by the other's stare that his eyes became set an_tony. It was just as if he were being mesmerised. The person he looked a_ose, approached him, sat down at the table and began to arrange the men o_he board without a word. 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 the_egan their game, while I turned to my lunch. But, in spite of myself, I foun_y 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 more of a haw_overing over a poultry yard than anything else I can liken him to.
His eyes were riveted first on the men before him and then on his opponent—hi_ong fingers twitched and twined over each move, and seemed as if they woul_ever release their hold. Not once did he speak, but his attitude was mor_xpressive than any words.
The effect on the little man, his companion, was overwhelming. He was quit_nable to do anything, but sat huddled up in his chair as if terrified by hi_emoniacal companion. The result even a child might have foreseen. The tal_an won, and the little man, only too glad to have come out of the ordeal wit_ whole skin, seized his hat and, with a half-uttered apology, darted from th_oom.
For a moment or two his extraordinary opponent sat playing with the chessmen.
Then he looked across at me and without hesitation said, accompanying hi_emark 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 birt_ifts of the wise!"
Not knowing what reply to make to this singular assertion, I wisely held m_ongue. 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 opposit_e, 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 indescribabl_weetness of tone: —
"I think you will allow, Mr Hatteras, that half the world is born for th_ther half to prey upon!"
For a moment I was too much astonished to speak; how on earth had he becom_ware of my name? I stumbled out some sort of reply, which evidently did no_mpress him very much, for he began again:
"Our friend who has just left us will most certainly be one of those preye_pon. I pity him because he will not have the smallest grain of pleasure i_is life. You, Mr Hatteras, on the other hand, will, unwittingly, be in th_ther camp. Circumstances will arrange that for you. Some have, of course, n_esire to prey; but necessity forces it on them. Yourself, for instance. Som_nly prey when they are quite sure there will be no manner of risk. Our Germa_riend who played the previous game is an example. Others, again, never los_n opportunity. Candidly speaking, to which class should you imagine _elong?"
He smiled as he put the question, and, his thin lips parting, I could jus_atch the glitter of the short teeth with which his mouth was furnished. Fo_he third time since I had made his acquaintance I did not know which way t_nswer. However, I made a shot and said something.
"I really know nothing about you," I answered. "But from your kindness i_iving our artist friend a game, and now in allowing me the benefit of you_onversation, I should say you only prey upon your fellow-men when dir_xtremity drives you to it."
"And you would be wrong. I am of the last class I mentioned. There is only on_port of any interest to me in life, and that is the opportunity of makin_apital 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, se_yes on you before, would you mind telling me how you became acquainted wit_t?"
"With every pleasure. But before I do so I think it only fair to tell you tha_ou will not believe my explanation. And yet it should convince you. At an_ate 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 an_orn, 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 _re almost illegible. The second is rather a high sounding one—the Hon.
Sylvester Wetherell, Potts Point, Sydney, New South Wales, and the third is, _ake 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, _ell-worn piece of pasteboard, bore, surely enough, the name of Edwar_raithwaite, and was that of the solicitor with whom I transacted my busines_n Sydney; the second was given me by my sweetheart's father the day before w_eft Australia; and the third was certainly my own.
Was this witchcraft or only some clever conjuring trick? I asked myself th_uestion, but could give it no satisfactory answer. At any rate you may b_ure 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 o_eing right remains with us, when we think we have safely combatted ever_ther self-conceit. Well, Mr Hatteras, I am very pleased to have made you_cquaintance. Somehow I think we are destined to meet again—where I canno_ay. At any rate, let us hope that that meeting will be as pleasant an_uccessful as this has been."
But I hardly heard what he said. I was still puzzling my brains over hi_xtraordinary conjuring trick—for trick I am convinced it was. He had rise_nd was slowly drawing on his gloves when I spoke.
"I have been thinking over those cards," I said, "and I am considerabl_uzzled. How on earth did you know they were there?"
"If I told you, you would have no more faith in my powers. So with you_ermission I will assume the virtue of modesty. Call it a conjuring trick, i_ou like. Many curious things are hidden under that comprehensive term. Bu_hat 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!" I replied.
In the window stood a large glass dish, half full of water and having a dar_rown fly paper floating on the surface. He brought it across to the table a_hich I sat, and having drained the water into a jug near by, left the pape_ticking to the bottom.
This done, he took a tiny leather case from his pocket and a small bottle ou_f that again. From this bottle he poured a few drops of some highly pungen_iquid on to the paper, with the result that it grew black as ink and thre_ff a tiny vapour, which licked the edges of the bowl and curled upwards in _aint spiral column.
"There, Mr Hatteras, this is a—well, a trick—I learned from an old woman i_enares. It is a better one than the last and will repay your interest. If yo_ill 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 som_econds without success. My scepticism, however, soon left me. At first I sa_nly the coarse grain of the paper and the thin vapour rising from it. The_he knowledge that I was gazing into a dish vanished, I forgot my companio_nd the previous conjuring trick. I saw only a picture opening out befor_e—that of a handsomely furnished room, in which was a girl sitting in an eas_hair 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, m_weetheart!
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 th_oom 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 standin_longside the overturned restaurant table. The glass dish lay on the floo_hattered 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 _ared to confess. That it was only what he had called it, a conjuring trick, _elt I ought to be certain, but still it was clever and uncanny enough t_ender me very uncomfortable.
In vain I tried to drive the remembrance of the scene I had witnessed from m_rain, but it would not be dispelled. At length, to satisfy myself, I resolve_hat if the memory of it remained with me so vividly in the morning I woul_ake the bull by the horns and call at the Metropole to make enquiries.
I returned to my hotel in time for dinner, but still I could not rid myself o_he feeling that some calamity was approaching. Having sent my meal awa_lmost untouched, I called a hansom and drove to the nearest theatre, but th_icture of Phyllis crying and calling for me in vain kept me compan_hroughout the performance, and brought me home more miserable at the end tha_ had started. All night long I dreamed of it, seeing the same picture agai_nd 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, afte_reakfast I set off to make sure that nothing was the matter. On the way _ried to reason with myself. I asked how it was that I, Dick Hatteras, a ma_ho thought he knew the world so well, should have been so impressed with _it of wizardry as to be willing to risk making a fool of myself before th_wo last people in the world I wanted to think me one. Once I almos_etermined to turn back, but while the intention held me the picture ros_gain before my mind's eye, and on I went more resolved to solve the myster_han before.
Arriving at the hotel, I paid my cabman and entered the hall. A gorgeousl_aparisoned porter stood on the steps, and of him I enquired where I coul_ind Miss Wetherell. Imagine my surprise when he replied:—
"They've left sir. Started yesterday afternoon, quite suddenly, for Paris, o_heir way back to Australia!"