WE were in Venice; Venice the silent and mysterious; the one European city o_hich I never tire. My wife had not enjoyed good health for some months past, and for this reason we had been wintering in Southern Italy. After that we ha_ome slowly north, spending a month in Florence, and a fortnight in Rome _e_oute,_ until we found ourselves in Venice, occupying a suite of apartment_t Galaghetti's famous hotel overlooking the Grand Canal. Our party was _mall one; it consisted of my wife, her friend Gertrude Trevor, and myself, Richard Hatteras, once of the South Sea Islands, but now of the New Forest, Hampshire, England. It may account for our fondness of Venice when I say tha_our years previous we had spent the greater part of our honeymoon there.
Whatever the cause may have been, however, there could be no sort of doub_hat the grand old city, with its palaces and churches, its association_tretching back to long-forgotten centuries, and its silent waterways, possessed a great fascination for us. We were never tired of exploring it, finding something to interest us in even the most out-of-the-way corners. I_iss Trevor we possessed a charming companion, a vital necessity, as you wil_dmit, when people travel together. She was an uncommon girl in more ways tha_ne; a girl, so it seems to me, England alone is able to produce. She coul_ot be described as a pretty girl, but then the word "pretty" is one tha_ometimes comes perilously near carrying contempt with it; one does not spea_f Venus de Medici as pretty, nor would one describe the Apollo Belvedere a_ery nice-looking. That Miss Trevor was exceedingly handsome would, I fancy, be generally admitted. At any rate she would command attention wherever sh_ight go, and that is an advantage which few of us possess. Should a mor_etailed description of her be necessary, I might add that she was tall an_ark, with black hair and large luminous eyes that haunted one, and wer_uggestive of a southern ancestor. She was the daughter, and indeed the onl_hild, of the well-known Dean of Bedminster, and this was the first time sh_ad visited Italy, or that she had been abroad. The wonders of the Art Countr_ere all new to her, and in consequence our wanderings were one lon_uccession of delight. Every day added some new pleasure to her experiences, while each night saw a life-desire gratified.
In my humble opinion, to understand Italy properly one should not presume t_isit her until after the first blush of youth has departed, and then onl_hen one has prepared oneself to properly appreciate her many beauties.
Venice, above all others, is a city that must be taken seriously. To come at _roper spirit of the place one must be in a reverent mood. Cheap jokes an_ockney laughter are as unsuited to the place, where Falieri yielded his life, as a downcast face would be in Nice at carnival time. On the afternoon of th_articular day from which I date my story, we had been to the Island of Muran_o pay a visit to the famous glass factories of which it is the home. By th_ime we reached Venice once more it was nearly sunset. Having something lik_n hour to spare we made our way, at my wife's suggestion, to the Florian caf_n the piazza of Saint Mark in order to watch the people. As usual the plac_as crowded, and at first glance it looked as if we should be unable to fin_ufficient vacant chairs. Fortune favoured us, however, and when we had seate_urselves and I had ordered coffee, we gave ourselves up to the enjoyment o_hat is perhaps one of the most amusing scenes in Venice. To a thoughtful min_he Great Square must at all times be an object of absorbing interest. I hav_een it at every hour, and under almost every aspect: at break of day, whe_ne has it to oneself and is able to enjoy its beauty undisturbed; at midday, when the importunate shopkeepers endeavour to seduce one into entering thei_oors (by tales of the marvels therein); at sunset, when the cafes ar_rowded, the band plays, and all is merriment; and last, but not least, a_idnight, when the moon is sailing above Saint Mark's, the square is full o_trange shadows, and the only sound to be heard is the cry of a gull on th_agoon, or the " _Sa Premi"_ of some belated gondolier.
"This is the moment to which I have looked forward all my life," said Mis_revor, as she sat back in her chair and watched the animated crowd befor_er. "Look at that pretty little boy with the pigeons knocking around him.
What a picture he would make if one only had a camera."
"If you care to have a photo of him one can easily be obtained," I remarked.
"Any one of these enterprising photographers would be only to pleased to tak_ne for you for a few centissimi. I regret to say that many of our countryme_ave a weakness for being taken in that way."
"Fancy Septimus Brown, of Tooting," my wife remarked, "a typical Englis_aterfamilias, with a green veil, blue spectacles, and white umbrella, darin_o ask the sun to record his image with the pigeons of St. Mark's clusterin_bove his venerable head. Can't you picture the pride of that worth_entleman's family when they produce the album on Sunday afternoons and sho_t to their friends? 'This is pa,' the eldest girl will probably remark, 'whe_e was travelling in Venice' (as if Venice were a country in which one must b_erpetually moving on), 'and that's how the pigeons came down to be fed. Isn'_t splendid of him?' Papa, who has never ventured beyond Brighton beac_efore, will be a person of importance from that moment."
"You forget one circumstance, however," Miss Trevor replied, who enjoyed a_rgument, and for this reason contradicted my wife on principle, "that i_llowing himself to be taken at all, Brown of Tooting has advanced a step."
For the moment he dared to throw off his insularity, as the picture at whic_ou are laughing is indisputable testimony. Do you think he would dare to b_hotographed in a similar fashion in his own market-place, standing outsid_is shop-door with his assistants watching him from behind the counter? I a_uite sure he would not!"
"A very excellent argument," I answered. "Unfortunately, however, it carrie_ts own refutation. The mere fact that Brown takes the photograph home to sho_o his friends goes a long way towards proving that he is still as insular a_hen he set out. If he did not consider himself of sufficient importance t_hut out a portion of Saint Mark's with his voluminous personality, he woul_ot have employed the photographer at all, in which case we are no furthe_dvanced than before."
These little sparring-matches were a source of great amusement to us. Th_ockney tourist was Miss Trevor's _bete noir._ And upon this failing my wif_nd I loved to twit her. On the whole I rather fancy she liked being teased b_s.
We had finished our coffee and were still idly watching the people about u_hen I noticed that my wife had turned a little pale. I was about to remar_pon it, when she uttered an exclamation as if something had startled her.
"Good gracious! Dick," she cried, "surely it is not possible. It must be _istake."
"What is it cannot be possible?" I inquired, "What do you think you see?"
I glanced in the direction she indicated, but could recognise no one with who_ was acquainted. An English clergyman and his daughter were sitting near th_ntrance to the cafe, and some officers in uniform were on the other side o_hem again, but still my wife was looking in the same direction and with a_qually startled face. I placed my hand upon her arm. It was a long time sinc_ had seen her so agitated. "Come, darling," I said, "tell me what it is tha_roubles you."
"Look," she answered, "can you see the table to the right of that at whic_hose officers are seated?" I was about to reply in the affirmative, but th_hock I received deprived me of speech. The person to whom my wife ha_eferred had risen from his chair, and was in the act of walking towards us. _ooked at him, looked away, and then looked again. No! there was no room fo_oubt; the likeness was unmistakable. I should have known him anywhere. He wa_octor Nikola; the man who had played such an important part in our life'_rama. Five years had elapsed since I had last seen him, but in that time h_as scarcely changed at all. It was the same tall, thin figure; the sam_allow, clean-shaven face; the same piercing black eyes. As he drew nearer _oticed that his hair was a little more grey, that he looked slightly older; otherwise he was unchanged. But why was he coming to us? Surely he did no_ean to speak to us? After the manner in which he had treated us in bygon_ays I scarcely knew how to receive him. He, on his side, however, was quit_elf-possessed. Raising his hat with that easy grace that always distinguishe_im, he advanced and held out his hand to my wife.
"My dear Lady Hatteras," he began in his most conciliatory tone, "I felt sur_ou would recognise me. Observing that you had not forgotten me, I took th_iberty of coming to pay my respects to you."
Then before my wife could reply he had turned to me and was holding out hi_and. For a moment I had half determined not to take it, but when hi_littering eyes looked into mine I changed my mind and shook hands with hi_ore cordially than I should ever have thought it possible for me to do.
Having thus broken the ice, and as we had to all intents and purpose_ermitted him to derive the impression that we were prepared to forgive th_ast, nothing remained for us but to introduce him to Miss Trevor. From th_oment that he had approached us she had been watching him covertly, and tha_e had produced a decided impression upon her was easily seen. For the firs_ime since we had known her she, usually so staid and unimpressionable, wa_ervous and ill at ease. The introduction effected she drew back a little, an_retended to be absorbed in watching a party of our fellow-countrymen who ha_aken their places at a table a short distance from us. For my part I do no_ind confessing that I was by no means comfortable. I remembered my bitte_atred of Nikola in days gone by. I recalled that terrible house in Port Said, and thought of the night on the island when I had rescued my wife from hi_lutches. In my estimation then he had been a villain of the deepest dye, an_et here he was sitting beside me as calm and collected, and apparently a_nterested in the _resume_ of our travels in Italy that my wife was givin_im, as if we had been bosom friends throughout our lives. In any one else i_ould have been a piece of marvellous effrontery; in Nikola's case, however, it did not strike one in the same light. As I have so often remarked, h_eemed incapable of acting like any other human being. His extraordinar_ersonality lent a glamour to his simplest actions, and demanded for them a_ttention they would scarcely have received had he been less endowed.
"Have you been long in Venice?" my wife inquired when she had completed th_ecord of our doings, feeling that she must say something.
"I seldom remain anywhere for very long," he answered, with one of his curiou_miles. "I come and go like a will-o'-the-wisp; I am here to-day and gone to- morrow."
It may have been an unfortunate remark, but I could not help uttering it.
"For instance, you are in London to-day," I said, "in Port Said next week, an_n the South Sea Islands a couple of months later."
He was not in the least disconcerted.
"Ah! I see you have not forgotten our South Sea adventure," he replie_heerfully. "How long ago it seems, does it not? To me it is like a chapte_ut of another life." Then, turning to Miss Trevor, who of course had hear_he story of our dealings with him sufficiently often to be weary of it, h_dded, "I hope you are not altogether disposed to think ill of me. Perhap_ome day you will be able to persuade Lady Hatteras to forgive me, that is t_ay if she has not already done so. Yet I do not know why I should plead fo_ardon, seeing that I am far from being in a repentant mood. As a matter o_act I am very much afraid that should the necessity arise, I should b_ompelled to act as I did then."
"Then let us pray most fervently that the necessity may never arise," _nswered. "I for one do not entertain a very pleasant recollection of tha_ime."
I spoke so seriously that my wife looked sharply up at me. Fearing, I suppose, that I might commit myself, she added quickly:
"I trust it may not. For I can assure you, Doctor Nikola, that my inclination_ie much nearer Bond Street than the South Sea Islands."
All this time Miss Trevor said nothing, but I could tell from the expressio_pon her face that Nikola interested her more than she would have been willin_o admit.
"Is it permissible to ask where you are staying?" he inquired, breaking th_ilence and speaking as if it were a point upon which he was most anxious t_e assured.
"At Galaghetti's," I answered. "While in Venice we always make it our home."
"Ah! the good Galaghetti," said Nikola softly. "It is a long time since I las_ad the pleasure of seeing him. I fancy, however, he would remember me. I wa_ble to do him a slight service some time ago, and I have always understoo_hat he possesses a retentive memory."
Then, doubtless feeling that he had stayed long enough, he rose and prepare_o take leave of us.
"Perhaps, Lady Hatteras, you will permit me to do myself the honour of callin_pon you?" he said.
"We shall be very pleased to see you," my wife replied, though with no rea_ordiality.
He then bowed to Miss Trevor, and shook hands with myself.
"Good-bye, Hatteras," he continued. "I shall hope soon to see you again. _xpect we have lots of news for each other, and doubtless you will b_nterested to learn the history and subsequent adventures of that peculia_ittle stick which caused you so much anxiety, and myself so much trouble, five years ago. My address is the Palace Revecce, in the Rio del Consiglio, where, needless to say, I shall be delighted to see you if you care to pay m_ visit."
I thanked him for his invitation, and promised that I would call upon him.
Then with a bow he took his departure, leaving behind him a sensation o_omething missing, something that could not be replaced. To sit down an_ontinue the conversation where he had broken into it was out of the question.
We accordingly rose, and after I had discharged the bill, strolled across th_iazza towards the lagoon. Observing that Miss Trevor was still very silent, _nquired the cause.
"If you really want me to tell you, I can only account for it by saying tha_our friend, Dr. Nikola, has occasioned it," she answered, "I don't know wh_t should be so, but that man has made a curious impression upon me."
"He seems to affect every one in a different manner," I said, and for som_eason made no further comment upon her speech.
When we had called a gondola, and were on our way back to our hotel, sh_eferred to the subject again.
"I think I ought to tell you that it is not the first time I have seen Docto_ikola," she said. "You may remember that yesterday, while Phyllis was lyin_own, I went out to do some shopping. I cannot describe exactly whic_irection I took, save that I went towards the Rialto. It is sufficient tha_n the end I reached a chemist's shop. It was only a small place, and ver_ark, so dark indeed that I did not see that it contained another custome_ntil I was really inside. Then I noticed a tall man busily engaged i_onversation with the shopkeeper. He was declaiming against some drugs he ha_urchased there on the previous day, and demanding that for the future the_hould be of better quality, otherwise he would be compelled to take hi_atronage elsewhere. In the middle of this harangue he turned round, and I wa_ermitted an opportunity of seeing his face. He was none other than you_riend, Doctor Nikola."
"But, my dear Gertrude," said Phyllis, "with all due respect to you_arrative, I do not see that the mere fact of your having met Doctor Nikola i_ chemist's shop yesterday, and your having been introduced to him to-day, should have caused you so much concern."
"I do not know why it should," she answered, "but it is a fact, nevertheless.
Ever since I saw him yesterday, his face, with its terrible eyes, has haunte_e. I dreamt of it last night. All day long I have had it before me, and now, as if to add to the strangeness of the coincidence, he proves to be the man o_hom you have so often told me—your demoniacal, fascinating Nikola. You mus_dmit that it is very strange."
"A coincidence, a mere coincidence, that is all," I replied. "Nikola possesse_n extraordinary face, and it must have impressed itself more deeply upon yo_han the average countenance is happy enough to do."
Whether my explanation satisfied her or not she said no more upon the subject.
But that our strange meeting with Nikola had had an extraordinary effect upo_er was plainly observable. As a rule she was as bright and merry a companio_s one could wish to have; on this particular evening, however, she was no_erself at all. It was the more annoying for the reason that I was anxiou_hat she should shine on this occasion, as I was expecting an old friend, wh_as going to spend a few days with us in Venice. That friend was none othe_han the Duke of Glenbarth, who previous to his succession to the Dukedom ha_een known as the Marquis of Beckenham, and who, as the readers of the histor_f my adventures with Doctor Nikola may remember, figured as a very importan_actor in that strange affair. Ever since the day when I had the good fortun_o render him a signal service in the bay of a certain south-coast watering- place, and from the time that he had accepted my invitation to join him i_enice, I had looked forward to his coming with the greatest possibl_agerness. As it happened it was wellnigh seven o'clock by the time we reache_ur hotel. Without pausing in the hall further than to examine the letter- rack, we ascended to our rooms on the floor above. My wife and Miss Trevor ha_one to their apartments, and I was about to follow their example as soon as _ad obtained something from the sitting-room.
"A nice £6rt of host, a very nice host," said a laughing voice as I entered.
"He invites me to stay with him, and is not at home to bid me welcome. My dea_ld Dick, how are you?"
"My dear fellow," I cried, hastening forward to greet him, "I must beg you_ardon ten thousand times. I had not the least idea that you would be here s_arly. We have been sitting on the piazza, and did not hurry home."
"You needn't apologise," he answered. "For once an Italian train was befor_ts time. And now tell me about yourself. How is your wife, how are you, an_hat sort of holiday are you having?"
I answered his questions to the best of my ability, keeping back my mos_mportant item as a surprise for him.
"And now," I said, "it is time to dress for dinner. But before you do so, _ave some important news for you. Who do you think is in Venice?"
Needless to say he mentioned every one but the right person.
"You had better give it up, you will never guess," I said. "Who is the mos_nlikely person you would expect to see in Venice at the present moment?"
"Old Macpherson, my solicitor," he replied promptly. "The rascal would no mor_hink of crossing the Channel than he would contemplate standing on his hea_n the middle of the Strand. It must be Macpherson."
"Nonsense," I cried. "I don't know Macpherson in the first place, and I doub_f he would interest me in the second. No! no! this man is neither a Scotchma_or a lawyer. He is an individual bearing the name of Nikola."
I had quite expected to surprise him, but I scarcely looked for such a_utbreak of astonishment.
"What?" he cried, in amazement. "You must be joking. You don't mean to say yo_ave seen Nikola again?"
"I not only mean that I have seen him," I replied, "but I will go further tha_hat, and say that he was sitting on the _piazza,_ with us not more tha_alf an hour ago. What do you think his appearance in Venice means?"
"I don't know what to think," he replied, with an expression of almost comi_ewilderment upon his face. "It seems impossible, and yet you don't look as i_ou were joking."
"I tell you the news in all sober earnestness," I answered, dropping m_antering tone. "It is a fact that Nikola is in Venice, and, what is more, that he has given me his address. He has invited me to call upon him, and i_ou like we will go together. What do you say?"
"I shall have to take time to think about it," Glenbarth replied seriously. "_on't suppose for a moment he has any intention of abducting me again; nevertheless, I am not going to give him the opportunity. By Jove, how tha_ellow's face comes back to me. It haunts me!"
"Miss Trevor has been complaining of the same thing," I said.
"Miss Trevor?" the Duke repeated. "And pray who may Miss Trevor be?"
"A friend of my wife's," I answered. "She has been travelling with us for th_ast few months. I think you will like her. And now come along with me an_'ll show you your room. I suppose your man has discovered it by this time?"
"Stevens would find it if this hotel were constructed on the same principle a_he maze at Hampton Court," he answered. "He has the virtue of persistence, and when he wants to find a thing he secures the person who would be the mos_ikely to tell him, and sticks to him until his desire has been gratified."
It turned out as he had predicted, and three-quarters of an hour later ou_uartet sat down to dinner. My wife and Glenbarth, by virtue of an ol_riendship, agreed remarkably well, while Miss Trevor, now somewhat recovere_rom her Nikola indisposition, was more like her old self. It was a beautifu_ight, and after dinner it was proposed, seconded, and carried unanimously, that we should charter a gondola and go for a row upon the canal. On ou_omeward voyage the gondolier, by some strange chance, turned into the Rio de_onsiglio.
"Perhaps you can tell me which is the Palace Revecce?" I said to the man.
He pointed to a building we were in the act of approaching.
"There it is, signor," he said. "At one time it was a very great palace, bu_ow—" here he shrugged his shoulders to enable us to understand that its glor_ad departed from it. Not another word was said upon the subject, but _oticed that all our faces turned in the direction of the building. With th_xception of one solitary window it was in total darkness. As I looked at th_atter I wondered whether Nikola were in the room, and if so, what he wa_oing? Was he poring over some of his curious books, trying some ne_xperiment in chemistry, or putting to the test some theory such as I ha_ound him at work upon in that curious house in Port Said? A few minutes late_e had left the Rio del Consiglio behind us, had turned to the right, and wer_aking our way back by another watery thoroughfare towards the Grand Canal.
"Thanks to your proposition we have had a delightful evening," Miss Trevo_aid, as we paused to say good night at the foot of the staircase a quarter o_n hour or so later. "I have enjoyed myself immensely."
"You should not tell him that, dear," said my wife. "You know how conceited h_s already. He will take all the credit, and be unbearable for day_fterwards." Then turning to me she added, "You are going to smoke, _uppose?"
"I had thought of doing so," I replied; and then added with mock humility, "i_ou do not wish it of course I will not do so. I was only going to kee_lenbarth company."
They laughed and bade us good night, and when we had seen them depart in th_irection of their rooms we lit our cigars and passed into the balcon_utside.
At this hour of the night the Grand Canal looked very still and beautiful, an_e both felt in the humour for confidences.
"Do you know, Hatteras," said Glenbarth, after a few moments' pause tha_ollowed our arrival in the open air, "that Nikola's turning up in Venice a_his particular juncture savours to me a little of the uncanny. What hi_ission may be, of course I cannot tell, but that it is some diabolical thin_r another I haven't a doubt."
"One thing is quite certain," I answered, "he would hardly be here without a_bject, and, after our dealings with him in the past, I am prepared to admi_hat I don't trust him any more than you do."
"And now that he has asked you to call upon him, what are you going to do?"
I paused before I replied. The question involved greater responsibilities tha_ere at first glance apparent. Knowing Nikola so well, I had not the leas_esire or intention to be drawn into any of the plots or machinations he wa_o fond of working against other people. I must confess, nevertheless, that _ould not help feeling a large amount of curiosity as to the subsequen_istory of that little stick, to obtain which he had spent so much money, an_ad risked so many lives.
"Yes, I think I shall call upon him," I said reflectively, as if I had no_uite made up my mind. "Surely to see him once more could do no harm? Goo_eavens! what an extraordinary fellow he is! Fancy you or I being afraid o_ny other man as we are afraid of him, for mind you, I know that you stan_uite as much in awe of him as I do. Why, do you know when my eyes fell upo_im this afternoon, I felt a return of the old dread his presence used t_ause in me five years ago! The effect he had upon Miss Trevor was also ver_ingular, when you come to, think of it."
"By the way, Hatteras, talking of Miss Trevor, what an awfully nice girl sh_s. I don't know when I have ever met a nicer. Who is she?"
"She is the daughter of the Dean of Bedminster," I answered; "a splendid ol_ellow."
"I like his daughter," the Duke remarked. "Yes, I must say that I like he_ery much."
I was glad to hear this, for I had my own little dreams, and my wife, who, b_he way, is a born matchmaker, had long ago come to a similar conclusion.
"She is a very nice girl," I replied, "and what is more, she is as good as sh_s nice." Then I continued: "He will be indeed a lucky man who wins Gertrud_revor for his wife. And now, since our cigars are finished, what do you sa_o bed? It is growing late, and I expect you are tired after your journey."
"I am quite ready," he answered. "I shall sleep like a top. I only hope an_ray that I shall not dream of Nikola."