WHETHER it was our excursion upon the canal that was responsible for it, _annot say; the fact, however, remains, that next morning every member of ou_arty was late for breakfast. My wife and I were the first to put in a_ppearance, Glenbarth followed shortly after, and Miss Trevor was last of all.
It struck me that the girl looked a little pale as she approached the windo_o bid me good morning, and as she prided herself upon her punctuality, _estingly reproved her for her late rising.
"I am afraid your gondola excursion proved too much for you," I said, in _antering tone, "or perhaps you dreamt of Doctor Nikola."
I expected her to declare in her usual vehement fashion that she would no_aste her time dreaming of any man, but to my combined astonishment and horro_er eyes filled with tears, until she was compelled to turn her head away i_rder to hide them from me. It was all so unexpected that I did not know wha_o think. As may be supposed, I had not the slightest intention of giving he_ain, nor could I quite see how I managed to do so. It was plain, however, that my thoughtless speech had been the means of upsetting her, and I wa_eartily sorry for my indiscretion. Fortunately my wife had not overheard wha_ad passed between us "Is he teasing you again, Gertrude?" she said, as sh_lipped her arm through her friend's. "Take my advice and have nothing to d_ith him. Treat him with contempt. Besides, the coffee is getting cold, an_hat is a very much more important matter. Let us sit down to breakfast."
Nothing could have been more opportune. We took our places at the table, an_y the time the servant had handed the first dishes Miss Trevor had recovere_erself sufficiently to be able to look me in the face, and to join in th_onversation without the likelihood of a catastrophe. Still there could be n_oubt that she was far from being in a happy frame of mind. I said as much t_y wife afterwards, when we were alone together.
"She told me she had had a very bad night," the little woman replied. "Ou_eeting with Doctor Nikola yesterday on the piazza upset her for some reaso_r another. She said that she had dreamt of nothing else. As you know, she i_ery highly strung, and when you think of the descriptions we have given he_f him, it is scarcely to be wondered at that she should attach an exaggerate_mportance to our unexpected meeting with him. That is the real explanation o_he mystery. One thing, however, is quite certain; in her present state o_ind she must see no more of him than can be helped. It might upset he_ltogether. Oh, why did he come here to spoil our holiday?"
"I cannot see that he has spoilt it, my dear," I returned, putting my ar_ound her waist and leading her to the window. "The girl will very soo_ecover from her fit of depression, and afterwards will be as merry as _arriage-bell. By the way, I don't know why I should think of it just now, bu_alking of marriage-bells reminds me that Glenbarth told me last night that h_hought Gertrude one of the nicest girls he had ever met."
"I am delighted to hear it," my wife answered. "And still more delighted t_hink that he has such good sense. Do you know, I have set my heart upon tha_oming to something. No! you needn't shake your head. For very many reasons i_ould be a most desirable match."
"For my own part I believe it was for no other reason that you bothered m_nto inviting him to join our party here. You are a matchmaker. I challeng_ou to refute the accusation."
"I shall not attempt to do so," she retorted with considerable hauteur. "It i_lways a waste of time to argue with you. At any rate you must agree with m_hat Gertrude would make an ideal duchess."
"So you have travelled as far as that, have you?" I inquired. "I must say tha_ou jump to conclusions very quickly. Because Glenbarth happens to have sai_n confidence to me (a confidence I am willing to admit I have shamefull_bused) that he considers Gertrude Trevor a very charming girl, it does no_ollow that he has the very slightest intention of asking her to be his wife.
Why should he?"
"Lords," she answered, as if that ought to clinch the argument. "Fancy a ma_osing as one of our hereditary legislators who doesn't know how to seize suc_ golden opportunity. As a good churchwoman I pray for the nobility ever_unday morning; and if not knowing where to look for the best wife in th_orld may be taken as a weakness and it undoubtedly is, then all I can say is, that they require all the praying for they can get!"
"But I should like to know, how is he going to marry the best wife in th_orld?" I asked.
"By asking her," she retorted. "He doesn't surely suppose she is going to as_im?"
"If he values his life he'd better not do that!" I said savagely. "He wil_ave to answer for it to me if he does!"
"Ah," she answered, her lips curling. "I thought as much. You are jealous o_im. You don't want him to ask her because you fancy that if he does you_eign will be over. A nice admission for a married man, I must say!"
"I presume you mean because I refuse to allow him to flirt with my wife?"
"I mean nothing of the kind, and you know it. How dare you say, Dick, that _lirt with the Duke?"
"Because you have confessed it," I answered with a grin of triumph, for I ha_ot her cornered at last. "Did you not say, only a moment ago, that if he di_ot know where to find the best wife in the world he was unfit to sit in th_ouse of Lords? Did you not say that he ought to be ashamed of himself if h_id not ask her to be his wife? Answer that, my lady."
"I admit that I did say it; but you know very well that I referred to Gertrud_revor!"
"Gertrude Trevor is not yet a wife. The best wife in the world is beside m_ow; and since you are already proved to be in the wrong you must perforce pa_he penalty."
She was in the act of doing so when Gertrude entered the room.
"Oh, dear," she began, hesitating in pretended consternation, "is there neve_o be an end of it?"
"An end of what?" demanded my wife with some little asperity, for she does no_ike her little endearments to be witnessed by other people.
"Of this billing and cooing," the other replied. "You two insane creature_ave been married more than four years, and yet a third person can never ente_he room without finding you love-making. I declare it upsets all one'_heories of marriage. One of my most cherished ideas was that this sort o_hing ceased with the honeymoon, and that the couple invariably lead a cat- and-dog life for the remainder of their existence."
"So they do," my wife answered unblushingly "And what can you expect when on_s a great silly creature who will not learn to jump away and be lookin_nnocently out of the window when he hears the handle turned? Never marry, Gertrude. Mark my words: you will repent it if you do!"
"Well, for ingratitude and cool impudence, that surpasses everything!" I sai_n astonishment. "Why, you audacious creature, not more than five minutes ag_ou were inviting me to co-operate in the noble task of finding a husband fo_iss Trevor!"
"Richard, how can you stand there and say such things?" she ejaculated.
"Gertrude, my dear, I insist that you come away at once. I don't know what h_ill say next."
Miss Trevor laughed.
"I like to hear you two squabbling," she said. "Please go on, it amuses me!"
"Yes, I will certainly go on," I returned. "Perhaps you heard her declare tha_he fears what I may say next. Of course she does. Allow me to tell you, Lad_atteras, that you are a coward. If the truth were known, it would be foun_hat you are trembling in your shoes at this moment. For two centimes, pai_own, I would turn King's evidence, and reveal the whole plot."
"You had better not, sir," she replied, shaking a warning finger at me. "I_hat case the letters from home shall be withheld from you, and you will no_now how your son and heir is progressing."
"I capitulate," I answered. "Threatened by such awful punishment I dare say n_ore. Miss Gertrude, will you not intercede for me?"
"I think that you scarcely deserve it," she retorted. "Even now you ar_eeping something back from me."
"Never mind, my dear, we'll let him off this time with a caution," said m_ife, "provided he promises not to offend again. And now, let us settle wha_e are going to do to-day."
When this important matter had been arranged it was reported to us that th_adies were to spend the morning shopping, leaving the Duke and myself free t_ollow our own inclinations. Accordingly, when we had seen them safely o_heir way to the Merceria, we held a smoking council to arrange how we shoul_ass the hours until lunch-time. As we discovered afterwards, we both had _ertain thought in our minds, which for some reason we scarcely liked t_roach to each other. It was settled, however, just as we desired, but in _ashion we least expected.
We were seated in the balcony outside our room, watching the animated traffi_n the Grand Canal below, when a servant came in search of us and handed me _ote. One glance at the characteristic writing was sufficient to show me tha_t was from Doctor Nikola. I opened it with an eagerness that I did no_ttempt to conceal, and read as follows:
"If you have nothing more important on hand this morning, can you spare th_ime to come and see me? As I understand the Duke of Glenbarth is with you, will you not bring him also? It will be very pleasant to have a chat upo_ygone days, and, what is more, I fancy this old house will interest you."
"Yours very truly,
"What do you say?" I inquired, when I had finished reading, "shall we go?"
"Let us do so by all means," the Duke replied. "It will be very interesting t_eet Nikola once more. There is one thing, however, that puzzles me: how di_e become aware of my arrival in Venice? You say he was with you on th_piazza,_ last night, so that he could not have been at the railway station, as I haven't been outside since I came, except for the row after dinner, _onfess it puzzles me."
"You should know by this time that it is useless to wonder how Nikola acquire_is knowledge," I replied. "For my own part I should like to discover hi_eason for being in Venice. I am very curious on that point."
Glenbarth shook his head solemnly.
"IF Nikola does not want us to know," he argued, "we shall leave his house a_ise as we entered it. If he does let us know, I shall begin to gro_uspicious, for in that case it is a thousand pounds to this half-smoked ciga_hat we shall be called upon to render him assistance. However, if you ar_repared to run the risk I will do so also."
"In that case," I said, rising from my chair and tossing what remained of m_igar into the water below, "let us get ready and be off. We may change ou_inds."
Ten minutes later we had chartered a gondola and were on our way to the Palac_evecce.
As a general rule when one sets out to pay a morning call one is not th_ictim of any particular nervousness; on this occasion; however, bot_lenbarth and I, as we confessed to each other afterwards, were distinctl_onscious of being in a condition which would be described by persons o_ature years as an unpleasant state of expectancy, but which by school boys i_enominated "funk." The Duke, I noticed, fidgeted with his cigar, allowed i_o go out, and then sat with it in his mouth unlighted. There was a far-awa_ook on his handsome face that told me that he was recalling some of th_vents connected with the time when he had been in Nikola's company. Thi_roved to be the case, for as we turned from the Grand Canal into the stree_n which the palace is situated, he said:
"By the way, Hatteras, I wonder what became of Baxter, Prendergrast, and thos_ther fellows?"
"Nikola may be able to tell us," I answered. Then I added after a short pause,
"By Jove, what strange times those were."
"Not half so strange to my thinking as our finding Nikola in Venice,"
Glenbarth replied. "That is the coincidence that astonishes me. But see, her_e are."
As he spoke the gondola drew up at the steps of the Palace Revecce, and w_repared to step ashore. As we did so I noticed that the armorial bearings o_he family still decorated the posts on either side of the door, but by th_ight of day the palace did not look nearly so imposing as it had done b_oonlight the night before. One thing about it was certainly peculiar. When w_rdered the gondolier to wait for us he shook his head. Not for anything woul_e remain there longer than was necessary to set us down. I accordingly pai_im off, and when we had ascended the steps we entered the building. O_ushing open the door we found ourselves standing in a handsome courtyard, i_he centre of which was a well, its coping elegantly carved with a design o_ruit and flowers. A broad stone staircase at the further end led up to th_loor above, but this, as was the case with everything else, showe_nmistakable signs of having been allowed to fall to decay. As no concierg_as to be seen, and there was no one in sight of whom we might make inquiries, we scarcely knew how to proceed. Indeed, we were just wondering whether w_hould take our chance and explore the lower regions in search of Nikola, whe_e appeared at the head of the staircase and greeted us.
"Good morning," he said, "pray come up. I must apologise for not having bee_ownstairs to receive you."
By the time he had finished speaking he had reached us, and was shaking hand_ith Glenbarth with the heartiness of an old friend.
"Let me offer you a hearty welcome to Venice," he said to Glenbarth after h_ad shaken hands with myself. Then looking at him once more, he added, "If yo_ill permit me to say so, you have changed a great deal since we last saw eac_ther."
"And you, scarcely at all," Glenbarth replied.
"It _is_ strange that I should not have done so," Nikola answered, I though_ little sadly, "for I think I may say without any fear of boasting that, since we parted at Pipa Lannu, I have passed through sufficient to change _ozen men. But we will not talk of that here. Let us come up to my room, whic_s the only place in this great house that is in the least degre_omfortable."
So saying he led the way up the stairs, and then along a corridor, which ha_nce been beautifully frescoed, but which was now sadly given over to damp an_ecay. At last, reaching a room in the front of the building, he threw ope_he door and invited us to enter. And here I might digress for a moment t_emark, that of all the men I have ever met, Nikola possessed the faculty o_eing able to make himself comfortable wherever he might be, in the greates_egree. He would have been at home anywhere. As a matter of fact, thi_articular apartment was furnished in a style that caused me considerabl_urprise. The room itself was large and lofty, while the walls wer_eautifully frescoed the work of one Andrea Bunopelli, of whom I shall hav_ore to say anon. The furniture was simple, but extremely good; a massive oa_riting-table stood beside one wall, another covered with books and papers wa_pposite it, several easy-chairs were placed here and there, another table i_he centre of the room supported various chemical paraphernalia, while book_f all sorts and descriptions, in all languages and bindings, were to b_iscovered in every direction.
"After what you have seen of the rest of the house, this strikes you as bein_ore homelike, does it not?" Nikola inquired, as he noticed the look o_stonishment upon our faces. "It is a queer old place, and the more I see o_t the stranger it becomes. Some time ago, and quite by chance, I becam_cquainted with its history; I do not mean the political history of th_espective families that have occupied it; you can find that in any guide- book. I mean the real, inner history of the house itself, embracing not a fe_f the deeds which have taken place inside its walls. I wonder if you would b_nterested if I were to tell you that in this very room, in the year fiftee_undred and eleven, one of the most repellent and cold-blooded murders of th_iddle Ages took place. Perhaps now that you have the scene before you yo_ould like to hear the story. You would? In that case pray sit down. Let m_ffer you this chair, Duke," he continued, and as he spoke he wheeled forwar_ handsomely carved chair from beside his writing-table. "Here, Hatteras, i_ne for you. I myself will take up my position here, so that I may be bette_ble to retain your attention for my narrative."
So saying he stood between us on the strip of polished floor which showe_etween two heavy oriental rugs.
"For some reasons," he began, "I regret that the story I have to tell shoul_un upon such familiar lines. I fancy, however, that the _denouement_ wil_rove sufficiently original to merit your attention. The year fifteen hundre_nd nine, the same which found the French victorious at Agnadello, and th_enetian Republic at the commencement of that decline from which it has neve_ecovered, saw this house in its glory. The owner, the illustrious Francesc_el Revecce, was a sailor, and had the honour of commanding one of the man_leets of the Republic. He was an ambitious man, a good fighter, and as suc_wice defeated the fleet of the League of Camberi."
"It was after the last of these victories that he married the beautifu_aughter of the Duke of Levano, one of the most bitter enemies of the Counci_f Ten. The husband being rich, famous, and still young enough to be admire_or his personal attractions; the bride one of the wealthiest, as well as on_f the most beautiful women in the Republic, it appeared as if all must b_ell with them for the remainder of their lives. A series of dazzling fetes, to which all the noblest and most distinguished of the city were invited, celebrated their nuptials and their possession of this house. Yet with it al_he woman was perhaps the most unhappy individual in the universe. Unknown t_er husband and her father she had long since given her love elsewhere; sh_as passionately attached to young Andrea Bunopelli, the man by whom th_rescoes of this room were painted. Finding that Fate demanded he_enunciation of Bunopelli, and her marriage to Revecce, she resolved to see n_ore of the man to whom she had given her heart. Love, however, prove_tronger than her sense of duty, and while her husband, by order of th_enate, had put to sea once more in order to drive back the French, who wer_hreatening the Adriatic, Bunopelli put into operation the scheme that wa_ltimately to prove their mutual undoing. Unfortunately for Revecce he was no_uccessful in his venture, and by and by news reached Venice that his flee_ad been destroyed, and that he himself had been taken prisoner. 'Now,' sai_he astute Bunopelli, 'is the time to act.' He accordingly took pens, paper, and his ink-horn, and in this very room concocted a letter which purported t_ear the signature of the commander of the French forces, into whose hands th_enetian admiral had fallen and then was. Its meaning was plain enough. I_roved that for a large sum of money Revecce had agreed to surrender th_enetian fleet, and, in order to secure his own safety, in case the Republi_hould lay hands on him afterwards, it was to be supposed that he himself ha_nly been taken prisoner after a desperate resistance, as had really been th_ase. The letter was written, and that night the painter himself dropped i_nto the lion's mouth. Revecce might return now as soon as he pleased. Hi_ate was prepared for him. Meanwhile the guilty pair spent the time as happil_s was possible under the circumstances, knowing full well, that should th_an against whom they had plotted return to Venice, it would only be to fin_imself arrested, and with the certainty, on the evidence of the incriminatin_etter, of being immediately condemned to death. Weeks and months went by. A_ast Revecce, worn almost to a skeleton by reason of his long imprisonment, did manage to escape. In the guise of a common fisherman he returned t_enice; reached his own house, where a faithful servant recognised him an_dmitted him to the palace. From the latter's lips he learnt all that ha_ranspired during his absence, and was informed of the villainous plot tha_ad been prepared against him. His wrath knew no bounds; but with it all h_as prudent. He was aware that if his presence in the city were discovered, nothing could save him from arrest. He accordingly hid himself in his ow_ouse and watched the course of events. What he saw was sufficient to confir_is worst suspicion. His wife was unfaithful to him, and her paramour was th_an to whom he had been so kind a friend, and so generous a benefactor. The_hen the time was ripe, assisted only by his servant, the same who ha_dmitted him to his house, he descended upon the unhappy couple. Under threat_f instant death he extorted from them a written confession of thei_reachery. After having made them secure, he departed for the council-chambe_nd demanded to be heard. He was the victim of a conspiracy, he declared, an_o prove that what he said was true he produced the confession he had that da_btained. He had many powerful friends, and by their influence an immediat_ardon was granted him, while permission was also given him to deal with hi_nemies as he might consider most desirable. He accordingly returned to thi_ouse with a scheme he was prepared to put into instant execution. It is not _retty story, but it certainly lends an interest to this room. The painter h_mprisoned here."
So saying Nikola stooped and drew back one of the rugs to which I have alread_eferred. The square outline of a trap-door showed itself in the floor. H_ressed a spring in the wall behind him, and the lid shot back, swung round, and disappeared, showing the black abyss below. A smell of damp vaults came u_o us. Then, when he had closed the trap-door again, Nikola drew the carpe_ack to its old position.
"The wretched man died slowly of starvation in that hole, and the woman, living in this room above, was compelled to listen to his agony without bein_ermitted the means of saving him. Can you imagine the scene? The dying wretc_elow, doing his best to die like a man in order not to distress the woman h_oved, and the outraged husband calmly pursuing his studies, regardless o_oth."
He looked from one to the other of us and his eyes burnt like living coals.
"It was brutish, it was hellish," cried Glenbarth, upon whom either the story, or Nikola's manner of narrating it, had produced an extraordinary effect. "Wh_id the woman allow it to continue? Was she mad that she did not summo_ssistance? Surely the authorities of a State which prided itself upon it_nlightenment, even in those dark ages, would not have tolerated such _hing?"
"You must bear in mind the fact that the Republic had given the husban_ermission to avenge his wrongs," said Nikola very quietly. "Besides, th_oman could not cry out for the reason that her tongue had been torn out a_he roots. When both were dead their bodies were tied together and thrown int_he canal, and the same day Revecce set sail again, to ultimately perish in _torm off the coast of Sicily. Now you know one of the many stories connecte_ith this old room. There are others in which that trap-door has played a_qually important part. I fear, however, none of them can boast so dramatic _etting as that I have just narrated to you."
"How, knowing all this, you can live in the house passes my comprehension,"
gasped Glenbarth, "I don't think I am a coward, but I tell you candidly that _ould not spend a night here, after what you have told me, for anything th_orld could give me."
"But surely you don't suppose that what happened in this room upwards o_everal hundred years ago could have any effect upon a living being to-day?"
said Nikola, with what I could not help thinking was a double meaning. "Let m_ell you, that far from being unpleasant it has decided advantages. As _atter of fact, it gives me the opportunity of being free to do what I like.
That is my greatest safeguard. I can go away for five years, if I please, an_eave the most valuable of my things lying about, and come back to th_iscovery that nothing is missing. I am not pestered by tourists who ask t_ee the frescoes, for the simple reason that the guides take very good car_ot to tell them the legend of the house, lest they may be called upon to tak_hem over it. Many of the gondoliers will not stop here after nightfall, an_he few who are brave enough to do so, invariably cross themselves befor_eaching, and after leaving it."
"I do not wonder at it," I said. "Taken altogether it is the most disma_welling I have ever set foot in. Do you mean to tell me that you live alon_n it?"
"Not entirely," he replied. "I have companions: an old man who comes in once _ay to attend to my simple wants, and my ever-faithful friend—"
"Apollyon," I cried, forestalling what he was about to say.
"Exactly, Apollyon. I am glad to see that you remember him."
He uttered a low whistle, and a moment later the great beast that I remembere_o well stalked solemnly into the room, and began to rub himself against th_eg of his master's chair.
"Poor old fellow," continued Nikola, picking him up and gently stroking him,
"he is growing very feeble. Perhaps it is not to be wondered at, for he i_lready far past the average age of the feline race. He has been in man_trange places, and has seen many queer things since last we met, but neve_nything much stranger than he has witnessed in this room."
"What do you mean?" I inquired. "What has the cat seen in this room that is s_trange?"
"Objects that we are not yet permitted to see," Nikola answered gravely. "Whe_ll is quiet at night, and I am working at that table, he lies curled up i_onder chair. For a time he will sleep contentedly, then I see him lift hi_ead and watch something, or somebody, I cannot say which, moving about in th_oom. At first I came to the conclusion that it must be a bat, or some nigh_ird, but that theory exploded. Bats do not remain at the same exact distanc_rom the floor, nor do they stand stationary behind a man's chair for an_ength of time. The hour will come, however, when it will be possible for u_o see these things; I am on the track even now."
Had I not known Nikola, and if I had not remembered some very curiou_xperiments he had performed for my special benefit two years before, I shoul_ave inclined to the belief that he was boasting. I knew him too well, however, to deem it possible that he would waste his time in such an idl_ashion.
"Do you mean to say," I asked, "that you really think that in time it will b_ossible for us to see things which at present we have no notion of? That w_hall be able to look into the world we have always been taught to conside_nknowable?"
"I do mean it," he replied. "And though you may scarcely believe it, it wa_or the sake of the information necessary to that end that I pestered Mr.
Wetherall, in Sydney, imprisoned you in Port Said, and carried the lady, wh_s now your wife, away to the island in the South Seas."
"This is most interesting," I said, while Glenbarth drew his chair a littl_loser.
"Pray tell us some of your adventures since we last saw you," he put in. "Yo_ay imagine how eager we are to hear."
Thereupon Nikola furnished us with a detailed description of all that he ha_een through since that momentous day when he had obtained possession of th_tick that had been bequeathed to Mr. Wetherall, by China Pete. He told u_ow, armed with this talisman, he had set out for China, where he engaged _an named Bruce, who must have been as plucky as Nikola himself, and togethe_hey started off in search of an almost unknown monastery in Thibet. H_escribed with a wealth of exciting detail the perilous adventures they ha_assed through, and how near they had been to losing their lives in attemptin_o obtain possession of a certain curious book in which were set forth th_ost wonderful secrets relating to the laws of Life and Death. He told us o_heir hairbreadth escapes on the journey back to civilisation, and showed ho_hey were followed to England by a mysterious Chinaman, whose undoubte_ission was to avenge the robbery, and to obtain possession of the book. A_his moment he paused, and I found the opportunity of asking him whether h_ad the book in his possession now.
"Would you care to see it?" he inquired. "If so, I will show it to you."
On our answering in the affirmative he crossed to his writing-table, unlocke_ drawer, and took from it a small, curiously-bound book, the pages of whic_ere yellow with age, and the writing so faded that it was almost impossibl_o decipher it.
"And now that you have plotted and planned, and suffered so much to obtai_ossession of this book, what use has it been to you?" I inquired, with almos_ feeling of awe, for it seemed impossible that a man could have endured s_uch for so trifling a return.
"In dabbling with such matters," Nikola returned, "one of the first lesson_ne learns is not to expect immediate results. There is the collected wisdo_f untold ages in that little volume, and when I have mastered the secret i_ontains, I shall, like the eaters of forbidden fruit, possess a knowledge o_ll things, Good and Evil."
Replacing the book in the drawer he continued his narrative, told us of hi_reat attempt to probe the secret of existence, and explained to us hi_ndeavour to put new life into a body already worn out by age.
"I was unsuccessful in what I set out to accomplish," he said; "but I advance_o far that I was able to restore the man his youth again. What I failed to d_as to give him the power of thought or will. It was the brain that was to_uch for me—that vital part of man without which he is nothing. When I hav_astered that secret I shall try again, and then, perhaps, I shall succeed.
But there is much to be accomplished first. Only I know how much!"
I looked at him in amazement. Was he jesting, or did he really suppose that i_as possible for him, or any other son of man, to restore youth, and by s_oing to prolong life perpetually? Yet he spoke with all his usua_arnestness, and seemed as convinced of the truth of what he said as if h_ere narrating some well-known fact. I did not know what to think. At last, seeing the bewilderment on our faces, I suppose, he smiled, and rising fro_is chair reminded us that if we had been bored we had only ourselves to than_or it. He accordingly changed the conversation by inquiring whether we ha_ade any arrangements for that evening. I replied that so far as I knew we ha_ot, whereupon he came forward with a proposition.
"In that case," said he, "if you will allow me to act as your guide to Venice, I think I could show you a side of the city you have never seen before. I kno_er as thoroughly as any man living, and I think I may safely promise tha_our party will spend an interesting couple of hours. What have you to say t_y proposal?"
"I am quite sure we shall be delighted," I replied, though not without certai_isgivings. "But I think I had better not decide until I have seen my wife. I_he has made no other arrangements, at what hour shall we start?"
"At what time do you dine?" he inquired.
"At seven o'clock," I replied. "Perhaps we might be able to persuade you t_ive us the pleasure of your company?"
"I thank you," he answered. "I fear I must decline, however. I am hermit-lik_n my habits so far as meals are concerned. If you will allow me I will cal_or you, shall we say at half-past eight? The moon will have risen by tha_ime, and we should spend a most enjoyable evening."
"At half-past eight," I said, "unless you hear to the contrary," and then ros_rom my chair. Glenbarth followed my example, and we accordingly bade Nikol_ood-bye. Despite our protest, he insisted on accompanying us down the grea_taircase to the courtyard below, his terrible cat following close upon hi_eels. Hailing a gondola, we bade the man take us back to our hotel. For som_inutes after we had said goodbye to Nikola we sat in silence as the boa_kimmed over the placid water.
"Well, what is your opinion of Nikola now?" I said, as we turned from the Ri_el Consiglio into the Grand Canal once more. "Has he grown any mor_ommonplace, think you, since you last saw him?"
"On the contrary, he is stranger than ever," Glenbarth replied. "I have neve_et any other man who resembled him in the slightest degree. What a ghastl_tory that was! His dramatic telling of it made it appear so real that toward_he end of it I was almost convinced that I could hear the groans of the poo_retch in the pit below, and see the woman wringing her hands and moaning i_he room in which we were sitting. Why he should have told it to us is what _annot understand, neither can I make out what his reasons can be for livin_n that house."
"Nikola's actions are like himself, entirely inexplicable," he answered. "Bu_hat he has some motive beyond the desire he expressed for peace and quiet, _ave not the shadow of a doubt."
"And now with regard to to-night," said the Duke, I am afraid a littl_ettishly. "I was surprised when you accepted his offer. Do you think Lad_atteras and Miss Trevor will care about such an excursion?"
"That is a question I cannot answer at present," I replied. "We must leave i_o them to decide. For my own part, I can scarcely imagine anything mor_nteresting."
When I reached Galaghetti's we informed my wife and Miss Trevor of Nikola'_ffer, half expecting that the latter, from the manner in which she ha_ehaved at the mere mention of his name that morning, would decline t_ccompany us, and, therefore, that the excursion would fall through. To m_urprise, however, she did nothing of the kind. She fell in with the idea a_nce, and, so far as we could see, without reluctance of any kind.
There was nothing for it, therefore, under these circumstances, but for me t_all back upon the old commonplace, and declare that women are difficul_reatures to understand.