WHEN I reached England, the icy hand of winter was upon the land. The street_ere banked feet high with snow, and the Thames at London Bridge was nothin_ut a mass of floating ice upon which an active man could have passed fro_hore to shore. Poor homeless wretches were to be seen sheltering themselve_n every nook and cranny, and the morning papers teemed with gruesom_escriptions of dead bodies found in drifts, of damage done to property, an_f trains delayed and snowed up in every conceivable part of the country. Suc_ winter had not been experienced for years, and when I arrived and realise_hat it meant for myself, I could not but comment on my madness in having lef_n Australian summer to participate in such a direful state of things.
Immediately on arrival I made my way to Blankerton's Hotel, off the Strand, and installed myself there. It was a nice, quiet place, and suited m_dmirably. The voyage home from Australia had done me a world of good—that i_o say as far as my bodily health was concerned—but it was doubtful whether i_ad relieved my brain of any of the pressure recent events in Australia ha_laced upon it. Though nearly three months had elapsed since my terribl_isappointment in the Boolga Ranges, I had not been able to reconcile mysel_o it; and as the monotonous existence on board ship allowed me more leisure, it probably induced me to brood upon it more than I should otherwise hav_one. At any rate, my first thought on reaching London was that I was in th_ame city with my enemy, and my second to wonder how I could best get eve_ith him. All day and all night this idea held possession of my brain. I coul_hink of nothing but my hatred of the man, and as often as I saw his nam_entioned in the columns of the Press, the more vehement my desire to punis_im became. Looking back on it now it seems to me that _I_ could not hav_een quite right in my head at that time, though to all intents and purposes _as as rational a being as ever stepped in shoe leather. In proof of what _ean, I can remember, times out of number, talking sensibly and calmly enoug_n the smoking room, and then going upstairs to my bedroom and leaning out o_y window, from which a glimpse of the Strand was obtainable, to watch th_onstant stream of passers by and to wonder if Bartrand were among the number.
I would imagine myself meeting him and enticing him into one of those dar_assages leading from the gas-lit thoroughfare, and then, when I had reveale_y identity, drawing a knife from my sleeve and stabbing him to hi_reacherous heart. On another occasion I spent hours concocting a mos_ngenious plan for luring him on to the Embankment late at night, an_rranging that my steps to my hotel, feeling about as miserable as it would b_ossible for a man to be. What did life contain for me now? I asked mysel_his question for the hundredth time, as _I_ walked up the sombre street; and the answer was, _Nothing—_ absolutely nothing. By judiciously investin_he amount I had inherited under my father's will I had secured to myself a_ncome approaching two hundred pounds a year, but beyond that I had not _enny in the world. I had been sick to death of Australia for some year_efore I had thought of leaving it, and my last great disappointment had no_urnished me with any desire to return to it. On the other hand I had seen to_uch of the world to be able to settle down to an office life in England, an_y enfeebled constitution, even had I desired to do so, would have effectivel_ebarred me from enlisting in the Army. What, therefore, was to become o_e—for I could not entertain the prospect of settling down to a sort o_egetable existence on my small income—I could not see. "Oh, if only I had no_een taken ill after Ben's death," I said to myself again and again; "wha_ight I not then have done?" As it was, that scoundrel Bartrand had mad_illions out of what was really my property, and as a result I was a gentee_auper without a hope of any sort in the world. As the recollection of m_isappointment came into my mind, I ground my teeth and cursed him; and fo_he rest of my walk occupied myself thinking of the different ways in which _ight compass his destruction, and at the same time hating myself for lackin_he necessary pluck to put any one of them into execution.
As I reached the entrance to my hotel a paper boy came round the corner cryin_is wares.
'"Ere yer are, sir; 'orrible murder in the West End," he said, running to mee_e; and, wanting something to occupy me until breakfast should be ready, _ought a copy and went in and seated myself by the hall fire to read it. O_he second page was a column with the following headline, in large type:—
"SHOCKING TRAGEDY IN THE WEST END." Feeling in the humour for this sort o_iterature, I began to read. The details were as follows:—
"It is our unfortunate duty to convey to the world this morning the details o_ ghastly tragedy which occurred last night in the West End. The victim wa_ajor-General Charles Brackington, the well-known M.P. for Pollingworth, whos_peech on the Short Service Extension Bill only last week created such _ensation among military men. So far the whole affair is shrouded in mystery, but, it is believed, the police are in possession of a clue which wil_ltimately assist them in their identification of the assassin. From inquirie_ade we learn that Major-General Brackington last night visited the Roya_hakespeare Theatre in company with his wife and daughter, and having escorte_hem to Chester Square, where his residence is situated, drove back to th_eteran Club, of which he is one of the oldest and most distinguished members.
There he remained in conversation with some brother officers until a quarte_ast twelve o'clock, when he hailed a passing hansom and bade the man driv_im home. This order was given in the hearing of one of the Club servants, whose evidence should prove of importance later on. From the time he left th_lub until half-past one o'clock nothing more was seen of the unfortunat_entleman. Then Police-Sergeant Maccinochie, while passing along Piccadilly, discovered a man lying in the centre of the road almost opposite the gates o_he Royal Academy. Calling the constable on the beat to his assistance, h_arried the body to the nearest gas lamp and examined it. To his horror h_ecognised Major-General Brackington, with whose features he was wel_cquainted. Life, however, was extinct. Though convinced of this fact, h_evertheless obtained a cab and drove straightway to Charing Cross Hospital, where his suspicions were confirmed. One singular circumstance was the_iscovered—with the exception of the left eyebrow, which had been cu_ompletely away, evidently with some exceedingly sharp instrument, there wa_ot a wound of any sort or description upon the body. Death, so the medica_uthorities asserted, had been caused by an overdose of some anaesthetic, though how administered it was impossible to say. The police are now engage_ndeavouring to discover the cabman, whom it is stated, the Club servant feel_ure he can identify."
With a feeling of interest, for which I could not at all account, seeing tha_oth the victim and the cabman, whom the police seemed determined to associat_ith the crime, were quite unknown to me, I re-read the paragraph, and the_ent in to breakfast. While I was eating I turned the page of the paper, an_ropping it against the cruet stand, scanned the fashionable intelligence.
Sandwiched in between the news of the betrothal of the eldest son of a duke, and the demise of a well-known actress, was a paragraph which stirred me t_he depths of my being. It ran as follows:—
"It is stated on reliable authority that Mr. Richard Bartrand, the well-know_ustralian millionaire, has purchased from the executors of the late Earl o_ount Chennington the magnificent property known as Chennington Castle i_hropshire, including several farms, with excellent fishing and shooting."
* * * * *
I crushed the paper up and threw it angrily away from me. So he was going t_ose as a county magnate, was he—this swindler and liar!—and upon the wealt_e has filched from me? If he had been before me then, I think I could hav_ound it in my heart to kill him where he stood, regardless of th_onsequences.
After breakfast I went for another walk, this time in a westerly direction. A_ passed along the crowded pavements I thought of the bad luck which ha_ttended me all my life. From the moment I entered the world nothing seemed t_ave prospered that I had taken in hand. As a boy I was notorious for my ill- luck at games; as a man good fortune was always conspicuously absent from m_usiness ventures; and when at last a chance for making up for it did come i_y way, success was stolen from me just as I was about to grasp it.
Turning into Pall Mall, I made my way in the direction of St. James's Street, intending to turn thence into Piccadilly. As I passed the Minerva Club th_oor swung open, and to my astonishment my eldest brother, who had succeede_o the baronetcy and estates on my father's death, came down the steps. Tha_e recognised me there could be no doubt. He could not have helped seeing m_ven if he had wished to do so, and for a moment, I felt certain, he did no_now what to do. He and I had never been on good terms, and when I realise_hat, in spite of my many years' absence from home, he was not inclined t_ffer me a welcome, I made as if I would pass on. He, however, hastened afte_e, and caught me before I could turn the corner.
"Gilbert," he said, holding out his hand, but speaking without either emotio_r surprise, "this is very unexpected. I had no notion you were in England.
How long is it since you arrived?"
"I reached London yesterday," I answered, with a corresponding coolness, as _ook his hand. For, as I have said, there was that in his face which betraye_o pleasure at seeing me.
He was silent for half a minute or so, and I could see that he was wonderin_ow he could best get rid of me.
"You have heard of our father's death, I suppose?" he said at last.
"I learnt the news in Sydney," I replied. "I have also received the fiv_housand pounds he left me."
He made no comment upon the smallness of the amount in proportion to the larg_ums received by himself and the rest of the family, nor did he refer in an_ther way to our parent's decease. Any one watching us might have been excuse_ad they taken us for casual acquaintances, so cool and distant were we wit_ne another. Presently I enquired, for politeness sake, after his wife, wh_as the daughter of the Marquis of Belgravia, and whom I had, so far, neve_een.
"Ethelberta unfortunately is not very well at present," he answered. "Si_ames Peckleton has ordered her complete rest and quiet, and I regret, fo_hat reason, I shall not be able to see as much of you as I otherwise shoul_ave hoped to do. Is it your intention to remain very long in England?"
"I have no notion," I replied, truthfully. "I maybe here a week—a year—or fo_he rest of my life. But you need not be afraid, I shall not force my societ_pon you. From your cordial welcome home, I gather that the less you see of m_he more you will appreciate the relationship we bear to one another. Goo_orning."
Without more words I turned upon my heel and strolled on down the street, leaving him looking very uncomfortable upon the pavement. There and then _egistered a vow that, come what might, I would have no more to do with my ow_amily.
Leaving Pall Mall behind me, I turned up St. James's Street and made my wa_nto Piccadilly. In spite of the slippery roads, the streets were well fille_ith carriages, and almost opposite Burlington House I noticed a stylis_rougham drawn up beside the footpath. Just as I reached it the owner left th_hop before which it was standing, and crossed the pavement towards it.
Notwithstanding the expensive fur coat he wore, the highly polished top hat, and his stylish appearance generally, I knew him at once _for Bartrand, m_reatest enemy on earth._ He did not see me, for which I could not hel_eeling thankful; but I had seen him, and the remembrance of his face haunte_e for the rest of my walk. The brougham, the horses, even the obsequiou_ervants, should have been mine. I was the just, lawful owner of them all.
After dinner that evening I was sitting in the smoking room looking into th_ire and, as usual, brooding over my unfortunate career, when an elderl_entleman, seated in an armchair opposite me, laid his paper on his knee an_ddressed me.
"It's a very strange thing about these murders," he said, shaking his head. "_on't understand it at all. Major-General Brackington last night, and now Lor_eryworth this morning."
"Do you mean to say there has been another murder of the same kind to-day?" _nquired, with a little shudder as I thought how nearly his subject coincide_ith the idea in my own head.
"I do," he answered. "The facts of the case are as follows:—At eleven o'cloc_his morning the peer in question, who, you must remember, was for many year_overnor of one of our Australian capitals, walked down the Strand in compan_ith the Duke of Garth and Sir Charles Mandervan. Reaching Norfolk Street h_ade his friends 'good-bye,' and left them. From that time until a quarte_ast one o'clock, when some children went in to play in Dahlia Court, Camde_own, and found the body of an elderly gentleman lying upon the ground in _eculiar position, he was not seen again. Frightened at their discovery, th_oungsters ran out and informed the policeman on the beat, who returned wit_hem to the spot indicated. When he got there he discovered that life had bee_xtinct for some time."
"But what reason have the authorities for connecting this case with that o_ajor-General Brackington?"
"Well, in the first place, on account of the similarity in the victims' ranks; and in the second, because the same extraordinary anaesthetic seems to hav_een the agent in both cases; and thirdly, for the reason that the sam_eculiar mutilation was practised. When Lord Beryworth was found, his lef_yebrow had been cut completely away. Strange, is it not?"
"Horrible, I call it," I answered with a shudder. "It is to be hoped th_olice will soon run the murderer to earth."
If I had only known what I do now I wonder if I should have uttered tha_entiment with so much fervour? I very much doubt it.
The following evening, for some reason or another, certainly not any desir_or enjoyment, I visited a theatre. The name or nature of the piece performe_ cannot now remember. I only know that I sat in the pit, in the front row, somewhere about the middle, and that I was so hemmed in by the time th_urtain went up, that I could not move hand or foot. After the littl_ntroductory piece was finished the more expensive parts of the house began t_ill, and I watched with a bitter sort of envy the gaiety and enjoyment o_hose before me. My own life seemed one perpetually unpleasant dream, in whic_ had to watch the happiness of the world and yet take no share in it myself.
But unhappy as I thought myself then, my cup of sorrow was as yet far fro_eing full. Fate had arranged that it should be filled to overflowing, an_hat I should drink it to the very dregs.
Five minutes before the curtain rose on the play of the evening, there was _tir in one of the principal boxes on the prompt side of the side of th_ouse, and a moment later two ladies and three gentlemen entered. Who th_adies, and two of the gentlemen were I had no notion; the third man, however, I had no difficulty in recognising, he was Bartrand. As I saw him a tremou_an through me, and every inch of my body quivered under the intensity of m_motion. For the rest of the evening I paid no attention to the play, but sa_atching my enemy, and writhing with fury every time he stooped to speak t_hose with whom he sat, or to glance superciliously round the house. On hi_hirt front he wore an enormous diamond, which sparkled and glittered like a_vil eye. So much did it fascinate me that I could not withdraw my eyes fro_t, and as I watched I felt my hands twitching to be about its owner's throat.
When the play came to an end, and the audience began to file out of th_heatre into the street, I hastened to the front to see my enemy emerge. H_as standing on the steps, with his friends, putting on his gloves, while h_aited for his carriage to come up. I remained in the crowd, and watched hi_s a cat watches a bird. Presently a magnificent landau, drawn by the sam_eautiful pair of thoroughbred horses I had seen in the morning, drew u_efore the portico. The footman opened the door, and the man I hated with suc_ deadly fervour escorted his friends across the pavement and, having place_hem inside, got in himself. As the vehicle rolled away the bitterest curse m_rain could frame followed it. Oh, if only I could have found some way o_evenging myself upon him, how gladly I would have seized upon it.
Leaving the theatre I strolled down the street, not caring very much where _ent. A little snow was falling, and the air was bitterly cold. I passed alon_he Strand, and not feeling at all like bed, turned off to my left hand, an_ade my way towards Oxford Street. I was still thinking of Bartrand, and i_eemed to me that, as I thought, my hatred became more and more intense. Th_ery idea of living in the same city with him, of breathing the same air, o_eeing the same sights and meeting the same people was hideously repulsive t_e. _I_ wanted him out of the world, but I wanted to do the deed myself, t_unish him with my own hand; I wanted to see him lying before me with hi_ightless eyes turned up to the skies, and his blood crimsoning the snow, an_o be able to assure myself that at last he was dead, and that I, the man h_ad wronged, had killed him. What would it matter? Supposing I were hung fo_is murder! To have punished him would surely have been worth that. At an_ate I should have been content.
When I reached Oxford Street I again turned to my left hand, and walked alon_he pavement as far as the Tottenham Court Road, thence down the Charing Cros_oad into Shaftesbury Avenue. By this time the snow was falling thick an_ast. Poor homeless wretches were crouched in every sheltered corner, and onc_ tall man, thin and ragged as a scarecrow, rose from a doorway, where he ha_een huddled up beside a woman, and hurried after me.
"Kind gentleman," he said in a voice that at any other time could not hav_ailed to touch my heart, "for the love of God, I implore you to help me. I a_tarving, and so is my wife in the doorway yonder. We are dying of cold an_unger. We have not touched bite or sup for nearly forty-eight hours, an_nless you can spare us the price of a night's lodging and a little food _ssure you she will not see morning."
I stopped and faced him.
"What will you do for it?" I asked, with a note in my voice that frightene_ven myself. "I must have a bargain. If I give you money, what will you do fo_t?"
"Anything," the poor wretch replied. "Give me money, and I swear I will d_nything you may like to ask me."
"Anything?" I cried. "That is a large word. Will you commit murder?"
I looked fixedly at him, and under the intensity of my gaze he half shrun_way from me.
"Murder?" he echoed faintly.
"Murder? Yes, murder," I cried, hysterically. "I want murder done. Nothin_lse will satisfy me. Kill me the man I'll show you, and you shall have al_ou want. Are you prepared to do so much to save your life?"
He wrung his hands and moaned. Then he pulled himself together.
"Yes, I'll do anything," he answered hoarsely. "Give me the money; let me hav_ood first."
As he spoke his wife rose from the doorstep, and came swiftly across the sno_owards us. She must have been a fine-looking woman in her day; now her face, with its ghastly, lead-coloured complexion and dark, staring eyes wa_ndescribably horrible. On her head she wore the ruins of a fashionabl_onnet.
"Come away!" she cried, seizing the man fiercely by the arm. "Can't you se_hat you are talking to the Devil, and that he's luring your soul to hell?
Come away, my husband, I say, and leave him! If we are to die, let us do i_ere in the clean snow like honest folk, not on the scaffold with ropes roun_ur necks. There is your answer, Devil!"
As she said this she raised her right hand and struck me a blow full and fai_pon the mouth. I felt the blood trickle down my lip.
"Take that, Devil," she shouted; "and now take your temptations elsewhere, fo_ou've met your match here."
As if I were really the person she alluded to, I picked up my heels and ra_own the street as hard as I could go, not heeding where I went, but onl_onscious that at last I had spoken my evil thoughts aloud. Was I awake, o_as I dreaming? It all seemed like some horrible nightmare, and yet I coul_eel the hard pavement under my feet, and my face was cold as ice under th_utting wind.
Just as I reached Piccadilly Circus a clock somewhere in the neighbourhoo_truck _one._ Then it dawned upon me that I had been walking for two hours.
I stood for a moment by the big fountain, and then crossed the road, and wa_bout to make my way down the continuation of Regent Street into Waterlo_lace, when I heard the shrill sound of a policeman's whistle. Almos_mmediately I saw an officer on the other side of the road dash down th_avement. I followed him, intent upon finding out what had occasioned the cal_or assistance. Bound into Jermyn Street sped the man ahead of me, and clos_t his heels I followed. For something like three minutes we continued ou_eadlong career, and it was not until we had reached Bury Street that w_ounded a halt. Here we discovered a group of men standing on the pavemen_atching another man, who was kneeling beside a body upon the ground. He wa_xamining it with the assistance of his lantern.
"What's the matter, mate?" inquired the officer whom I had followed fro_iccadilly. "What have you got there?"
"A chap I found lying in the road yonder," replied the policeman upon hi_nees. "Have a look at him, and then be off for a stretcher. I fancy he'_ead; but, anyway, we'd best get him to the hospital as soon as maybe."
My guide knelt down, and turned his light full upon the victim's face. _eered over his shoulder in company with the other bystanders. The face we sa_efore us was the countenance of a gentleman, and also of a well-to-do membe_f society. He was clothed in evening dress, over which he wore a heavy an_xpensive fur coat. An opera hat lay in the gutter, where it had probably bee_lown by the wind, and an umbrella marked the spot where the body had bee_ound in the centre of the street. As far as could be gathered withou_xamining it, there was no sign of blood about the corpse; one thing, however, was painfully evident— _the left eyebrow had been severed from the face i_oto._ From the cleanness of the cut the operation must have been performe_ith an exceedingly sharp instrument.
A more weird and ghastly sight than that snow-covered pavement, with th_lakes falling thick and fast upon it, the greasy road, the oilskinne_olicemen, the curious bystanders, and the silent figure on the ground, coul_carcely be imagined. I watched until the man I had followed returned with a_mbulance stretcher, and then accompanied the mournful _cortege_ a hundre_ards or so on its way to the hospital. Then, being tired of the matter, _ranched off the track, and prepared to make my way back to my hotel as fas_s my legs would take me.
My thoughts were oppressed with what I had seen. There was a grim fascinatio_bout the recollection of the incident that haunted me continually, and whic_ could not dispel, try how I would. I pictured Bartrand lying in the sno_xactly as I had seen the other, and fancied myself coming up and finding him.
At that moment I was passing Charing Cross Railway Station. With the exceptio_f a policeman sauntering slowly along on the other side of the street, _runken man staggering in the road, and a hansom cab approaching us fro_rafalgar Square, I had the street to myself. London slept while the sno_ell, and murder was being done in her public thoroughfares. The hansom cam_loser, and for some inscrutable reason I found myself beginning to take _ersonal interest in it. This interest became even greater when, with _pluttering and sliding of feet, the horse came to a sudden standstil_longside the footpath where I stood. Next moment a man attired in a thic_loak threw open the apron and sprang out.
"Mr. Pennethorne, I believe?" he said, stopping me, and at the same tim_aising his hat.
"That is my name," I answered shortly, wondering how he knew me and what o_arth he wanted. "What can I do for you?"
He signed to his driver to go, and then, turning to me, said, at the same tim_lacing his gloved hand upon my arm in a confidential way:
"I am charmed to make your acquaintance. May I have the pleasure of walking _ittle way with you? I should be glad of your society, and I can then tell yo_y business."
His voice was soft and musical, and he spoke with a peculiar languor that wa_ot without its charm. But as I could not understand what he wanted with me, _ut the question to him as plainly as I could without being absolutely rude, and awaited his answer. He gave utterance to a queer little laugh before h_eplied:
"I want the pleasure of your company at supper for one thing," he said. "And _ant to be allowed to help you in a certain matter in which you are vitall_nterested, for another. The two taken together should, I think, induce you t_ive me your attention."
"But I don't know you," I blurted out. "To the best of my belief I have neve_et eyes on you before. What business, therefore, can you have with me?"
"You shall know all in good time," he answered. "In the meantime let m_ntroduce myself. My name is Nikola. I am a doctor by profession, a scientis_y choice. I have few friends in London, but those I have are the best that _an could desire. I spend my life in the way that pleases me most; that is t_ay, in the study of human nature. I have been watching you since you arrive_n England, and have come to the conclusion that you are a man after my ow_eart. If you will sup with me as I propose, I don't doubt but that we shal_gree admirably, and what is more to the point, perhaps, we shall be able t_o each other services of inestimable value. I may say candidly that it lie_n your power to furnish me with something I am in search of. I, on my part, will, in all probability, be able to put in your way what you most desire i_he world."
I stopped in my walk and faced him. Owing to the broad brim of his hat, an_he high collar of his cape, I could scarcely see his face. But his eye_ivetted my attention at once.
"And that is?" I said.
"Revenge," he answered, simply. "Believe me, my dear Mr. Pennethorne, I a_erfectly acquainted with your story. You have been wronged; you desire t_venge yourself upon your enemy. It is a very natural wish, and if you wil_up with me as I propose, I don't doubt but that I can put the power you see_nto your hands. Do you agree?"
All my scruples vanished before that magic word _revenge,_ and, strange a_t my seem, without more ado I consented to his proposal. He walked into th_oad and, taking a whistle from his pocket, blew three _staccato_ notes upo_t. A moment later the hansom from which he had jumped to accost me appeare_ound a corner and came rapidly towards us. When it pulled up at the kerb, an_he apron had been opened, this peculiar individual invited me to take m_lace in it, which I immediately did. He followed my example, and sat dow_eside me, and then, without any direction to the driver, we set off up th_treet.
For upwards of half-an-hour we drove on without stopping, but in whic_irection we were proceeding I could not for the life of me discover. Th_heels were rubber-tyred and made no noise upon the snow-strewn road; m_ompanion scarcely spoke, and the only sound to be heard was the peculia_umping noise made by the springs, the soft _pad-pad_ of the horse's hoofs, and an occasional grunt of encouragement from the driver. At last it becam_vident that we were approaching our destination. The horse's pace slackened; I detected the sharp ring of his shoes on a paved crossing, and presently w_assed under an archway and came to a standstill.
"Here we are at last, Mr. Pennethorne," said my mysterious conductor. "Allo_e to lift the glass and open the apron."
He did so, and then we alighted. To my surprise we stood in a squar_ourtyard, surrounded on all sides by lofty buildings. Behind the cab was _arge archway, and at the further end of it the gate through which we ha_vidently entered. The houses were in total darkness, but the light of the ca_amps was sufficient to show me a door standing open on my left hand.
"I'm afraid you must be very cold, Mr. Pennethorne," said Nikola, for by tha_ame I shall henceforth call him, as he alighted, "but if you will follow me _hink I can promise that you shall soon be as warm as toast."
As he spoke he led the way across the courtyard towards the door I have jus_entioned. When he reached it he struck a match and advanced into th_uilding. The passage was a narrow one, and from its appearance, and that o_he place generally, I surmised that the building had once been used as _actory of some kind. Half-way down the passage a narrow wooden staircase le_p to the second floor, and in Indian file we ascended it. On reaching th_irst landing my guide opened a door which stood opposite him, and immediatel_ bright light illumined the passage.
"Enter, Mr. Pennethorne, and let me make you welcome to my poor abode," sai_ikola, placing his hand upon my shoulder and gently pushing me before him.
I complied with his request, half expecting to find the room poorly furnished.
To my surprise, however, it was as luxuriously appointed as any I had eve_een. At least a dozen valuable pictures—I presume they must have bee_aluable, though personally I know but little about such things—decorated th_alls; a large and quaintly-carved cabinet stood in one corner and held _ultitude of china vases, bowls, plates, and other knick-knacks; a massive oa_ideboard occupied a space along one wall and supported a quantity of silve_late; while the corresponding space upon the opposite wall was filled by _ookcase reaching to within a few inches of the ceiling, and crammed wit_orks of every sort and description. A heavy pile carpet, so soft that ou_ovements made no sound upon it, covered the floor; luxurious chairs an_ouches were scattered about here and there, while in an alcove at the farthe_nd was an ingenious apparatus for conducting chemical researches. Supper wa_aid on the table in the centre, and when we had warmed ourselves at the fir_hat glowed in the grate, we sat down to it. As if to add still further to m_urprise, when the silver covers of the dishes were lifted, everything wa_ound to be smoking hot. How this had been managed I could not tell, for ou_rrival at that particular moment could not have been foretold with any chanc_f certainty, and _I_ had seen no servant enter the room. But I was ver_ungry, and as the supper before me was the best _I_ had sat down to fo_ears, you may suppose I was but little inclined to waste time on a matter o_uch trivial importance.
When we had finished and I had imbibed the better part of two bottles o_eidseck, which my host had assiduously pressed upon me, we left the table an_nsconced ourselves in chairs on either side of the hearth. Then, for th_irst time, I was able to take thorough stock of my companion. He was a man o_erhaps a little above middle height, broad shouldered, but slimly built. Hi_legant proportions, however, gave but a small idea of the enormous strength _fterwards discovered him to possess. His hair and eyes were black as night, his complexion was a dark olive hue, confirming that suspicion of foreig_xtraction which his name suggested, but of which his speech afforded n_race. He was attired in faultless evening dress, the dark colour of whic_eightened the extraordinary pallor of his complexion.
"You have a queer home here, Dr. Nikola!" I said, as I accepted the cheroot h_ffered me.
"Perhaps it is a little out of the common," he answered, with one of his quee_miles; "but then that is easily accounted for. Unlike the general run o_uman beings, I am not gregarious. In other words, I am very much averse t_hat is called the society of my fellow man; I prefer, under mos_ircumstances, to live alone. At times, of course, that is not possible. Bu_he idea of living in a flat, shall we say, with perhaps a couple of familie_bove me, as many on either side, and the same number below; or in an hotel o_ boarding-house, in which I am compelled to eat my meals in company wit_alf-a-hundred total strangers, is absolutely repulsive to me. I cannot bea_t, and therefore I choose my abode elsewhere. A private dwelling-house _ight, of course, take, but that would necessitate servants and othe_ncumbrances; this building suits my purposes admirably. As you may hav_oticed, it was once a boot and shoe factory; but after the proprieto_ommitted suicide by cutting his throat—which, by the way, he did in this ver_oom—the business failed; and until I fell across it, it was supposed to b_aunted, and, in consequence, has remained untenanted."
"But do you mean to say you live here alone?" I enquired, surprised at th_ueerness of the idea.
"In a certain sense, yes—in another, no. That is, I have a deaf and dum_hinese servant who attends to my simple wants, and a cat who for years ha_ever left me."
"You surprise me more and more!"
"And why? Considering that I know China better than you know that part o_ondon situated, shall we say, between Blackfriars Bridge and Charing Cross, and have spent many years of my life here, the first should not astonish you.
And as I am warmly attached to my cat, who has accompanied me in all m_anderings about the globe, I cannot see that you should be surprised at th_ther. Perhaps you would like to see both?"
As may be supposed, I jumped eagerly at the opportunity; and upon my sayin_o, Nikola pressed a knob in the wall at his side. He had hardly taken hi_inger away before my ear detected the shuffling of feet in the passag_utside. Next moment the door opened, and in walked the most hideous man _ave ever yet beheld in my life. In Australia I had met many queer specimen_f the Chinese race, but never one whose countenance approached i_epulsiveness that of the man Nikola employed as his servant. In stature h_as taller than his master, possibly a couple or three inches above six feet, and broad in proportion. His eyes squinted inwardly, his face was wrinkled an_eamed in every direction, his nose had plainly been slit at some time o_nother, and I noticed that his left ear was missing from his head. He wa_ressed in his native costume, but when he turned round I noticed that hi_igtail had been shorn off at the roots.
"You are evidently puzzled about something," said Nikola, who had bee_atching my face.
"I must confess I am," I answered. "It is this. If he is deaf and dumb, as yo_ay, how did he hear the bell you rang, and also how do you communicate you_rders to him?"
"This knob," replied Nikola, placing his finger on the bell-push, "releases _maller shutter and reveals a disc that signifies that I desire his services.
When I wish to give him instructions I speak to him in his own language, an_e answers it. It is very simple."
"But you said just now that he is deaf and dumb," I cried, thinking I ha_aught him in an equivocation. "If so, how can he hear or speak?"
"So he is," replied my host, looking at me as he spoke, with an amused smil_pon his face. "Quite deaf and dumb."
"Then how can you make him hear. And how does he reply?"
"As I say, by word of mouth. Allow me to explain. You argue that because th_oor fellow has no tongue wherewith to speak, and his ears are incapable o_earing what you say to him, that it is impossible for him to carry on _onversation. So far as your meaning goes, you are right. But you mus_emember that, while no sound can come from his lips, it is still possible fo_he words to be framed. In that case our eyes take the place of our ears, an_hus the difficulty is solved. The principle is a simple one, and a visit t_ny modern deaf and dumb school in London will show you its efficacy. Surel_ou are not going to ask me to believe you have not heard of the syste_efore?"
"Of course I have heard of it," I answered, "but in this case th_ircumstances are so different."
"Simply because the man is a Chinaman—that is all. If his skin were whit_nstead of yellow, and he wore English dress and parted his hair in th_iddle, you would find nothing extraordinary in it. At any rate, perpetua_ilence on the part of a servant and physical inability to tittle-tattle o_he affairs one would wish kept a secret, is a luxury few men can boast."
"I agree with you; but how did the poor fellow come to lose his faculties?"
"To let you into that secret would necessitate the narration of a long and, _ear to you, uninteresting story. Suffice that he was the confidential servan_f the Viceroy of Kweichow until he was detected in an amiable plot t_ssassinate his master with poisoned rice. He was at once condemned to die b_ling-chi_ or the death of a thousand cuts, but by the exercise of a littl_nfluence which, fortunately for him, I was able to bring to bear, I manage_o get him off."
"I wonder you care to have a man capable of concocting such a plot about you,"
"And why? Because the poor devil desired to kill the man he hated, is i_ertain that he should wish to terminate the existence of his benefactor, fo_hom he has a great affection? Moreover, he is a really good cook, understand_y likes and dislikes, never grumbles, and is quite conscious that if he lef_e he would never get another situation in the world. In the nineteent_entury, when good servants are so difficult to procure, the man is worth _old mine—a Wheel of Fortune, if you like."
"You would argue, then," I said, disregarding the latter part of his speech,
"that if a man hates another he is justified in endeavouring to rid the worl_f him?"
"Necessarily it must depend entirely on the circumstances of the case,"
replied Nikola, leaning back in his chair and steadfastly regarding me. "Whe_ man attempts to do, or succeeds in doing, me an injury, I invariably repa_im in his own coin. Presume, for instance, that a man were to rob you of wha_ou loved best, and considered most worth having, in the world—the affectio_f your wife, shall we say?—in that case, if you were a man of spirit yo_ould feel justified in meting out to him the punishment he deserved, eithe_n the shape of a duel, or severe personal chastisement. If he shot at you i_ny country but England, you would shoot at him. Eye for eye, and tooth fo_ooth, was the old Hebrew law, and whatever may be said against it, fundamentally it was a just one."
I thought of Bartrand, and wished I could apply the principle to him.
"I fear, however," continued Nikola, after a moment's pause, "that in persona_atters the men of the present day are not so brave as they once were. The_helter themselves too much behind the law of the land. A man slanders you; instead of thrashing him you bring an action against him for libel, and clai_amages in money. A man runs away with your wife; you proclaim your shame i_pen court, and take gold from your enemy for the affront he has put upon you_onour. If a man thrashes you in a public place, you don't strike him back; o_he contrary, you consult your solicitor, and take your case before _agistrate, who binds him over to keep the peace. If, after all is said an_one, you look closely into the matter, what is crime? A very pliable term, _ancy. For instance, a duke may commit an offence, and escape scot free, when, for the same thing, only under a different name, a costermonger would be sen_o gaol for five years. And _vice versa._ A subaltern in a crack regimen_ay run up tailors' bills—or any others, for that matter—for several thousand_f pounds and decamp without paying a halfpenny of the money, never havin_ntended to do so from the very beginning, while if a chimney sweep were t_urloin a bunch of radishes from a tray outside a greengrocer's window, h_ould probably be sent to gaol for three months. And yet both are stealing, though I must confess society regards them with very different eyes. Le_lergymen and other righteous men say what they will, the world in its hear_ather admires the man who has the pluck to swindle, but he must do so on _ig scale, and he must do so successfully, or he must pay the penalty o_ailure. Your own case, with which, as I said earlier, I am quite familiar, i_ne in point. Everyone who has heard of it, and who knows anything of the man, feels certain that Bartrand stole from you the information which has made hi_he millionaire he is. But does it make any difference in the world'_reatment of him? None whatever. And why? Because he swindled successfully. I_he same way they regard you as a very poor sort of fellow for submitting t_is injustice."
"Exactly. But, you see, the fact remains. Bartrand has a house in Park Lan_nd a castle in Shropshire. The Duke of Glendower dined with him the nigh_efore last, and one of the members of the Cabinet will do so on Saturda_ext. Yesterday he purchased a racing stable and a stud, for which he pai_wenty thousand pounds cash; while I am told that next year he intend_uilding a yacht that shall be the finest craft of her class in Britis_aters. It is settled that he is to be presented at the next levee, an_lready he is in the first swim of the fashionable world. If he can only wi_he Derby this year, there is nothing he might not aspire to. In ten years, i_is money lasts and he is still alive, he will be a peer of the realm an_ounding a new family."
"He _must not_ live as long. Oh, if I could only meet him face to face an_epay him for his treachery!"
"And why not? What is there to prevent you? You can walk to his house an_orning and ask to see him. If you give the butler a fictitious name and a ti_e will admit you. Then, when you get into the library, you can state you_rievance and, having done so, shoot him dead."
I uttered a little involuntary cry of anger. Deeply as I hated the man, it wa_ot possible for me seriously to contemplate murdering him in cold blood.
Besides—no, no; such a scheme could not be thought of for a moment.
"You don't like the idea?" said Nikola, with that easy _nonchalance_ whic_haracterised him. "Well, I don't wonder at it; it's _bizarre, to_ say th_east of it. You would probably be caught and hanged, and hanging is a_nartistic termination to the career of even an unsuccessful man. Besides, i_hat case, _you_ would have lost your money and your life; he only his life, so that the balance would still be in his favour. No; what you want i_omething a little more subtle, a little more artistic. You want a scheme tha_ill enable you to put him out of the way, and, at the same time, one tha_ill place you in possession of the money that is really yours. Therefore i_ust be done without any _esclandre._ Now I don't doubt you would b_urprised if I were to tell you that in the event of his death you would fin_ourself his sole heir."
"His sole heir?" I cried. "You must be mad to say such a thing."
"With due respect, no more mad than you are," said this extraordinary man. _ave seen the will for myself—never mind how I managed it—and I know that wha_ say is correct. After all, it is very feasible. The man, for the reason tha_e has wronged you, hates you like poison, and while he lives you may be sur_ou will never see a penny of his fortune. But he is also superstitious, an_elieving, as he does, that he stands a chance of eternal punishment fo_windling you as he did, he is going to endeavour to obtain a mitigation o_is sentence by leaving you at his death what he has not been able to spen_uring his lifetime. If you die first, so much the worse for him; but _magine he is willing to risk that."
I rose from my chair, this time thoroughly angered.
"Dr. Nikola," I said, "this is a subject upon which I feel very deeply. I hav_o desire to jest about it."
"I am not jesting, my friend, I assure you," returned Nikola, and, as he sai_o, he went to an escritoire in the corner. "In proof that what I say is th_ruth, here is a rough draft of his will, made yesterday. You are at libert_o peruse it if you care to do so, and as you are familiar with his writing, you can judge for yourself of its worth."
I took the paper from his hand and sat down with it in my chair again. I_ertainly was what he had described, and in it I was named as sole an_ndivided heir to all his vast wealth. As I read, my anger rose higher an_igher. From this paper it was evident that the man knew he had swindled me, and it was also apparent that he was resolved to enjoy the fruits of hi_illainy throughout his life, and to leave me what he could not use when h_ied, and when I would, in all human probability, be too old to enjoy it. _lanced at the paper again, and then handed it back to Nikola, and waited fo_im to speak. He watched me attentively for a few seconds, and then said in _oice so soft and low that I could scarcely hear it—
"You see, if Bartrand were to be removed after he had signed that you woul_enefit at once."
I did not answer. Nikola waited for a few moments and then continued in th_ame low tone—
"You hate the man. He has wronged you deeply. He stole your secret while yo_ere not in a position to defend yourself, and I think he would have kille_ou had he dared to do so. Now he is enjoying the fortune which should b_ours. He is one of the richest men in the world—with your money. He has mad_imself a name in England, even in this short space of time—with your money.
He is already a patron of sport, of the drama, and of art of every sort—wit_our money. If you attempt to dispute his possession, he will crush you like _orm. Now the question for your consideration is: Do you hate him sufficientl_o take advantage of an opportunity to kill him if one should come in you_ay?"
He had roused my hate to such a pitch that before I could control myself I ha_issed out "Yes!" He heard it, and when I was about to protest that I did no_ean it, held up his hand to me to be silent.
"Listen to me," he said. "I tell you candidly that it is in my power to hel_ou. If you really wish to rid yourself of this man, I can arrange it for yo_n such a way that it will be impossible for any one to suspect you. Th_hance of detection is absolutely _nil._ You will be as safe from the law a_ou are at this minute. And remember this, when you have rid yourself of him, his wealth will be yours to enjoy just as you please. Think of his money —think of the power it gives, think of the delight of knowing that you hav_unished the man who has wronged you so shamefully. Are you prepared to ris_o much?"
My God! I can remember the horror of that moment even now. As I write thes_ords I seem to feel again the throbbing of the pulses in my temples, the wil_urmoil in my brain, the whirling mist before my eyes. In extenuation, I ca_nly hope that I was, for the time being, insane. Shameful as it may be to sa_o, I know that while Nikola was speaking, I hungered for that man's death a_ starving cur craves for food.
"I don't want his money," _I_ cried, as if in some small extenuation of th_nutterable shame of my decision. "I only want to punish him—to be revenge_pon him."
"You consent, then?" he said quietly, pulling his chair a little closer, an_ooking at me in a strange fashion.
As his eyes met mine all my own will seemed to leave me. I was powerless t_ay anything but "Yes, I consent."
Nikola rose to his feet instantly, and with an alertness that surprised m_fter his previous langour.
"Very good," he said; "now that that is settled, we can get to business. I_ou will listen attentively, I will explain exactly how it is to be done."