WHEN I recovered consciousness I found a stranger dressed in uniform kneelin_eside me. What was more singular still I was not under the waggon as before, but was lying surrounded by a dozen or so of my comrades in the verandah of m_wn house. Agnes was kneeling beside me, and her father was holding a basin o_ater at my feet.
"There is nothing at all to be alarmed about, my dear young lady," the man i_niform was saying as he felt my pulse. "Your friend here will live to figh_nother day, or a hundred other days for that matter. By this time to-morro_e'll be as well as ever." Then, turning to me, he asked: "how do you fee_ow?"
I replied that I felt much stronger; and then, looking up at Mr. Maybourne, enquired if we had beaten off the enemy.
"They have been utterly routed," replied the gentleman I addressed. "Th_redit, however, is due to Captain Haviland and his men; but for their timel_rrival I fear we should have been done for. Flesh and blood could not hav_tood the strain another half hour."
"Stuff and nonsense," said the doctor, "for such I afterwards discovered h_as, all the credit is due to yourselves; and, by George, you deserve it. _iner stand was never made in this country, or for that matter in any other."
After a few minutes' rest and another sip of brandy, I managed to get on to m_eet. It was a sad sight I had before me. Stretched out in rows beyond th_erandah rails were the bodies of the gallant fellows who had bee_illed—twelve in number. On rough beds placed in the verandah itself and als_n the house were the wounded; while on the plain all round beyond the laage_ight have been seen the bodies of the Matabele dead. On the left of the hous_he regiment of mounted infantry, who had so opportunely come to ou_ssistance, were unsaddling after chasing the enemy, and preparing to camp.
After I had had a few moments' conversation with the doctor, Mr. Maybourne an_gnes came up to me again, and congratulated me on having saved the stranger'_ife. The praise they gave me was altogether undeserved, for, as I hav_lready explained, I had done the thing on the spur of the moment without fo_n instant considering the danger to which I had exposed myself. When they ha_inished I enquired where the man was, and in reply they led me into th_ouse.
"The doctor says it is quite a hopeless case," said Agnes, turning to me i_he doorway; "the poor fellow must have injured his spine when his horse fel_ith him."
I followed her into the room which had once been my own sleeping apartment. I_as now filled with wounded. The man I had brought in lay upon a mattress i_he corner by the window, and, with Agnes beside me, I went across to him.
Once there I looked down at his face, and then, with a cry that even on pai_f death I could not have kept back, I fell against the wall, as Agne_fterwards told me, pallid to the very lips. I don't know how to tell you wh_ saw there; I don't know how to make you believe it, or how to enable you t_ppreciate my feelings. One thing was certain, lying on the bed before me, hi_ead bandaged up, and a bushy beard clothing the lower half of his face, wa_no less a person than Richard Bartrand—my old enemy and the man I believe_yself to have murdered in London so many months before._ I could hardl_elieve my eyes; I stared at him and then looked away—only to look back agai_alf expecting to find him gone. Could this be any mistake? I asked myself.
Could it be only a deceiving likeness, or an hallucination of an overtaxe_rain? Hardly knowing what I did I dragged Agnes by the wrist out of the hous_o a quiet corner, where I leant against the wall feeling as if I were goin_o faint again.
"What is the matter, Gilbert?" she cried. "Oh, what is the matter with you?"
"Matter!" I almost shouted in my joy. "This is the matter. I a_ree—free—free! Free to marry you—free to do as I please, and live as _lease, and go where I please!!! For there in that bed is my old enemy, th_an I told you I had killed."
For a second she must have thought me mad, for I noticed she shrank a ste_way from me, and looked at me with an apprehensive glance. But she soo_ecovered her composure, and asked if I were certain of what I said.
"As certain as I am that you are standing before me now," I answered. "_hould know him anywhere. Where is the doctor?"
A moment later I had found the doctor.
"Doctor," I said, "there is a man in that room yonder whom, I am told, you sa_as a broken back. He is unconscious. Will he remain so until he dies?"
"Most probably," was the other's matter-of-fact reply as he began to bind u_he arm of the man he had been operating on. "Why do you ask?"
"Because it is a matter of the most vital importance that I should speak wit_im before he dies. All the happiness of my life and another's depends upo_t."
"Very well. Don't worry yourself. I'll see what I can do for you. Now go awa_nd be quiet. I'm busy."
I went away as he ordered me, and leant against the verandah rails at the bac_f the house. My head was swimming, and I could hardly think coherently. No_hat Bartrand was alive, every obstacle was cleared away—I was free to marr_gnes as soon as her father would let me; free to do whatever I pleased in th_orld. The reaction was almost more than I could bear. No words could over- estimate my relief and joy.
Half an hour later the doctor came to me.
"Your man is conscious now," he said. "But you'd better look sharp if you wan_o ask him anything. He won't last long."
I followed him into the house to the corner where the sick man lay. As soon a_e saw me, Bartrand showed with his eyes that he recognized me.
"Pennethorne," he whispered, as I knelt by the bed, "this is a strang_eeting. Do you know I've been hunting for you these nine months past?"
"Hunting for me?" I said. "Why, I thought you dead!"
"I allowed it to be supposed that I was," he answered. "I can tell you, Pennethorne, that money I swindled you out of never brought me an ounce o_uck—nor Gibbs either. He turned cocktail and sent his share back to me almos_t once. He was drinking himself to death on it, I heard. Now look at me, I'_ere—dying in South Africa. They tell me you saved me to-day at the risk o_our life."
"Never mind that now," I said. "We've got other things to talk about."
"But I must mind," he answered. "Listen to what I have to tell you, and don'_nterrupt me. Three nights before I disappeared last winter, I made my will, leaving you everything. It's more than the value of the mine, for I brough_ff some big speculations with the money, and almost doubled my capital. Yo_ay not believe it, but I always felt sorry for you, even when I stole you_ecret. I'm a pretty bad lot, but I couldn't steal your money and not be a bi_orry. But, funny as it may seem to say so, I hated you all the time too—hate_ou more than any other man on God's earth. Now you've risked your life fo_e, and I'm dying in your house. How strangely things turn out, don't they?"
Here the doctor gave him something to drink, and bade me let him be quiet fo_ few moments. Presently Bartrand recovered his strength, and began again.
"One day, soon after I arrived in London from Australia, I fell in tow with _an named Nikola. I tell you, Pennethorne, if ever you see that man beware o_im, for he's the Devil, and nobody else. I tell you he proposed the mos_iendish things to me and showed me such a side of human nature that, if _adn't quarrelled with him and not seen so much of him I should have bee_riven into a lunatic asylum. I can tell you it's not altogether a life o_oses to be a millionaire. About this time I began to get threatening letter_rom men all over Europe trying to extort money from me for one purpose o_nother. Eventually Nikola found out that I was the victim of a secre_ociety. How he managed it, the deuce only knows. They wanted money badly, an_inally Nikola told me that for half a million he could get me clear. If I di_ot pay up I'd be dead, he said, in a month. But I wasn't to be frightene_ike that, so I told him I wouldn't give it. From that time forward attempt_ere made on my life until my nerve gave way—and in a blue funk I determine_o forego the bulk of my wealth and clear out of England in the hopes o_eginning a new life elsewhere."
He paused once more for a few moments; his strength was nearly exhausted, an_ could see with half an eye that the end was not far distant now. When h_poke again his voice was much weaker, and he seemed to find it difficult t_oncentrate his ideas.
"Nikola wanted sixty thousand for himself, I suppose for one of hi_evilments," he said, huskily. "He used every means in his power to induce m_o give it to him, but I refused time after time. He showed me his power, tried to hypnotize me even, and finally told me I should he a dead man in _eek if I did not let him have the money. I wasn't going to be bluffed, so _eclined again. By this time I distrusted my servants, my friends, an_verybody with whom I came in contact. I could not sleep, and I could not eat.
All my arrangements were made, and I was going to leave England on th_aturday. On the Wednesday Nikola and I were to meet at a house on specia_usiness. We saw each other at a club, and I called a hansom, intending to g_n and wait for him. I had a dreadful cold, and carried some cough drops in _ittle silver box in my pocket. He must have got possession of it, an_ubstituted some preparations of his own. Feeling my cough returning, I too_ne in the cab as I drove along. After that I remember no more till I cam_ound and found myself lying in the middle of the road, half covered wit_now, and with a bruise the size of a tea-cup on the back of my head. For som_eason of his own Nikola had tried to do for me; and the cabman, frightened a_y state, had pitched me out and left me. As soon as I could walk, and it wa_aylight, I determined to find you at your hotel, in order to hand over to yo_he money I had stolen from you, and then I was going to bolt from England fo_y life. But when I reached Blankerton's I was told that you had left. _raced your luggage to Aberdeen; but, though I wasted a week looking, _I_ouldn't find you there. Three months ago I chanced upon a snapshot photograp_aken in Cape Town, and reproduced in an American illustrated paper. I_epresented one of the only two survivors of the _Fiji Princess,_ and _ecognised you immediately, and followed you, first to Cape Town and then, bi_y bit, out here. Now listen to me, for I've not much time left. My will is i_y coat-pocket; when I'm dead, you can take it out and do as you like with it.
You'll find yourself one of the richest men in the world, or I'm mistaken. _an only say I hope you'll have better luck with the money than I have had.
I'm glad you've got it again; for, somehow, I'd fixed the idea in my head tha_ shouldn't rest quietly in my grave unless I restored it to you. One caution!
Don't let Nikola get hold of it, that's all—for he's after you, I'm certain.
He's been tracking you down these months past; and I've heard he's on his wa_ere. I'm told he thinks I'm dead. He'll be right in his conjecture soon."
"Bartrand," I said, as solemnly as I knew how, "I will not take one halfpenn_f the money. I am firmly resolved upon that. Nothing shall ever make me."
"Not take it? But it's your own. I never had any right to it from th_eginning. I stole your secret while you were ill."
"That may be; but I'll not touch the money, come what may."
"But I must leave it to somebody."
"Then leave it to the London hospitals. I will not have a penny of it. Goo_eavens, man, you little know how basely I behaved towards you!"
"I've not time to hear it now, then," he answered. "Quick! let me make ane_ill while I've strength to sign it."
Pens, paper, and ink were soon forthcoming; and at his instruction Mr.
Maybourne and the doctor between them drafted the will. When it was finishe_he dying man signed it, and then those present witnessed it, and the man la_ack and closed his eyes. For a moment I thought he was gone, but I wa_istaken. After a silence of about ten minutes he opened his eyes and looke_t me.
"Do you remember Markapurlie?" he said. That was all. Then, with a grim smil_pon his lips, he died, just as the clock on the wall above his head struc_welve. His last speech, for some reason or other, haunted me for weeks.
Towards sundown that afternoon I was standing in the verandah of my house, watching a fatigue party digging a grave under a tree in the paddock beyon_he mine buildings, when a shout from Mr. Maybourne, who was on his way to th_ffice, attracted my attention. "When I reached his side, he pointed to _mall speck of dust about a mile to the northward.
"It's a horseman," he cried; "but who can it be?"
"I have no possible notion," I answered; "but we shall very soon see."
The rider, whoever he was, was in no hurry. When he came nearer, we could se_hat he was cantering along as coolly as if he were riding in Rotten Row. B_he time he was only a hundred yards or so distant, I was trembling wit_xcitement. Though I had never seen the man on horseback before, I should hav_nown his figure anywhere. _It was Dr. Nikola._ There could be no possibl_oubt about that. Bartrand was quite right when he told me that he was in th_eighbourhood.
I heard Mr. Maybourne say something about news from the township, but the rea_mport of his words I did not catch. I seemed to be watching the advancin_igure with my whole being. When he reached the laager he sprang from hi_orse, and then it was that I noticed Mr. Maybourne had left my side and wa_iving instructions to let him in. I followed to receive him.
On reaching the inside of our defences, Nikola raised his hat politely to Mr.
Maybourne, while he handed his reins to a trooper standing by.
"Mr. Maybourne, I believe," he said. "My name is Nikola. I am afraid I a_hrusting myself upon you in a very unseemly fashion, and at a time when yo_ave no desire to be burdened with outsiders. My friendship for our frien_rexford here must be my excuse. I left Buluwayo at daylight this morning i_rder to see him."
He held out his hand to me and I found myself unable to do anything but tak_t. As usual it was as cold as ice. For the moment I was so fascinated by th_vil glitter in his eyes that I forgot to wonder how he knew my assumed name.
However, I managed to stammer out something by way of a welcome, and the_sked how long he had been in South Africa.
"I arrived two months ago," he answered, "and after a week in Cape Town, wher_ had some business to transact, made my way up here to see you. It appears _ave arrived at an awkward moment, but if I can help you in any way I hope yo_ill command my services. I am a tolerable surgeon, and I have the advantag_f considerable experience of assegai wounds."
While he was speaking the bell rang for tea, and at Mr. Maybourne's invitatio_r. Nikola accompanied us to where the meal was spread—picnic fashion—on th_round by the kitchen door. Agnes was waiting for us, and I saw her start wit_urprise when her father introduced the newcomer as Dr. Nikola, a friend o_r. Wrexford'g. She bowed gravely to him, but said nothing. I could see tha_he knew him for the man Bartrand had warned me against, and for this reaso_he was by no means prepossessed in his favour.
During the meal Nikola exerted all his talents to please. And such was hi_evilish—I can only call it by that name—cleverness, that by the time we ros_rom the meal he had put himself on the best of terms with everyone. Eve_gnes seemed to have, for the moment, lost much of her distrust of him. Onc_ut in the open again I drew Nikola away from the others, and having walke_im out of earshot of the house, asked the meaning of his visit.
"Is it so hard to guess?" he said, as he seated himself on the pole of _aggon, and favoured me with one of his peculiar smiles. "I should hav_hought not."
"I have not tried to guess," I answered, having by this time resolved upon m_ine of action; "and I do not intend to do so. I wish you to tell me."
"My dear Pennethorne-Wrexford, or Wrexford-Pennethorne," he said quietly, "_hould advise you not to adopt that tone with me. You know very well why _ave put myself to the trouble of running you to earth."
"I have not the least notion," I replied, "and that is the truth. I thought _ad done with you when I said good-bye to you in Golden Square that awfu_ight."
"Nobody can hope to have done with me," he answered, "when they do not ac_airly by me."
"Act fairly by you? What do you mean? How have I not acted fairly by you?"
"By running away in that mysterious fashion, when it was agreed between u_hat I should arrange everything. You might have ruined me."
"Still I do not understand you! How might I have ruined you?"
This time I took him unawares. He looked at me for a moment in sheer surprise.
"I should advise you to give up this sort of thing," he said, licking his lip_n that peculiar cat-like fashion I had noticed in London. "Remember I kno_verything, and one word in our friend Maybourne's ear, and—well—you know wha_he result will be. Perhaps he does not know what an illustrious criminal h_s purposing to take for a son-in-law."
"One insinuation like that again, Nikola," I cried, "and I'll have you put of_his place before you know where you are. _You_ dare to call _me_ _riminal— _you,_ who plotted and planned the murders that shocked an_errified all England!"
"That I do not admit. I only remember that I assisted you to obtain you_evenge on a man who had wronged you. On summing up so judiciously, pray d_ot forget that point."
Nikola evidently thought he had obtained an advantage, and was quick t_mprove on it.
"Come, come," he said, "what is the use of our quarrelling like a pair o_hildren? All I want of you is an answer to two simple questions."
"What are your questions?"
"I want to know, first, what you did with Bartrand's body when you got rid o_t out of the cab."
"You really wish to know that?"
"Then come with me," I said, "and I'll tell you." I led him into the house, and, having reached the bed in the corner, pulled down the sheet.
He bent over the figure lying there so still, and then started back with a cr_f surprise. For a moment I could see that he was _non-plussed_ as he ha_robably not been in his life before, but by the time one could have counte_wenty, this singular being was himself again.
"I congratulate you," he said, turning to me and holding out his hand. "Th_ing has come into his own again. You are now one of the richest men in th_orld, and I can ask my second question."
"Be certain first," I said. "I inherit nothing from Mr. Bartrand."
"What do you mean by that? I happen to know that his will was made in you_avour."
"You are quite mistaken. He made a later will this afternoon, leaving all hi_oney and estates to four London hospitals."
Nikola's face went paler than I had ever seen it yet. His thin lips tremble_erceptibly. The man was visibly anxious.
"You will excuse my appearing to doubt you, I hope," he said, "but may I se_hat will?"
I called Mr. Maybourne into the room and asked him if he had any objection t_llowing Dr. Nikola to see the paper in question. He handed it to him withou_esitation, keeping close to his elbow while he perused it. The Doctor read i_lowly from beginning to end, examined the signature, noted the names of th_xecutors, and also of the witnesses, and when he had done so, returned it t_r. Maybourne with a bow.
"Thank you," he said, politely. "It is excellently drawn up, and, with you_vidence against me, I fear it would be foolish for me to dispute it. In tha_ase, I don't think I need trouble your hospitality any further."
Then, turning to me, he led me from the house across to where his horse wa_tanding.
"Good-bye, Pennethorne," he said. "All I can say of you is that your luck i_reater than your cleverness. I am not so _blase_ but I can admire a man wh_an surrender three millions without a sigh. I must confess I am vulgar enoug_o find that it costs me a pang to lose even my sixty thousand. I wanted i_adly. Had my _coup_ only come off, and the dead man in there not been suc_n inveterate ass, I should have had the whole amount of his fortune in m_ands by this time, and in six months I would have worked out a scheme tha_ould have paralyzed Europe. As it is, I must look elsewhere for the amount.
When you wish to be proud of yourself, try to remember that you have baulke_r. Nikola in one of his best-planned schemes, and saved probabl_alf-a-million lives by doing so. Believe me, there are far cleverer men tha_ou who have tried to outwit me and failed. I suppose you will marry Mis_aybourne now. Well, I wish you luck with her. If I am a judge of character, she will make you an able wife. In ten years' time you will be a commonplac_ich man, with scarcely any idea outside your own domestic circle, whil_—well the devil himself knows where or what I shall be then. I wonder whic_ill be the happier? Now I must be off. Though you may not think it, I alway_iked you, and if you had thrown in your lot with me, I might have mad_omething of you. Good-bye."
He held out his hand, and as he did so he looked me full in the face. For th_ast time I felt the influence of those extraordinary eyes. I took the hand h_ffered and bade him good-bye with almost a feeling of regret, mad as it ma_eem to say so, at the thought that in all probability I should never see hi_gain. Next moment he was on his horse's back and out on the veldt making fo_he westward. I stood and watched him till he was lost in the gathering gloom, and then went slowly back to the house thinking of the change that had com_nto my life, thanking God for my freedom.
* * *
Three months have passed since the events just narrated took place, and I a_ack in Cape Town again, finishing the writing of this story of the mos_dventurous period of my life, in Mr. Maybourne's study. To-morrow my wife (for I have been married a week to-day) and I leave South Africa on a tri_ound the world. What a honeymoon it will be!
"The Pride of the South," you will be glad to hear, has made gallant stride_ince the late trouble in Rhodesia, and as my shares have quadrupled in value, to say nothing of the other ventures in which I have been associated with m_ather-in-law, I am making rapid progress towards becoming a rich man. And no_t only remains for me to bring my story to a close. By way of an epilogue le_e say that no better, sweeter, or more loyal wife than I possess coul_ossibly be desired by any mortal man. I love her with my whole heart an_oul, as she loves me, and I can only hope that every masculine reader who ma_ave the patience to wade through these, to me, interminable pages, may prov_s fortunate in his choice as I have been. More fortunate, it is certain, h_ould not be.