The Mystery of a Hansom Cab, by Fergus Hume

Chapter 7.

The Wool King.

The old Greek legend of Midas turning everything he touched into gold, is truer than most people imagine. Mediaeval superstition changed the human being who possessed such a power into the philosopher’s stone — the stone which so many alchemists sought in the dark ages. But we of the nineteenth century have given back into human hands this power of transformation.

But we do not ascribe it either to Greek deity, or to superstition; we call it luck. And he who possesses luck should be happy notwithstanding the proverb which hints the contrary. Luck means more than riches — it means happiness in most of those things, which the fortunate possessor of it may choose to touch. Should he speculate, he is successful; if he marry, his wife will surely prove everything to be desired; should he aspire to a position, social or political, he not only attains it, but does so with comparative ease. Worldly wealth, domestic happiness, high position, and complete success — all these things belong to the man who has luck.

Mark Frettlby was one of these fortunate individuals, and his luck was proverbial throughout Australia. If there was any speculation for which Mark Frettlby went in, other men would surely follow, and in every case the result turned out as well, and in many cases even better than they expected. He had come out in the early days of the colony with comparatively little money, but his great perseverance and never-failing luck had soon changed his hundreds into thousands, and now at the age of fifty-five he did not himself know the extent of his income. He had large stations scattered all over the Colony of Victoria, which brought him in a splendid income; a charming country house, where at certain seasons of the year he dispensed hospitality to his friends; and a magnificent town house down in St. Kilda, which would have been not unworthy of Park Lane.

Nor were his domestic relations less happy — he had a charming wife, who was one of the best known and most popular ladies of Melbourne, and an equally charming daughter, who, being both pretty and an heiress, naturally attracted crowds of suitors. But Madge Frettlby was capricious, and refused innumerable offers. Being an extremely independent young person, with a mind of her own, she decided to remain single, as she had not yet seen anyone she could love, and with her mother continued to dispense the hospitality of the mansion at St. Kilda.

But the fairy prince comes at length to every woman, and in this instance he came at his appointed time, in the person of one Brian Fitzgerald, a tall, handsome, fair-haired young man hailing from Ireland.

He had left behind him in the old country a ruined castle and a few acres of barren land, inhabited by discontented tenants, who refused to pay the rent, and talked darkly about the Land League and other agreeable things. Under these circumstances, with no rent coming in, and no prospect of doing anything in the future, Brian had left the castle of his forefathers to the rats and the family Banshee, and had come out to Australia to make his fortune.

He brought letters of introduction to Mark Frettlby, and that gentleman, taking a fancy to him, assisted him by every means in his power. Under Frettlby’s advice Brian bought a station, and, to his astonishment, in a few years he found himself growing rich. The Fitzgeralds had always been more famous for spending than for saving, and it was an agreeable surprise to their latest representative to find the money rolling in instead of out. He began to indulge in castles in the air concerning that other castle in Ireland, with the barren acres and discontented tenants. In his mind’s-eye he saw the old place rise up in all its pristine splendour from out its ruins; he saw the barren acres well cultivated, and the tenants happy and content — he was rather doubtful on this latter point, but, with the rash confidence of eight and twenty, determined to do his best to perform even the impossible.

Having built and furnished his castle in the air, Brian naturally thought of giving it a mistress, and this time actual appearance took the place of vision. He fell in love with Madge Frettlby, and having decided in his own mind that she and none other was fitted to grace the visionary halls of his renovated castle, he watched his opportunity, and declared himself. She, woman-like, coquetted with him for some time, but at last, unable to withstand the impetuosity of her Irish lover, confessed in a low voice, with a pretty smile on her face, that she could not live without him. Whereupon — well — lovers being of a conservative turn of mind, and accustomed to observe the traditional forms of wooing, the result can easily be guessed. Brian hunted all over the jewellers’ shops in Melbourne with lover-like assiduity, and having obtained a ring wherein were set turquoise stones as blue as his own eyes, he placed it on her slender finger, and at last felt that his engagement was an accomplished fact.

He next proceeded to interview the father, and had just screwed up his courage to the awful ordeal, when something occurred which postponed the interview indefinitely. Mrs. Frettlby was out driving, and the horses took fright and bolted. The coachman and groom both escaped unhurt, but Mrs. Frettlby was thrown out and killed instantly.

This was the first really great trouble which had fallen on Mark Frettlby, and he seemed stunned by it. Shutting himself up in his room he refused to see anyone, even his daughter, and appeared at the funeral with a white and haggard face, which shocked everyone. When everything was over, and the body of the late Mrs. Frettlby was consigned to the earth, with all the pomp and ceremony which money could give, the bereaved husband rode home, and resumed his old life. But he was never the same again. His face, which had always been so genial and so bright, became stern and sad. He seldom smiled, and when he did, it was a faint wintry smile, which seemed mechanical. His whole interest in life was centred in his daughter. She became the sole mistress of the St. Kilda mansion, and her father idolised her. She was apparently the one thing left to him which gave him a pleasure in existence. In truth, had it not been for her bright presence, Mark Frettlby would fain have been lying beside his dead wife in the quiet graveyard.

After a time Brian again resolved to ask Mr. Frettlby for the hand of his daughter. But for the second time fate interposed. A rival suitor made his appearance, and Brian’s hot Irish temper rose in anger at him.

Mr. Oliver Whyte had come out from England a few months previously, bringing with him a letter of introduction to Mr. Frettlby, who received him hospitably, as was his custom. Taking advantage of this, Whyte lost no time in making himself perfectly at home in the St. Kilda mansion.

From the outset Brian took a dislike to the new-comer. He was a student of Lavater, and prided himself on his perspicuity in reading character. His opinion of Whyte was anything but flattering to that gentleman; while Madge shared his repulsion towards the new-comer.

On his part Mr. Whyte was nothing if not diplomatic. He affected not to notice the coldness of Madge’s reception of him. On the contrary he began to pay her the most marked attentions, much to Brian’s disgust. At length he asked her to be his wife, and notwithstanding her prompt refusal, spoke to her father on the subject. Much to the astonishment of his daughter, Mr. Frettlby not only consented to Whyte paying his addresses to Madge, but gave that young lady to understand that he wished her to consider his proposals favourably.

In spite of all Madge could say, he refused to alter his decision, and Whyte, feeling himself safe, began to treat Brian with an insolence which was highly galling to Fitzgerald’s proud nature. He had called on Whyte at his lodgings, and after a violent quarrel he had left the house vowing to kill him, should he marry Madge Frettlby.

The same night Fitzgerald had an interview with Mr. Frettlby. He confessed that he loved Madge, and that his love was returned. So, when Madge added her entreaties to Brian’s, Mr. Frettlby found himself unable to withstand the combined forces, and gave his consent to their engagement.

Whyte was absent in the country for the next few days after his stormy interview with Brian, and it was only on his return that he learnt that Madge was engaged to his rival. He saw Mr. Frettlby, and having learnt from his own lips that such was the case, he left the house at once, and swore that he would never enter it again. He little knew how prophetic were his words, for on that same night he met his death in the hansom cab. He had passed out of the life of both the lovers, and they, glad that he troubled them no more, never suspected for a moment that the body of the unknown man found in Royston’s cab was that of Oliver Whyte.

About two weeks after Whyte’s disappearance Mr. Frettlby gave a dinner party in honour of his daughter’s birthday. It was a delightful evening, and the wide French windows which led on to the verandah were open, letting in a gentle breeze from the ocean. Outside there was a kind of screen of tropical plants, and through the tangle of the boughs the guests, seated at the table, could just see the waters of the bay glittering in the pale moonlight. Brian was seated opposite to Madge, and every now and then he caught a glimpse of her bright face from behind the fruit and flowers, which stood in the centre of the table. Mark Frettlby was at the head of the table, and appeared in very good spirits. His stern features were somewhat relaxed, and he drank more wine than usual.

The soup had just been removed when some one, who was late, entered with apologies and took his seat. Some one in this case was Mr. Felix Rolleston, one of the best known young men in Melbourne. He had an income of his own, scribbled a little for the papers, was to be seen at every house of any pretensions in Melbourne, and was always bright, happy, and full of news. For details of any scandal you were safe in applying to Felix Rolleston. He knew all that was going on, both at home and abroad. And his knowledge, if not very accurate, was at least extensive, while his conversation was piquant, and at times witty. Calton, one of the leading lawyers of the city, remarked that “Rolleston put him in mind of what Beaconsfield said of one of the personages in Lothair, ‘He wasn’t an intellectual Croesus, but his pockets were always full of sixpences.’” Be it said in his favour that Felix was free with his sixpences.

The conversation, which had shown signs of languishing before his arrival, now brightened up.

“So awfully sorry, don’t you know,” said Felix, as he slipped into a seat by Madge; “but a fellow like me has got to be careful of his time — so many calls on it.”

“So many calls in it, you mean,” retorted Madge, with a disbelieving smile. “Confess, now, you have been paying a round of visits.”

“Well, yes,” assented Mr. Rolleston; “that’s the disadvantage of having a large circle of acquaintances. They give you weak tea and thin bread and butter, whereas — ”

“You would rather have something else,” finished Brian.

There was a laugh at this, but Mr. Rolleston disdained to notice the interruption.

“The only advantage of five o’clock tea,” he went on, “is, that it brings people together, and one hears what’s going on.”

“Ah, yes, Rolleston,” said Mr. Frettlby, who was looking at him with an amused smile. “What news have you?”

“Good news, bad news, and such news as you have never heard of,” quoted Rolleston gravely. “Yes, I have a bit of news — haven’t you heard it?”

Rolleston felt he held sensation in his hands. There was nothing he liked better.

“Well, do you know,” he said, gravely fixing in his eyeglass, “they have found out the name of the fellow who was murdered in the hansom cab.”

“Never!” cried every one eagerly.

“Yes,” went on Rolleston, “and what’s more, you all know him.”

“It’s never Whyte?” said Brian, in a horrified tone.

“Hang it, how did you know?” said Rolleston, rather annoyed at being forestalled. “Why, I just heard it at the St. Kilda station.”

“Oh, easily enough,” said Brian, rather confused. “I used to meet Whyte constantly, and as I have not seen him for the last two weeks, I thought he might be the victim.”

“How did they find out?” asked Mr. Frettlby, idly toying with his wine-glass.

“Oh, one of those detective fellows, you know,” answered Felix. “They know everything.”

“I’m sorry to hear it,” said Frettlby, referring to the fact that Whyte was murdered. “He had a letter of introduction to me, and seemed a clever, pushing young fellow.”

“A confounded cad,” muttered Felix, under his breath; and Brian, who overheard him, seemed inclined to assent. For the rest of the meal nothing was talked about but the murder, and the mystery in which it was shrouded. When the ladies retired they chatted about it in the drawingroom, but finally dropped it for more agreeable subjects. The men, however, when the cloth Was removed, filled their glasses, and continued the discussion with unabated vigour. Brian alone did not take part in the conversation. He sat moodily staring at his untasted wine, wrapped in a brown study.

“What I can’t make out,” observed Rolleston, who was amusing himself with cracking nuts, “is why they did not find out who he was before.”

“That is not hard to answer,” said Frettlby, filling his — glass. “He was comparatively little known here, as he had been out from England such a short time, and I fancy that this was the only house at which he visited.”

“And look here, Rolleston,” said Calton, who was sitting near him, “if you were to find a man dead in a hansom cab, dressed in evening clothes — which nine men out of ten are in the habit of wearing in the evening — no cards in his pockets, and no name on his linen, I rather think you would find it hard to discover who he was. I consider it reflects great credit on the police for finding out so quickly.”

“Puts one in mind of ‘The Leavenworth Case,’ and all that sort of thing,” said Felix, whose reading was of the lightest description. “Awfully exciting, like putting a Chinese puzzle together. Gad, I wouldn’t mind being a detective myself.”

“I’m afraid if that were the case,” said Mr. Frettlby, with an amused smile, “criminals would be pretty safe.”

“Oh, I don’t know so much about that,” answered Felix, shrewdly; “some fellows are like trifle at a party, froth on top, but something better underneath.”

“What a greedy simile,” said Calton, sipping his wine; “but I’m afraid the police will have a more difficult task in discovering the man who committed the crime. In my opinion he’s a deuced clever fellow.”

“Then you don’t think he will be discovered?” asked Brian, rousing himself out of his brown study.

“Well, I don’t go as far as that,” rejoined Calton; “but he has certainly left no trace behind him, and even the Red Indian, in whom instinct for tracking is so highly developed, needs some sort of a trail to enable him to find out his enemies. Depend upon it,” went on Calton, warming to his subject, “the man who murdered Whyte is no ordinary criminal; the place he chose for the committal of the crime was such a safe one.”

“Do you think so?” said Rolleston. “Why, I should think that a hansom cab in a public street would be very unsafe.”

“It is that very fact that makes it safer,” replied Mr. Calton, epigrammatically. “You read De Quincey’s account of the Marr murders in London, and you will see that the more public the place the less risk there is of detection. There was nothing about the gentleman in the light coat who murdered Whyte to excite Royston’s suspicions. He entered the cab with Whyte; no noise or anything likely to attract attention was heard, and then he alighted. Naturally enough, Royston drove to St. Kilda, and never suspected Whyte was dead till he looked inside and touched him. As to the man in the light coat, he doesn’t live in Powlett Street — no — nor in East Melbourne either.”

“Why not?” asked Frettlby.

“Because he wouldn’t have been such a fool as to leave a trail to his own door; he did what the fox often does — he doubled. My opinion is that he went either right through East Melbourne to Fitzroy, or he walked back through the Fitzroy Gardens into town. There was no one about at that time of the morning, and he could return to his lodgings, hotel, or wherever he is staying, with impunity. Of course, this is a theory that may be wrong; but from what insight into human nature my profession has given me, I think that my idea is a correct one.”

All present agreed with Mr. Calton’s idea, as it really did seem the most natural thing that would be done by a man desirous of escaping detection.

“Tell you what,” said Felix to Brian, as they were on their way to the drawing-room, “if the fellow that committed the crime, is found out, by gad, he ought to get Calton to defend him.”

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Last updated Monday, March 17, 2014 at 16:42