The Mystery of a Hansom Cab, by Fergus Hume

Chapter 8.

Brian Takes a Walk and a Drive.

When the gentlemen entered the drawing-room a young lady was engaged in playing one of those detestable pieces of the morceau de salon order, in which an unoffending air is taken, and variations embroidered on it, till it becomes a perfect agony to distinguish the tune, amid the perpetual rattle of quavers and demi-semi-quavers. The melody in this case was “Over the Garden Wall,” with variations by Signor Thumpanini, and the young lady who played it was a pupil of that celebrated Italian musician. When the male portion of the guests entered, the air was being played in the bass with a great deal of power (that is, the loud pedal was down), and with a perpetual rattle of treble notes, trying with all their shrill might to drown the tune.

“Gad! it’s getting over the garden wall in a hailstorm,” said Felix, as he strolled over to the piano, for he saw that the musician was Dora Featherweight, an heiress to whom he was then paying attention, in the hope that she might be induced to take the name of Rolleston. So, when the fair Dora had paralysed her audience with one final bang and rattle, as if the gentleman going over the garden wall had tumbled into the cucumber-frame, Felix was loud in his expressions of delight.

“Such power, you know, Miss Featherweight,” he said, sinking into a chair, and mentally wondering if any of the piano strings had given way at that last crash. “You put your heart into it — and all your muscle, too, by gad,” he added mentally.

“It’s nothing but practice,” answered Miss Featherweight, with a modest blush. “I am at the piano four hours every day.”

“Good heavens!” thought Felix, “what a time the family must have of it.” But he kept this remark to himself, and, screwing his eye-glass into his left organ of vision, merely ejaculated, “Lucky piano.”

Miss Featherweight, not being able to think of any answer to this, looked down and blushed, while the ingenuous Felix looked up and sighed.

Madge and Brian were in a corner of the room talking over Whyte’s death.

“I never liked him,” she said, “but it is horrible to think of him dying like that.”

“I don’t know,” answered Brian, gloomily; “from all I can hear dying by chloroform is a very easy death.”

“Death can never be easy,” replied Madge, “especially to a young man so full of health and spirits as Mr. Whyte was.”

“I believe you are sorry he’s dead,” said Brian, jealously.

“Aren’t you?” she asked in some surprise.

“De mortuis nil nisi bonum,” quoted Fitzgerald. “But as I detested him when alive, you can’t expect me to regret his end.”

Madge did not answer him, but glanced quickly at his face, and for the first time it struck her that he looked ill.

“What is the matter with you, dear?” she asked, placing her hand on his arm. “You are not looking well.”

“Nothing — nothing,” he answered hurriedly. “I’ve been a little worried about business lately — but come,” he said, rising, “let us go outside, for I see your father has got that girl with the steam-whistle voice to sing.”

The girl with the steam-whistle voice was Julia Featherweight, the sister of Rolleston’s inamorata, and Madge stifled a laugh as she went on to the verandah with Fitzgerald.

“What a shame of you,” she said, bursting into a laugh when they were safely outside; “she’s been taught by the best masters.”

“How I pity them,” retorted Brian, grimly, as Julia wailed out, “Meet me once again,” with an ear-piercing shrillness.

“I’d much rather listen to our ancestral Banshee, and as to meeting her again, one interview would be more than enough.” Madge did not answer, but leaning lightly over the high rail of the verandah looked out into the beautiful moonlit night. There were a number of people passing along the Esplanade, some of whom stopped and listened to Julia’s shrill notes. One man in particular seemed to have a taste for music, for he persistently stared over the fence at the house. Brian and Madge talked of divers subjects, but every time Madge looked up she saw the man watching the house.

“What does that man want, Brian?” she asked.

“What man?” asked Brian, starting. “Oh,” he went on indifferently, as the watcher moved away from the gate and crossed the road on to the footpath, “he’s taken up with the music, I suppose; that’s all.”

Madge said nothing, but she could not help thinking there was more in it than the music. Presently Julia ceased, and she proposed to go in.

“Why?” asked Brian, who was lying back in a comfortable seat, smoking a cigarette. “It’s nice enough here.”

“I must attend to my guests,” she answered, rising. “You stop here and finish your cigarette,” and with a gay laugh she flitted into the house.

Brian sat and smoked, staring out into the moonlight the while. Yes, the man was certainly watching the house, for he sat on one of the seats, and kept his eyes fixed on the brilliantly-lighted windows. Brian threw away his cigarette and shivered slightly.

“Could anyone have seen me?” he muttered, rising uneasily.

“Pshaw! of course not; and the cabman would never recognise me again. Curse Whyte, I wish I’d never set eyes upon him.”

He gave one glance at the dark figure on the seat, and then, with a shiver, passed into the warm, well-lighted room. He did not feel easy in his mind, and he would have felt still less so had he known that the man on the seat was one of the cleverest of the Melbourne detectives.

Mr. Gorby had been watching the Frettlby mansion the whole evening, and was getting rather annoyed. Moreland did not know where Fitzgerald lived, and as that was one of the primary facts the detective wished to ascertain, he determined to watch Brian’s movements, and to trace him home.

“If he’s the lover of that pretty girl, I’ll wait till he leaves the house,” argued Mr. Gorby to himself, as he took his seat on the Esplanade. “He won’t long remain away from her, and once he leaves the house it will be no difficult matter to find out where he lives.”

When Brian made his appearance early in the evening, on his way to Mark Frettlby’s mansion, he wore evening dress, a light overcoat, and a soft hat.

“Well, I’m dashed!” ejaculated Mr. Gorby, when he saw Fitzgerald disappear; “if he isn’t a fool I don’t know who is, to go about in the very clothes he wore when he polished Whyte off, and think he won’t be recognised. Melbourne ain’t Paris or London, that he can afford to be so careless, and when I put the darbies on him he will be astonished. Ah, well,” he went on, lighting his pipe and taking a seat on the Esplanade, “I suppose I’ll have to wait here till he comes out.”

Mr. Gorby’s patience was pretty severely tried, for hour after hour passed, and no one appeared. He smoked several pipes, and watched the people strolling along in the soft silver moonlight. A bevy of girls passed by with their arms round one another’s waists. Then a young man and woman, evidently lovers, came walking along. They sat down by Mr. Gorby and looked hard at him, to hint that he need not stay. But the detective took no heed of them, and kept his eyes steadily upon the great house opposite. Finally, the lovers took themselves off with a very bad grace.

Then Mr. Gorby saw Madge and Brian come out on to the verandah, and heard in the stillness of the night, a sound weird and unearthly. It was Miss Featherweight singing. He saw Madge go in, shortly followed by Brian. The latter turned and stared at him for a moment.

“Ah,” said Gorby to himself as he re-lit his pipe; “your conscience is a-smiting you, is it? Wait a bit, my boy, till I have you in gaol.”

Then the guests came out of the house, and their black figures disappeared one by one from the moonlight as they shook hands and said good-night.

Shortly after Brian came down the path with Frettlby at his side, and Madge hanging on her father’s arm. Frettlby opened the gate and held out his hand.

“Good-night, Fitzgerald,” he said, in a hearty voice; “come soon again.”

“Good-night, Brian, dearest,” said Madge, kissing him, “and don’t forget to-morrow.”

Then father and daughter closed the gate, leaving Brian outside, and walked back to the house.

“Ah!” said Mr. Gorby to himself, “if you only knew what I know, you wouldn’t be so precious kind to him.”

Brian strolled along the Esplanade, and crossing over, passed by Gorby and walked on till he was opposite the Esplanade Hotel. Then he leaned his arms on the fence, and, taking off his hat, enjoyed the calm beauty of the hour.

“What a good-looking fellow,” murmured Mr. Gorby, in a regretful tone. “I can hardly believe it of him, but the proofs are too clear.”

The night was perfectly still. Not a breath of wind stirred, for what breeze there had been had long since died away. But Brian could see the white wavelets breaking lightly on the sands. The long narrow pier ran out like a black thread into the sheet of gleaming silver, and away in the distance the line of the Williamstown lights sparkled like some fairy illumination.

Over all this placid scene of land and water was a sky such as Dore loved — a great heavy mass of rain-clouds heaped one on top of the other, as the rocks the Titans piled to reach Olympus. Then a break in the woof, and a bit of dark blue sky could be seen glittering with stars, in the midst of which sailed the serene moon, shedding down her light on the cloudland beneath, giving to it all, one silver lining.

Somewhat to the annoyance of Mr. Gorby, who had no eye for the picturesque, Brian gazed at the sky for several minutes, admiring the wonderful beauty of its broken masses of light and shade. At length he lit a cigarette and walked down the steps on to the pier.

“Oh, suicide, is it?” muttered Mr. Gorby. “Not if I can help it.” And he lit his pipe and followed him.

He found Brian leaning over the parapet at the end of the pier, looking at the glittering waters beneath, which kept rising and falling in a dreamy rhythm, that soothed and charmed the ear. “Poor girl! poor girl!” the detective heard him mutter as he came up. “If she only knew all! If she — ”

At this moment he heard the approaching step, and turned round sharply. The detective saw that his face was ghastly pale in the moonlight, and his brows wrinkled in anger.

“What the devil do you want?” he burst out, as Gorby paused.

“What do you mean by following me all over the place?”

“Saw me, watching the house,” said Gorby to himself. “I’m not following you, sir,” he said aloud. “I suppose the pier ain’t private property. I only came down here for a breath of fresh air.”

Fitzgerald did not answer, but turned sharply on his heel, and walked quickly up the pier, leaving Gorby staring after him.

“He’s getting frightened,” soliloquised the detective to himself, as he strolled easily along, keeping the black figure in front well in view. “I’ll have to keep a sharp eye on him or he’ll be clearing out of Victoria.”

Brian walked rapidly up to the St. Kilda station, for on looking at his watch he found that he would just have time to catch the last train. He arrived a few minutes before it started, so, getting into the smoking carriage at the near end of the platform, he lit a cigarette, and, leaning back in his seat, watched the late comers hurrying into the station. Just as the last bell rang he saw a man rush along, to catch the train. It was the same man who had been watching him the whole evening, and Brian felt confident that he was being followed. He comforted himself, however, with the thought that this pertinacious follower might lose the train, and, being in the last carriage himself, he kept a look out along the platform, expecting to see his friend of the Esplanade standing disappointed on it. There was no appearance of him, so Brian, sinking back into his seat, lamented his ill-luck in not shaking off this man who kept him under such strict surveillance.

“Confound him!” he muttered softly. “I expect he will follow me to East Melbourne, and find out where I live, but he shan’t if I can help it.”

There was no one but himself in the carriage, and he felt relieved at this because he was in no humour to hear chatter.

“Murdered in a cab,” he said, lighting a fresh cigarette, and blowing a cloud of smoke. “A romance in real life, which beats Miss Braddon hollow. There is one thing certain, he won’t come between Madge and me again. Poor Madge!” with an impatient sigh. “If she only knew all, there would not be much chance of our marriage; but she can never find out, and I don’t suppose anyone else will.”

Here a thought suddenly struck him, and rising out of his seat, he walked to the other end of the carriage, and threw himself on the cushions, as if desirous to escape from himself.

“What grounds can that man have for suspecting me?” he said aloud. “No one knows I was with Whyte on that night, and the police can’t possibly bring forward any evidence to show that I was. Pshaw!” he went on, impatiently buttoning up his coat. “I am like a child, afraid of my shadow — the fellow on the pier is only some one out for a breath of fresh air, as he said himself — I am quite safe.”

At the same time, he felt by no means easy in his mind, and as he stepped out on to the platform at the Melbourne station he looked round apprehensively, as if he half expected to feel the detective’s hand upon his shoulder. But he saw no one at all like the man he had met on the St. Kilda pier, and with a sigh of relief he left the station. Mr. Gorby, however, was not far away. He was following at a safe distance. Brian walked slowly along Flinders Street apparently deep in thought. He turned up Russell Street and did not stop until he found himself close to the Burke and Wills’ monument — the exact spot where the cab had stopped on the night of Whyte’s murder.

“Ah!” said the detective to himself, as he stood in the shadow on the opposite side of the street. “You’re going to have a look at it, are you? — I wouldn’t, if I were you — it’s dangerous.”

Fitzgerald stood for a few minutes at the corner, and then walked up Collins Street. When he got to the cab-stand, opposite the Melbourne Club, still suspecting he was followed, he hailed a hansom, and drove away in the direction of Spring Street. Gorby was rather perplexed at this sudden move, but without delay, he hailed another cab, and told the driver to follow the first till it stopped.

“Two can play at that game,” he said, settling himself back in the cab, “and I’ll get the better of you, clever as you are — and you are clever,” he went on in a tone of admiration, as he looked round the luxurious hansom, “to choose such a convenient place for a murder; no disturbance and plenty of time for escape after you had finished; it’s a pleasure going after a chap like you, instead of after men who tumble down like ripe fruit, and ain’t got any brains to keep their crime quiet.”

While the detective thus soliloquised, his cab, following on the trail of the other, had turned down Spring Street, and was being driven rapidly along the Wellington Parade, in the direction of East Melbourne. It then turned up Powlett Street, at which Mr. Gorby was glad.

“Ain’t so clever as I thought,” he said to himself. “Shows his nest right off, without any attempt to hide it.”

The detective, however, had reckoned without his host, for the cab in front kept driving on, through an interminable maze of streets, until it seemed as though Brian were determined to drive the whole night.

“Look ’ere, sir!” cried Gorby’s cabman, looking through his trap-door in the roof of the hansom, “’ow long’s this ’ere game agoin’ to larst? My ’oss is knocked up, ’e is, and ’is blessed old legs is agivin’ way under ’im!”

“Go on! go on!” answered the detective, impatiently; “I’ll pay you well.”

The cabman’s spirits were raised by this, and by dint of coaxing and a liberal use of the whip, he managed to get his jaded horse up to a pretty good pace. They were in Fitzroy by this time, and both cabs turned out of Gertrude Street into Nicholson Street; thence passed on to Evelyn Street and along Spring Street, until Brian’s cab stopped at the corner of Collins Street, and Gorby saw him alight and dismiss his cab-man. He then walked down the street and disappeared into the Treasury Gardens.

“Confound it,” said the detective, as he got out and paid his fare, which was by no means a light one, but over which he had no time to argue, “we’ve come in a circle, and I do believe he lives in Powlett Street after all.”

He went into the gardens, and saw Brian some distance ahead of him, walking rapidly. It was bright moonlight, and he could easily distinguish Fitzgerald by his light coat.

As he went along that noble avenue with its elms in their winter dress, the moon shining through their branches wrought a fantastic tracery, on the smooth asphalte. And on either side Gorby could see the dim white forms of the old Greek gods and goddesses — Venus Victrix, with the apple in her hand (which Mr. Gorby, in his happy ignorance of heathen mythology, took for Eve offering Adam the forbidden fruit); Diana, with the hound at her feet, and Bacchus and Ariadne (which the detective imagined were the Babes in the Wood). He knew that each of the statues had queer names, but thought they were merely allegorical. Passing over the bridge, with the water rippling quietly underneath, Brian went up the smooth yellow path to where the statue of Hebe, holding the cup, seems instinct with life; and turning down the path to the right, he left the gardens by the end gate, near which stands the statue of the Dancing Faun, with the great bush of scarlet geranium burning like an altar before it. Then he went along the Wellington Parade, and turned up Powlett Street, where he stopped at a house near Cairns’ Memorial Church, much to Mr. Gorby’s relief, who, being like Hamlet, “fat and scant of breath,” found himself rather exhausted. He kept well in the shadow, however, and saw Fitzgerald give one final look round before he disappeared into the house. Then Mr. Gorby, like the Robber Captain in Ali Baba, took careful stock of the house, and fixed its locality and appearance well in his mind, as he intended to call at it on the morrow.

“What I’m going to do,” he said, as he walked slowly back to Melbourne, “is to see his landlady when he’s out, and find out what time he came in on the night of the murder. If it fits into the time he got out of Rankin’s cab, I’ll get out a warrant, and arrest him straight off.”

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