I SHALL HERE SET DOWN IN LANGUAGE as simple and straightforward as I can command, the events which followed my recent return to England; and I shall leave it to others to judge whether or not my conduct has been characterised by foolish fear and ill-considered credulity. At the same time I have my own opinion as to what would have been the behaviour of any other man of average intelligence and courage in the same circumstances; more especially a man of my exceptional upbringing and retired habits.
I was born in Australia, and I have lived there all my life till quite recently, save for a single trip to Europe as a boy, in company with my father and mother. It was then that I lost my father. I was less than nine years old at the time, but my memory of the events of that European trip is singularly vivid.
My father had emigrated to Australia at the time of his marriage, and had become a rich man by singularly fortunate speculations in land in and about Sydney. As a family we were most uncommonly self-centred and isolated. From my parents I never heard a word as to their relatives in England; indeed to this day I do not as much as know what was the Christian name of my grandfather. I have often supposed that some serious family quarrel or great misfortune must have preceded or accompanied my father’s marriage. Be that as it may, I was never able to learn anything of my relatives, either on my mother’s or my father’s side. Both parents, however, were educated people, and indeed I fancy that their habit of seclusion must first have arisen from this circumstance, since the colonists about them in the early days, excellent people as they were, were not as a class distinguished for extreme intellectual culture. My father had his library stocked from England, and added to by fresh arrivals from time to time; and among his books he would pass most of his days, taking, however, now and again an excursion with a gun in search of some new specimen to add to his museum of natural history, which occupied three long rooms in our house by the Lane Cove river.
I was, as I have said, eight years of age when I started with my parents on a European tour, and it was in the year 1873. We stayed but a short while in England at first arrival, intending to make a longer stay on our return from the Continent. We made our tour, taking Italy last, and it was here that my father encountered a dangerous adventure.
We were at Naples, and my father had taken an odd fancy for a picturesque-looking ruffian who had attracted his attention by a complexion unusually fair for an Italian, and in whom he professed to recognise a likeness to Tasso the poet. This man became his guide in excursions about the neighbourhood of Naples, though he was not one of the regular corps of guides, and indeed seemed to have no regular occupation of a definite sort. “Tasso,” as my father always called him, seemed a civil fellow enough, and was fairly intelligent: but my mother disliked him extremely from the first, without being able to offer any very distinct reason for her aversion. In the event her instinct was proved true.
“Tasso”— his correct name, by the way, was Tommaso Marino — persuaded my father that something interesting was to be seen at the Astroni crater, four miles west of the city, or thereabout: persuaded him, moreover, to make the journey on foot: and the two accordingly set out. All went well enough till the crater was reached, and then, in a lonely and broken part of the hill, the guide suddenly turned and attacked my father with a knife, his intention, without a doubt, being murder and the acquisition of the Englishman’s valuables. Fortunately my father had a hip-pocket with a revolver in it, for he had been warned of the danger a stranger might at that time run wandering in the country about Naples. He received a wound in the flesh of his left arm in an attempt to ward off a stab, and fired, at wrestling distance, with the result that his assailant fell dead on the spot. He left the place with all speed, tying up his arm as he went, sought the British consul at Naples, and informed him of the whole circumstances. From the authorities there was no great difficulty. An examination or two, a few signatures, some particular exertions on the part of the consul, and my father was free so far as the officers of the law were concerned. But while these formalities were in progress no less than three attempts were made on his life — two by the knife and one by shooting — and in each his escape was little short of miraculous. For the dead ruffian, Marino, had been a member of the dreaded Camorra and the Camorristi were eager to avenge his death. To anybody acquainted with the internal history of Italy — more particularly the history of the old kingdom of Naples — the name of the Camorra will be familiar enough. It was one of the worst and most powerful of the many powerful and evil secret societies of Italy, and had none of the excuses for existence which have been from time to time put forward on behalf of the other. It was a gigantic club for the commission of crime and the extortion of money. So powerful was it that it actually imposed a regular tax on all food material entering Naples — a tax collected and paid with far more regularity than were any of the taxes due to the lawful Government of the country. The carrying of smuggled goods was a monopoly of the Camorra, a perfect organisation existing for the purpose throughout the kingdom. The whole population was terrorised by this detestable society, which had no less than twelve centres in the city of Naples alone. It contracted for the commission of crime just as systematically and calmly as a railway company contracts for the carriage of merchandise. A murder was so much, according to circumstances, with extras for disposing of the body; arson was dealt in profitably; maimings and kidnappings were carried out with promptitude and despatch; and any diabolical outrage imaginable was a mere matter of price. One of the staple vocations of the concern was of course brigandage. After the coming of Victor Emmanuel and the fusion of Italy into one kingdom the Camorra lost some of the power, but for a long time gave considerable trouble. I have heard that in the year after the matters I am describing two hundred Camorristi were banished from Italy.
As soon as the legal forms were complied with, my father received the broadest possible official hint that the sooner and the more secretly he left the country the better it would be for himself and his family. The British consul, too, impressed it upon him that the law would be entirely unable to protect him against the machinations of the Camorra; and indeed it needed but little persuasion to induce us to leave, for my poor mother was in a state of constant terror lest we were murdered together in our hotel; so that we lost no time in returning to England and bringing our European trip to a close.
In London we stayed at a well-known private hotel near Bond Street. We had been but three days here when my father came in one evening with a firm conviction that he had been followed for something like two hours, and followed very skilfully too. More than once he had doubled suddenly with a view to confront the pursuers, who he felt were at his heels, but he had met nobody of a suspicious appearance. The next afternoon I heard my mother telling my governess (who was travelling with us) of an unpleasant looking man, who had been hanging about opposite the hotel door, and who, she felt sure, had afterwards been following her and my father as they were walking. My mother grew nervous and communicated her fears to my father. He, however, pooh-poohed the thing, and took little thought of its meaning. Nevertheless the dogging continued, and my father, who was never able to fix upon the persons who caused the annoyance — indeed he rather felt their presence by instinct, as one does in such cases, than otherwise — grew extremely angry, and had some idea of consulting the police. Then one morning my mother discovered a little paper label stuck on the outside of the door of the bedroom occupied by herself and my father. It was a small thing, circular, and about the size of a six-penny-piece, or even smaller, but my mother was quite certain that it had not been there when she last entered the door the night before, and she was much terrified. For the label carried a tiny device, drawn awkwardly in ink — a pair of knives of curious shape, crossed; the sign of the Camorra.
Nobody knew anything of this label, or how it came where it had been found. My mother urged my father to place himself under the protection of the police at once, but he delayed. Indeed I fancy he had a suspicion that the label might be the production of some practical joker staying at the hotel, who had heard of his Neapolitan adventure (it was reported in many newspapers) and designed to give him a fright. But that very evening my poor father was found dead, stabbed in a dozen places, in a short, quiet street not forty yards from the hotel. He had merely gone out to buy a few cigars of a particular brand which he fancied, at a shop two streets away, and in less than half an hour of his departure the police were at the hotel door with the news of his death, having got his address from letters in his pockets.
It is no part of my present design to enlarge on my mother’s grief, or to describe in detail the incidents that followed my father’s death, for I am going back to this early period of my life merely to make more clear the bearings of what has recently happened to myself. It will be sufficient therefore to say that at the inquest the jury returned a verdict of wilful murder against some person or persons unknown; that it was several times reported that the police had obtained a most important clue, and that being so, very naturally there was never any arrest. We returned to Sydney, and then I grew up.
I should perhaps have mentioned ere this that my profession — or I should rather say my hobby — is that of an artist. Fortunately or unfortunately, as you may please to consider it, I have no need to follow any profession as a means of livelihood, but since I was sixteen years of age my whole time has been engrossed in drawing and painting. Were it not for my mother’s invincible objection to parting with me, even for the shortest space of time, I should long ago have come to Europe to work and to study in the regular schools. As it was I made shift to do my best in Australia, and wandered about pretty freely, struggling with the difficulties of moulding into artistic form the curious Australian landscape. There is an odd, desolate, uncanny note in characteristic Australian scenery, which most people are apt to regard as of little value for the purposes of the landscape painter, but with which I have always been convinced that an able painter could do great things. So I did my feeble best.
Two years ago my mother died. My age was then twenty-eight, and I was left without a friend in the world, and, so far as I know, without a relative. I soon found it impossible any longer to inhabit the large house by the Lane Cove river. It was beyond my simple needs, and the whole thing was an embarrassment, to say nothing of the associations of the house with my dead mother, which exercised a painful and depressing effect on me. So I sold the house, and cut myself adrift. For a year or more I pursued the life of a lonely vagabond in New South Wales, painting as well as I could its scattered forests of magnificent trees, with their curious upturned foliage. Then, miserably dissatisfied with my performance, and altogether filled with a restless spirit, I determined to quit the colony and live in England, or at any rate somewhere in Europe. I would paint at the Paris schools, I promised myself, and acquire that technical mastery of my material that I now felt the lack of.
The thing was no sooner resolved on than begun. I instructed my solicitors in Sydney to wind up my affairs and to communicate with their London correspondents in order that, on my arrival in England, I might deal with business matters through them. I had more than half resolved to transfer all my property to England, and to make the old country my permanent headquarters; and in three weeks from the date of my resolve I had started. I carried with me the necessary letters of introduction to the London solicitors, and the deeds appertaining to certain land in South Australia, which my father had bought just before his departure on the fatal European trip. There was workable copper in this land, it had since been ascertained, and I believed I might profitably dispose of the property to a company in London.
I found myself to some extent out of my element on board a great passenger steamer. It seemed no longer possible for me in the constant association of shipboard to maintain that reserve which had become with me a second nature. But so much had it become my nature that I shrank ridiculously from breaking it, for, grown man as I was, it must be confessed that I was absurdly shy, and indeed I fear little better than an overgrown schoolboy in my manner. But somehow I was scarce a day at sea before falling into a most pleasant acquaintanceship with another passenger, a man of thirty-eight or forty, whose name was Dorrington. He was a tall, well-built fellow, rather handsome, perhaps, except for a certain extreme roundness of face and fulness of feature; he had a dark military moustache, and carried himself erect, with a swing as of a cavalryman, and his eyes had, I think, the most penetrating quality I ever saw. His manners were extremely engaging, and he was the only good talker I had ever met. He knew everybody, and had been everywhere. His fund of illustration and anecdote was inexhaustible, and during all my acquaintance with him I never heard him tell the same story twice. Nothing could happen — not a bird could fly by the ship, not a dish could be put on the table, but Dorrington was ready with a pungent remark and the appropriate anecdote. And he never bored nor wearied one. With all his ready talk he never appeared unduly obtrusive nor in the least egotistic. Mr. Horace Dorrington was altogether the most charming person I have ever met. Moreover we discovered a community of taste in cigars.
“By the way,” said Dorrington to me one magnificent evening as we leaned on the rail and smoked, “Rigby isn’t a very common name in Australia, is it? I seem to remember a case, twenty years ago or more, of an Australian gentleman of that name being very badly treated in London — indeed, now I think of it, I’m not sure that he wasn’t murdered. Ever hear anything of it?”
“Yes,” I said, “I heard a great deal, unfortunately. He was my father, and he was murdered.”
“Your father? There — I’m awfully sorry. Perhaps I shouldn’t have mentioned it; but of course I didn’t know.”
“Oh,” I replied, “that’s all right. It’s so far back now that I don’t mind speaking about it. It was a very extraordinary thing altogether.” And then, feeling that I owed Dorrington a story of some sort, after listening to the many he had been telling me, I described to him the whole circumstances of my father’s death.
“Ah,” said Dorrington when I had finished, “I have heard of the Camorra before this — I know a thing or two about it, indeed. As a matter of fact it still exists; not quite the widespread and open thing it once was, of course, and much smaller; but pretty active in a quiet way, and pretty mischievous. They were a mighty bad lot, those Camorristi. Personally I’m rather surprised that you heard no more of them. They were the sort of people who would rather any day murder three people than one, and their usual idea of revenge went a good way beyond the mere murder of the offending party; they had a way of including his wife and family, and as many relatives as possible. But at any rate you seem to have got off all right, though I’m inclined to call it rather a piece of luck than otherwise.”
Then, as was his invariable habit, he launched into anecdote. He told me of the crimes of the Maffia, that Italian secret society, larger even and more powerful than the Camorra, and almost as criminal; tales of implacable revenge visited on father, son and grandson in succession, till the race was extirpated. Then he talked of the methods; of the large funds at the disposal of the Camorra and the Maffia, and of the cunning patience with which their schemes were carried into execution; of the victims who had discovered too late that their most trusted servants were sworn to their destruction, and of those who had fled to remote parts of the earth and hoped to be lost and forgotten, but who had been shadowed and slain with barbarous ferocity in their most trusted hiding-places. Wherever Italians were, there was apt to be a branch of one of the societies, and one could never tell where they might or might not turn up. The two Italian forecastle hands on board at that moment might be members, and might or might not have some business in hand not included in their signed articles.
I asked if he had ever come into personal contact with either of these societies or their doings.
“With the Camorra, no, though I know things about them that would probably surprise some of them not a little. But I have had professional dealings with the Maffia — and that without coming off second-best, too. But it was not so serious a case as your father’s; one of a robbery of documents and blackmail.”
“Professional dealings?” I queried.
Dorrington laughed. “Yes,” he answered. “I find I’ve come very near to letting the cat out of the bag. I don’t generally tell people who I am when I travel about, and indeed I don’t always use my own name, as I am doing now. Surely you’ve heard the name at some time or another?”
I had to confess that I did not remember it. But I excused myself by citing my secluded life, and the fact that I had never left Australia since I was a child.
“Ah,” he said, “of course we should be less heard of in Australia. But in England we’re really pretty well known, my partner and I. But, come now, look me all over and consider, and I’ll give you a dozen guesses and bet you a sovereign you can’t tell me my trade. And it’s not such an uncommon or unheard-of trade, neither.”
Guessing would have been hopeless, and I said so. He did not seem the sort of man who would trouble himself about a trade at all. I gave it up.
“Well,” he said, “I’ve no particular desire to have it known all over the ship, but I don’t mind telling you — you’d find it out probably before long if you settle in the old country — that we are what is called private inquiry agents — detectives — secret service men — whatever you like to call it.”
“Yes, indeed. And I think I may claim that we stand as high as any — if not a trifle higher. Of course I can’t tell you, but you’d be rather astonished if you heard the names of some of our clients. We have had dealings with certain royalties, European and Asiatic, that would startle you a bit if I could tell them. Dorrington & Hicks is the name of the firm, and we are both pretty busy men, though we keep going a regiment of assistants and correspondents. I have been in Australia three months over a rather awkward and complicated matter, but I fancy I pulled it through pretty well, and I mean to reward myself with a little holiday when I get back. There — now you know the worst of me. And D. & H. present their respectful compliments, and trust that by unfailing punctuality and a strict attention to business they may hope to receive your esteemed commands whenever you may be so unfortunate as to require their services. Family secrets extracted, cleaned, scaled, or stopped with gold. Special attention given to wholesale orders.” He laughed and pulled out his cigar-case. “You haven’t another cigar in your pocket,” he said, “or you wouldn’t smoke that stump so low. Try one of these.”
I took the cigar and lit it at my remainder. “Ah, then,” I said, “I take it that it is the practice of your profession that has given you such a command of curious and out-of-the-way information and anecdote. Plainly you must have been in the midst of many curious affairs.”
“Yes, I believe you,” Dorrington replied. “But, as it happens, the most curious of my experiences I am unable to relate, since they are matters of professional confidence. Such as I can tell I usually tell with altered names, dates and places. One learns discretion in such a trade as mine.”
“As to your adventure with the Maffia, now. Is there any secrecy about that?”
Dorrington shrugged his shoulders. “No,” he said, “none in particular. But the case was not particularly interesting. It was in Florence. The documents were the property of a wealthy American, and some of the Maffia rascals managed to steal them. It doesn’t matter what the documents were — that’s a private matter — but their owner would have parted with a great deal to get them back, and the Maffia held them for ransom. But they had such a fearful notion of the American’s wealth, and of what he ought to pay, that, badly as he wanted the papers back, he couldn’t stand their demands, and employed us to negotiate and to do our best for him. I think I might have managed to get the things stolen back again — indeed I spent some time thinking a plan over — but I decided in the end that it wouldn’t pay. If the Maffia were tricked in that way they might consider it appropriate to stick somebody with a knife, and that was not an easy thing to provide against. So I took a little time and went another way to work. The details don’t matter — they’re quite uninteresting, and to tell you them would be to talk mere professional ‘shop’; there’s a deal of dull and patient work to be done in my business. Anyhow, I contrived to find out exactly in whose hands the documents lay. He wasn’t altogether a blameless creature, and there were two or three little things that, properly handled, might have brought him into awkward complications with the law. So I delayed the negotiations while I got my net effectually round this gentleman, who was the president of that particular branch of the Maffia, and when all was ready I had a friendly interview with him, and just showed him my hand of cards. They served as no other argument would have done, and in the end we concluded quite an amicable arrangement on easy terms for both parties, and my client got his property back, including all expenses, at about a fifth of the price he expected to have to pay. That’s all. I learnt a deal about the Maffia while the business lasted, and at that and other times I learnt a good deal about the Camorra too.”
Dorrington and I grew more intimate every day of the voyage, till he knew every detail of my uneventful little history, and I knew many of his own most curious experiences. In truth he was a man with an irresistible fascination for a dull home-bird like myself. With all his gaiety he never forgot business, and at most of our stopping places he sent off messages by cable to his partner. As the voyage drew near its end he grew anxious and impatient lest he should not arrive in time to enable him to get to Scotland for grouse-shooting on the twelfth of August. His one amusement, it seemed, was shooting, and the holiday he had promised himself was to be spent on a grouse-moor which he rented in Perthshire. It would be a great nuisance to miss the twelfth, he said, but it would apparently be a near shave. He thought, however, that in any case it might be done by leaving the ship at Plymouth, and rushing up to London by the first train.
“Yes,” he said, “I think I shall be able to do it that way, even if we are a couple of days late. By the way,” he added suddenly, “why not come along to Scotland with me? You haven’t any particular business in hand, and I can promise you a week or two of good fun.”
The invitation pleased me. “It’s very good of you,” I said, “and as a matter of fact I haven’t any very urgent business in London. I must see those solicitors I told you of, but that’s not a matter of hurry; indeed an hour or two on my way through London would be enough. But as I don’t know any of your party and —— ”
“Pooh, pooh, my dear fellow,” answered Dorrington, with a snap of his fingers, “that’s all right. I shan’t have a party. There won’t be time to get it together. One or two might come down a little later, but if they do they’ll be capital fellows, delighted to make your acquaintance, I’m sure. Indeed you’ll do me a great favour if you’ll come, else I shall be all alone, without a soul to say a word to. Anyway I won’t miss the twelfth, if it’s to be done by any possibility. You’ll really have to come you know — you’ve no excuse. I can lend you guns and anything you want, though I believe you’ve such things with you. Who is your London solicitor, by the way?”
“Mowbray, of Lincoln’s Inn Fields.”
“Oh, Mowbray? We know him well; his partner died last year. When I say we know him well, I mean as a firm. I have never met him personally, though my partner (who does the office work) has regular dealings with him. He’s an excellent man, but his managing clerk’s frightful; I wonder Mowbray keeps him. Don’t you let him do anything for you on his own hook: he makes the most disastrous messes, and I rather fancy he drinks. Deal with Mowbray himself; there’s nobody better in London. And by the way, now I think of it, it’s lucky you’ve nothing urgent for him, for he’s sure to be off out of town for the twelfth; he’s a rare old gunner, and never misses a season. So that now you haven’t a shade of an excuse for leaving me in the lurch, and we’ll consider the thing settled.”
Settled accordingly it was, and the voyage ended uneventfully. But the steamer was late, and we left it at Plymouth and rushed up to town on the tenth. We had three or hour hours to prepare before leaving Euston by the night train. Dorrington’s moor was a long drive from Crieff station, and he calculated that at best we could not arrive there before the early evening of the following day, which would however give us comfortable time for a good long night’s rest before the morning’s sport opened. Fortunately I had plenty of loose cash with me, so that there was nothing to delay us in that regard. We made ready in Dorrington’s rooms (he was a bachelor) in Conduit Street, and got off comfortably by the ten o’clock train from Euston.
Then followed a most delightful eight days. The weather was fine, the birds were plentiful, and my first taste of grouse-shooting was a complete success. I resolved for the future to come out of my shell and mix in the world that contained such charming fellows as Dorrington, and such delightful sports as that I was then enjoying. But on the eighth day Dorrington received a telegram calling him instantly to London.
“It’s a shocking nuisance,” he said; “here’s my holiday either knocked on the head altogether or cut in two, and I fear it’s the first rather than the second. It’s just the way in such an uncertain profession as mine. There’s no possible help for it, however; I must go, as you’d understand at once if you knew the case. But what chiefly annoys me is leaving you all alone.”
I reassured him on this point, and pointed out that I had for a long time been used to a good deal of my own company. Though indeed, with Dorrington away, life at the shooting lodge threatened to be less pleasant than it had been.
“But you’ll be bored to death here,” Dorrington said, his thoughts jumping with my own. “But on the other hand it won’t be much good going up to town yet. Everybody’s out of town, and Mowbray among them. There’s a little business of ours that’s waiting for him at the moment — my partner mentioned it in his letter yesterday. Why not put in the time with a little tour round? Or you might work up to London by irregular stages, and look about you. As an artist you’d like to see a few of the old towns — probably, Edinburgh, Chester, Warwick, and so on. It isn’t a great programme, perhaps, but I hardly know what else to suggest. As for myself I must be off as I am by the first train I can get.”
I begged him not to trouble about me, but to attend to his business. As a matter of fact, I was disposed to get to London and take chambers, at any rate for a little while. But Chester was a place I much wanted to see — a real old town, with walls round it — and I was not indisposed to take a day at Warwick. So in the end I resolved to pack up and make for Chester the following day, and from there to take train for Warwick. And in half an hour Dorrington was gone.
Chester was all delight to me. My recollections of the trip to Europe in my childhood were vivid enough as to the misfortunes that followed my father, but of the ancient buildings we visited I remembered little. Now in Chester I found the mediaeval town I had so often read of. I wandered for hours together in the quaint old “Rows,” and walked on the city wall. The evening after my arrival was fine and moonlight, and I was tempted from my hotel. I took a stroll about the town and finished by a walk along the wall from the Watergate toward the cathedral. The moon, flecked over now and again by scraps of cloud, and at times obscured for half a minute together, lighted up all the Roodee in the intervals, and touched with silver the river beyond. But as I walked I presently grew aware of a quiet shuffling footstep some little way behind me. I took little heed of it at first, though I could see nobody near me from whom the sound might come. But soon I perceived that when I stopped, as I did from time to time to gaze over the parapet, the mysterious footsteps stopped also, and when I resumed my walk the quiet shuffling tread began again. At first I thought it might be an echo; but a moment’s reflection dispelled that idea. Mine was an even, distinct walk, and this which followed was a soft, quick, shuffling step — a mere scuffle. Moreover, when, by way of test, I took a few silent steps on tip-toe, the shuffle still persisted. I was being followed.
Now I do not know whether or not it may sound like a childish fancy, but I confess I thought of my father. When last I had been in England, as a child, my father’s violent death had been preceded by just such followings. And now after all these years, on my return, on the very first night I walked abroad alone, there were strange footsteps in my track. The walk was narrow, and nobody could possibly pass me unseen. I turned suddenly, therefore, and hastened back. At once I saw a dark figure rise from the shadow of the parapet and run. I ran too, but I could not gain on the figure, which receded farther and more indistinctly before me. One reason was that I felt doubtful of my footing on the unfamiliar track. I ceased my chase, and continued my stroll. It might easily have been some vagrant thief, I thought, who had a notion to rush, at a convenient opportunity, and snatch my watch. But ere I was far past the spot where I had turned there was the shuffling footstep behind me again. For a little while I feigned not to notice it; then, swinging round as swiftly as I could, I made a quick rush. Useless again, for there in the distance scuttled that same indistinct figure, more rapidly than I could run. What did it mean? I liked the affair so little that I left the walls and walked toward my hotel.
The streets were quiet. I had traversed two, and was about emerging into one of the two main streets, where the Rows are, when, from the farther part of the dark street behind me, there came once more the sound of the now unmistakable footstep. I stopped; the footsteps stopped also. I turned and walked back a few steps, and as I did it the sounds went scuffling away at the far end of the street.
It could not be fancy. It could not be chance. For a single incident perhaps such an explanation might serve, but not for this persistent recurrence. I hurried away to my hotel, resolved, since I could not come at my pursuer, to turn back no more. But before I reached the hotel there were the shuffling footsteps again, and not far behind.
It would not be true to say that I was alarmed at this stage of the adventure, but I was troubled to know what it all might mean, and altogether puzzled to account for it. I thought a great deal, but I went to bed and rose in the morning no wiser than ever.
Whether or not it was a mere fancy induced by the last night’s experience I cannot say, but I went about that day with a haunting feeling that I was watched, and to me the impression was very real indeed. I listened often, but in the bustle of the day, even in quiet old Chester, the individual characters of different footsteps were not easily recognisable. Once however, as I descended a flight of steps from the Rows, I fancied I heard the quick shuffle in the curious old gallery I had just quitted. I turned up the steps again and looked. There was a shabby sort of man looking in one of the windows, and leaning so far as to hide his head behind the heavy oaken pilaster that supported the building above. It might have been his footstep, or it might have been my fancy. At any rate I would have a look at him. I mounted the top stair, but as I turned in his direction the man ran off, with his face averted and his head ducked, and vanished down another stair. I made all speed after him, but when I reached the street he was nowhere to be seen.
What could it all mean? The man was rather above the middle height, and he wore one of those soft felt hats familiar on the head of the London organ-grinder. Also his hair was black and bushy, and protruded over the back of his coat-collar. Surely this was no delusion; surely I was not imagining an Italian aspect for this man simply because of the recollection of my father’s fate?
Perhaps I was foolish, but I took no more pleasure in Chester. The embarrassment was a novel one for me, and I could not forget it. I went back to my hotel, paid my bill, sent my bag to the railway station, and took train for Warwick by way of Crewe.
It was dark when I arrived, but the night was near as fine as last night had been at Chester. I took a very little late dinner at my hotel, and fell into a doubt what to do with myself. One rather fat and sleepy commercial traveller was the only other customer visible, and the billiard room was empty. There seemed to be nothing to do but to light a cigar and take a walk.
I could just see enough of the old town to give me good hopes of to-morrow’s sight-seeing. There was nothing visible of quite such an interesting character as one might meet in Chester, but there were a good few fine old sixteenth century houses, and there were the two gates with the chapels above them. But of course the castle was the great show-place, and that I should visit on the morrow, if there were no difficulties as to permission. There were some very fine pictures there, if I remembered aright what I had read. I was walking down the incline from one of the gates, trying to remember who the painters of these pictures were, besides Van Dyck and Holbein, when — that shuffling step was behind me again!
I admit that it cost me an effort, this time, to turn on my pursuer. There was something uncanny in that persistent, elusive footstep, and indeed there was something alarming in my circumstances, dogged thus from place to place, and unable to shake off my enemy, or to understand his movements or his motive. Turn I did, however, and straightway the shuffling step went off at a hastened pace in the shadow of the gate. This time I made no more than half-a-dozen steps back. I turned again, and pushed my way to the hotel. And as I went the shuffling step came after.
The thing was serious. There must be some object in this unceasing watching, and the object could bode no good to me. Plainly some unseen eye had been on me the whole of that day, had noted my goings and comings and my journey from Chester. Again, and irresistibly, the watchings that preceded my father’s death came to mind, and I could not forget them. I could have no doubt now that I had been closely watched from the moment I had set foot at Plymouth. But who could have been waiting to watch me at Plymouth, when indeed I had only decided to land at the last moment? Then I thought of the two Italian forecastle hands on the steamer — the very men whom Dorrington had used to illustrate in what unexpected quarters members of the terrible Italian secret societies might be found. And the Camorra was not satisfied with single revenge; it destroyed the son after the father, and it waited for many years, with infinite patience and cunning.
Dogged by the steps, I reached the hotel and went to bed. I slept but fitfully at first, though better rest came as the night wore on. In the early morning I woke with a sudden shock, and with an indefinite sense of being disturbed by somebody about me. The window was directly opposite the foot of the bed, and there, as I looked, was the face of a man, dark, evil, and grinning, with a bush of black hair about his uncovered head, and small rings in his ears.
It was but a flash, and the face vanished. I was struck by the terror that one so often feels on a sudden and violent awakening from sleep, and it was some seconds ere I could leave my bed and get to the window. My room was on the first floor, and the window looked down on a stable-yard. I had a momentary glimpse of a human figure leaving the gate of the yard, and it was the figure that had fled before me in the Rows, at Chester. A ladder belonging to the yard stood under the window, and that was all.
I rose and dressed; I could stand this sort of thing no longer. If it were only something tangible, if there were only somebody I could take hold of, and fight with if necessary, it would not have been so bad. But I was surrounded by some mysterious machination, persistent, unexplainable, that it was altogether impossible to tackle or to face. To complain to the police would have been absurd — they would take me for a lunatic. They are indeed just such complaints that lunatics so often make to the police — complaints of being followed by indefinite enemies, and of being besieged by faces that look in at windows. Even if they did not set me down a lunatic, what could the police of a provincial town do for me in a case like this? No, I must go and consult Dorrington.
I had my breakfast, and then decided that I would at any rate try the castle before leaving. Try it I did accordingly, and was allowed to go over it. But through the whole morning I was oppressed by the horrible sense of being watched by malignant eyes. Clearly there was no comfort for me while this lasted: so after lunch I caught a train which brought me to Euston soon after half-past six.
I took a cab straight to Dorrington’s rooms, but he was out, and was not expected home till late. So I drove to a large hotel near Charing Cross — I avoid mentioning its name for reasons which will presently be understood — sent in my bag, and dined.
I had not the smallest doubt but that I was still under the observation of the man or the men who had so far pursued me; I had, indeed, no hope of eluding them, except by the contrivance of Dorrington’s expert brain. So as I had no desire to hear that shuffling footstep again — indeed it had seemed, at Warwick, to have a physically painful effect on my nerves — I stayed within and got to bed early.
I had no fear of waking face to face with a grinning Italian here. My window was four floors up, out of reach of anything but a fire-escape. And, in fact, I woke comfortably and naturally, and saw nothing from my window but the bright sky, the buildings opposite, and the traffic below. But as I turned to close my door behind me as I emerged into the corridor, there, on the muntin of the frame, just below the bedroom number, was a little round paper label, perhaps a trifle smaller than a sixpence, and on the label, drawn awkwardly in ink, was a device of two crossed knives of curious, crooked shape. The sign of the Camorra!
I will not attempt to describe the effect of this sign upon me. It may best be imagined, in view of what I have said of the incidents preceding the murder of my father. It was the sign of an inexorable fate, creeping nearer step by step, implacable, inevitable, and mysterious. In little more than twelve hours after seeing that sign my father had been a mangled corpse. One of the hotel servants passed as I stood by the door, and I made shift to ask him if he knew anything of the label. He looked at the paper, and then, more curiously, at me, but he could offer no explanation. I spent little time over breakfast, and then went by cab to Conduit Street. I paid my bill and took my bag with me.
Dorrington had gone to his office, but he had left a message that if I called I was to follow him; and the office was in Bedford Street, Covent Garden. I turned the cab in that direction forthwith.
“Why,” said Dorrington as we shook hands, “I believe you look a bit out of sorts! Doesn’t England agree with you?”
“Well,” I answered, “it has proved rather trying so far.” And then I described, in exact detail, my adventures as I have set them down here.
Dorrington looked grave. “It’s really extraordinary,” he said, “most extraordinary: and it isn’t often that I call a thing extraordinary neither, with my experience. But it’s plain something must be done — something to gain time at any rate. We’re in the dark at present, of course, and I expect I shall have to fish about a little before I get at anything to go on. In the meantime I think you must disappear as artfully as we can manage it.” He sat silent for a little while, thoughtfully tapping his forehead with his finger-tips. “I wonder,” he said presently, “whether or not those Italian fellows on the steamer are in it or not. I suppose you haven’t made yourself known anywhere, have you?”
“Nowhere. As you know, you’ve been with me all the time till you left the moor, and since then I have been with nobody and called on nobody.”
“Now there’s no doubt it’s the Camorra,” Dorrington said —“that’s pretty plain. I think I told you on the steamer that it was rather wonderful that you had heard nothing of them after your father’s death. What has caused them all this delay there’s no telling — they know best themselves: it’s been lucky for you, anyway, so far. What I’d like to find out now is how they have identified you, and got on your track so promptly. There’s no guessing where these fellows get their information — it’s just wonderful; but if we can find out then perhaps we can stop the supply, or turn on something that will lead them into a pit. If you had called anywhere on business and declared yourself — as you might have done, for instance, at Mowbray’s — I might be inclined to suspect that they got the tip in some crooked way from there. But you haven’t. Of course, if those Italian chaps on the steamer are in it, you’re probably identified pretty certainly; but if they’re not, they may only have made a guess. We two landed together, and kept together, till a day or two ago; as far as any outsider would know, I might be Rigby and you might be Dorrington. Come, we’ll work on those lines. I think I smell a plan. Are you staying anywhere?”
“No. I paid my bill at the hotel and came along here with my bag.”
“Very well. Now there’s a house at Highgate kept by a very trustworthy man, whom I know very well, where a man might be pretty comfortable for a few days, or even for a week, if he doesn’t mind staying indoors, and keeping himself out of sight. I expect your friends of the Camorra are watching in the street outside at this moment; but I think it will be fairly easy to get you away to Highgate without letting them into the secret, if you don’t mind secluding yourself for a bit. In the circumstances, I take it you won’t object at all?”
“Object? I should think not.”
“Very well, that’s settled. You can call yourself Dorrington or not, as you please, though perhaps it will be safest not to shout ‘Rigby’ too loud. But as for myself, for a day or two at least I’m going to be Mr. James Rigby. Have you your card-case handy?”
“Yes, here it is. But then, as to taking my name, won’t you run serious risk?”
Dorrington winked merrily. “I’ve run a risk or two before now,” he said, “in course of my business. And if I don’t mind the risk, you needn’t grumble, for I warn you I shall charge for risk when I send you my bill. And I think I can take care of myself fairly well, even with the Camorra about. I shall take you to this place at Highgate, and then you won’t see me for a few days. It won’t do for me, in the character of Mr. James Rigby, to go dragging a trail up and down between this place and your retreat. You’ve got some other identifying papers, haven’t you?”
“Yes, I have.” I produced the letter from my Sydney lawyers to Mowbray, and the deeds of the South Australian property, from my bag.
“Ah,” said Dorrington, “I’ll just give you a formal receipt for these, since they’re valuable; it’s a matter of business, and we’ll do it in a business-like way. I may want something solid like this to support any bluff I may have to make. A mere case of cards won’t always act, you know. It’s a pity old Mowbray’s out of town, for there’s a way in which he might give a little help, I fancy. But never mind — leave it all to me. There’s your receipt. Keep it snug away somewhere, where inquisitive people can’t read it.”
He handed me the receipt, and then took me to his partner’s room and introduced me. Mr. Hicks was a small, wrinkled man, older than Dorrington, I should think, by fifteen or twenty years, and with all the aspect and manner of a quiet old professional man.
Dorrington left the room, and presently returned with his hat in his hand. “Yes,” he said, “there’s a charming dark gentleman with a head like a mop, and rings in his ears, skulking about at the next corner. If it was he who looked in at your window, I don’t wonder you were startled. His dress suggests the organ-grinding interest, but he looks as though cutting a throat would be more in his line than grinding a tune; and no doubt he has friends as engaging as himself close at call. If you’ll come with me now I think we shall give him the slip. I have a growler ready for you — a hansom’s a bit too glassy and public. Pull down the blinds and sit back when you get inside.”
He led me to a yard at the back of the building wherein the office stood, from which a short flight of steps led to a basement. We followed a passage in this basement till we reached another flight, and ascending these, we emerged into the corridor of another building. Out at the door at the end of this, and we passed a large block of model dwellings, and were in Bedfordbury. Here a four-wheeler was waiting, and I shut myself in it without delay.
I was to proceed as far as King’s Cross in this cab, Dorrington had arranged, and there he would overtake me in a swift hansom. It fell out as he had settled, and, dismissing the hansom, he came the rest of the journey with me in the four-wheeler.
We stopped at length before one of a row of houses, apparently recently built — houses of the over-ornamented, gabled and tiled sort that abound in the suburbs.
“Crofting is the man’s name,” Dorrington said as we alighted. “He’s rather an odd sort of customer, but quite decent in the main, and his wife makes coffee such as money won’t buy in most places.”
A woman answered Dorrington’s ring — a woman of most extreme thinness. Dorrington greeted her as Mrs. Crofting, and we entered.
“We’ve just lost our servant again, Mr. Dorrington,” the woman said in a shrill voice, “and Mr. Crofting ain’t at home. But I’m expecting him before long.”
“I don’t think I need wait to see him, Mrs. Crofting,” Dorrington answered. “I’m sure I can’t leave my friend in better hands than yours. I hope you’ve a vacant room?”
“Well, for a friend of yours, Mr. Dorrington, no doubt we can find room.”
“That’s right. My friend Mr.”— Dorrington gave me a meaning look —“Mr. Phelps, would like to stay here for a few days. He wants to be quite quiet for a little — do you understand?”
“Oh, yes, Mr. Dorrington, I understand.”
“Very well, then, make him as comfortable as you can, and give him some of your very best coffee. Have you got any cigars?” Dorrington added, turning to me.
“Yes; there are some in my bag.”
“Then I think you’ll be pretty comfortable now. Good-bye. I expect you’ll see me in a few days — or at any rate you’ll get a message. Meantime be as happy as you can.”
Dorrington left, and the woman showed me to a room upstairs, where I placed my bag. The furniture of the place was of the sort one expects to find in an ordinary lodging house — horsehair sofas, loo tables, lustres, and so forth.
At two o’clock the dinner came, and I was agreeably surprised to find it a very good one, much above what the appointments of the house had led me to expect. Plainly Mrs. Crofting was a capital cook. There was no soup, but there was a very excellent sole, and some well-done cutlets with peas, and an omelet. I had heard a heavy, blundering tread on the floor below, and judged from this that Mr. Crofting had returned.
After dinner I lit a cigar, and Mrs. Crofting brought her coffee. Truly it was excellent coffee, and brewed as I like it — strong and black, and plenty of it. It had a flavour of its own too, novel, but not unpleasing. I had not read six lines of my book before I was asleep.
I woke with a sensation of numbing cold in my right side, a terrible stiffness in my limbs, and a sound of loud splashing in my ears. All was pitch dark, and — what was this? Water! Water all about me. I was lying in six inches of cold water, and more was pouring down upon me from above. My head was afflicted with a splitting ache. But where was I? Why was it dark? And whence all the water? I staggered to my feet, and instantly struck my head against a hard roof above me. I raised my hand; there was the roof of whatever place it was, hard, smooth and cold, and little more than five feet from the floor, so that I bent as I stood. I spread my hand to the side; that was hard, smooth and cold too. And then the conviction struck me like a blow — I was in a covered iron tank, and the water was pouring in to drown me!
I dashed my hands frantically against the lid, and strove to raise it. It would not move. I shouted at the top of my voice, and turned about to feel the extent of my prison. One way I could touch the opposite sides at once easily with my hands, the other way it was wider — perhaps a little more than six feet altogether. What was this? Was this to be my fearful end, cooped in this tank while the water rose by inches to choke me? Already the water was a foot deep. I flung myself at the sides, I beat the pitiless iron with fists, face and head, I screamed and implored. Then it struck me that I might at least stop the inlet of water. I put out my hand and felt the falling stream, then found the inlet and stopped it with my fingers. But water still poured in with a resounding splash; there was another opening at the opposite end, which I could not reach without releasing the one I now held! Oh, the devilish cunning that had devised those two inlets, so far apart! Again I beat the sides, broke my nails with tearing at the corners, screamed and entreated in my agony.
In the height of my frenzy I held my breath, for I heard a sound from outside. I shouted again — implored some quicker death. Then there was a scraping on the lid above me, and it was raised at one edge, and let in the light of a candle. I sprang from my knees and forced the lid back, and the candle flame danced before me. The candle was held by a dusty man, a workman apparently, who stared at me with scared eyes, and said nothing but, “Goo’ lor’!”
Overhead were the rafters of a gabled roof, and tilted against them was the thick beam which, jammed across from one sloping rafter to another, had held the tank-lid fast. “Help me!” I gasped, “help me out!”
The man took me by the armpits and hauled me, dripping and half dead, over the edge of the tank, into which the water still poured, making a noise in the hollow iron that half drowned our voices. The man had been at work on the cistern of a neighbouring house, and hearing an uncommon noise, he had climbed through the spaces left in the party walls to give passage along under the roofs to the builders’ men. Among the joists at our feet was the trap-door through which, drugged and insensible, I had been carried, to be flung into that horrible cistern.
With the help of my friend the workman I made shift to climb through by the way he had come. We got back to the house where he had been at work, and there the people gave me brandy and lent me dry clothes. I made haste to send for the police, but when they arrived Mrs. Crofting and her respectable spouse had gone. Some unusual noise in the roof must have warned them. And when the police, following my directions further, got to the offices of Dorrington and Hicks, those acute professional men had gone too, but in such haste that the contents of the office, papers and everything else, had been left just as they stood.
The plot was clear now. The followings, the footsteps, the face at the window, the label on the door — all were a mere humbug arranged by Dorrington for his own purpose, which was to drive me into his power and get my papers from me. Armed with these, and with his consummate address and knowledge of affairs, he could go to Mr. Mowbray in the character of Mr. James Rigby, sell my land in South Australia, and have the whole of my property transferred to himself from Sydney. The rest of my baggage was at his rooms; if any further proof were required it might be found there. He had taken good care that I should not meet Mr. Mowbray — who, by the way, I afterwards found had not left his office, and had never fired a gun in his life. At first I wondered that Dorrington had not made some murderous attempt on me at the shooting place in Scotland. But a little thought convinced me that that would have been bad policy for him. The disposal of the body would be difficult, and he would have to account somehow for my sudden disappearance. Whereas, by the use of his Italian assistant and his murder apparatus at Highgate I was made to efface my own trail, and could be got rid of in the end with little trouble; for my body, stripped of everything that might identify me, would be simply that of a drowned man unknown, whom nobody could identify. The whole plot was contrived upon the information I myself had afforded Dorrington during the voyage home. And it all sprang from his remembering the report of my father’s death. When the papers in the office came to be examined, there each step in the operations was plainly revealed. There was a code telegram from Suez directing Hicks to hire a grouse moor. There were telegrams and letters from Scotland giving directions as to the later movements; indeed the thing was displayed completely. The business of Dorrington & Hicks had really been that of private inquiry agents, and they had done much bona fide business; but many of their operations had been of a more than questionable sort. And among their papers were found complete sets, neatly arranged in dockets, each containing in skeleton a complete history of a case. Many of these cases were of a most interesting character, and I have been enabled to piece together, out of the material thus supplied, the narratives which follow this. As to my own case, it only remains to say that as yet neither Dorrington, Hicks, nor the Croftings have been caught. They played in the end for a high stake (they might have made six figures of me if they had killed me, and the first figure would not have been a one) and they lost by a mere accident. But I have often wondered how many of the bodies which the coroners’ juries of London have returned to be “Found Drowned” were drowned, not where they were picked up, but in that horrible tank at Highgate. What the drug was that gave Mrs. Crofting’s coffee its value in Dorrington’s eyes I do not know, but plainly it had not been sufficient in my case to keep me unconscious against the shock of cold water till I could be drowned altogether. Months have passed since my adventure, but even now I sweat at the sight of an iron tank.
Last updated Tuesday, August 25, 2015 at 14:11