A BID FOR FORTUNE OR; DR. NIKOLA'S VENDETTA

By GUY BOOTH­BY

Au­thor of "Dr. Niko­la," "The Beau­ti­ful White Dev­il," etc., etc.

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The Project Guten­berg EBook of A Bid for For­tune, by Guy Booth­by

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Ti­tle: A Bid for For­tune or Dr. Niko­la's Vendet­ta

Au­thor: Guy Booth­by

Re­lease Date: May 29, 2007 [E­Book #21640]

Lan­guage: Eng­lish

Pro­duced by Mar­i­lyn­da Fraser-­Cun­lif­fe, Mary Mee­han and the On­line Dis­trib­uted Proof­read­ing Team at http­s://www.pgdp.net

Orig­i­nal­ly pub­lished by:

WARD, LOCK & CO., LIM­IT­ED LON­DON, MEL­BOURNE AND TORON­TO 1918

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PART I

PROLOGUE

The man­ag­er of the new Im­pe­ri­al Restau­rant on the Thames Em­bank­­ment went in­­­to his lux­u­ri­ous pri­­vate of­­fice and shut the door. Hav­ing done so, he first scratched his chin re­flec­­tive­­ly, and then took a let­ter from the draw­er in which it had re­­posed for more than two months and pe­rused it care­­ful­­ly. Though he was not aware of it, this was the thir­ti­eth time he had read it since break­­fast that morn­ing. And yet he was not a whit near­er un­der­­s­tand­ing it than he had been at the be­gin­n­ing. He turned it over and scru­ti­nized the back, where not a sign of writ­ing was to be seen; he held it up to the win­­dow, as if he might hope to dis­­­cov­­er some­thing from the wa­ter-­­mark; but there was noth­ing in ei­ther of these places of a na­­ture cal­cu­lat­ed to set his trou­bled mind at rest. Then he took a mag­nif­i­­cent re­­peater watch from his waist­­coat pock­­et and glanced at the di­al; the hands stood at half-­­past sev­en. He im­me­di­ate­­ly threw the let­ter on the table, and as he did so his anx­i­e­ty found re­lief in word­s.

"It's re­al­ly the most ex­tra­or­di­nary af­fair I ev­er had to do with­," he re­marked. "And as I've been in the busi­ness just three­-and-thir­ty years at eleven a.m. next Mon­day morn­ing, I ought to know some­thing about it. I on­ly hope I've done right, that's al­l."

As he spoke, the chief book­keep­er, who had the tre­ble ad­van­tage of be­ing tal­l, pret­ty, and just eight-and-twen­ty years of age, en­tered the room. She no­ticed the open let­ter and the look up­on her chief's face, and her cu­rios­i­ty was pro­por­tion­ate­ly ex­cit­ed.

"Y­ou seem wor­ried, Mr. McPher­son­," she said ten­der­ly, as she put down the pa­pers she had brought in for his sig­na­ture.

"Y­ou have just hit it, Miss O'­Sul­li­van," he an­swered, push­ing them far­ther on to the ta­ble. "I am wor­ried about many things, but par­tic­u­lar­ly about this let­ter."

He hand­ed the epis­tle to her, and she, be­ing de­sirous of im­press­ing him with her busi­ness ca­pa­bil­i­ties, read it with os­ten­ta­tious care. But it was no­tice­able that when she reached the sig­na­ture she too turned back to the be­gin­ning, and then de­lib­er­ate­ly read it over again. The man­ag­er rose, crossed to the man­tel­piece, and rang for the head wait­er. Hav­ing re­lieved his feel­ings in this way, he seat­ed him­self again at his writ­ing-table, put on his glass­es, and stared at his com­pan­ion, while wait­ing for her to speak.

"It's very fun­ny," she said. "Very fun­ny in­deed!"

"It's the most ex­tra­or­di­nary com­mu­ni­ca­tion I have ev­er re­ceived," he replied with con­vic­tion. "Y­ou see it is writ­ten from Cuyaba, Brazil. The date is three months ago to a day. Now I have tak­en the trou­ble to find out where and what Cuya­ba is."

He made this con­fes­sion with an air of con­scious pride, and hav­ing done so, laid him­self back in his chair, stuck his thumbs in­to the arm­holes of his waist­coat, and looked at his fair sub­or­di­nate for ap­proval. Nor was he des­tined to be dis­ap­point­ed. He was a bach­e­lor in pos­ses­sion of a snug in­come, and she, be­sides be­ing pret­ty, was a la­dy with a keen eye to the main chance.

"And where is Cuyaba?" she asked humbly.

"Cuyaba," he replied, rolling his tongue with con­sid­er­able rel­ish round his un­con­scious mis­pro­nun­ci­a­tion of the name, "is a town al­most on the west­ern or Bo­li­vian bor­der of Brazil. It is of mod­er­ate size, is sit­u­at­ed on the banks of the riv­er Cuyaba, and is con­sid­er­ably con­nect­ed with the fa­mous Brazil­ian Di­a­mond Field­s."

"And does the writ­er of this let­ter live there?"

"I can­not say. He writes from there--that is enough for us."

"And he or­ders din­ner for four--here, in a pri­vate room over­look­ing the river, three months ahead­--punc­tu­al­ly at eight o'­clock, gives you a list of the things he wants, and even ar­ranges the dec­o­ra­tion of the ta­ble. Says he has nev­er seen ei­ther of his three friends be­fore; that one of them hails from (here she con­sult­ed the let­ter again) Hang-­chow, an­oth­er from Bloem­fontein, while the third re­sides, at pre­sen­t, in Eng­land. Each one is to present an or­di­nary vis­it­ing card with a red dot on it to the porter in the hal­l, and to be shown to the room at once. I don't un­der­stand it at al­l."

The man­ag­er paused for a mo­men­t, and then said de­lib­er­ate­ly,--"Hang-­chow is in Chi­na, Bloem­fontein is in South Africa."

"What a won­der­ful man you are, to be sure, Mr. McPher­son! I nev­er can think how you man­age to car­ry so much in your head­."

There spoke the true wom­an. And it was a move in the right di­rec­tion, for the man­ag­er was sus­cep­ti­ble to her gen­tle in­flu­ence, as she had oc­ca­sion to know.

At this junc­ture the head wait­er ap­peared up­on the scene, and took up a po­si­tion just in­side the door­way, as if he were afraid of in­jur­ing the car­pet by com­ing far­ther.

"Is No. 22 ready, Williams?"

"Quite ready, sir. The wine is on the ice, and cook tells me he'll be ready to dish punc­tu­al to the mo­men­t."

"The let­ter says, 'no elec­tric light; can­dles with red shades.' Have you put on those shades I got this morn­ing?"

"Just seen it done this very min­ute, sir."

"And let me see, there was one oth­er thing." He took the let­ter from the chief book­keep­er's hand and glanced at it. "Ah, yes, a porce­lain saucer, and a small jug of new milk up­on the man­tel­piece. An ex­tra­or­di­nary re­quest, but has it been at­tend­ed to?"

"I put it there my­self, sir."

"Who wait­?"

"Jones, Ed­mund­s, Brook­s, and Tomkin­s."

"Very good. Then I think that will do. Stay! You had bet­ter tell the hall porter to look out for three gen­tle­men pre­sent­ing plain vis­it­ing cards with a lit­tle red spot on them. Let Brooks wait in the hal­l, and when they ar­rive tell him to show them straight up to the room."

"It shall be done, sir."

The head wait­er left the room, and the man­ag­er stretched him­self in his chair, yawned by way of show­ing his im­por­tance, and then said solemn­ly,--

"I don't be­lieve they'll any of them turn up; but if they do, this Dr. Niko­la, who­ev­er he may be, won't be able to find fault with my ar­range­ments."

Then, leav­ing the dusty high road of Busi­ness, he and his com­pan­ion wan­dered in the shady bri­dle-­paths of Love--­to the end that when the chief book­keep­er re­turned to her own de­part­ment she had for­got­ten the strange din­ner par­ty about to take place up­stairs, and was busi­ly en­gaged up­on a cal­cu­la­tion as to how she would look in white satin and or­ange blos­som­s, and, that set­tled, fell to won­der­ing whether it was true, as Miss Joyce, a sub­or­di­nate, had been heard to de­clare, that the man­ag­er had once shown him­self par­tial to a cer­tain wid­ow with re­put­ed sav­ings and a share in an ex­ten­sive egg and dairy busi­ness.

At ten min­utes to eight pre­cise­ly a han­som drew up at the steps of the ho­tel. As soon as it stopped, an un­der­sized gen­tle­man, with a clean shaven coun­te­nance, a canon­i­cal cor­po­ra­tion, and bow legs, dressed in a de­cid­ed­ly cler­i­cal gar­b, alight­ed. He paid and dis­charged his cab­man, and then took from his tick­et pock­et an or­di­nary white vis­it­ing card, which he pre­sent­ed to the gold-laced in­di­vid­u­al who had opened the apron. The lat­ter, hav­ing not­ed the red spot, called a wait­er, and the rev­erend gen­tle­man was im­me­di­ate­ly es­cort­ed up­stairs.

Hard­ly had the at­ten­dant time to re­turn to his sta­tion in the hal­l, be­fore a sec­ond cab made its ap­pear­ance, close­ly fol­lowed by a third. Out of the sec­ond jumped a tal­l, ac­tive, well-built man of about thir­ty years of age. He was dressed in evening dress of the lat­est fash­ion, and to con­ceal it from the vul­gar gaze, wore a large In­ver­ness cape of heavy tex­ture. He al­so in his turn hand­ed a white card to the porter, and, hav­ing done so, pro­ceed­ed in­to the hal­l, fol­lowed by the oc­cu­pant of the last cab, who had close­ly copied his ex­am­ple. This in­di­vid­u­al was al­so in evening dress, but it was of a dif­fer­ent stam­p. It was old-­fash­ioned and had seen much use. The wear­er, too, was taller than the or­di­nary run of men, while it was no­tice­able that his hair was snow-white, and that his face was deeply pit­ted with small­pox. Af­ter dis­pos­ing of their hats and coats in an an­te-­room, they reached room No. 22, where they found the gen­tle­man in cler­i­cal cos­tume pac­ing im­pa­tient­ly up and down.

Left alone, the tallest of the tri­o, who for want of a bet­ter ti­tle we may call the Best Dressed Man, took out his watch, and hav­ing glanced at it, looked at his com­pan­ion­s. "Gentle­men," he said, with a slight Amer­i­can ac­cen­t, "it is three min­utes to eight o'­clock. My name is Eas­t­over!"

"I'm glad to hear it, for I'm most un­com­mon­ly hun­gry," said the next tallest, whom I have al­ready de­scribed as be­ing so marked by dis­ease. "My name is Pren­der­gast!"

"We on­ly wait for our friend and host," re­marked the cler­i­cal gen­tle­man, as if he felt he ought to take a share in the con­ver­sa­tion, and then, as an af­terthought, he con­tin­ued, "My name is Bax­ter!"

They shook hands all round with marked cor­dial­i­ty, seat­ed them­selves again, and took it in turns to ex­am­ine the clock.

"Have you ev­er had the plea­sure of meet­ing our host be­fore?" asked Mr. Bax­ter of Mr. Pren­der­gast.

"N­ev­er," replied that gen­tle­man, with a shake of his head. "Per­haps Mr. Eas­t­over has been more for­tu­nate?"

"Not I," was the brief re­join­der. "I've had to do with him off and on for longer than I care to reck­on, but I've nev­er set eyes on him up to date."

"And where may he have been the first time you heard from him?"

"In Nashville, Ten­nessee," said Eas­t­over. "After that, Tahu­pa­pa, New Zealand; af­ter that, Pa­peete, in the So­ci­ety Is­land­s; then Pekin, Chi­na. And you?"

"First time, Brus­sel­s; sec­ond, Monte Video; third, Man­dalay, and then the Gold Coast, Africa. It's your turn, Mr. Bax­ter."

The cler­gy­man glanced at the time­piece. It was ex­act­ly eight o'­clock. "First time, Cab­ul, Afghanistan; sec­ond, Ni­jni Nov­gorod, Rus­si­a; third, Wilcan­ni­a, Dar­ling River, Aus­trali­a; fourth, Val­paraiso, Chili; fifth, Na­gasak­i, Japan."

"He is ev­i­dent­ly a great trav­eller and a most mys­te­ri­ous per­son­."

"He is more than that," said Eas­t­over with con­vic­tion; "he is late for din­ner!"

Pren­der­gast looked at his watch.

"That clock is two min­utes fast. Hark, there goes Big Ben! Eight ex­act­ly."

As he spoke the door was thrown open and a voice an­nounced "Dr. Niko­la."

The three men sprang to their feet si­mul­ta­ne­ous­ly, with ex­cla­ma­tions of as­ton­ish­men­t, as the man they had been dis­cussing made his ap­pear­ance.

It would take more time than I can spare the sub­ject to give you an ad­e­quate and in­clu­sive de­scrip­tion of the per­son who en­tered the room at that mo­men­t. In stature he was slight­ly above the or­di­nary, his shoul­ders were broad, his limbs per­fect­ly shaped and plain­ly mus­cu­lar, but very slim. His head, which was mag­nif­i­cent­ly set up­on his shoul­der­s, was adorned with a pro­fu­sion of glossy black hair; his face was des­ti­tute of beard or mous­tache, and was of oval shape and hand­some mould­ing; while his skin was of a dark olive hue, a colour which har­mo­nized well with his pierc­ing black eyes and pearly teeth. His hands and feet were smal­l, and the great­est dandy must have ad­mit­ted that he was ir­re­proach­ably dressed, with a neat­ness that bor­dered on the pu­ri­tan­i­cal. In age he might have been any­thing from eight-and-twen­ty to forty; in re­al­i­ty he was thir­ty-three. He ad­vanced in­to the room and walked with out­-stretched hand di­rect­ly across to where Eas­t­over was stand­ing by the fire­place.

"M­r. Eas­t­over, I feel cer­tain," he said, fix­ing his glit­ter­ing eyes up­on the man he ad­dressed, and al­low­ing a cu­ri­ous smile to play up­on his face.

"That is my name, Dr. Niko­la," the oth­er an­swered with ev­i­dent sur­prise. "But how on earth can you dis­tin­guish me from your oth­er guest­s?"

"Ah! it would sur­prise you if you knew. And Mr. Pren­der­gast, and Mr. Bax­ter. This is de­light­ful; I hope I am not late. We had a col­li­sion in the Chan­nel this morn­ing, and I was al­most afraid I might not be up to time. Din­ner seems ready; shall we sit down to it?" They seat­ed them­selves, and the meal com­menced. The Im­pe­ri­al Restau­rant has earned an en­vi­able rep­u­ta­tion for do­ing things well, and the din­ner that night did not in any way de­tract from its lus­tre. But, de­light­ful as it all was, it was no­tice­able that the three guests paid more at­ten­tion to their host than to his ex­cel­lent menu. As they had said be­fore his ar­rival, they had all had deal­ings with him for sev­er­al years, but what those deal­ings were they were care­ful not to de­scribe. It was more than pos­si­ble that they hard­ly liked to re­mem­ber them them­selves.

When cof­fee had been served and the ser­vants had with­drawn, Dr. Niko­la rose from the table, and went across to the mas­sive side­board. On it stood a bas­ket of very cu­ri­ous shape and work­man­ship. This he opened, and as he did so, to the as­ton­ish­ment of his guest­s, an enor­mous cat, as black as his mas­ter's coat, leaped out on to the floor. The rea­son for the saucer and jug of milk be­came ev­i­den­t.

Seat­ing him­self at the ta­ble again, the host fol­lowed the ex­am­ple of his guests and lit a cigar, blow­ing a cloud of smoke lux­u­ri­ous­ly through his del­i­cate­ly chis­elled nos­tril­s. His eyes wan­dered round the cor­nice of the room, took in the pic­tures and dec­o­ra­tions, and then came down to meet the faces of his com­pan­ion­s. As they did so, the black cat, hav­ing fin­ished its meal, sprang on to his shoul­der to crouch there, watch­ing the three men through the curl­ing smoke drift with its green blink­ing, fiendish eye­s. Dr. Niko­la smiled as he no­ticed the ef­fect the an­i­mal had up­on his guest­s.

"Now shall we get to busi­ness?" he said briskly.

The oth­ers al­most si­mul­ta­ne­ous­ly knocked the ash­es off their cigars and brought them­selves to at­ten­tion. Dr. Niko­la's dain­ty, lan­guid man­ner seemed to drop from him like a cloak, his eyes bright­ened, and his voice, when he spoke, was clean cut as chis­elled sil­ver.

"Y­ou are doubt­less anx­ious to be in­formed why I sum­moned you from all parts of the globe to meet me here to-night? And it is very nat­u­ral you should be. But then, from what you know of me, you should not be sur­prised at any­thing I do."

His voice dropped back in­to its old tone of gen­tle lan­guor. He drew in a great breath of smoke and then sent it slow­ly out from his lips again. His eyes were half closed, and he drummed with one fin­ger on the ta­ble edge. The cat looked through the smoke at the three men, and it seemed to them that he grew ev­ery mo­ment larg­er and more fe­ro­cious. Present­ly his own­er took him from his per­ch, and seat­ing him on his knee fell to stroking his fur, from head to tail, with his long slim fin­ger­s. It was as if he were draw­ing in­spi­ra­tion for some dead­ly mis­chief from the un­can­ny beast.

"To pref­ace what I have to say to you, let me tell you that this is by far the most im­por­tant busi­ness for which I have ev­er re­quired your help. (Three slow strokes down the cen­tre of the back, and one round each ear.) When it first came in­to my mind I was at a loss who to trust in the mat­ter. I thought of Ven­don, but I found Ven­don was dead. I thought of Brown­low, but Brown­low was no longer faith­ful. (T­wo strokes down the back and two on the throat.) Then bit by bit I re­mem­bered you. I was in Brazil at the time. So I sent for you. You came. So far so good."

He rose, and crossed over to the fire­place. As he went the cat crawled back to its orig­i­nal po­si­tion on his shoul­der. Then his voice changed once more to its for­mer busi­ness-­like tone.

"I am not go­ing to tell you very much about it. But from what I do tell you, you will be able to gath­er a great deal and imag­ine the rest. To be­gin with, there is a man liv­ing in this world to-­day who has done me a great and last­ing in­jury. What that in­jury is is no con­cern of yours. You would not un­der­stand if I told you. So we'll leave that out of the ques­tion. He is im­mense­ly rich. His cheque for £300,000 would be hon­oured by his bank at any minute. Ob­vi­ous­ly he is a pow­er. He has had rea­son to know that I am pit­ting my wits against his, and he flat­ters him­self that so far he has got the bet­ter of me. That is be­cause I am draw­ing him on. I am ma­tur­ing a plan which will make him a poor and a very mis­er­able man at one and the same time. If that scheme suc­ceed­s, and I am sat­is­fied with the way you three men have per­formed the parts I shall call on you to play in it, I shall pay to each of you the sum of £10,000. If it does­n't suc­ceed, then you will each re­ceive a thou­sand and your ex­pens­es. Do you fol­low me?"

It was ev­i­dent from their faces that they hung up­on his ev­ery word.

"But, re­mem­ber, I de­mand from you your whole and en­tire labour. While you are serv­ing me you are mine body and soul. I know you are trust­wor­thy. I have had good proof that you are--­par­don the ex­pres­sion--un­scrupu­lous, and I flat­ter my­self you are silen­t. What is more, I shall tell you noth­ing be­yond what is nec­es­sary for the car­ry­ing out of my scheme, so that you could not be­tray me if you would. Now for my plan­s!"

He sat down again and took a pa­per from his pock­et. Hav­ing pe­rused it, he turned to Eas­t­over.

"Y­ou will leave at on­ce--that is to say, by the boat on Wednes­day--­for Syd­ney. You will book your pas­sage to-­mor­row morn­ing, first thing, and join her in Ply­mouth. You will meet me to-­mor­row evening at an ad­dress I will send you, and re­ceive your fi­nal in­struc­tion­s. Good-night."

See­ing that he was ex­pect­ed to go, Eas­t­over rose, shook hand­s, and left the room with­out a word. He was too as­ton­ished to hes­i­tate or to say any­thing.

Niko­la took an­oth­er let­ter from his pock­et and turned to Pren­der­gast. "You will go down to Dover to-night, cross to Paris to-­mor­row morn­ing, and leave this let­ter per­son­al­ly at the ad­dress you will find writ­ten on it. On Thurs­day, at half-­past two pre­cise­ly, you will de­liv­er me an an­swer in the porch at Char­ing Cross. You will find suf­fi­cient mon­ey in that en­ve­lope to pay all your ex­pens­es. Now go!"

"At half-­past two you shall have your an­swer. Good-night."

"Good-night."

When Pren­der­gast had left the room, Dr. Niko­la lit an­oth­er cigar and turned his at­ten­tions to Mr. Bax­ter.

"Six months ago, Mr. Bax­ter, I found for you a sit­u­a­tion as tu­tor to the young Mar­quis of Beck­en­ham. You still hold it, I sup­pose?"

"I do."

"Is the fa­ther well dis­posed to­wards you?"

"In ev­ery way. I have done my best to in­gra­ti­ate my­self with him. That was one of your in­struc­tion­s."

"Yes, yes! But I was not cer­tain that you would suc­ceed. If the old man is any­thing like what he was when I last met him he must still be a dif­fi­cult per­son to deal with. Does the boy like you?"

"I hope so."

"Have you brought me his pho­to­graph as I di­rect­ed?"

"I have. Here it is."

Bax­ter took a pho­to­graph from his pock­et and hand­ed it across the ta­ble.

"Good. You have done very well, Mr. Bax­ter. I am pleased with you. To-­mor­row morn­ing you will go back to York­shire----"

"I beg your par­don, Bournemouth. His Grace owns a house near Bournemouth, which he oc­cu­pies dur­ing the sum­mer month­s."

"Very well--then to-­mor­row morn­ing you will go back to Bournemouth and con­tin­ue to in­gra­ti­ate your­self with fa­ther and son. You will al­so be­gin to im­plant in the boy's mind a de­sire for trav­el. Don't let him be­come aware that his de­sire has its source in you--but do not fail to fos­ter it all you can. I will com­mu­ni­cate with you fur­ther in a day or two. Now go."

Bax­ter in his turn left the room. The door closed. Dr. Niko­la picked up the pho­to­graph and stud­ied it.

"The like­ness is un­mis­tak­able--or it ought to be. My friend, my very dear friend, Wetherel­l, my toils are clos­ing on you. My ar­range­ments are per­fect­ing them­selves ad­mirably. Present­ly, when all is com­plete, I shall press the lev­er, the ma­chin­ery will be set in mo­tion, and you will find your­self be­ing slow­ly but sure­ly ground in­to pow­der. Then you will hand over what I wan­t, and be sor­ry you thought fit to baulk Dr. Niko­la!"

He rang the bell and or­dered his bil­l. This du­ty dis­charged, he placed the cat back in its pris­on, shut the lid, de­scend­ed with the bas­ket to the hal­l, and called a han­som. The porter in­quired to what ad­dress he should or­der the cab­man to drive. Dr. Niko­la did not re­ply for a mo­men­t, then he said, as if he had been think­ing some­thing out: "The Green Sailor pub­lic-­house, East In­dia Dock Road­."


You can read the rest of "A Bid For For­tune; Or, Dr. Niko­la's Vendet­ta" at Open Li­brary