A friend—and a mysterious stranger.
“Hillo, Singleton, old chap, how are you?” exclaimed a young fellow of about eighteen years of age, as he laid his hand upon the shoulder of a lad about his own age, who, on a certain fine July day in the year of grace 1894, was standing gazing into the window of a shop in Piccadilly.
The speaker was a somewhat slightly-built youth, rather tall and slim, by no means ill-looking, of sallow complexion and a cast of features that betrayed his foreign origin, although his English was faultless. The young man whom he had addressed was, on the other hand, a typical Englishman, tall, broad, with “athlete” written large all over him; fair of skin, with a thick crop of close-cut, ruddy-golden locks that curled crisply on his well-shaped head, and a pair of clear, grey-blue eyes that had a trick of seeming to look right into the very soul of anyone with whom their owner happened to engage in conversation. Just now, however, there was a somewhat languid look in those same eyes that, coupled with an extreme pallor of complexion and gauntness of frame, seemed to tell a tale of ill health. The singularly handsome face, however, lighted up with an expression of delighted surprise as its owner turned sharply round and answered heartily:
“Why, Carlos, my dear old chap, this is indeed an unexpected pleasure! We were talking about you only last night—Letchmere, Woolaston, Poltimore, and I, all old Alleynians who had foregathered to dine at the Holborn. Where in the world have you sprung from?”
“Plymouth last, where I arrived yesterday, en route to London from Cuba,” was the answer. “And you are the second old Alleynian whom I have already met. Lancaster—you remember him, of course—came up in the same compartment with me all the way. He is an engineer now in the dockyard at Devonport, and was on his way to join his people, who are off to Switzerland, I think he said.”
“Yes, of course I remember him,” was the answer, “but I have not seen him since we all left Dulwich together. And what are you doing over here, now—if it is not an indiscreet question to ask; and how long do you propose to stay?”
The sallow-complexioned, foreign-looking youth glanced keenly about him before replying, looked at his watch, and then remarked:
“Close upon half-past one—lunch-time; and this London air of yours has given me a most voracious appetite. Suppose we go in somewhere and get some lunch, to start with; afterwards we can take a stroll in the Park, and have a yarn together—that is to say, if you are not otherwise engaged.”
“Right you are, my boy; that will suit me admirably, for I have no other engagement, and, truth to tell, was feeling somewhat at a loss as to how to dispose of myself for the next hour or two. Here you are, let us go into Prince’s,” answered Singleton. The two young men entered the restaurant, found a table, called a waiter, and ordered lunch; and while they are taking the meal the opportunity may be seized to make the reader somewhat better acquainted with them.
There is not much that need be said by way of introduction to either of them. Carlos Montijo was the only son of Don Hermoso Montijo, a native of Cuba, and the most extensive and wealthy tobacco planter in the Vuelta de Abajo district of that island. He was also intensely patriotic, and was very strongly suspected by the Spanish rulers of Cuba of regarding with something more than mere passive sympathy the efforts that had been made by the Cubans from time to time, ever since ’68, to throw off the Spanish yoke. He was a great admirer of England, English institutions, and the English form of government, which, despite all its imperfections, he considered to be the most admirable form of government in existence. It was this predilection for things English that had induced him to send his son Carlos over to England, some nine years prior to the date of the opening of this story, to be educated at Dulwich, first of all in the preparatory school and afterwards in the College. And it was during the latter period that Carlos Montijo became the especial chum of Jack Singleton, a lad of the same age as himself, and the only son of Edward Singleton, the senior partner in the eminent Tyneside firm of Singleton, Murdock, and Company, shipbuilders and engineers. The two lads had left Dulwich at the same time, Carlos to return to Cuba to master the mysteries of tobacco-growing, and Singleton to learn all that was to be learnt of shipbuilding and engineering in his father’s establishment. A year ago, however, Singleton senior had died, leaving his only son without a near relation in the world—Jack’s mother having died during his infancy: and since then Jack, as the dominant partner in the firm, had been allowed to do pretty much as he pleased. Not that he took an unwise advantage of this freedom—very far from it: he clearly realised that, his father being dead, there was now a more stringent necessity than ever for him to become master of every detail of the business; and, far from taking things easy, he had been working so hard that of late his health had shown signs of giving way, and at the moment when we make his acquaintance he was in London for the purpose of consulting a specialist.
During the progress of luncheon there had been, as was to be expected, a brisk crossfire of question and answer between the two young men, in the course of which Montijo had learned, among other things, that his friend Jack had been ordered by the specialist to leave business very severely alone for some time to come, and, if possible, to treat himself to at least six months’ complete change of air, scene, and occupation.
“It fortunately so happens,” said Jack, “that my position in the firm will enable me to do this very well, since Murdock, the other partner, is, and has been since my father’s death, the actual manager of the business; and as he has been with us for nearly thirty years he knows all that there is to know about it, and needs no assistance from me. Also, I have at last completed the submarine which has been my pet project for almost as long as I can remember, and now all that I need is the opportunity to try her: indeed, but for Oxley’s strict injunctions to me to cut business altogether, I should certainly spend my holiday in putting the boat to a complete series of very much more thorough and exhaustive tests than have thus far been possible. As it is, I really am at an almost complete loss how to spend my six months’ holiday.”
“Do you mean to say that you have no plans whatever?” demanded Montijo, as he and his friend rose from the table to leave the restaurant.
“None but those of the most vague and hazy description possible,” answered Singleton. “Oxley’s orders are ‘change of scene, no work, and a life in the open air’; I am therefore endeavouring to weigh the respective merits of a cruise in my old tub the Lalage, and big-game shooting somewhere in Central Africa. But neither of them seems to appeal to me very strongly; the cutter is old and slow, while as for the shooting project, I really don’t seem to have the necessary energy for such an undertaking, in the present state of my health.”
“Look here, Jack,” observed Montijo eagerly, as he slid his hand within his friend’s arm and the pair wheeled westward toward Hyde Park, “I believe I have the very scheme to suit you, and I will expound it to you presently, when we get into the Park and can talk freely without the risk of being overheard. Meanwhile, what was it that you were saying just now about a submarine? I remember, of course, that you were always thinking and talking about submarines while we were at Dulwich, and also that you once made a model which you tested in the pond, and which dived so effectually that, unless you subsequently recovered her, she must be at the bottom of the pond still.”
“Ay,” answered Jack with a laugh; “I remember that ill-fated model. No, I never recovered her, but she nevertheless served her purpose; for her mishap gave me my first really useful idea in connection with the design of a submarine boat. And at last I have completed a working model which thus far has answered exceedingly well. She is only a small affair, you know, five feet in diameter by twenty-five feet long, but she is big enough to accommodate two men—or even three, at a pinch. I have been as deep as ten fathoms in her, and have no doubt she could descend to twice that depth; while she has an underwater speed of twenty knots, which she can maintain for five hours.”
“By Jove, that’s splendid—very much better than anything that anyone else has done, thus far!” exclaimed Montijo admiringly. “You ought to make your fortune with a boat of that sort. And you are pining for an opportunity to subject her to a thoroughly practical test? Well, my scheme, which I will explain in full when we get into the Park, will enable you to do that.”
“Is that so?” commented Jack. “Then that alone would very strongly predispose me in favour of it. But why make such a secret of it, old chap? Is it of such a character that a passer-by, catching a few words of it, would be likely to hand us over to the nearest policeman as a couple of conspirators?”
“Well, no; it is scarcely so bad as that,” answered Montijo, laughing: “but it is of such a nature that I would prefer not to speak of it, if you don’t mind, until we are somewhere in the Park where we can converse freely without the fear of being overheard. You see, the Pater and I are pretty well-known to—and not too well liked by—the Spanish authorities in Cuba, and it is by no means certain that they may not think it quite worth their while to have us watched over here; therefore—”
“Yes, of course, I understand,” returned Jack; “therefore for the present ‘mum’s the word’, eh?”
Montijo nodded, and the two lads strode along, conversing upon various topics, until they reached Hyde Park Corner, and swung in through the Park gates, and so on to the grass.
“Ah, now at last I can speak freely!” remarked Montijo with a sigh of relief. “First of all, Singleton,” he continued, “you must understand that what I am about to say will be spoken in the strictest confidence; and, whether you should agree to my proposal or not, I must ask you to pledge your honour as a gentleman that you will not repeat a single word of what I say to anyone—anyone, mind you—without first obtaining my consent, or that of my Pater.”
“All right, Carlos, my boy,” answered Singleton, cheerily; “I promise and vow all that you ask. There is nobody on the face of this earth of ours who can keep a secret better than I can, as you ought to know by this time.”
“Yes, I do know it, perfectly well,” agreed Montijo. “Well,” he continued, “the fact is that the Pater and I have at last begun to interest ourselves actively in Cuban politics. We Cubans, as you perhaps know, have been trying, ever since ’68, to induce the Spaniards to govern us mildly and justly, but thus far all our efforts have been fruitless: we are still being ground down and tyrannised over until the lives of many of us have become a burden; neither the property, the liberty, nor the life of any Cuban is safe to-day, unless he is well-known to be a supporter of the Spanish Government. After more than a quarter of a century of patient but ineffectual effort, therefore, it has been determined to take up arms, strike a blow for liberty, and never rest until Cuba is free from the hated Spanish yoke.
“It is in connection with this movement that the Pater and I are now in England. It is now nearly a year since Señor Marti—the man who above all others has been conspicuous in his efforts on behalf of Cuba—got hold of the Pater and succeeded in convincing him that it is the duty of every Cuban to do his utmost to free his country from the grasp of the tyrant; and one of the first-fruits of this was the giving of an order by the Pater—through a friend—for the construction of a fast steam-yacht, to be used as may be required in the service of the country, but primarily for the purpose of smuggling arms, ammunition, and necessaries of all kinds into the island. Now, by a singular coincidence, this friend and agent of the Pater chose your firm as that which should build the yacht; and now we, having been advised that she is ready for delivery—”
“What!” exclaimed Singleton, “you surely don’t mean to say that Number 78 is your boat?”
“Yes,” answered Montijo quietly; “that is the number by which she is at present known, I believe.”
“Then, Carlos, my dear boy, accept my most hearty congratulations!” exclaimed Singleton. “Our naval constructor has let himself go, and fairly outdone himself over that craft. It was a difficult task that you gave him to do when you asked for a boat of not less than three hundred tons on eight feet draught of water, and with a sea speed of twenty-two knots; but he has done it, and the result is that you have, in Number 78, the prettiest little boat that ever swam. Why, man, she has already done twenty-four knots over the measured mile, on her full draught of water, and in a fairly heavy sea; and she is the very sweetest sea boat that it is possible to imagine. Of course we could not have done it had we not boldly adopted the new-fashioned turbine principle for her engines; but they work to perfection, and even when she is running at full speed one can scarcely feel a tremor in her.”
“I am delighted to receive so excellent an account of her,” answered Montijo, “and so will the Pater be when I tell him—or, rather, when you tell him; for, Singleton, I want you to promise that you will dine with us to-night, and make the Pater’s acquaintance. He is the very dearest old chap that you ever met—your own father, of course, excepted—and he will be enchanted to make your acquaintance. He already knows you well enough by name to speak of you as ‘Jack’.”
“I will do so with pleasure,” answered Singleton heartily. “I have no other engagement, and after one has been to a theatre or a concert every night for a week—as I have—one begins to wish for a change. And while I don’t wish to flatter you, Carlos, my boy, if your father is anything like you he is a jolly good sort, and I shall be glad to know him. But we have run somewhat off the track, haven’t we? I understood that you have some sort of proposal to make.”
“Yes,” answered Montijo, “I have. Let me see—what were we talking about? Oh, yes, the yacht! Well, now that she is built, we are in something of a difficulty concerning her—a difficulty that did not suggest itself to any of us until quite recently. That difficulty is the difficulty of ownership. She has been built for the service of Cuba, but somebody must be her acknowledged owner; and if she is admitted to be the property of the Pater, of Marti, or, in fact, of any Cuban, she will at once become an object of suspicion to the Spanish Government, and her movements will be so jealously watched that it will become difficult, almost to the verge of impossibility, for her to render any of those services for which she is specially intended. You see that, Jack, don’t you?”
“Certainly,” answered Singleton, “that is obvious to the meanest intellect, as somebody once remarked. But how do you propose to get over the difficulty?”
“There is only one way that the Pater and I can see out of it,” answered Montijo, “and that is to get somebody who is not likely to incur Spanish suspicion to accept the nominal ownership of the yacht, under the pretence of using her simply for his own pleasure.”
“Phew!” whistled Singleton. “That may be all right for the other fellow, but how will it be for you? For that scheme to work satisfactorily you must not only find a man who will throw himself heart and soul into your cause, but also one whose honesty is proof against the temptation to appropriate to himself a yacht which will cost not far short of forty thousand pounds. For you must remember that unless the yacht’s papers are absolutely in order, and her apparent ownership unimpeachable, it will be no good at all; she must be, so far at least as all documentary evidence goes, the indisputable property of the supposititious man of whom we have been speaking: and, that being the case, there will be nothing but his own inherent honesty to prevent him from taking absolute possession of her and doing exactly as he pleases with her, even to selling her, should he be so minded. Now, where are you going to find a man whom you can trust to that extent?”
“I don’t know, I’m sure,” answered Montijo; “at least, I didn’t until I met you, Jack. But if you are willing to be the man—”
“Oh, nonsense, my dear fellow,” interrupted Jack, “that won’t do at all, you know!”
“Why not?” asked Montijo. “Is it because you don’t care to interfere in Cuban affairs? I thought that perhaps, as you are obliged to take a longish holiday, with change of scene and interests, an outdoor life, and so on, you would rather enjoy the excitement—”
“Enjoy it?” echoed Singleton. “My dear fellow, ‘enjoy’ is not the word, I should simply revel in it; all the more because my sympathies are wholly with the Cubans, while I—or rather my firm, have an old grudge against the Spaniards, who once played us a very dirty trick, of which, however, I need say nothing just now. No, it is not that; it is—”
“Well, what is it?” demanded Montijo, seeing that Jack paused hesitatingly.
“So near as I can put it,” answered Jack, “it is this. Your father doesn’t know me from Adam; and you only know as much as you learned of me during the time that we were together at Dulwich. How then can you possibly tell that I should behave on the square with you? How can you tell that, after having been put into legal possession of the yacht, I should not order you and your father ashore and forbid you both to ever set foot upon her decks again?”
Montijo laughed joyously. “Never mind how I know it, Jack,” he answered. “I do know it, and that is enough. And if that is not a sufficiently convincing argument for you, here is another. You will admit that, in order to avoid the difficulty which I have pointed out, we must trust somebody, mustn’t we? Very well. Now I say that there is no man in all the world whom I would so implicitly trust as yourself; therefore I ask you, as a very great favour, to come into this affair with us. It will just nicely fill up your six months’ holiday—for the whole affair will be over in six months, or less—and give you such a jolly, exciting time as you may never again meet with during the rest of your life. Now, what do you say to that?”
“I say that your Pater must be consulted before the matter is allowed to go any further,” answered Jack. “You can mention it to him between now and to-night, if you like, and if the idea is agreeable to him we can discuss it after dinner. And that reminds me that you have not yet mentioned the place or the hour of meeting.”
“We are staying at the Cecil, and we dine at seven sharp,” answered Montijo. “But don’t go yet, old chap, unless I am boring you. Am I?”
“Do you remember my once punching your head at Dulwich for some trifling misdemeanour?” asked Jack laughingly, as he linked his arm in that of Montijo. “Very well, then. If you talk like that you will compel me to do it again. Do you know, Carlos, this scheme of yours is rapidly exercising a subtle and singularly powerful fascination over me? and even if your father should hesitate to entrust his boat to me, I feel very like asking him to let me take a hand in the game, just for the fun of the thing. And what a splendid opportunity it would afford for testing the powers of my submarine! Oh, by Jove, I think I must go, one way or another!”
The two young men wandered about the Park for nearly an hour longer, discussing the matter eagerly, and even going so far as to make certain tentative plans; and then they separated and went their respective ways, with the understanding that they were to meet again at the Cecil.
Jack was putting up at Morley’s Hotel, in Trafalgar Square, and his nearest way back to it was, of course, down Piccadilly; but as he passed out through the Park gate he suddenly bethought himself of certain purchases that he wished to make at the Army and Navy Stores, and he accordingly crossed the road and entered the Green Park, with the intention of passing through it and Saint James’s Park, and so into Victoria Street by way of Queen Anne’s Gate and the side streets leading therefrom. He had got about halfway across Green Park when he became aware of quick footsteps approaching him from behind, and the next moment he was overtaken and accosted by a rather handsome man, irreproachably attired in frock-coat, glossy top-hat, and other garments to match. The stranger was evidently a foreigner—perhaps a Spaniard, Jack thought, although he spoke English with scarcely a trace of accent. Raising his hat, he said:
“Pardon me, sir, but may I venture to enquire whether the gentleman from whom you parted a few minutes ago happens to be named Montijo?”
“Certainly,” answered Jack; “there can be no possible objection to your making such an enquiry, somewhat peculiar though it is. But whether I answer it or not must depend upon the reason which you may assign for asking the question. It is not usual, here in England, for total strangers to ask such personal questions as yours without being prepared to explain why they are asked.”
“Precisely!” assented the stranger suavely. “My reason for asking is that I am particularly anxious to see Señor Montijo on very important business of a strictly private nature, and should your friend happen to be the gentleman in question I was about to ask if you would have the very great goodness to oblige me with his present address.”
“I see,” said Jack. “What caused you to think that my friend might possibly be the individual you are so anxious to meet?”
“Simply a strong general resemblance, nothing more,” answered the stranger.
“Then, my dear sir,” said Jack, “since you saw my friend—for otherwise you could not have observed his strong general resemblance to the person whom you are so anxious to meet—will you permit me to suggest that obviously the proper thing for you to have done was to accost him when the opportunity presented itself to you, instead of following me. Before I answer your question I am afraid I must ask you to favour me with your card, as a guarantee of your bona fides, you know.”
“Certainly,” answered the stranger unhesitatingly, as he felt in the breast pocket of his coat for his card-case. His search, however, proved ineffectual, or at least no card-case was produced; and presently, with an air of great vexation, he exclaimed:
“Alas! sir, I regret to say that I appear to have lost or mislaid my card-case, for I certainly have not it with me. My name, however, is—Mackintosh,” with just the slightest perceptible hesitation.
“Mackintosh!” exclaimed Jack with enthusiasm; “surely not one of the Mackintoshes of Inveraray?”
“Certainly, my dear sir,” answered the stranger effusively. “You have no doubt heard of us, and know us to be eminently respectable?”
“Never heard of you before,” answered Jack, with a chuckle. “Good-morning, Mr Mackintosh!” And with a somewhat ironical bow he left the stranger gaping with astonishment.
“Now, what is the meaning of this, and what does Mr—Mackintosh—of Inveraray—want with Carlos, I wonder?” mused the young man, as he strode off across the Park. He considered the matter carefully for a few minutes, and presently snapped his fingers as he felt that he had solved the puzzle.
“I don’t believe he is in the least anxious to obtain Montijo’s address,” he mused, “otherwise he would have followed Carlos—not me! But I suspect that he has been quietly dogging Carlos, with a view to discovering what friends he and his father make here in England; and, having seen Carlos and me together for some hours to-day, he was desirous of obtaining an opportunity to become acquainted with my features and general appearance. Shouldn’t wonder if he follows me up and tries to discover where I live—yes, there the beggar is, obviously following me! Very well, I have no objection; on the contrary, the task of dodging him will add a new zest to life. And I’ll give him a good run for his money!”
And therewith Jack, who had thus far been sauntering very quietly along, suddenly stepped out at his smartest pace, and was greatly amused to observe the anxiety which the stranger evinced to keep up with him. Out through the gate by the corner of Stafford House grounds strode Jack, across the Mall, through the gate into Saint James’s Park, and along the path leading to the bridge, where he stopped, ostensibly to watch some children feeding the ducks, but really to see what the stranger would do. Then on again the moment that the latter also stopped, on past the drinking fountain and through the gate, across Birdcage Walk, and so into Queen Anne’s Gate, a little way along York Street, then to the left and through into Victoria Street, across the road, and into the main entrance of the Army and Navy Stores. As he ran up the steps he glanced over his shoulder and saw his pursuer frantically striving to dodge between a ’bus and a hansom cab and still to keep his eyes on Jack, who passed in through the heavy swing doors, through the grocery department, sharp round to the right through the accountant’s office into the perfumery department, and so out into Victoria Street again, making sure, as he passed out, that he had baffled his pursuer. Turning to the left, Jack then walked a little way down the street towards Victoria Station until he saw a Camden Town ’bus coming up, when he quietly crossed the road, boarded the ’bus, and ten minutes later stepped off it again as it pulled up at its stopping-place at the corner of Trafalgar Square. Jack now looked carefully round once more, to make quite sure that he had thrown “Mr Mackintosh” off the scent, satisfied himself that the individual in question was nowhere in sight, and entered his hotel.
Categories: English Literature