«Published: 1897 Categorie(s): Fiction, Mystery & Detective Source: About Allen: Charles Grant Blairfindie Allen ...»
Being an idle young dog, with a taste for amusement, he got for the time no further than Paris. Since then, he's hung about a bit, here, there, and everywhere, and done no particular good for himself or his family. But about three or four years ago he somehow 'struck ile': he went to South Africa, poaching on your preserves; and now he's back again—rich, married, and respectable. His wife, a nice little woman, has reformed him. Well, what can I do for you this morning?" Charles has large interests in America, in Santa Fé and Topekas, and other big concerns; and he insisted on taking out several documents and vouchers connected in various ways with his widespread ventures there. He meant to go, he said, for complete rest and change, on a general tour of private inquiry—New Y ork, Chicago, Colorado, the mining districts. It was a millionaire's holiday. So he took all these valuables in a black japanned dispatch-box, which he guarded like a child with absurd precautions. He never allowed that box out of his sight one moment; and he gave me no peace as to its safety and integrity. It was a perfect fetish. "We must be cautious," he said, "Sey, cautious!
Especially in travelling. Recollect how that little curate spirited the diamonds out of Amelia's jewel-case! I shall not let this box out of my sight. I shall stick to it myself, if we go to the bottom."
We did not go to the bottom. It is the proud boast of the Cunard Company that it has "never lost a passenger's life";
and the captain would not consent to send the Etruria to Davy Jones's locker, merely in order to give Charles a chance of sticking to his dispatch-box under trying circumstances. On the contrary, we had a delightful and uneventful passage; and we found our fellow-passengers most agreeable people. Charles, as Mr. Peter Porter, being freed for the moment from his terror of Colonel Clay, would have felt really happy, I believe—had it not been for the dispatch-box. He made friends from the first hour (quite after the fearless old fashion of the days before Colonel Clay had begun to embitter life for him) with a nice American doctor and his charming wife, on their way back to Kentucky. Dr. Elihu Quackenboss—that was his characteristically American name—had been studying medicine for a year in Vienna, and was now returning to his native State with a brain close crammed with all the latest bacteriological and antiseptic discoveries. His wife, a pretty and piquant little American, with a tip-tilted nose and the quaint sharpness of her countrywomen, amused Charles not a little. The funny way in which she would make room for him by her side on the bench on deck, and say, with a sweet smile, "Y sit right here, Mr. Porter; the sun's ou just elegant," delighted and flattered him. He was proud to find out that female attention was not always due to his wealth and title; and that plain Mr. Porter could command on his merits the same amount of blandishments as Sir Charles Vandrift, the famous millionaire, on his South African celebrity.
During the whole of that voyage, it was Mrs.
Quackenboss here, and Mrs. Quackenboss there, and Mrs.
Quackenboss the other place, till, for Amelia's sake, I was glad she was not on board to witness it. Long before we sighted Sandy Hook, I will admit, I was fairly sick of Charles's two-stringed harp—Mrs. Quackenboss and the dispatch-box.
Mrs. Quackenboss, it turned out, was an amateur artist, and she painted Sir Charles, on calm days on deck, in all possible attitudes. She seemed to find him a most attractive model.
The doctor, too, was a precious clever fellow. He knew something of chemistry—and of most other subjects, including, as I gathered, the human character. For he talked to Charles about various ideas of his, with which he wished to "liven up folks in Kentucky a bit," on his return, till Charles conceived the highest possible regard for his intelligence and enterprise. "That's a go-ahead fellow, Sey!" he remarked to me one day. "Has the right sort of grit in him!
Those Americans are the men. Wish I had a round hundred of them on my works in South Africa!" That idea seemed to grow upon him. He was immensely taken with it. He had lately dismissed one of his chief superintendents at the Cloetedorp mine, and he seriously debated whether or not he should offer the post to the smart Kentuckian. For my own part, I am inclined to connect this fact with his expressed determination to visit his South African undertakings for three months yearly in future; and I am driven to suspect he felt life at Cloetedorp would be rendered much more tolerable by the agreeable society of a quaint and amusing American lady.
"If you offer it to him," I said, "remember, you must disclose your personality."
"Not at all," Charles answered. "I can keep it dark for the present, till all is arranged for. I need only say I have interests in South Africa."
So, one morning on deck, as we were approaching the Banks, he broached his scheme gently to the doctor and Mrs. Quackenboss. He remarked that he was connected with one of the biggest financial concerns in the Southern hemisphere; and that he would pay Elihu fifteen hundred a year to represent him at the diggings.
"What, dollars?" the lady said, smiling and accentuating the tip-tilted nose a little more. "Oh, Mr. Porter, it ain't good enough!" "No, pounds, my dear madam," Charles responded.
"Pounds sterling, you know. In United States currency, seven thousand five hundred."
"I guess Elihu would just jump at it," Mrs. Quackenboss replied, looking at him quizzically.
The doctor laughed. "Y make a good bid, sir," he said, ou in his slow American way, emphasising all the most unimportant words: "But you overlook one element. I am a man of science, not a speculator. I have trained myself for medical work, at considerable cost, in the best schools of Europe, and I do not propose to fling away the results of much arduous labour by throwing myself out elastically into a new line of work for which my faculties may not perhaps equally adapt me."
("How thoroughly American!" I murmured, in the background.) Charles insisted; all in vain. Mrs. Quackenboss was impressed; but the doctor smiled always a sphinx-like smile, and reiterated his belief in the unfitness of midstream as an ideal place for swopping horses. The more he declined, and the better he talked, the more eager Charles became each day to secure him. And, as if on purpose to draw him on, the doctor each day gave more and more surprising proofs of his practical abilities.
"I am not a specialist," he said. "I just ketch the drift, appropriate the kernel, and let the rest slide."
He could do anything, it really seemed, from shoeing a mule to conducting a camp-meeting; he was a capital chemist, a very sound surgeon, a fair judge of horseflesh, a first class euchre player, and a pleasing baritone. When occasion demanded he could occupy a pulpit. He had invented a cork-screw which brought him in a small revenue; and he was now engaged in the translation of a Polish work on the "Application of Hydrocyanic Acid to the Cure of Leprosy."
Still, we reached New Y without having got any nearer ork our goal, as regarded Dr. Quackenboss. He came to bid us good-bye at the quay, with that sphinx-like smile still playing upon his features. Charles clutched the dispatch-box with one hand, and Mrs. Quackenboss's little palm with the other.
"Don't tell us," he said, "this is good-bye—for ever!" And his voice quite faltered.
"I guess so, Mr. Porter," the pretty American replied, with a telling glance. "What hotel do you patronise?" "The Murray Hill," Charles responded.
"Oh my, ain't that odd?" Mrs. Quackenboss echoed. "The Murray Hill! Why, that's just where we're going too, Elihu!" The upshot of which was that Charles persuaded them, before returning to Kentucky, to diverge for a few days with us to Lake George and Lake Champlain, where he hoped to over-persuade the recalcitrant doctor.
To Lake George therefore we went, and stopped at the excellent hotel at the terminus of the railway. We spent a good deal of our time on the light little steamers that ply between that point and the road to Ticonderoga. Somehow, the mountains mirrored in the deep green water reminded me of Lucerne; and Lucerne reminded me of the little curate. For the first time since we left England a vague terror seized me. Could Elihu Quackenboss be Colonel Clay again, still dogging our steps through the opposite continent?
I could not help mentioning my suspicion to Charles— who, strange to say, pooh-poohed it. He had been paying great court to Mrs. Quackenboss that day, and was absurdly elated because the little American had rapped his knuckles with her fan and called him "a real silly."
Next day, however, an odd thing occurred. We strolled out together, all four of us, along the banks of the lake, among woods just carpeted with strange, triangular flowers —trilliums, Mrs. Quackenboss called them—and lined with delicate ferns in the first green of springtide.
I began to grow poetical. (I wrote verses in my youth before I went to South Africa.) We threw ourselves on the grass, near a small mountain stream that descended among moss-clad boulders from the steep woods above us. The Kentuckian flung himself at full length on the sward, just in front of Charles. He had a strange head of hair, very thick and shaggy. I don't know why, but, of a sudden, it reminded me of the Mexican Seer, whom we had learned to remember as Colonel Clay's first embodiment. At the same moment the same thought seemed to run through Charles's head; for, strange to say, with a quick impulse he leant forward and examined it. I saw Mrs. Quackenboss draw back in wonder. The hair looked too thick and close for nature. It ended abruptly, I now remembered, with a sharp line on the forehead. Could this, too, be a wig? It seemed very probable.
Even as I thought that thought, Charles appeared to form a sudden and resolute determination. With one lightning swoop he seized the doctor's hair in his powerful hand, and tried to lift it off bodily. He had made a bad guess. Next instant the doctor uttered a loud and terrified howl of pain, while several of his hairs, root and all, came out of his scalp in Charles's hand, leaving a few drops of blood on the skin of the head in the place they were torn from. There was no doubt at all it was not a wig, but the Kentuckian's natural hirsute covering.
The scene that ensued I am powerless to describe. My pen is unequal to it. The doctor arose, not so much angry as astonished, white and incredulous. "What did you do that for, any way?" he asked, glaring fiercely at my brotherin-law. Charles was all abject apology. He began by profusely expressing his regret, and offering to make any suitable reparation, monetary or otherwise. Then he revealed his whole hand. He admitted that he was Sir Charles Vandrift, the famous millionaire, and that he had suffered egregiously from the endless machinations of a certain Colonel Clay, a machiavellian rogue, who had hounded him relentlessly round the capitals of Europe. He described in graphic detail how the impostor got himself up with wigs and wax, so as to deceive even those who knew him intimately; and then he threw himself on Dr.
Quackenboss's mercy, as a man who had been cruelly taken in so often that he could not help suspecting the best of men falsely. Mrs. Quackenboss admitted it was natural to have suspicions—"Especially," she said, with candour, "as you're not the first to observe the notable way Elihu's hair seems to originate from his forehead," and she pulled it up to show us. But Elihu himself sulked on in the dumps: his dignity was offended. "If you wanted to know," he said, "you might as well have asked me. Assault and battery is not the right way to test whether a citizen's hair is primitive or acquired."
"It was an impulse," Charles pleaded; "an instinctive impulse!" "Civilised man restrains his impulses," the doctor answered. "Y have lived too long in South Africa, Mr.
ou Porter—I mean, Sir Charles Vandrift, if that's the right way to address such a gentleman. Y ou appear to have imbibed the habits and manners of the Kaffirs you lived among."
For the next two days, I will really admit, Charles seemed more wretched than I could have believed it possible for him to be on somebody else's account. He positively grovelled. The fact was, he saw he had hurt Dr.
Quackenboss's feelings, and—much to my surprise—he seemed truly grieved at it. If the doctor would have accepted a thousand pounds down to shake hands at once and forget the incident—in my opinion Charles would have gladly paid it. Indeed, he said as much in other words to the pretty American—for he could not insult her by offering her money. Mrs. Quackenboss did her best to make it up, for she was a kindly little creature, in spite of her roguishness;
but Elihu stood aloof. Charles urged him still to go out to South Africa, increasing his bait to two thousand a year; yet the doctor was immovable. "No, no," he said; "I had half decided to accept your offer—till that unfortunate impulse;
but that settled the question. As an American citizen, I decline to become the representative of a British nobleman who takes such means ofinvestigating questions which affect the hair and happiness of his fellow-creatures."
I don't know whether Charles was most disappointed at missing the chance of so clever a superintendent for the mine at Cloetedorp, or elated at the novel description of himself as "a British nobleman;" which is not precisely our English idea of a colonial knighthood.
Three days later, accordingly, the Quackenbosses left the Lakeside Hotel. We were bound on an expedition up the lake ourselves, when the pretty little woman burst in with a dash to tell us they were leaving. She was charmingly got up in the neatest and completest of American travellingdresses. Charles held her hand affectionately. "I'm sorry it's good-bye," he said. "I have done my best to secure your husband."
"Y couldn't have tried harder than I did," the little ou woman answered, and the tip-tilted nose looked quite pathetic; "for I just hate to be buried right down there in Kentucky! However, Elihu is the sort of man a woman can neither drive nor lead; so we've got to put up with him." And she smiled upon us sweetly, and disappeared for ever.
Charles was disconsolate all that day. Next morning he rose, and announced his intention of setting out for the West on his tour of inspection. He would recreate by revelling in Colorado silver lodes.
We packed our own portmanteaus, for Charles had not brought even Simpson with him, and then we prepared to set out by the morning train for Saratoga.
Up till almost the last moment Charles nursed his dispatch-box. But as the "baggage-smashers" were taking down our luggage, and a chambermaid was lounging officiously about in search of a tip, he laid it down for a second or two on the centre table while he collected his other immediate impedimenta. He couldn't find his cigarette-case, and went back to the bedroom for it. I helped him hunt, but it had disappeared mysteriously. That moment lost him. When we had found the cigarette-case, and returned to the sitting-room—lo, and behold! the dispatch-box was missing! Charles questioned the servants, but none of them had noticed it. He searched round the room—not a trace of it anywhere.
"Why, I laid it down here just two minutes ago!" he cried.
But it was not forthcoming.
"It'll turn up in time," I said. "Everything turns up in the end —including Mrs. Quackenboss's nose."
"Seymour," said my brother-in-law, "your hilarity is inopportune."
To say the truth, Charles was beside himself with anger.