"There was a mysterious affair last night, signore."
"Oh!" I exclaimed. "Anything that interests us?"
"Yes, signore," replied the tall, thin Italian Consular-clerk, speaking with a strong accent. "An English steam yacht ran aground on the Meloria about ten miles out, and was discovered by a fishing-boat who brought the news to harbor. The Admiral sent out two torpedo-boats, which managed after a lot of difficulty to bring in the yacht safely, but the Captain of the Port has a suspicion that the crew were trying to make away with the vessel."
"To lose her, you mean?"
The faithful Francesco, whose English had mostly been acquired from sea-faring men, and was not the choicest vocabulary, nodded, and, true Tuscan that he was, placed his finger upon his closed lips, indicative of silence.
"Sounds curious," I remarked. "Since the Consul went away on leave things seem to have been humming—two stabbing affrays, eight drunken seamen locked up, a mutiny on a tramp steamer, and now a yacht being cast away—a fairly decent list! And yet some stay-at-home people complain that British consuls are only paid to be ornamental! They should spend a week here, at Leghorn, and they'd soon alter their opinion."
"Yes, they would, signore," responded the thin-faced old fellow with a grin, as he twisted his fierce gray mustache. Francesco Carducci was a well-known character in Leghorn; interpreter to the Consulate, and keeper of a sailor's home, an honest, good-hearted, easy-going fellow, who for twenty years had occupied the same position under half a dozen different Consuls. At that moment, however, there came from the outer office a long-drawn moan.
"Hulloa, what's that?" I enquired, startled.
"Only a mad stoker off the Oleander, signore. The captain has brought him for you to see. They want to send him back to his friends at Newcastle."
"Oh! a case of madness!" I exclaimed. "Better get Doctor Ridolfi to see him. I'm not an expert on mental diseases."
My old friend Frank Hutcheson, His Britannic Majesty's Vice-Consul at the port of Leghorn, was away on leave in England, his duties being relegated to young Bertram Cavendish, the pro-Consul. The latter, however, had gone down with a bad touch of malaria which he had picked up in the deadly Maremma, and I, as the only other Englishman in Leghorn, had been asked by the Consul-General in Florence to act as pro-Consul until Hutcheson's return.
It was in mid-July, and the weather was blazing in the glaring sun-blanched Mediterranean town. If you know Leghorn, you probably know the Consulate with its black and yellow escutcheon outside, a large, handsome suite of huge, airy offices facing the cathedral, and overlooking the principal piazza, which is as big as Trafalgar Square, and much more picturesque. The legend painted upon the door, "Office hours, 10 to 3," and the green persiennes closed against the scorching sun give one the idea of an easy appointment, but such is certainly not the case, for a Consul's life at a port of discharge must necessarily be a very active one, and his duties never-ending.
Carducci had left me to the correspondence for half an hour or so, and I confess I was in no mood to write replies in that stifling heat, therefore I sat at the Consul's big table, smoking a cigarette and stretched lazily in my friend's chair, resolving to escape to the cool of England as soon as he returned in the following week. Italy is all very well for nine months in the year, but Leghorn is no place for the Englishman in mid-July. My thoughts were wandering toward the English lakes, and a bit of grouse-shooting with my uncle up in Scotland, when the faithful Francesco re-entered, saying—
"I've sent the captain and his madman away till this afternoon, signore. But there is an English signore waiting to see you."
"Who is he?"
"I don't know him. He will give no name, but wants to see the Signor Console."
"All right, show him in," I said lazily, and a few moments later a tall, smartly-dressed, middle-aged Englishman, in a navy serge yachting suit, entered, and bowing, enquired whether I was the British Consul.
When he had seated himself I explained my position, whereupon he said—
"I couldn't make much out of your clerk. He speaks so brokenly, and I don't know a word of Italian. But perhaps I ought to first introduce myself. My name is Philip Hornby," and he handed me a card bearing the name with the addresses "Woodcroft Park, Somerset ——— Brook's." Then he added: "I am cruising on board my yacht, the Lola, and last night we unfortunately went aground on the Meloria. I have a new captain whom I engaged a few months ago, and he seems an arrant fool. Very fortunately for us a fishing-boat saw our plight and gave the alarm at port. The Admiral sent out two torpedo-boats and a tug, and after about three hours they managed to get us off."
"And you are now in harbor?"
"Yes. But the reason I've called is to ask you to do me a favor and write me a letter of thanks in Italian to the Admiral, and one to the Captain of the Port—polite letters that I can copy and send to them. You know the kind of thing."
"Certainly," I replied, the more interested in him on account of the curious suspicion that the port authorities seemed to entertain. He was evidently a gentleman, and after I had been with him ten minutes I scouted the idea that he had endeavored to cast away the Lola.
I took down a couple of sheets of paper and scribbled the drafts of two letters couched in the most elegant phraseology, as is customary when addressing Italian officialdom.
"Fortunately, I left my wife in England, or she would have been terribly frightened," he remarked presently. "There was a nasty wind blowing all night, and the fool of a captain seemed to add to our peril by every order he gave."
"You are alone, then?"
"I have a friend with me," was the answer.
"And how many of the crew are there?"
"Sixteen, all told."
"English, I suppose?"
"Not all. I find French and Italians are more sober than English, and better behaved in port."
I examined him critically as he sat facing me, and the mere fact of his desire to send thanks to the authorities convinced me that he was a well-bred gentleman. He was about forty-five, with a merry round, good-natured face, red with the southern sun, blue eyes, and a short fair beard. His countenance was essentially that of a man devoted to open-air sport, for it was slightly furrowed and weather-beaten as a true yachtsman's should be. His speech was refined and cultivated, and as we chatted he gave me the impression that as an enthusiastic lover of the sea, he had cruised the Mediterranean many times from Gibraltar up to Smyrna. He had, however, never before put into Leghorn.
After we had arranged that his captain should come to me in the afternoon and make a formal report of the accident, we went out together across the white sunny piazza to Nasi's, the well-known pastry-cook's, where it is the habit of the Livornese to take their ante-luncheon vermouth.
The more I saw of Hornby, the more I liked him. He was chatty and witty, and treated his accident as a huge joke.
"We shall be here quite a week, I suppose," he said as we were taking our vermouth. "We're on our way down to the Greek Islands, as my friend Chater wants to see them. The engineer says there's something strained that we must get mended. But, by the way," he added, "why don't you dine with us on board to-night? Do. We can give you a few English things that may be a change to you."
This invitation I gladly accepted for two reasons. One was because the suspicions of the Captain of the Port had aroused my curiosity, and the other was because I had, honestly speaking, taken a great fancy to Hornby.
The captain of the Lola, a short, thickset Scotsman from Dundee, with a barely healed cicatrice across his left cheek, called at the Consulate at two o'clock and made his report, which appeared to me to be a very lame one. He struck me as being unworthy his certificate, for he was evidently entirely out of his bearings when the accident occurred. The owner and his friend Chater were in their berths asleep, when suddenly he discovered that the vessel was making no headway. They had, in fact, run upon the dangerous shoal without being aware of it. A strong sea was running with a stiff breeze, and although his seamanship was poor, he was capable enough to recognize at once that they were in a very perilous position.
"Very fortunate it wasn't more serious, sir," he added, after telling me his story, which I wrote at his dictation for the ultimate benefit of the Board of Trade.
"Didn't you send up signals of distress?" I Inquired.
"No, sir—never thought of it."
"And yet you knew that you might be lost?" I remarked with recurring suspicion.
The canny Scot, whose name was Mackintosh, hesitated a few moments, then answered—
"Well, sir, you see the fishing-boat had sighted us, and we saw her turning back to port to fetch help."
His excuse was a neat one. Probably it was his neglect to make signals of distress that had aroused the suspicions of the Captain of the Port. From first to last the story of the master of the Lola was, I considered, a very unsatisfactory one.
"How long have you been in Mr. Hornby's service?" I inquired.
"Six months, sir," was the man's reply. "Before he engaged me, I was with the Wilsons, of Hull, running up the Baltic."
"I've held my master's certificate these fifteen years, sir. I was with the Bibbys before the Wilsons, and before that with the General Steam. I did eight years in the Mediterranean with them, when I was chief mate."
"And you've never been into Leghorn before?"
I dismissed the captain with a distinct impression that he had not told me the whole truth. That cicatrice did not improve his personal appearance. He had left his certificates on board, he said, but if I wished he would bring them to me on the morrow.
Was it possible that an attempt had actually been made to cast away the yacht, and that it had been frustrated by the master of the felucca, who had sighted the vessel aground? There certainly seemed some mystery surrounding the circumstances, and my interest in the yacht and its owner deepened each hour. How, I wondered, had the captain received that very ugly wound across the cheek? I was half-inclined to inquire of him, but on reflection decided that it was best to betray no undue curiosity.
That evening when the fiery sun was sinking in its crimson glory, bathing the glassy sea with its blood-red light and causing the islands of Gorgona and Capraja to loom forth a deep purple against the distant horizon, I took a cab along the old sea-road to the port where, within the inner harbor, I found the Lola, one of the most magnificent private vessels I had ever seen. Her dimensions surprised me. She was painted dead white, with shining brass everywhere. At the stern hung limply the British flag, while at the masthead the ensign of the Royal Yacht Squadron. The yellow funnel emitted no smoke, and as she lay calmly in the sunset a crowd of dock-loungers and crimps leaned upon the parapet discussing her merits and wondering who could be the rich Englishman who could afford to travel in a small liner of his own—for her size surprised even those Italian dock-hands, used as they were to seeing every kind of craft enter the busy port.
On stepping on deck Hornby, who like myself wore a clean suit of white linen as the most sensible dinner-garb in a hot climate, came forward to greet me, and took me along to the stern where, lying in a long wicker deck-chair beneath the awning, was a tall, dark-eyed, clean-shaven man of about forty, also dressed in cool white linen. His keen face gave one the impression that he was a barrister.
"My friend, Hylton Chater—Mr. Gordon Gregg," he said, introducing us, and then when, as we shook hands, the clean-shaven man exclaimed, smiling pleasantly—
"Glad to make your acquaintance, Mr. Gregg. You are not a stranger by any means to Hornby or myself. Indeed, we've got a couple of your books on board. But I had no idea you lived out here."
"At Ardenza," I said. "Three miles along the sea-shore. To-morrow I hope you'll both come and dine with me."
"Delighted, I'm sure," declared Hornby. "To eat ashore is quite a treat when one has been boxed up on board for some time. So we'll accept, won't we, Hylton?"
"Certainly," replied the other; and then we began chatting about the peril of the previous night, Hornby telling me how he had copied the two letters of thanks in Italian and sent them to their respective addresses.
"Phil blasphemed like a Levant skipper when he copied those Italian words!" laughed Chater. "He had made three copies of each letter before he could get all the lingo in accordance with your copy."
"I've been the whole afternoon at them—confound them!" declared the owner of the Lola with a laugh. "But, of course, I didn't want to make a lot of errors in spelling. These Italians are so very punctilious."
"Well, you certainly did the right thing to thank the Admiral," I said. "It's very unusual for him to send out torpedo-boats to help a vessel in distress. That is generally left to the harbor tug."
"Yes, I feel that it was most kind of him. That's why I took all the trouble to write. I don't understand a word of Italian, neither does Chater."
"But you have Italians on board?" I remarked. "The two sailors who rowed me out are Genoese, from their accent."
Hornby and Chater exchanged glances—glances of distinct uneasiness, I thought.
Then the owner of the Lola said—
"Yes, they are useful for making arrangements and buying things in Italian ports. We have a Spaniard, a Greek, and a Syrian, all of whom act as interpreters in different places."
"And make a handsome thing in the way of secret commissions, I suppose?" I laughed.
"Of course. But to cruise in comfort one must pay and be pleasant," declared the man with the fair beard. "In Greece and the Levant they are more rapacious than in Naples, and the Customs officers always want squaring, otherwise they are for ever rummaging and discovering mares' nests."
"Did you have any trouble here?" I inquired.
"They didn't visit us," he said with a smile, and at the same time he rubbed his thumb and finger together, the action of feeling paper money.
This increased my surprise, for I happened to know that the Leghorn Customs officers were not at all given to the acceptance of bribes. They were too well watched by their superiors. If the yacht had really escaped a search, then it was a most unusual thing. Besides, what motive could Hornby have in eluding the Customs visit? They would, of course, seal up his wines and liquors, but even if they did, they would leave him out sufficient for the consumption of himself and his friends.
No. Philip Hornby had some strong motive in paying a heavy bribe to avoid the visit of the dogana. If he really had paid, he must have paid very heavily; of that I was convinced.
Was it possible that some mystery was hidden on board that splendidly appointed craft?
Presently the gong sounded, and we went below into the elegantly fitted saloon, where was spread a table that sparkled with cut glass and shone with silver. Around the center fresh flowers had been trailed by some artistic hand, while on the buffet at the end the necks of wine bottles peered out from the ice pails. Both carpet and upholstery were in pale blue, while everywhere it was apparent that none but an extremely wealthy man could afford such a magnificent craft.
Hornby took the head of the table, and we sat on either side of him, chatting merrily while we ate one of the choicest and best cooked dinners it has ever been my lot to taste. Chater and I drank wine of a brand which only a millionaire could keep in his cellar, while our host, apparently a most abstemious man, took only a glass of iced Cinciano water.
The two smart stewards served in a manner which showed them to be well trained to their duties, and as the evening light filtering through the pale blue silk curtains over the open port-holes slowly faded, we gossiped on as men will gossip over an unusually good dinner.
From his remarks I discerned that, contrary to my first impression, Hylton Chater was an experienced yachtsman. He owned a craft called the Alicia, and was a member of the Cork Yacht Club. He lived in London, he told me, but gave me no information as to his profession. It might be the law, as I had surmised.
"You've seen our ass of a captain, Mr. Gregg?" he remarked presently. "What do you think of him?"
"Well," I said rather hesitatingly, "to tell the truth, I don't think very much of his seamanship—nor will the Board of Trade when his report reaches them."
"Ah!" exclaimed Hornby, "I was a fool to engage him. From the very first I mistrusted him, only my wife somehow took a fancy to the fellow, and, as you know, if you want peace you must always please the women. In this case, however, her choice almost cost me the vessel, and perhaps our lives into the bargain."
"You knew nothing of him previously?"
"And he engaged the crew?" I asked.
"Are they all fresh hands?"
"All except the cook and the two stewards."
I was silent. I did not like Mackintosh. Indeed, I entertained a distinct suspicion of both master and crew.
"The captain seems to have had a nasty cut across the cheek," I remarked, whereupon my two companions again exchanged quick, apprehensive glances.
"He fell down the other day," explained Chater, with a rather sickly smile, I thought. "His face caught the edge of an iron stair in the engine-room, and caused a nasty gash."
I smiled within myself, for I knew too well that the ugly wound in the captain's face had never been inflicted by falling on the edge of a stair. But I remained silent, being content that they should endeavor to mislead me.
After dessert had been served we rose, and in the summer twilight, when all the ports were opened, Hornby took me over the vessel. Everywhere was abundant luxury—a veritable floating palace. To each of the cabins of the owner and his guests a bathroom was attached with sea-water or fresh water as desired, while the ladies' saloon, the boudoir, the library, and the smoking-room were furnished richly with exquisite taste. As he was conducting me from his own cabin to the boudoir we passed a door that had been blown open by the wind, and which he hastened to close, not, however, before I had time to glance within. To my surprise I discovered that it was an armory crammed with rifles, revolvers and ammunition.
It had not been intended that I should see that interior, and the reason why the Customs officers had been bribed was now apparent.
I passed on without remark, making believe that I had not discerned anything unusual, and we entered the boudoir, Chater having gone back to the saloon to obtain cigars.
The dainty little chamber was upholstered in carnation-pink silk with furniture of inlaid rosewood, and bore everywhere the trace of having been arranged by a woman's hand, although no lady passenger was on board.
Just as we had entered, and I was admiring the dainty nest of luxury, Chater shouted to his host asking for the keys of the cigar cupboard, and Hornby, excusing himself, turned back along the gangway to hand them to his friend, thus leaving me alone for a few moments.
I stood glancing around, and as I did so my eyes fell upon a quantity of photographs, framed and unframed, that were scattered about—evidently portraits of Hornby's friends. Upon a small side table, however, stood a heavy oxidized silver frame, but empty, while lying on the floor beneath a couch was the photograph it had contained, which had apparently been taken hastily out, torn first in half and then in half again, and cast away.
Curiosity prompted me to stoop, pick up the four pieces and place them together, when I found them to form the cabinet portrait of a sweet-looking and extremely pretty English girl of eighteen or nineteen, with a bright, smiling expression, and wearing a fresh morning blouse of white piqué. Her hair was dressed low and fastened with a bow of black ribbon, while the brooch at her throat was in the form of a heart edged with pearls. Whether it was her sweet expression, or whether the curious look in her eyes had attracted my attention and riveted the face upon my memory, I know not. Perhaps it was the mystery of why it should have been so hastily torn from its frame and destroyed that held my attention.
It seemed as though it had been torn up surreptitiously by someone who had been sitting on that couch, and who had had no opportunity of casting the fragments away through the port-hole into the water.
I looked at the back of the torn photograph, and saw that it had been taken by a well-known and fashionable firm in New Bond Street.
About the expression of that pictured face was something which I cannot describe—a curious look in the eyes which was at the same time both attractive and mysterious. In that brief moment the girl's features were indelibly impressed upon my memory.
Next second, however, hearing Hornby's returning footsteps, I flung the fragments hastily beneath the couch where I had discovered them.
Why, I wondered, had the picture been destroyed—and by whom?
The face of the empty frame had been purposely turned towards the panelling, therefore when he entered he did not notice that the picture had been destroyed; but after a brief pause, explaining that that cosy little place was his wife's particular nook, he conducted me on through the ladies' saloon and afterwards on deck, where we flung ourselves into the long chairs, took our coffee and certosina, that liqueur essentially Tuscan, and smoked on as the moon rose and the lights of the harbor began to twinkle in the steely night.
As I sat talking, my thoughts ran back to that torn photograph. To me it seemed as though some previous visitor that day had sat upon the couch, destroyed the picture, and cast it where I had found it. But for what reason? Who was the merry-faced girl whose picture had aroused such jealousy or revenge?
I purposely led the conversation to Hornby's family, and learned from him that he had no children.
"You'll get the repairs to your engines done at Orlando's, I suppose?" I remarked, naming the great shipbuilding firm of Leghorn.
"Yes. I've already given the order. They are contracted to be finished by next Thursday, and then we shall be off to Zante and Chio."
For what reason, I wondered, recollecting that formidable armory on board. Already I had seen quite sufficient to convince me that the Lola, although outwardly a pleasure yacht, was built of steel, armored in its most vulnerable parts, and capable of resisting a very sharp fire.
The hours passed, and beneath the brilliant moon we smoked long into the night, for after the blazing sunshine of that Tuscan town the cool sea-wind at night is very refreshing. From where we sat we commanded a view of the whole of the sea-front of Leghorn and Ardenza, with its bright open-air café-concerts and restaurants in full swing—all the life and gayety of that popular watering-place.
Presently, when Hornby had risen to call a steward and left me alone with Hylton Chater, the latter whispered to me in confidence—
"If you find my friend Hornby a little bit strange in his manner, Mr. Gregg, you must take no notice. To tell the truth, he is a man who has become suddenly wealthy beyond the wildest dreams of avarice, and I fear it has had an effect upon his brain. He does very queer things at times."
I looked at my companion in surprise. He was either telling the truth, or else he was endeavoring to allay my suspicions by an extremely clever ruse. Now I had already decided that Philip Hornby was no eccentric, but a particularly level-headed and practical man. Therefore I instantly arrived at the conclusion that the clean-shaven fellow who looked so much like a London barrister had some distinct and ulterior purpose in arousing within my mind suspicion of his host's sanity.
It was past midnight when, having bade the strange pair adieu, I was put ashore by the two sailors who had rowed me out and drove home along the sea-front, puzzled and perplexed.
Next morning, on my arrival at the Consulate, old Francesco, who had entered only a moment before, met me with blanched face, gasping—
"There have been thieves here in the night, signore! The Signor Console's safe has been opened!"
"The safe!" I cried, dashing into Hutcheson's private room, and finding to my dismay the big safe, wherein the seals, ciphers and other confidential documents were kept, standing open, and the contents in disorder, as though a hasty search had been made among them.
Was it possible that the thieves had been after the Admiralty and Foreign Office ciphers, copies of which the Chancelleries of certain European Powers were ever endeavoring to obtain? I smiled within myself when I realized how bitterly disappointed the burglars must have been, for a British Consul when he goes on leave to England always takes his ciphers with him, and deposits them at the Foreign Office for safekeeping. Hutcheson had, of course, taken his, according to the regulations.
Curiously enough, however, the door of the Consulate and the safe had been opened with the keys which my friend had left in my charge. Indeed, the small bunch still remained in the safe door.
In an instant the recollection flashed across my mind that I had felt the keys in my pocket while at dinner on board the Lola. Had I lost them on my homeward drive, or had my pocket been picked?
Carducci, with an Italian's volubility, commenced to hurl imprecations upon the heads of the unknown sons of dogs who dared to tamper with his master's safe, and while we were engaged in putting the scattered papers in order the door-bell rang, and the clerk went to attend to the caller.
In a few moments he returned, saying—
"The English yacht left suddenly last night, signore, and the Captain of the Port has sent to inquire whether you know to what port she is bound."
"Left!" I gasped in amazement "Why, I thought her engines were disabled!"
A quarter of an hour later I was sitting in the private office of the shrewd, gray-haired functionary who had sent this messenger to me.
"Do you know, Signor Commendatore," he said, "some mystery surrounds that vessel. She is not theLola, for yesterday we telegraphed to Lloyd's, in London, and this morning I received a reply that no such yacht appears on their register, and that the name is unknown. The police have also telegraphed to your English police inquiring about the owner, Signor Hornby, with a like result. There is no such place as Woodcroft Park, in Somerset, and no member of Brook's Club of the name of Hornby."
I sat staring at the official, too amazed to utter a word. Certainly they had not allowed the grass to grow beneath their feet.
"Unfortunately the telegraphic replies from England are only to hand this morning," he went on, "because just before two o'clock this morning the harbor police, whom I specially ordered to watch the vessel, saw a boat come to the wharf containing a man and woman. The pair were put ashore, and walked away into the town, the woman seeming to walk with considerable difficulty. The boat returned, and an hour after, to the complete surprise of the two detectives, steam was suddenly got up and the yacht turned and went straight out to sea."
"Leaving the man and the woman?"
"Leaving them, of course. They are probably still in the town. The police are now searching for traces of them."
"But could not you have detained the vessel?" I suggested.
"Of course, had I but known I could have forbidden her departure. But as her owner had presented himself at the Consulate, and was recognized as a respectable person, I felt that I could not interfere without some tangible information—and that, alas! has come too late. The vessel is a swift one, and has already seven hours start of us. I've asked the Admiral to send out a couple of torpedo-boats after her, but, unfortunately, this is impossible, as the flotilla is sailing in an hour to attend the naval review at Spezia."
I told him how the Consul's safe had been opened during the night, and he sat listening with wide-open eyes.
"You dined with them last night," he said at last. "They may have surreptitiously stolen your keys."
"They may," was my answer. "Probably they did. But with what motive?"
The Captain of the Port elevated his shoulders, exhibited his palms, and declared—
"The whole affair from beginning to end is a complete and profound mystery."