Farewell, Nikola! - Guy Boothby - ebook

Farewell, Nikola! ebook

Guy Boothby



This is the last of Dr. Nicholas Boothby’s novels staged in Venice, Italy. Nicola tells the story of her sad life, demonstrates her mystical ability to help people test themselves in another place and time, turns a man into a beast and leaves his palace in Venice, which has a bloody history, but it remains in the minds of those who met him.

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Liczba stron: 348

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WE were in Venice; Venice the silent and mysterious; the one European city of which I never tire. My wife had not enjoyed good health for some months past, and for this reason we had been wintering in Southern Italy. After that we had come slowly north, spending a month in Florence, and a fortnight in Rome en route, until we found ourselves in Venice, occupying a suite of apartments at Galaghetti’s famous hotel overlooking the Grand Canal. Our party was a small one; it consisted of my wife, her friend Gertrude Trevor, and myself, Richard Hatteras, once of the South Sea Islands, but now of the New Forest, Hampshire, England. It may account for our fondness of Venice when I say that four years previous we had spent the greater part of our honeymoon there. Whatever the cause may have been, however, there could be no sort of doubt that the grand old city, with its palaces and churches, its associations stretching back to long-forgotten centuries, and its silent waterways, possessed a great fascination for us. We were never tired of exploring it, finding something to interest us in even the most out-of-the-way corners. In Miss Trevor we possessed a charming companion, a vital necessity, as you will admit, when people travel together. She was an uncommon girl in more ways than one; a girl, so it seems to me, England alone is able to produce. She could not be described as a pretty girl, but then the word “pretty” is one that sometimes comes perilously near carrying contempt with it; one does not speak of Venus de Medici as pretty, nor would one describe the Apollo Belvedere as very nice-looking. That Miss Trevor was exceedingly handsome would, I fancy, be generally admitted. At any rate she would command attention wherever she might go, and that is an advantage which few of us possess. Should a more detailed description of her be necessary, I might add that she was tall and dark, with black hair and large luminous eyes that haunted one, and were suggestive of a southern ancestor. She was the daughter, and indeed the only child, of the well-known Dean of Bedminster, and this was the first time she had visited Italy, or that she had been abroad. The wonders of the Art Country were all new to her, and in consequence our wanderings were one long succession of delight. Every day added some new pleasure to her experiences, while each night saw a life-desire gratified.

In my humble opinion, to understand Italy properly one should not presume to visit her until after the first blush of youth has departed, and then only when one has prepared oneself to properly appreciate her many beauties. Venice, above all others, is a city that must be taken seriously. To come at a proper spirit of the place one must be in a reverent mood. Cheap jokes and Cockney laughter are as unsuited to the place, where Falieri yielded his life, as a downcast face would be in Nice at carnival time. On the afternoon of the particular day from which I date my story, we had been to the Island of Murano to pay a visit to the famous glass factories of which it is the home. By the time we reached Venice once more it was nearly sunset. Having something like an hour to spare we made our way, at my wife’s suggestion, to the Florian cafe on the piazza of Saint Mark in order to watch the people. As usual the place was crowded, and at first glance it looked as if we should be unable to find sufficient vacant chairs. Fortune favoured us, however, and when we had seated ourselves and I had ordered coffee, we gave ourselves up to the enjoyment of what is perhaps one of the most amusing scenes in Venice. To a thoughtful mind the Great Square must at all times be an object of absorbing interest. I have seen it at every hour, and under almost every aspect: at break of day, when one has it to oneself and is able to enjoy its beauty undisturbed; at midday, when the importunate shopkeepers endeavour to seduce one into entering their doors (by tales of the marvels therein); at sunset, when the cafes are crowded, the band plays, and all is merriment; and last, but not least, at midnight, when the moon is sailing above Saint Mark’s, the square is full of strange shadows, and the only sound to be heard is the cry of a gull on the lagoon, or the “Sa Premi” of some belated gondolier.

“This is the moment to which I have looked forward all my life,” said Miss Trevor, as she sat back in her chair and watched the animated crowd before her. “Look at that pretty little boy with the pigeons knocking around him. What a picture he would make if one only had a camera.”

“If you care to have a photo of him one can easily be obtained,” I remarked. “Any one of these enterprising photographers would be only to pleased to take one for you for a few centissimi. I regret to say that many of our countrymen have a weakness for being taken in that way.”

“Fancy Septimus Brown, of Tooting,” my wife remarked, “a typical English paterfamilias, with a green veil, blue spectacles, and white umbrella, daring to ask the sun to record his image with the pigeons of St. Mark’s clustering above his venerable head. Can’t you picture the pride of that worthy gentleman’s family when they produce the album on Sunday afternoons and show it to their friends? “This is pa,’ the eldest girl will probably remark, “when he was travelling in Venice’ (as if Venice were a country in which one must be perpetually moving on), “and that’s how the pigeons came down to be fed. Isn’t it splendid of him?’ Papa, who has never ventured beyond Brighton beach before, will be a person of importance from that moment.”

“You forget one circumstance, however,” Miss Trevor replied, who enjoyed an argument, and for this reason contradicted my wife on principle, “that in allowing himself to be taken at all, Brown of Tooting has advanced a step.”

For the moment he dared to throw off his insularity, as the picture at which you are laughing is indisputable testimony. Do you think he would dare to be photographed in a similar fashion in his own market-place, standing outside his shop-door with his assistants watching him from behind the counter? I am quite sure he would not!”

“A very excellent argument,” I answered. “Unfortunately, however, it carries its own refutation. The mere fact that Brown takes the photograph home to show to his friends goes a long way towards proving that he is still as insular as when he set out. If he did not consider himself of sufficient importance to shut out a portion of Saint Mark’s with his voluminous personality, he would not have employed the photographer at all, in which case we are no further advanced than before.”

These little sparring-matches were a source of great amusement to us. The Cockney tourist was Miss Trevor’s bete noir. And upon this failing my wife and I loved to twit her. On the whole I rather fancy she liked being teased by us.

We had finished our coffee and were still idly watching the people about us when I noticed that my wife had turned a little pale. I was about to remark upon it, when she uttered an exclamation as if something had startled her.

“Good gracious! Dick,” she cried, “surely it is not possible. It must be a mistake.”

“What is it cannot be possible?” I inquired, “What do you think you see?”

I glanced in the direction she indicated, but could recognise no one with whom I was acquainted. An English clergyman and his daughter were sitting near the entrance to the cafe, and some officers in uniform were on the other side of them again, but still my wife was looking in the same direction and with an equally startled face. I placed my hand upon her arm. It was a long time since I had seen her so agitated. “Come, darling,” I said, “tell me what it is that troubles you.”

“Look,” she answered, “can you see the table to the right of that at which those officers are seated?” I was about to reply in the affirmative, but the shock I received deprived me of speech. The person to whom my wife had referred had risen from his chair, and was in the act of walking towards us. I looked at him, looked away, and then looked again. No! there was no room for doubt; the likeness was unmistakable. I should have known him anywhere. He was Doctor Nikola; the man who had played such an important part in our life’s drama. Five years had elapsed since I had last seen him, but in that time he was scarcely changed at all. It was the same tall, thin figure; the same sallow, clean-shaven face; the same piercing black eyes. As he drew nearer I noticed that his hair was a little more grey, that he looked slightly older; otherwise he was unchanged. But why was he coming to us? Surely he did not mean to speak to us? After the manner in which he had treated us in bygone days I scarcely knew how to receive him. He, on his side, however, was quite self-possessed. Raising his hat with that easy grace that always distinguished him, he advanced and held out his hand to my wife.

“My dear Lady Hatteras,” he began in his most conciliatory tone, “I felt sure you would recognise me. Observing that you had not forgotten me, I took the liberty of coming to pay my respects to you.”

Then before my wife could reply he had turned to me and was holding out his hand. For a moment I had half determined not to take it, but when his glittering eyes looked into mine I changed my mind and shook hands with him more cordially than I should ever have thought it possible for me to do. Having thus broken the ice, and as we had to all intents and purposes permitted him to derive the impression that we were prepared to forgive the past, nothing remained for us but to introduce him to Miss Trevor. From the moment that he had approached us she had been watching him covertly, and that he had produced a decided impression upon her was easily seen. For the first time since we had known her she, usually so staid and unimpressionable, was nervous and ill at ease. The introduction effected she drew back a little, and pretended to be absorbed in watching a party of our fellow-countrymen who had taken their places at a table a short distance from us. For my part I do not mind confessing that I was by no means comfortable. I remembered my bitter hatred of Nikola in days gone by. I recalled that terrible house in Port Said, and thought of the night on the island when I had rescued my wife from his clutches. In my estimation then he had been a villain of the deepest dye, and yet here he was sitting beside me as calm and collected, and apparently as interested in the resume of our travels in Italy that my wife was giving him, as if we had been bosom friends throughout our lives. In any one else it would have been a piece of marvellous effrontery; in Nikola’s case, however, it did not strike one in the same light. As I have so often remarked, he seemed incapable of acting like any other human being. His extraordinary personality lent a glamour to his simplest actions, and demanded for them an attention they would scarcely have received had he been less endowed.

“Have you been long in Venice?” my wife inquired when she had completed the record of our doings, feeling that she must say something.

“I seldom remain anywhere for very long,” he answered, with one of his curious smiles. “I come and go like a will-o’-the-wisp; I am here to-day and gone to-morrow.”

It may have been an unfortunate remark, but I could not help uttering it.

“For instance, you are in London to-day,” I said, “in Port Said next week, and in the South Sea Islands a couple of months later.”

He was not in the least disconcerted.

“Ah! I see you have not forgotten our South Sea adventure,” he replied cheerfully. “How long ago it seems, does it not? To me it is like a chapter out of another life.” Then, turning to Miss Trevor, who of course had heard the story of our dealings with him sufficiently often to be weary of it, he added, “I hope you are not altogether disposed to think ill of me. Perhaps some day you will be able to persuade Lady Hatteras to forgive me, that is to say if she has not already done so. Yet I do not know why I should plead for pardon, seeing that I am far from being in a repentant mood. As a matter of fact I am very much afraid that should the necessity arise, I should be compelled to act as I did then.”

“Then let us pray most fervently that the necessity may never arise,” I answered. “I for one do not entertain a very pleasant recollection of that time.”

I spoke so seriously that my wife looked sharply up at me. Fearing, I suppose, that I might commit myself, she added quickly:

“I trust it may not. For I can assure you, Doctor Nikola, that my inclinations lie much nearer Bond Street than the South Sea Islands.”

All this time Miss Trevor said nothing, but I could tell from the expression upon her face that Nikola interested her more than she would have been willing to admit.

“Is it permissible to ask where you are staying?” he inquired, breaking the silence and speaking as if it were a point upon which he was most anxious to be assured.

“At Galaghetti’s,” I answered. “While in Venice we always make it our home.”

“Ah! the good Galaghetti,” said Nikola softly. “It is a long time since I last had the pleasure of seeing him. I fancy, however, he would remember me. I was able to do him a slight service some time ago, and I have always understood that he possesses a retentive memory.”

Then, doubtless feeling that he had stayed long enough, he rose and prepared to take leave of us.

“Perhaps, Lady Hatteras, you will permit me to do myself the honour of calling upon you?” he said.

“We shall be very pleased to see you,” my wife replied, though with no real cordiality.

He then bowed to Miss Trevor, and shook hands with myself.

“Good-bye, Hatteras,” he continued. “I shall hope soon to see you again. I expect we have lots of news for each other, and doubtless you will be interested to learn the history and subsequent adventures of that peculiar little stick which caused you so much anxiety, and myself so much trouble, five years ago. My address is the Palace Revecce, in the Rio del Consiglio, where, needless to say, I shall be delighted to see you if you care to pay me a visit.”

I thanked him for his invitation, and promised that I would call upon him.

Then with a bow he took his departure, leaving behind him a sensation of something missing, something that could not be replaced. To sit down and continue the conversation where he had broken into it was out of the question. We accordingly rose, and after I had discharged the bill, strolled across the piazza towards the lagoon. Observing that Miss Trevor was still very silent, I inquired the cause.

“If you really want me to tell you, I can only account for it by saying that your friend, Dr. Nikola, has occasioned it,” she answered, “I don’t know why it should be so, but that man has made a curious impression upon me.”

“He seems to affect every one in a different manner,” I said, and for some reason made no further comment upon her speech.

When we had called a gondola, and were on our way back to our hotel, she referred to the subject again.

“I think I ought to tell you that it is not the first time I have seen Doctor Nikola,” she said. “You may remember that yesterday, while Phyllis was lying down, I went out to do some shopping. I cannot describe exactly which direction I took, save that I went towards the Rialto. It is sufficient that in the end I reached a chemist’s shop. It was only a small place, and very dark, so dark indeed that I did not see that it contained another customer until I was really inside. Then I noticed a tall man busily engaged in conversation with the shopkeeper. He was declaiming against some drugs he had purchased there on the previous day, and demanding that for the future they should be of better quality, otherwise he would be compelled to take his patronage elsewhere. In the middle of this harangue he turned round, and I was permitted an opportunity of seeing his face. He was none other than your friend, Doctor Nikola.”

“But, my dear Gertrude,” said Phyllis, “with all due respect to your narrative, I do not see that the mere fact of your having met Doctor Nikola in a chemist’s shop yesterday, and your having been introduced to him to-day, should have caused you so much concern.”

“I do not know why it should,” she answered, “but it is a fact, nevertheless. Ever since I saw him yesterday, his face, with its terrible eyes, has haunted me. I dreamt of it last night. All day long I have had it before me, and now, as if to add to the strangeness of the coincidence, he proves to be the man of whom you have so often told me–your demoniacal, fascinating Nikola. You must admit that it is very strange.”

“A coincidence, a mere coincidence, that is all,” I replied. “Nikola possesses an extraordinary face, and it must have impressed itself more deeply upon you than the average countenance is happy enough to do.”

Whether my explanation satisfied her or not she said no more upon the subject. But that our strange meeting with Nikola had had an extraordinary effect upon her was plainly observable. As a rule she was as bright and merry a companion as one could wish to have; on this particular evening, however, she was not herself at all. It was the more annoying for the reason that I was anxious that she should shine on this occasion, as I was expecting an old friend, who was going to spend a few days with us in Venice. That friend was none other than the Duke of Glenbarth, who previous to his succession to the Dukedom had been known as the Marquis of Beckenham, and who, as the readers of the history of my adventures with Doctor Nikola may remember, figured as a very important factor in that strange affair. Ever since the day when I had the good fortune to render him a signal service in the bay of a certain south-coast watering-place, and from the time that he had accepted my invitation to join him in Venice, I had looked forward to his coming with the greatest possible eagerness. As it happened it was wellnigh seven o’clock by the time we reached our hotel. Without pausing in the hall further than to examine the letter-rack, we ascended to our rooms on the floor above. My wife and Miss Trevor had gone to their apartments, and I was about to follow their example as soon as I had obtained something from the sitting-room.

“A nice £6rt of host, a very nice host,” said a laughing voice as I entered. “He invites me to stay with him, and is not at home to bid me welcome. My dear old Dick, how are you?”

“My dear fellow,” I cried, hastening forward to greet him, “I must beg your pardon ten thousand times. I had not the least idea that you would be here so early. We have been sitting on the piazza, and did not hurry home.”

“You needn’t apologise,” he answered. “For once an Italian train was before its time. And now tell me about yourself. How is your wife, how are you, and what sort of holiday are you having?”

I answered his questions to the best of my ability, keeping back my most important item as a surprise for him.

“And now,” I said, “it is time to dress for dinner. But before you do so, I have some important news for you. Who do you think is in Venice?”

Needless to say he mentioned every one but the right person.

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