CHAPTER II. THE BEETLE HUNTER
A curious experience? said the Doctor. Yes, my friends, I have had one very curious experience. I never expect to have another, for it is against all doctrines of chances that two such events would befall any one man in a single lifetime. You may believe me or not, but the thing happened exactly as I tell it.
I had just become a medical man, but I had not started in practice, and I lived in rooms in Gower Street. The street has been renumbered since then, but it was in the only house which has a bow-window, upon the left-hand side as you go down from the Metropolitan Station. A widow named Murchison kept the house at that time, and she had three medical students and one engineer as lodgers. I occupied the top room, which was the cheapest, but cheap as it was it was more than I could afford. My small resources were dwindling away, and every week it became more necessary that I should find something to do. Yet I was very unwilling to go into general practice, for my tastes were all in the direction of science, and especially of zoology, towards which I had always a strong leaning. I had almost given the fight up and resigned myself to being a medical drudge for life, when the turning-point of my struggles came in a very extraordinary way.
One morning I had picked up the Standard and was glancing over its contents. There was a complete absence of news, and I was about to toss the paper down again, when my eyes were caught by an advertisement at the head of the personal column. It was worded in this way:—
Wanted for one or more days the services of a medical man. It is essential that he should be a man of strong physique, of steady nerves, and of a resolute nature. Must be an entomologist—coleopterist preferred. Apply, in person, at 77B, Brook Street. Application must be made before twelve o’clock to-day.
Now, I have already said that I was devoted to zoology. Of all branches of zoology, the study of insects was the most attractive to me, and of all insects beetles were the species with which I was most familiar. Butterfly collectors are numerous, but beetles are far more varied, and more accessible in these islands than are butterflies. It was this fact which had attracted my attention to them, and I had myself made a collection which numbered some hundred varieties. As to the other requisites of the advertisement, I knew that my nerves could be depended upon, and I had won the weight-throwing competition at the inter-hospital sports. Clearly, I was the very man for the vacancy. Within five minutes of my having read the advertisement I was in a cab and on my way to Brook Street.
As I drove, I kept turning the matter over in my head and trying to make a guess as to what sort of employment it could be which needed such curious qualifications. A strong physique, a resolute nature, a medical training, and a knowledge of beetles—what connection could there be between these various requisites? And then there was the disheartening fact that the situation was not a permanent one, but terminable from day to day, according to the terms of the advertisement. The more I pondered over it the more unintelligible did it become; but at the end of my meditations I always came back to the ground fact that, come what might, I had nothing to lose, that I was completely at the end of my resources, and that I was ready for any adventure, however desperate, which would put a few honest sovereigns into my pocket. The man fears to fail who has to pay for his failure, but there was no penalty which Fortune could exact from me. I was like the gambler with empty pockets, who is still allowed to try his luck with the others.
No. 77B, Brook Street, was one of those dingy and yet imposing houses, dun-coloured and flat-faced, with the intensely respectable and solid air which marks the Georgian builder. As I alighted from the cab, a young man came out of the door and walked swiftly down the street. In passing me, I noticed that he cast an inquisitive and somewhat malevolent glance at me, and I took the incident as a good omen, for his appearance was that of a rejected candidate, and if he resented my application it meant that the vacancy was not yet filled up. Full of hope, I ascended the broad steps and rapped with the heavy knocker.
A footman in powder and livery opened the door. Clearly I was in touch with people of wealth and fashion.
“ Yes, sir?” said the footman.
“ I came in answer to——”
“ Quite so, sir,” said the footman. “Lord Linchmere will see you at once in the library.”
Lord Linchmere! I had vaguely heard the name, but could not for the instant recall anything about him. Following the footman, I was shown into a large, book-lined room in which there was seated behind a writing-desk a small man with a pleasant, clean-shaven, mobile face, and long hair shot with grey, brushed back from his forehead. He looked me up and down with a very shrewd, penetrating glance, holding the card which the footman had given him in his right hand. Then he smiled pleasantly, and I felt that externally at any rate I possessed the qualifications which he desired.
“ You have come in answer to my advertisement, Dr. Hamilton?” he asked.
“ Yes, sir.”
“ Do you fulfil the conditions which are there laid down?”
“ I believe that I do.”
“ You are a powerful man, or so I should judge from your appearance.”
“ I think that I am fairly strong.”
“ And resolute?”
“ I believe so.”
“ Have you ever known what it was to be exposed to imminent danger?”
“ No, I don’t know that I ever have.”
“ But you think you would be prompt and cool at such a time?”
“ I hope so.”
“ Well, I believe that you would. I have the more confidence in you because you do not pretend to be certain as to what you would do in a position that was new to you. My impression is that, so far as personal qualities go, you are the very man of whom I am in search. That being settled, we may pass on to the next point.”
“ Which is?”
“ To talk to me about beetles.”
I looked across to see if he was joking, but, on the contrary, he was leaning eagerly forward across his desk, and there was an expression of something like anxiety in his eyes.
“ I am afraid that you do not know about beetles,” he cried.
“ On the contrary, sir, it is the one scientific subject about which I feel that I really do know something.”
“ I am overjoyed to hear it. Please talk to me about beetles.”
I talked. I do not profess to have said anything original upon the subject, but I gave a short sketch of the characteristics of the beetle, and ran over the more common species, with some allusions to the specimens in my own little collection and to the article upon “Burying Beetles” which I had contributed to the Journal of Entomological Science .
“ What! not a collector?” cried Lord Linchmere. “You don’t mean that you are yourself a collector?” His eyes danced with pleasure at the thought.
“ You are certainly the very man in London for my purpose. I thought that among five millions of people there must be such a man, but the difficulty is to lay one’s hands upon him. I have been extraordinarily fortunate in finding you.”
He rang a gong upon the table, and the footman entered.
“ Ask Lady Rossiter to have the goodness to step this way,” said his lordship, and a few moments later the lady was ushered into the room. She was a small, middle-aged woman, very like Lord Linchmere in appearance, with the same quick, alert features and grey-black hair. The expression of anxiety, however, which I had observed upon his face was very much more marked upon hers. Some great grief seemed to have cast its shadow over her features. As Lord Linchmere presented me she turned her face full upon me, and I was shocked to observe a half-healed scar extending for two inches over her right eyebrow. It was partly concealed by plaster, but none the less I could see that it had been a serious wound and not long inflicted.
“ Dr. Hamilton is the very man for our purpose, Evelyn,” said Lord Linchmere. “He is actually a collector of beetles, and he has written articles upon the subject.”
“ Really!” said Lady Rossiter. “Then you must have heard of my husband. Every one who knows anything about beetles must have heard of Sir Thomas Rossiter.”
For the first time a thin little ray of light began to break into the obscure business. Here, at last, was a connection between these people and beetles. Sir Thomas Rossiter—he was the greatest authority upon the subject in the world. He had made it his life-long study, and had written a most exhaustive work upon it. I hastened to assure her that I had read and appreciated it.
“ Have you met my husband?” she asked.
“ No, I have not.”
“ But you shall,” said Lord Linchmere, with decision.
The lady was standing beside the desk, and she put her hand upon his shoulder. It was obvious to me as I saw their faces together that they were brother and sister.
“ Are you really prepared for this, Charles? It is noble of you, but you fill me with fears.” Her voice quavered with apprehension, and he appeared to me to be equally moved, though he was making strong efforts to conceal his agitation.
“ Yes, yes, dear; it is all settled, it is all decided; in fact, there is no other possible way, that I can see.”
“ There is one obvious way.”
“ No, no, Evelyn, I shall never abandon you—never. It will come right—depend upon it; it will come right, and surely it looks like the interference of Providence that so perfect an instrument should be put into our hands.”
My position was embarrassing, for I felt that for the instant they had forgotten my presence. But Lord Linchmere came back suddenly to me and to my engagement.
“ The business for which I want you, Dr. Hamilton, is that you should put yourself absolutely at my disposal. I wish you to come for a short journey with me, to remain always at my side, and to promise to do without question whatever I may ask you, however unreasonable it may appear to you to be.”
“ That is a good deal to ask,” said I.
“ Unfortunately I cannot put it more plainly, for I do not myself know what turn matters may take. You may be sure, however, that you will not be asked to do anything which your conscience does not approve; and I promise you that, when all is over, you will be proud to have been concerned in so good a work.”
“ If it ends happily,” said the lady.
“ Exactly; if it ends happily,” his lordship repeated.
“ And terms?” I asked.
“ Twenty pounds a day.”
I was amazed at the sum, and must have showed my surprise upon my features.
“ It is a rare combination of qualities, as must have struck you when you first read the advertisement,” said Lord Linchmere; “such varied gifts may well command a high return, and I do not conceal from you that your duties might be arduous or even dangerous. Besides, it is possible that one or two days may bring the matter to an end.”
“ Please God!” sighed his sister.
“ So now, Dr. Hamilton, may I rely upon your aid?”
“ Most undoubtedly,” said I. “You have only to tell me what my duties are.”
“ Your first duty will be to return to your home. You will pack up whatever you may need for a short visit to the country. We start together from Paddington Station at 3.40 this afternoon.”
“ Do we go far?”
“ As far as Pangbourne. Meet me at the bookstall at 3.30. I shall have the tickets. Good-bye, Dr. Hamilton! And, by the way, there are two things which I should be very glad if you would bring with you, in case you have them. One is your case for collecting beetles, and the other is a stick, and the thicker and heavier the better.”