Henry Dunbar, by Mary Elizabeth Braddon

Chapter 44

Chasing the “Crow.”

Mr. Carter was so familiar with the spot alongside which the Crow lay at anchor, that he made straight for that part of the quay and looked down over the side, fully expecting to see the dirty captain still lying on the tarpaulin, smoking his dirty pipe.

But, to his amazement, he saw a strange vessel where he expected to see the Crow, and in answer to his eager inquiries amongst the idlers on the quay, and the other idlers on the boats, he was told that the Crow had weighed anchor half an hour ago, and was over yonder.

The men pointed to a dingy speck out seaward as they gave Mr. Carter this information — a speck which they assured him was neither more nor less than the Crow, bound for Copenhagen.

Mr. Carter asked whether she had been expected to sail so soon.

No, the men told him; she was not expected to have sailed till daybreak next morning, and there wasn’t above two-thirds of her cargo aboard her yet.

The detective asked if this wasn’t rather a queer proceeding.

Yes, the men said, it was queer; but the master of the Crow was a queer chap altogether, and more than one absconding bankrupt had sailed for furrin parts in the Crow. One of the men opined that the master had got a swell cove on board to-day, inasmuch as he had seen such a one hanging about the quay-side ten minutes or so before the Crow sailed.

“Who’ll catch her?” cried Mr. Carter; “which of you will catch her for a couple of sovereigns?”

The men shook their heads. The Crow had got too much of a start, they said, considering that the wind was in her favour.

“But there’s a chance that the wind may change after dark,” returned the detective. “Come, my men, don’t hang back. Who’ll catch the Crow yonder for a fiver, come? Who’ll catch her for a fi’-pound note?”

“I will,” cried a burly young fellow in a scarlet guernsey, and shiny boots that came nearly to his waist; “me and my mate will do it, won’t us, Jim?”

Jim was another burly young fellow in a blue guernsey, a fisherman, part owner of a little bit of a smack with a brown mainsail. The two stalwart young fishermen ran along the quay, and one of them dropped down into a boat that was chained to an angle in the quay-side, where there was a flight of slimy stone steps leading down to the water. The other young man ran off to get some of the boat’s tackle and a couple of shaggy overcoats.

“We’d best take something to eat and drink, sir,” the young man said, as he came running back with these things; “we may be out all night, if we try to catch yon vessel.”

Mr. Carter gave the man a sovereign, and told him to get what he thought proper.

“You’d best have something to cover you besides what you’ve got on, sir,” the fisherman said; “you’ll find it rare and cold on ‘t water after dark.”

Mr. Carter assented to this proposition, and hurried off to buy himself a railway rug; he had left his own at the railway station in Sawney Tom’s custody. He bought one at a shop near the quay, and was back to the steps in ten minutes.

The fisherman in the blue guernsey was in the boat, which was a stout-built craft in her way. The fisherman in the scarlet guernsey made his appearance in less than five minutes, carrying a great stone bottle, with a tin drinking-cup tied to the neck of it, and a rush basket filled with some kind of provision. The stone bottle and the basket were speedily stowed away in the bottom of the boat, and Mr. Carter was invited to descend and take the seat pointed out to him.

“Can you steer, sir?” one of the men asked.

Yes, Mr. Carter was able to steer. There was very little that he had not learned more or less in twenty years’ knocking about the world.

He took the rudder when they had pushed out into the open water, the two young men dipped their oars, and away the boat shot out towards that seaward horizon on which only the keenest eyes could discover the black speck that represented the Crow.

“If it should be a sell, after all,” thought Mr. Carter; “and yet that’s not likely. If he wanted to double on me and get back to London, he’d have gone by one of the trains we’ve watched; if he wanted to lie-by and hide himself in the town, he wouldn’t have disposed of any of his diamonds yet awhile — and then, on the other hand, why should the Crow have sailed before she’d got the whole of her cargo on board? Anyhow, I think I have been wise to risk it, and follow the Crow. If this is a wild-goose chase, I’ve been in wilder than this before to-day, and have caught my man.”

The little fishing smack behaved bravely when she got out to sea; but even with the help of the oars, stoutly plied by the two young men, they gained no way upon the Crow, for the black speck grew fainter and fainter upon the horizon-line, and at last dropped down behind it altogether.

“We shall never catch her,” one of the men said, helping himself to a cupful of spirit out of the stone-bottle, in a sudden access of despondency. “We shall no more catch t’ Crow than we shall catch t’ day before yesterday, unless t’ wind changes.”

“I doubt t’ wind will change after dark,” answered the other young man, who had applied himself oftener than his companion to the stone-bottle, and took a more hopeful view of things. “I doubt but we shall have a change come dark.”

He was looking out to windward as he spoke. He took the rudder out of Mr. Carter’s hands presently, and that gentleman rolled himself in his new railway rug, and lay down in the bottom of the boat, with one of the men’s overcoats for a blanket and the other for a pillow, and, hushed by the monotonous plashing of the water against the keel of the boat, fell into a pleasant slumber, whose blissfulness was only marred by the gridiron-like sensation of the hard boards upon which he was lying.

He awoke from this slumber to hear that the wind had changed, and that the Pretty Polly— the boat belonging to the two fishermen was called the Pretty Polly— was gaining on the Crow.

“We shall be alongside of her in an hour,” one of the men said.

Mr. Carter shook off the drowsy influence of his long sleep, and scrambled to his feet. It was bright moonlight, and the little boat left a trail of tremulous silver in her wake as she cut through the water. Far away upon the horizon there was a faint speck of shimmering white, to which one of the young men pointed with his brawny finger It was the dirty mainsail of the Crow bleached into silver whiteness under the light of the moon.

“There’s scarcely enough wind to puff out a farthing candle,” one of the young men said. “I think we’re safe to catch her.”

Mr. Carter took a cupful of rum at the instigation of one of his companions, and prepared himself for the business that lay before him.

Of all the hazardous ventures in which the detective had been engaged, this was certainly not the least hazardous. He was about to venture on board a strange vessel, with a captain who bore no good name, and with men who most likely closely resembled their master; he was about to trust himself among such fellows as these, in the hope of capturing a criminal whose chances, if once caught, were so desperate that he would not be likely to hesitate at any measures by which he might avoid a capture. But the detective was not unused to encounters where the odds were against him, and he contemplated the chances of being hurled overboard in a hand-to-hand struggle with Joseph Wilmot as calmly as if death by drowning were the legitimate end of a man’s existence.

Once, while standing in the prow of the boat, with his face turned steadily towards that speck in the horizon, Mr. Carter thrust his hand into the breast-pocket of his coat, where there lurked the newest and neatest thing in revolvers; but beyond this action, which was almost involuntary, he made no sign that he was thinking of the danger before him.

The moon grew brighter and brighter in a cloudless sky, as the fishing-smack shot through the water, while the steady dip of the oars seemed to keep time to a wordless tune. In that bright moonlight the sails of the Crow grew whiter and larger with every dip of the oars that were carrying the Pretty Polly so lightly over the blue water.

As the boat gained upon the vessel she was following, Mr. Carter told the two young men his errand, and his authority to capture the runaway.

“I think I may count on your standing by me — eh, my lads?” he asked.

Yes, the young men answered; they would stand by him to the death. Their spirits seemed to rise with the thought of danger, especially as Mr. Carter hinted at a possible reward for each of them if they should assist in the capture of the runaway. They rowed close under the side of the black and wicked-looking vessel, and then Mr. Carter, standing up in the boat gave a “Yo-ho! aboard there!” that resounded over the great expanse of plashing water.

A man with a pipe in his mouth looked over the side.

“Hilloa! what’s the row there?” he demanded fiercely.

“I want to see the captain.”

“What do you want with him?”

“That’s my business.”

Another man, with a dingy face, and another pipe in his mouth, looked over the side, and took his pipe from between his lips, to address the detective.

“What the —— do you mean by coming alongside us?” he cried. “Get out of the way, or we shall run you down.”

“Oh, no, you won’t, Mr. Spelsand,” answered one of the young men from the boat; “you’ll think twice before you turn rusty with us. Don’t you remember the time you tried to get off John Bowman, the clerk that robbed the Yorkshire Union Assurance Office — don’t you remember trying to get him off clear, and gettin’ into trouble yourself about it?”

Mr. Spelsand bawled some order to the man at the helm, and the vessel veered round suddenly; so suddenly, that had the two young men in the boat been anything but first-rate watermen, they and Mr. Carter would have become very intimately acquainted with the briny element around and about them. But the young men were very good watermen, and they were also familiar with the manners and customs of Captain Spelsand, of the Crow; so, as the black-looking schooner veered round, the little boat shot out into the open water, and the two young oarsmen greeted the captain’s manoeuvre with a ringing peal of laughter.

“I’ll trouble you to lay-to while I come on board,” said the detective, while the boat bobbed up and down on the water, close alongside of the schooner. “You’ve got a gentleman on board — a gentleman whom I’ve got a warrant against. It can’t much matter to him whether I take him now, or when he gets to Copenhagen; for take him I surely shall; but it’ll matter a good deal to you, Captain Spelsand, if you resist my authority.”

The captain hesitated for a little, while he gave a few fierce puffs at his dirty pipe.

“Show us your warrant,” he said presently, in a sulky tone.

The detective had started from Scotland Yard in the first instance with an open warrant for the arrest of the supposed murderer. He handed this document up to the captain of the Crow, and that gentleman, who was by no means an adept in the unseamanlike accomplishments of reading and writing, turned it over, and examined it thoughtfully in the vivid moonlight.

He could see that there were a lot of formidable-looking words and flourishes in it, and he felt pretty well convinced that it was a genuine document, and meant mischief.

“You’d better come aboard,” he said; “you don’t want me; that’s certain.”

The captain of the Crow said this with an air of sublime resignation; and in the next minute the detective was scrambling up the side of the vessel, by the aid of a rope flung out by one of the sailors on board the Crow.

Mr. Carter was followed by one of the fishermen; and with that stalwart ally he felt himself equal to any emergency.

“I’ll just throw my eye over your place down below,” he said, “if you’ll hand me a lantern.”

This request was not complied with very willingly; and it was only on a second production of the warrant that Mr. Carter obtained the loan of a wretched spluttering wick, glimmering in a dirty little oil-lamp. With this feeble light he turned his back upon the lovely moonlight, and stumbled down into a low-ceilinged cabin, darksome and dirty, with berths which were as black and dingy, and altogether as uninviting as the shelves made to hold coffins in a noisome underground vault.

There were three men asleep upon these shelves; and Mr. Carter examined these three sleepers as coolly as if they had indeed been the coffined inmates of a vault. Amongst them he found a man whose face was turned towards the cabin-wall, but who wore a blue coat and a traveller’s cap of fur, shaped like a Templar’s helmet, and tied down over his ears.

The detective seized this gentleman by the fur collar of his coat and shook him roughly.

“Come, Mr. Joseph Wilmot,” he said; “get up, my man. You’ve given me a fine chase for it; but you’re nabbed at last.”

The man scrambled up out of his berth, and stood in a stooping attitude, for the cabin was not high enough for him, staring at Mr. Carter.

“What are you talking of, you confounded fool!” he said. “What have I got to do with Joseph Wilmot?”

The detective had never loosed his hand from the fur collar of his prisoner’s coat. The faces of the two men were opposite to each other, but only faintly visible in the dim light of the spluttering oil-lamp. The man in the fur-lined coat showed two rows of wolfish teeth, bared to the gums in a malicious grin.

“What do you mean by waking me out of sleep?” he asked. “What do you mean by assaulting and ballyragging me in this way? I’ll have it out of you for this, my fine gentleman. You’re a detective officer, are you? — a knowing card, of course; and you’ve followed me all the way from Warwickshire, and traced me, step by step, I suppose, and taken no end of trouble, eh? Why didn’t you look after the gentleman who stayed at home? Why didn’t you look after the poor lame gentleman who stayed at Woodbine Cottage, Lisford, and dressed up his pretty daughter as a housemaid, and acted a little play to sell you, you precious clever police-officer in plain clothes. Take me with you, Mr. Detective; stop me in going abroad to improve my mind and manners by foreign travel, do, Mr. Detective; and won’t I have a fine action against you for false imprisonment — that’s all?”

There was something in the man’s tone of bravado that stamped it genuine. Mr. Carter gnashed his teeth together in a silent fury. Sold by that hazel-eyed housemaid with her face tied up! Sent away on a false trail, while the criminal got off at his leisure! Fooled, duped, and laughed at after twenty years of hard service! It was too bitter.

“Not Joseph Wilmot!” muttered Mr. Carter; “not Joseph Wilmot!”

“No more than you are, my pippin,” answered the traveller, insolently.

The two men were still standing face to face. Something in that insolent tone, something that brought back the memory of half-forgotten times, startled the detective. He lifted the lamp suddenly, still looking in the traveller’s face, still muttering in the same half-absent tone, “Not Joseph Wilmot!” and brought the light on a level with the other man’s eyes.

“No,” he cried, with a sudden tone of triumph, “not Joseph Wilmot, but Stephen Vallance — Blackguard Steeve, the forger — the man who escaped from Norfolk Island, after murdering one of the gaolers — beating his brains out with an iron, if I remember right. We’ve had our eye on you for a long time, Mr. Vallance; but you’ve contrived to give us the slip. Yours is an old case, yours is; but there’s a reward to be got for the taking of you, for all that. So I haven’t had my long journey for nothing.”

The detective tried to fasten his other hand on Mr. Vallance’s shoulder; but Stephen Vallance struck down that uplifted hand with a heavy blow of his fist, and, wresting himself from the detective’s grasp, rushed up the cabin-stairs.

Mr. Carter followed close at his heels.

“Stop that man!” he roared to one of the fishermen; “stop him!”

I suppose the instinct of self-preservation inspired Stephen Vallance to make that frantic rush, though there was no possible means of escape out of the vessel, except into the open boat, or the still more open sea. As he receded from the advancing detective, one of the fishermen sprang towards him from another part of the deck. Thus hemmed in by the two, and dazzled, perhaps, by the sudden brilliancy of the moonlight after the darkness of the place below, he reeled back against an opening in the side of the vessel, lost his balance, and fell with a heavy plunge into the water.

There was a sudden commotion on the deck, a simultaneous shout, as the men rushed to the side.

“Save him!” cried the detective. “He’s got a belt stuffed with diamonds round his waist!”

Mr. Carter said this at a venture, for he did not know which of the men had the diamond belt.

One of the fishermen threw off his shoes, and took a header into the water. The rest of the men stood by breathless, eagerly watching two heads bobbing up and down among the moonlit waves, two pairs of arms buffeting with the water. The force of the current drifted the two men far away from the schooner.

For an interval that seemed a long one, all was uncertainty. The schooner that had made so little way before seemed now to fly in the faint night-wind. At last there was a shout, and a head appeared above the water advancing steadily towards the vessel.

“I’ve got him!” shouted the voice of the fisherman. “I’ve got him by the belt!”

He came nearer to the vessel, striking out vigorously with one arm, and holding some burden with the other.

When he was close under the side, the captain of the Crow flung out a rope; but as the fisherman lifted his hand to grasp it, he uttered a sudden cry, and raised the other hand with a splash out of the water.

“The belt’s broke, and he’s sunk!” he shouted.

The belt had broken. A little ripple of light flashed briefly in the moonlight, and fell like a shower of spray from a fountain. Those glittering drops, that looked like fountain spray, were some of the diamonds bought by Joseph Wilmot; and Stephen Vallance, alias Blackguard Steeve, alias Major Vernon, had gone down to the bottom of the sea, never in this mortal life to rise again.

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Last updated Wednesday, March 12, 2014 at 13:31