Captain Gault, by William Hope Hodgson

The Red Herring

We docked this morning, and the customs gave us the very devil of a turnout; but they found nothing.

“We shall get you, one of these days, Captain Gault,” the head of the searchers told me. “We’ve gone through you pretty carefully; but I’m not satisfied. We’ve had information that I could swear was sound; but where you’ve hidden the stuff I’ll confess stumps me.”

“Don’t be so infernally ready to give the dog the bad name, and then add insult to injury by trying to hang him,” I said. “You know you’ve never caught me yet trying to shove stuff through.”

The head searcher laughed.

“Don’t rub it in, Captain,” he said. “That’s just it! Take the last little flutter of yours, with the pigeons, and the way you made money both ways, both on the hens and on the diamonds; and all the rest of your devil’s tricks. You’ve got the nerve! You ought to be able to retire by now.”

“I’m afraid I’m neither so fortunate nor so clever as you seem to think, Mr. Anderson,” I told him. “You had no right to kill my hens, and I made your man apologize for his abominable suggestion about the pigeons!”

“You did so, Cap’n,” he said. “But we’ll get you yet. And I’ll eat my hat if you get a thing through the gates this time, even if we’ve missed finding it now. We’re bound to get you at last. Good morning, Captain.”

“Good morning, Mr. Anderson,” I said. And he went ashore.

There you have the position. I’ve got six thousand dollars’ worth of pearls in a remarkable little hiding place of my own aboard; and somehow word has been passed to the Customs, and it’s going to make the getting of them ashore a deuced diflicult thing, that will take some planning. All my old methods they’re up to. Besides, I never try the same plan twice, if I can help it; for it is altogether too risky.

And a lot of them are not half so practicable as they appear at first. That carrier-pigeon idea, for instance, was both good and bad; but Mr. Brown and I lost nearly a thousand pounds’ worth of stones through it; for there’s a class of oaf with a gun who would shoot his own mother-in-law, if she passed him on wings. Perhaps he’d not be really to blame in such circumstances; but he is certainly to blame when he looses off at a “carrier.” Any shooting man should be able to recognize them from the common or garden variety. But I fancy the afore-mentioned oaf does the recognizing cheerfully, and shoots promptly. Some of these gentlemen must have made a haul! That was why we never loosed off the pigeons before reaching port. We never meant to trust all that value in the air, except as a last resort.

Anyway, Mr. Anderson and his lot have got it in for me; and I shall have a job to get the stuff safely into the right hands by the twentieth, which is the date we sail.

I have hit on what I believe is rather a smart notion, and I began to develop it today.

When I went up to the dock gates this morning, with my bag, I was met by a very courteous and superior person of the Customs Department, who invited me to step into his office. Here, I was again invited into quite a snug little cubicle, and there two searchers made a very thorough examination of me (very thorough indeedl), also of my bag; but, as you may imagine, there was nothing dutiable within a hundred yards of me — that is, nothing of mine.

At the conclusion of the search, after the superior and affable personage had departed, pleasingly apologetic, I was left to acquire clothing and mental equilibrium in almost equal quantities; for I can tell you I was a bit wrathy. And then — perhaps it was just because my mental pot was so a-boil — up simmered the idea; and I began straight away on the afore-mentioned developing.

By the time that I had completed my dressing, I had learned not only that the names of the two official searchers were Wentock and Ewiss, but also the numbers of their respective families, and other pleasing details. I dispensed tact and bonhomie with liberality, and eventually suggested an adjournment to the place across the road, for a drink.

But my two new (very new) friends shook their heads at this. The “boss” might see them. It would not do. I nodded a complete comprehension. Would they be off duty tonight? They would, at six-thirty prompt.

“Meet me at the corner at seven o’clock,” I said. “I’ve nothing to do and no one to talk to. We’ll make an evening of it.”

They smiled cheerfully and expansively, and agreed — well, as only such people do agree!

The dinner came off, and was in every way a success, both from their point and my point of view. And I think I may say the same of the two dinners that followed on the fifteenth and the seventeenth. That was yesterday.

It is now the evening of the eighteenth, and I’m jotting down what happened, in due order.

It was last night, at our third little dinner together (which for a change I had aboard), that we got really friendly over some of my liqueur whisky. And I saw the chance had come to ask them straight out if they were open to make a fiver each.

The two men looked at each other for a few moments, without speaking.

“Well, sir, it all depends,” said Wentock, the older of the two.

“On what?” I asked.

“We’ve our place to think of,” he said. “It’s no use asking us to risk anything, if that’s what you mean, sir.”

“There’s no risk at all,” I told him. “At least, I mean the risk is so infinitesimal as hardly to count at all. What I want you to do is simply this. Tonight, if you agree, I’ll hand you over this bag I’ve got here with me. Take it down to the gates tomorrow, and put it somewhere handy in the office. When I come off from the ship, to come ashore through the gates, I shall be carrying another bag, exactly the same as this in every single detail. You see, I’ve got two of them, made exactly alike.

“Well, I shall be stopped, as usual, at the gates, and taken into the office, and I and my bag will be pretty well turned inside out again; which I can tell you I’m getting sick of, only your people have got it in for me, pretty savage.”

The two searchers grinned at this.

“I ain’t surprised, Cap’n,” said Wentock, “with a reputation like yours. Why, they say as you could retire this minute, with the brass you’ve made, running in stuff without our smelling out the way you do it.”

“Don’t be so infernally flattering,” I told him. “You mustn’t believe half you hear. And I don’t want you to get imagining I do this kind of thing regularly. It’s just a few trifling trinkets I want to pass in, as a favor to a friend. Not a habit of mine; but just once in a way.”

Both of the men burst into roars of laughter. They evidently considered this a great joke.

“Well,” I said, “let me tell you just what I want you to do.

“When I go into the office, one of you always takes my bag from me. Well, I simply want you to substitute for it the one I shall give you tonight, and which, of course, you can search then as hard as you like, before the boss. Then, when he goes out hand me back the unsearched one, and I shall just clear off with it, and the trick is done. No risk for you at all. You’ve simply to take this bag I have here, with a few shore clothes in it, up to the office tomorrow. When I appear, and am searched, you substitute this Number 1 bag for Number 2 which I shall bring in; and you search this Number 1 as fiercely as you like before the boss. Then, when I am let out, you hand me Number 2, and I go. As for Number 1 I’ll make you a present of it, as a little souvenir. Now, say ‘yes,’ and I’ll hand you the fivers now.”

Wentock said “yes” promptly for the two of them, and I pulled out my pocketbook, and handed each a five-pound note.

“No,” said Wentock quickly. “Gold, if you please, Cap’n. Them things is too easy traced.”

I laughed, and passed him across ten sovereigns, and took back my notes.

“You’re a smart man, Wentock,” I said.

“Have to be, sir, in our business,” he replied, grinning in his cheerfully unscrupulous fashion.

I sail tomorrow; so if I don’t manage to get the stuff through today, I shall be in a hole; for I promised it faithfully for not later than the twentieth.

When I took my bag down to the gates today to go out, it can be easily imagined that I felt a bit of tension. Six thousand pounds is a lot of risk, apart from the possibility of serious trouble if one is nailed.

However, it had to be done; so I went up to the gates, trying to look as cheerful as usual, and made my accustomed protest against searching, to the genial and diplomatic officer who met me, and invited me to my expected séance in the cubicle.

As I was entering the doorway of the outer office, a messenger boy came up to me, and touched his cap.

“Are you Cap’n Gault, sir?” he asked me.

“I am,” I said.

“I just been down to the ship, sir,” he explained. “They said you was just off through the gates, and I might catch you if I hurried. I’m to deliver this letter to you, sir, and to tell you there ain’t no answer. Good morning, sir.”

“Good morning,” I said, and tipped him a quarter. Then, as I entered the office with my polite official, I opened the letter.

What I found therein could hardly be supposed to decrease my feelings of tension. The note was printed, crudely, so as to disguise the handwriting. It ran exactly thus:

Captain Gault,
S.S. Calypso

Sir,

Be advised, and do not attempt to smuggle your stuff through the Customs. You will be sold if you do, and someone who cannot help a friendly feeling for you would regret not to have given you this chance to draw back. Pay the duty, even if you lose money. The Authorities know far more than you can think. They know absolutely that you bought the “material” you wish to smuggle through, and they know the price you paid, which was £5997. That is a lot of money to risk losing, apart from fines and imprisonment. So be warned and pay the duty in the ordinary way. I can do no more for you than this.

A WELLWISHER

Now, that was what might really be called a nerve-racker to read, and just after I had entered the very place that the warning begged me to avoid, at least in what I might call a “smuggling capacity.” I could not possibly back out now; for suspicion would be inevitable; also my plans were all arranged.

I went straight on into the place, looking more comfortable than I felt. I took a quick look round the inner office, and saw the end of a bag, half hidden, under a table. That, at any rate, looked as if Ewiss and Wentock meant to be faithful and carry out the substitution, as arranged. If they had given me away, it might be supposed that the bag I had given them would be now in the hands of their superior officers.

I looked at the problem every way. And all the time, as I puzzled, I kept asking myself not only who wrote that warning; but who, of all the people I knew, had the necessary knowledge of detail that it showed.

Ewiss and Wentock rose from their desks as I entered the private room, and Wentock came forward and took my bag from me, while Ewiss beckoned me towards the cubicle.

The search they made of me was not drastic; but even had it been I should not have minded, in the circumstances. What I was thinking about, all the time, was the bags, and whether the two searchers meant to be faithful to their part of our bargain.

One thing, at first, I placed as an argument in their favor. It was that the unemotional courtesy of the head official was quite unimpaired; and I could not imagine that even he would be able to remain so absolutely and almost statuesquely calm if my two presumed confederates had given me away to him, and told him that a big capture was on the carpet (it was really linoleum, and cold to the feet).

There was, however, something disturbing in the attitude of Ewiss. The man seemed almost hangdoggish, in the way he avoided meeting my eye. But I could not say this of Wentock; for that cheerful person was completely his own glad and (as I always felt) unscrupulous self.

While I was dressing, my bag was banged down onto the table, and I knew the instant it was thrown open that Wentock and Ewiss had sold me; for they had not carried out the substitution of the Number 1 bag for the Number 2 which I had just brought in; but had frankly and brutally ignored our whole arrangement, and opened Number 2 — the bag I had bargained with them should not be opened.

As he flung the bag open, Wentock looked up at me and grinned broadly. He considered it evidently a splendid effort of smartness; but it was a faint comfort to my belief in the goodness of human nature that Ewiss looked down at the table and seemed decidedly uncomfortable.

I felt so fierce that I could have given them away, in turn, to their superior for accepting bribes; for it was quite plain now that they had said nothing to him about the plan I had proposed to them to substitute one bag for the other. I could see their way of looking at the whole business. They were not readily bribable; but if people were foolish enough to offer them a bribe it was accepted — as a present; and so much the worse for the person who offered it, and so much the better for the officer presented with this kind of — shall I say “honorarium”! I think anyone must admit I had cause to feel bitter.

I did not, of course, think really of giving them away; for there might have been a charge made of bribery and corruption; whilst they, as I was pretty sure, would say nothing, lest they be mulcted of the “presents” I had made them; and also, possibly, have a reprimand for meddling with my proposition in any way at all.

The search Wentock gave that bag was a revelation of drastic thoroughness. I remonstrated once, and said I would put in a claim for a new bag; for Wentock, as he went further and further, and found nothing, seemed almost inclined to rip the bag to pieces, so sure was he that he “had me safe.”

At last, he had to give it up, and pronounced it free of all dutiable stuff, which of course it was; for, as I told him later, I had considered the chances of their proving treacherous, and had carefully omitted on this occasion to put anything dutiable into the bag. I told them that it must be regarded as a kind of trial trip, to test their intentions.

This was as soon as the Boss had left the cubicle; and then I cut loose on the two of them.

“For a couple of treacherous, grunting human hogs, you two are something to talk about!” I told them. “You take my money with one hand, and try to do me in with the other. Suppose you hand out that cash I gave you!”

Wentock laughed outright at this, as if it were a particularly nutty kind of joke; but I was glad to see that Ewiss looked more uncomfortable than ever.

“Our perquisites, Cap’n,” said Wentock. “We’re often asked out to a bit of dinner, and we get people who are mighty anxious to hand us nice little cash presents, ad lib., as you might say, every once in a while. And we don’t say ‘no,’ do we, Ewiss? Seeing we’re both married men, with families to bring up, and remembering, Cap’n, how affectionate you’ve asked after the youngsters, you might remember us again, Cap’n, when you’ve any odd cash as you don’t want burning holes in your pocket. Likewise we both admired them dinners you stood us uptown. You can do it again, Cap’n, any time you like, and keep on doing it. We’re always open. If you can stand it, we can. Now, how would tonight suit you? We’re both free and — ”

“Go to blazes!” I said, “and stay there. You’re a pair of treacherous animals, like all your kind, and you might have ruined me, if I hadn’t been careful. Give me my bags, and be damned to you! They say never trust a policeman, even if he’s your own brother. He’ll lock you up the first chance he gets for the sake of promotion. And I guess you’re the same kind of cheap stuff.”

And with that I picked up my bags and walked out, Wentock holding the door for me. But Ewiss was looking as thoroughly miserable and ashamed as a man need look.

“How would tonight suit you, sir?” called Wentock after me as I passed through the gates.

“Go to the devil!” I said. “And get him to shut your infernal mouth with a red-hot brick.”

And with that I boarded a streetcar and went rather thoughtfully uptown.

As it chances, I have invited the men to dinner again — both of them; for I’m not the kind of man who likes taking a fall too quietly. This is what I wrote, addressing it to Wentock at the office:

Dear Mr. Wentock,

I have been thinking things over a bit, and have come to the conclusion that everything was not said at our last meeting that might have been said. I bear no malice at all for the somewhat pungent wit you handed out to me. I guess I was in the position that invited a few jabs.

I have been thinking that perhaps there is still a way to arrange this affair a little more to my liking, and I can assure you and your friend that you will be the gainers, and without having your strict feelings for high honesty and fairness outraged.

Will you both meet me at our little restaurant tonight at the usual time, and I will go thoroughly into the matter; for as I start off tomorrow, it is imperative to me to carry through my plan before I sail.

Remember, I bear no malice at all. Look upon this as an entirely businesslike and reasonable friendly little invite.

Yours sincerely,
G. GAULT

I sent this by messenger, and tonight I shall be at the restaurant.

They both came to time. Wentock as cheerful and unscrupulous as ever. Ewiss, looking awkward, and as if he would rather have stopped away.

“Now,” I said as we sat down, “pleasure first and business afterwards.” And I reached for the hock.

“One moment, sir,” said Ewiss, suddenly, and pushed forward a small roll of paper, which I took from him, feeling a little puzzled. It contained dollar notes to the approximate value of five pounds.

I looked across at Ewiss with sudden gladness and respect in my heart, for I understood. But what I said was: “What are these, Mr. Ewiss?”

“It’s your brass, Cap’n,” he said. “I’ve thought a deal lately, an’ I reckon I can’t hold onto it. I’m not grumbling at Mr. Wentock’s way of looking at it. Lots of our men look at it that way; but even if you’d no right to try to bribe me, that doesn’t say as I’m right to take your brass, an’ mean to sell you all the time. If I’m above the job you wanted me to do, I feel I ought to be above taking the brass for it, too. So take it back, sir; an’ after that I shall enjoy my dinner with you as well as anyone.”

I looked across at Wentock.

“And you?” I asked.

“Well,” he said, grinning in his cheerful fashion, I don’t see it that way, Cap’n. Ewiss, here, always was a bit funny on that point. Sometimes I’ve screwed him up to our general way of looking at it; but, in the main, he’s not built on those lines, and I don’t grumble at him any more than he don’t grumble at me. I look at it this way. You, or any man as insults me by tryin’ to buy me, has got to pay for it.”

“Good man, Wentock,” I said. “It takes a deal of different opinions to oil the different kinds of consciences. I’ve a brand of my own, and you’ve a brand of your own, and Mr. Ewiss, there, has his. Anyway, you’re welcome to the cash, Mr. Wentock. As for you, Mr. Ewiss, I see you can’t take yours; so I’ll have it back, and I apologize to you. I think your way is the soundest of the three of us. Now, forgetting all this, let’s drop the serious for a time, and we’ll have our dinner.”

It was over the wine that I explained to Wentock the things I had to explain. Ewiss was out of it, though he listened quietly, with the deepest interest, and a flash of a smile now and again that showed he had a sense of humor.

“You see, Wentock,” I said, “I never meant to bribe either of you, but only to make you think that I did. No man in his senses would risk £6000 — to be exact £5997 — I glanced at Ewiss and smiled; for I had guessed who was my “wellwisher” — “on a piffly little bribe like a couple of fivers. If I had seriously meant to buy you, I should have offered something nearer your price, say fifty or a hundred pounds. As it was, I wanted merely, by means of my trifling bribes, to make you think I was going to run the stuff through in the way I explained so carefully. In other words, I wished to focus your entire suspicions upon Number 2 bag, thereby insuring that the Number 1 bag, which I left in your hands, should receive only the most casual attention; for you would, naturally, taking my plan at its face value, think only of the second bag, which I assured you I did not want searched. Moreover, it would seem self-evident to you that the Number 1 bag, which I handed entirely over to your care, would never have anything dutiable in it; for, had you acted up to your agreement, there was no apparent reason for supposing that I would ever even handle it again. To insure your subconsciously realizing this, I even told you you could keep it, once it had served me in the matter of the substitution.

“Of course, had you been faithful to our arrangement and substituted the Number 1 bag, to be searched, for the Number 2 bag, which I brought with me, I might have been in a hole. You see, the handle of the Number 1 bag contained the particular, shall we say, trinkets you were anxious to lay hands on.

“But then, I knew, both from the smallness of my bribe and from my reading of your faces, and from the ways of customs officials in general, that you would go for the big ‘cop’ you felt sure you were wise to. It might have meant promotion — oh, and quite a number of desirable things, from your point of view.

“After all, Wentock, even you,” I said quietly and pleasantly, “will now agree that honesty’s the best policy!

“And that concludes all I have to say, practically. I planned it all out, even to the burst of anger and the snatching up of both my bags and walking off in that quite superb indignation, on discovery of your treachery. I did it well, didn’t I? — while you were so pleasingly and wittily inviting yourself to this final little dinner, which I had, even then, planned, like all the rest of it.

“As I said in my note, you would be the gainers for coming tonight. That is so; for you are the richer for a dinner and an explanation, and Mr. Ewiss for an apology. That is all.”

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Last updated Saturday, March 1, 2014 at 20:38