The whole voyage was an unpleasant one, and Captain Mackrie, of the Anglo–Malay Company’s steamship Nicobar, had at last some excuse for the ill-temper that had made him notorious and unpopular in the company’s marine staff. Although the fourth and fifth mates in the seclusion of their berth ventured deeper in their search for motives, and opined that the “old man “ had made a deal less out of this voyage than usual; the company having lately taken to providing its own stores; so that “makings” were gone clean and “cumshaw” (which means commission in the trading lingo of the China seas) had shrunk small indeed. In confirmation they adduced the uncommonly long face of the steward (the only man in the ship satisfied with the skipper), whom the new regulations hit with the same blow. But indeed the steward’s dolor might well be credited to the short passenger list, and the unpromising aspect of the few passengers in the eyes of a man accustomed to gauge one’s tip-yielding capacity a month in advance. For the steward it was altogether the wrong time of year, the wrong sort of voyage, and certainly the wrong sort of passengers. So that doubtless the confidential talk of the fourth and fifth officers was mere youthful scandal. At any rate, the captain had prospect of a good deal in private trade home, for he had been taking curiosities and Japanese oddments aboard (plainly for sale in London) in a way that a third steward would have been ashamed of, and which, for a captain, was a scandal and an ignominy; and he had taken pains to insure well for the lot. These things the fourth and fifth mates often spoke of, and more than once made a winking allusion to, in the presence of the third mate and the chief engineer, who laughed and winked too, and sometimes said as much to the second mate, who winked without laughing; for of such is the tittle-tattle of shipboard.
The Nicobar was bound home with few passengers, as I have said, a small general cargo, and gold bullion to the value of £200,000 — the bullion to be landed at Plymouth, as usual. The presence of this bullion was a source of much conspicuous worry on the part of the second officer, who had charge of the bullion-room. For this was his first voyage on his promotion from third officer, and the charge of £200,000 worth of gold bars was a thing he had not been accustomed to. The placid first officer pointed out to him that this wasn’t the first shipment of bullion the world had ever known, by a long way, nor the largest. Also that every usual precaution was taken, and the keys were in the captain’s cabin; so that he might reasonably be as easy in his mind as the few thousand other second officers who had had charge of hatches and special cargo since the world began. But this did not comfort Brasyer. He fidgeted about when off watch, considering and puzzling out the various means by which the bullion-room might be got at, and fidgeted more when on watch, lest somebody might be at that moment putting into practice the ingenious dodges he had thought of. And he didn’t keep his fears and speculations to himself. He bothered the first officer with them, and when the first officer escaped he explained the whole thing at length to the third officer.
“Can’t think what the company’s about,” he said on one such occasion to the first mate, “calling a tin-pot bunker like that a bullion-room.”
“Skittles! “responded the first mate, and went on smoking.
“Oh, that’s all very well for you who aren’t responsible,” Brasyer went on, “but I’m pretty sure something will happen some day; if not on this voyage on some other. Talk about a strong room! Why, what’s it made of?”
“Three-eighths boiler plate.”
“Yes, three-eighths boilerplate — about as good as a sixpenny tin money box. Why, I’d get through that with my grandmother’s scissors! ”
“All right; borrow ’em and get through. I would if I had a grandmother.”
“There it is down below there out of sight and hearing, nice and handy for anybody who likes to put in a quiet hour at plate cutting from the coal bunker next door — always empty, because it’s only a seven-ton bunker, not worth trimming. And the other side’s against the steward’s pantry. What’s to prevent a man shipping as steward, getting quietly through while he’s supposed to be bucketing about among his slops and his crockery, and strolling away with the plunder at the next port? And then there’s the carpenter. He’s always messing about somewhere below, with a bag full of tools. Nothing easier than for him to make a job in a quiet corner, and get through the plates.”
“But then what’s he to do with the stuff when he’s got it? You can’t take gold ashore by the hundredweight in your boots.”
“Do with it. Why, dump it, of course. Dump it overboard in a quiet port and mark the spot. Come to that, he could desert clean at Port Said — what easier place? — and take all he wanted. You know what Port Said’s like. Then there are the firemen — oh, anybody can do it! “And Brasyer moved off to take another peep under the hatchway.
The door of the bullion-room was fastened by one central patent lock and two padlocks, one above and one below the other lock. A day or two after the conversation recorded above, Brasyer was carefully examining and trying the lower of the padlocks with a key, when a voice immediately behind him asked sharply, “Well, sir, and what are you up to with that padlock?”
Brasyer started violently and looked round. It was Captain Mackrie.
“There’s — that is — I’m afraid these are the same sort of padlocks as those in the carpenter’s stores,” the second mate replied, in a hurry of explanation. “I— I was just trying, that’s all; I’m afraid the keys fit.”
“Just you let the carpenter take care of his own stores, will you, Mr. Brasyer? There’s a Chubb’s lock there as well as the padlocks, and the key of that’s in my cabin, and I’ll take care doesn’t go out of it without my knowledge. So perhaps you’d best leave off experiments till you’re asked to make ’em, for your own sake. That’s enough now,” the captain added, as Brasyer appeared to be ready to reply; and he turned on his heel and made for the steward’s quarters.
Brasyer stared after him ragefully. “Wonder what you want down here,” he muttered under his breath. “Seems to me one doesn’t often see a skipper as thick with the steward as that.” And he turned off growling towards the deck above.
“Hanged if I like that steward’s pantry stuck against the side of the bullion-room,” he said later in the day to the first officer. “And what does a steward want with a lot of boiler-maker’s tools aboard? You know he’s got them.”
“In the name of the prophet, rats! “answered the first mate, who was of a less fussy disposition. “What a fatiguing creature you are, Brasyer! Don’t you know the man’s a boiler-maker by regular trade, and has only taken to stewardship for the last year or two? That sort of man doesn’t like parting with his tools, and as he’s a widower, with no home ashore, of course he has to carry all his traps aboard. Do shut up, and take your proper rest like a Christian. Here, I’ll give you a cigar; it’s all right — Burman; stick it in your mouth, and keep your jaw tight on it.”
But there was no soothing the second officer. Still he prowled about the after orlop deck, and talked at large of his anxiety for the contents of the bullion-room. Once again, a few days later, as he approached the iron door, he was startled by the appearance of the captain coming, this time, from the steward’s pantry. He fancied he had heard tapping, Brasyer explained, and had come to investigate. But the captain turned him back with even less ceremony than before, swearing he would give charge of the bullion-room to another officer if Brasyer persisted in his eccentricities. On the first deck the second officer was met by the carpenter, a quiet, sleek, soft-spoken man, who asked him for the padlock and key he had borrowed from the stores during the week. But Brasyer put him off, promising to send it back later. And the carpenter trotted away to a job he happened to have, singularly enough, in the hold, just under the after orlop deck, and below the floor of the bullion-room.
As I have said, the voyage was in no way a pleasant one. Everywhere the weather was at its worst, and scarce was Gibraltar passed before the Lascars were shivering in their cotton trousers, and the Seedee boys were buttoning tight such old tweed jackets as they might muster from their scanty kits. It was January. In the Bay the weather was tremendous, and the Nicobar banged and shook and pitched distractedly across in a howling world of thunderous green sea, washed within and without, above and below. Then, in the Chops, as night fell, something went, and there was no more steerageway, nor, indeed, anything else but an aimless wallowing. The screw had broken.
The high sea had abated in some degree, but it was still bad. Such sail as the steamer carried, inadequate enough, was set, and shift was made somehow to worry along to Plymouth — or to Falmouth if occasion better served — by that means. And so the Nicobar beat across the Channel on a rather better, though anything but smooth, sea, in a black night, made thicker by a storm of sleet, which turned gradually to snow as the hours advanced.
The ship laboured slowly ahead, through a universal blackness that seemed to stifle. Nothing but a black void above, below, and around, and the sound of wind and sea; so that one coming before a deck-light was startled by the quiet advent of the large snowflakes that came like moths as it seemed from nowhere. At four bells — two in the morning — a foggy light appeared away on the starboard bow — it was the Eddystone light — and an hour or two later, the exact whereabouts of the ship being a thing of much uncertainty, it was judged best to lay her to till daylight. No order had yet been given, however, when suddenly there were dim lights over the port quarter, with a more solid blackness beneath them. Then a shout and a thunderous crash, and the whole ship shuddered, and in ten seconds had belched up every living soul from below. The Nicobar’s voyage was over — it was a collision.
The stranger backed off into the dark, and the two vessels drifted apart, though not till some from the Nicobar had jumped aboard the other. Captain Mackrie’s presence of mind was wonderful, and never for a moment did he lose absolute command of every soul on board. The ship had already begun to settle down by the stern and list to port. Life-belts were served out promptly. Fortunately there were but two women among the passengers, and no children. The boats were lowered without a mishap, and presently two strange boats came as near as they dare from the ship (a large coasting steamer, it afterwards appeared) that had cut into the Nicobar. The last of the passengers were being got off safely, when Brayser, running anxiously to the captain, said:—
“Can’t do anything with that bullion, can we, sir? Perhaps a box or two ”
“Oh, damn the bullion! “shouted Captain Mackrie. “Look after the boat, sir, and get the passengers off. The insurance companies can find the bullion for themselves.”
But Brasyer had vanished at the skipper’s first sentence. The skipper turned aside to the steward as the crew and engine-room staff made for the remaining boats, and the two spoke quietly together. Presently the steward turned away as if to execute an order, and the skipper continued in a louder tone:—
“They’re the likeliest stuff, and we can but drop ’em, at worst. But be slippy — she won’t last ten minutes.”
She lasted nearly a quarter of an hour. By that time, however, everybody was clear of her, and the captain in the last boat was only just near enough to see the last of her lights as she went down.
The day broke in a sulky grey, and there lay the Nicobar, in ten fathoms, not a mile from the shore, her topmasts forlornly visible above the boisterous water. The sea was rough all that day, but the snow had ceased, and during the night the weather calmed considerably. Next day Lloyd’s agent was steaming about in a launch from Plymouth, and soon a salvage company’s tug came up and lay to by the emerging masts. There was every chance of raising the ship as far as could be seen, and a diver went down from the salvage tug to measure the breach made in the Nicobar’s side, in order that the necessary oak planking or sheeting might be got ready for covering the hole, preparatory to pumping and raising. This was done in a very short time, and the necessary telegrams having been sent, the tug remained in its place through the night, and prepared for the sending down of several divers on the morrow to get out the bullion as a commencement.
Just at this time Martin Hewitt happened to be engaged on a case of some importance and delicacy on behalf of Lloyd’s Committee, and was staying for a few days at Plymouth. He heard the story of the wreck, of course, and speaking casually with Lloyd’s agent as to the salvage work just beginning, he was told the name of the salvage company’s representative on the tug, Mr. Percy Merrick — a name he immediately recognised as that of an old acquaintance of his own. So that on the day when the divers were at work in the bullion-room of the sunken Nicobar, Hewitt gave himself a holiday, and went aboard the tug about noon.
Here he found Merrick, a big, pleasant man of thirty-eight or so. He was very glad to see Hewitt, but was a great deal puzzled as to the results of the morning’s work on the wreck. Two cases of gold bars were missing.
“There was £200,000 worth of bullion on board,” he said, “that’s plain and certain. It was packed in forty cases, each of £5,000 value. But now there are only thirty-eight cases! Two are gone clearly. I wonder what’s happened?”
“I suppose your men don’t know anything about it?” asked Hewitt.
“No, they’re all right. You see, it’s impossible for them to bring anything up without its being observed, especially as they have to be unscrewed from their diving-dresses here on deck. Besides, bless you, I was down with them.”
“Oh! Do you dive yourself, then?”
“Well, I put the dress on sometimes, you know, for any such special occasion as this. I went down this morning. There was no difficulty in getting about on the vessel below, and I found the keys of the bullion-room just where the captain said I would, in his cabin. But the locks were useless, of course, after being a couple of days in salt water. So we just burgled the door with crowbars, and then we saw that we might have done it a bit more easily from outside. For that coasting-steamer cut clean into the bunker next the bullion-room, and ripped open the sheet of boiler-plate dividing them.”
“The two missing cases couldn’t have dropped out that way, of course?”
“Oh, no. We looked, of course, but it would have been impossible. The vessel has a list the other way — to starboard — and the piled cases didn’t reach as high as the torn part. Well, as I said, we burgled the door, and there they were, thirty-eight sealed bullion cases, neither more nor less, and they’re down below in the after-cabin at this moment. Come and see.”
Thirty-eight they were; pine cases bound with hoop-iron and sealed at every joint, each case about eighteen inches by a foot, and six inches deep. They were corded together, two and two, apparently for convenience of transport.”
“Did you cord them like this yourself?” asked Hewitt.
“No, that’s how we found ’em. We just hooked ’em on a block and tackle, the pair at a time, and they hauled ’em up here aboard the tug.”
“What have you done about the missing two — anything?”
“Wired off to headquarters, of course, at once. And I’ve sent for Captain Mackrie — he’s still in the neighbourhood, I believe — and Brasyer, the second officer, who had charge of the bullion-room. They may possibly know something. Anyway, one thing’s plain. There were forty cases at the beginning of the voyage, and now there are only thirty-eight.”
There was a pause; and then Merrick added, “By the bye, Hewitt, this is rather your line, isn’t it? You ought to look up these two cases.”
Hewitt laughed. “All right,” he said; “I’ll begin this minute if you’ll commission me.”
“Well,” Merrick replied slowly, “of course I can’t do that without authority from headquarters. But if you’ve nothing to do for an hour or so there is no harm in putting on your considering cap, is there? Although, of course, there’s nothing to go upon as yet. But you might listen to what Mackrie and Brasyer have to say. Of course I don’t know, but as it’s a £Io,000 question probably it might pay you, and if you do see your way to anything I’d wire and get you Commissioned at once.”
There was a tap at the door and Captain Mackrie entered. “Mr. Merrick?” he said interrogatively, looking from one to another.
“That’s myself, sir,” answered Merrick.
“I’m Captain Mackrie, of the Nicobar. You sent for me, I believe. Something wrong with the bullion I’m told, isn’t it? ”
Merrick explained matters fully. “I thought perhaps you might be able to help us, Captain Mackrie. Perhaps I have been wrongly informed as to the number of cases that should have been there?”
“No; there were forty right enough. I think though — perhaps I might be able to give you a sort of hint “— and Captain Mackrie looked hard at Hewitt.
“This is Mr. Hewitt, Captain Mackrie,” Merrick interposed. “You may speak as freely as you please before him. In fact, he’s sort of working on the business, so to speak.”
“Well,” Mackrie said, “if that’s so, speaking between ourselves, I should advise you to turn your attention to Brasyer. He was my second officer, you know, and had charge of the stuff.”
“Do you mean,” Hewitt asked, “that Mr. Brasyer might give us some useful information?”
Mackrie gave an ugly grin. “Very likely he might,” he said, “if he were fool enough. But I don’t think you’d get much out of him direct. I meant you might watch him.”
“What, do you suppose he was concerned in any way with the disappearance of this gold?”
“I should think — speaking, as I said before, in confidence and between ourselves — that it’s very likely indeed. I didn’t like his manner all through the voyage.”
“Well, he was so eternally cracking on about his responsibility, and pretending to suspect the stokers and the carpenter, and one person and another, of trying to get at the bullion cases — that that alone was almost enough to make one suspicious. He protested so much, you see. He was so conscientious and diligent himself, and all the rest of it, and everybody else was such a desperate thief, and he was so sure there would be some of that bullion missing some day that — that — well, I don’t know if I express his manner clearly, but I tell you I didn’t like it a bit. But there was something more than that. He was eternally smelling about the place, and peeping in at the steward’s pantry — which adjoins the bullion-room on one side, you know — and nosing about in the bunker on the other side. And once I actually caught him fitting keys to the padlocks — keys he’d borrowed from the carpenter’s stores. And every time his excuse was that he fancied he heard somebody else trying to get in to the gold, or something of that sort; every time I caught him below on the orlop deck that was his excuse — happened to have heard something or suspected something or somebody every time. Whether or not I succeed in conveying my impressions to you, gentlemen, I can assure you that I regarded his whole manner and actions as very suspicious throughout the voyage, and I made up my mind I wouldn’t forget it if by chance anything did turn out wrong. Well, it has, and now I’ve told you what I’ve observed. It’s for you to see if it will lead you anywhere.”
“Just so,” Hewitt answered. “But let me fully understand. Captain Mackrie. You say that Mr. Brasyer had charge of the bullion-room, but that he was trying keys on it from the carpenter’s stores. Where were the legitimate keys then?”
“In my cabin. They were only handed out when I knew what they were wanted for. There was a Chubb’s lock between the two padlocks, but a duplicate wouldn’t have been hard for Brasyer to get. He could easily have taken a wax impression of my key when he used it at the port where we took the bullion aboard.”
“Well, and suppose he had taken these boxes, where do you think he would keep them?”
Mackrie shrugged his shoulders and smiled. “Impossible to say,” he replied. “He might have hidden ’em somewhere on board, though I don’t think that’s likely. He’d have had a deuce of a job to land them at Plymouth, and would have had to leave them somewhere while he came on to London. Bullion is always landed at Plymouth, you know, and if any were found to be missing, then the ship would be overhauled at once, every inch of her; so that he’d have to get his plunder ashore somehow before the rest of the gold was unloaded — almost impossible. Of course, if he’s done that it’s somewhere below there now, but that isn’t likely. He’d be much more likely to have ‘ dumped ‘ it — dropped it overboard at some well-known spot in a foreign port, where he could go later on and get it. So that you’ve a deal of scope for search, you see. Anywhere under water from here to Yokohama; “and Captain Mackrie laughed.
Soon afterward he left, and as he was leaving a man knocked at the cabin door and looked in to say that Mr. Brasyer was on board. “You’ll be able to have a go at him now,” said the captain. “Good-day.”
“There’s the steward of the Nicobar there too, sir,” said the man after the captain had gone, “and the carpenter.”
“Very well, we’ll see Mr. Brasyer first,” said Merrick, and the man vanished. “It seems to have got about a bit,” Merrick went on to Hewitt. “I only sent for Brasyer, but as these others have come, perhaps they’ve got something to tell us.”
Brasyer made his appearance, overflowing with information. He required little assurance to encourage him to speak openly before Hewitt, and he said again all he had so often said before on board the Nicobar. The bullion-room was a mere tin box, the whole thing was as easy to get at as anything could be, he didn’t wonder in the least at the loss — he had prophesied it all along.
The men whose movements should be carefully watched, he said, were the captain and the steward. “Nobody ever heard of a captain and a steward being so thick together before,” he said. “The steward’s pantry was next against the bullion-room, you know, with nothing but that wretched bit of three-eighths boiler plate between. You wouldn’t often expect to find the captain down in the steward’s pantry, would you, thick as they might be. Well, that’s where I used to find him, time and again. And the steward kept boiler-makers’ tools there!
That I can swear to. And he’s been a boiler-maker, so that, likely as not, he could open a joint somewhere and patch it up again neatly so that it wouldn’t be noticed. He was always messing about down there in his pantry, and once I distinctly heard knocking there, and when I went down to see, whom should I meet? Why, the skipper, coming away from the place himself, and he bully-ragged me for being there and sent me on deck. But before that he bully-ragged me because I had found out that there were other keys knocking about the place that fitted the padlocks on the bullion-room door. Why should he slang and threaten me for looking after these things and keeping my eye on the bullion-room, as was my duty? But that was the very thing that he didn’t like. It was enough for him to see me anxious about the gold to make him furious. Of course his character for meanness and greed is known all through the company’s service — he’ll do anything to make a bit.”
“But have you any positive idea as to what has become of the gold?”
“Well,” Brasyer replied, with a rather knowing air, “I don’t think they’ve dumped it.”
“Do you mean you think it’s still in the vessel — hidden somewhere?”
“No, I don’t. I believe the captain and the steward took it ashore, one case each, when we came off in the boats.”
“But wouldn’t that be noticed?”
“It needn’t be, on a black night like that. You see, the parcels are not so big — look at them, a foot by a foot and a half by six inches or so, roughly. Easily slipped under a big coat or covered up with anything. Of course they’re a bit heavy — eighty or ninety pounds apiece altogether — but that’s not much for a strong man to carry — especially in such a handy parcel, on a black night, with no end of confusion on. Now you just look here — I’ll tell you something. The skipper went ashore last in a boat that was sent out by the coasting steamer that ran into us. That ship’s put into dock for repairs and her crew are mostly having an easy time ashore. Now I haven’t been asleep this last day or two, and I had a sort of notion there might be some game of this sort on, because when I left the ship that night I thought we might save a little at least of the stuff, but the skipper wouldn’t let me go near the bullion-room, and that seemed odd. So I got hold of one of the boat’s crew that fetched the skipper ashore, and questioned him quietly — pumped him, you know — and he assures me that the skipper did have a rather small, heavy sort of parcel with him. What do you think of that? Of course, in the circumstances, the man couldn’t remember any very distinct particulars, but he thought it was a sort of square wooden case about the size I’ve mentioned. But there’s something more.” Brasyer lifted his forefinger and then brought it down on the table before him — “something more. I’ve made inquiries at the railway station and I find that two heavy parcels were sent off yesterday to London — deal boxes wrapped in brown paper, of just about the right size. And the paper got torn before the things were sent off, and the clerk could see that the boxes inside were fastened with hoop-iron — like those! “and the second officer pointed triumphantly to the boxes piled at one side of the cabin.
“Well done! “said Hewitt. “You’re quite a smart detective. Did you find out who brought the parcels, and who they were addressed to?”
“No, I couldn’t get quite as far as that. Of course the clerk didn’t know the names of the senders, and not knowing me, wouldn’t tell me exactly where the parcels were going. But I got quite chummy with him after a bit, and I’m going to meet him presently — he has the afternoon off, and we’re going for a stroll. I’ll find something more, I’ll bet you! ”
“Certainly,” replied Hewitt, “find all you can — it may be very important. If you get any valuable information you’ll let us know at once, of course. Anything else, now?”
“No, I don’t think so; but I think what I’ve told you is pretty well enough for the present, eh? I’ll let you know some more soon.”
Brasyer went, and Norton, the steward of the old ship, was brought into the cabin. He was a sharp-eyed, rather cadaverous-looking man, and he spoke with sepulchral hollowness. He had heard, he said, that there was something wrong with the chests of bullion, and came on board to give any information he could. It wasn’t much, he went on to say, but the smallest thing might help. If he might speak strictly confidentially he would suggest that observation be kept on Wickens, the carpenter. He (Norton) didn’t want to be uncharitable, but his pantry happened to be next the bullion-room, and he had heard Wickens at work for a very long time just below — on the under side of the floor of the bullion-room, it seemed to him, although, of course, he might have been mistaken. Still, it was very odd that the carpenter always seemed to have a job just at that spot. More, it had been said — and he (Norton) believed it to be true — that Wickens, the carpenter, had in his possession, and kept among his stores, keys that fitted the padlocks on the bullion-room door. That, it seemed to him, was a very suspicious circumstance. He didn’t know anything more definite, but offered his ideas for what they were worth, and if his suspicions proved unfounded nobody would be more pleased than himself. But — but — and the steward shook his head doubtfully.
“Thank you, Mr. Norton,” said Merrick, with a twinkle in his eye; “we won’t forget what you say. Of course, if the stuff is found in consequence of any of your information, you won’t lose by it.”
The steward said he hoped not, and he wouldn’t fail to keep his eye on the carpenter. He had noticed Wickens was in the tug, and he trusted that if they were going to question him they would do it cautiously, so as not to put him on his guard. Merrick promised they would.
“By the bye, Mr. Norton,” asked Hewitt, “supposing your suspicions to be justified, what do you suppose the carpenter would do with the bullion?”
“Well, sir,” replied Norton, “I don’t think he’d keep it on the ship. He’d probably dump it somewhere.”
The steward left, and Merrick lay back in his chair and guffawed aloud. “This grows farcical,” he said, “simply farcical. What a happy family they must have been aboard the Nicobar! And now here’s the captain watching the second officer, and the second officer watching the captain and the steward, and the steward watching the carpenter! It’s immense. And now we’re going to see the carpenter. Wonder whom he suspects?”
Hewitt said nothing, but his eyes twinkled with intense merriment, and presently the carpenter was brought into the cabin.
“Good-day to you, gentlemen,” said the carpenter in a soft and deferential voice, looking from one to the other. “Might I ‘ave the honour of addressin’ the salvage gentlemen?”
“That’s right,” Merrick answered, motioning him to a seat. “This is the salvage shop, Mr. Wickens. What can we do for you?”
The carpenter coughed gently behind his hand. “I took the liberty of comin’, gentlemen, consekins o’ ‘earin’ as there was some bullion missin’. P’raps I’m wrong.”
“Not at all. We haven’t found as much as we expected, and I suppose by this time nearly everybody knows it. There are two cases wanting. You can’t tell us where they are, I suppose?”
“Well, sir, as to that — no. I fear I can’t exactly go as far as that. But if I am able to give vallable information as may lead to recovery of same, I presoom I may without offence look for some reasonable small recognition of my services? ”
“Oh, yes,” answered Merrick, “that’ll be all right, I promise you. The company will do the handsome thing, of course, and no doubt so will the underwriters.”
“Presoomin’ I may take that as a promise — among gentlemen “— this with an emphasis — “I’m willing to tell something.”
“It’s a promise, at any rate as far as the company’s concerned,” returned Merrick. “I’ll see it’s made worth your while — of course, providing it leads to anything.”
“Purvidin’ that, sir, o’ course. Well, gentlemen, my story ain’t a long one. All I’ve to say was what I ‘card on board, just before she went down. The passengers was off, and the crew was gettin’ into the other boats when the skipper turns to the steward an’ speaks to him quiet-like, not observin’, gentlemen, as I was agin ‘is elbow, so for to say. ‘ ‘Ere, Norton,’ ‘e sez, or words to that effeck, ‘ why shouldn’t we try gettin’ them things ashore with us — you know, the cases — eh? I’ve a notion we’re pretty close inshore,’ ‘e sez, ‘ and there’s nothink of a sea now. You take one, anyway, and I’ll try the other,’ ‘e says, ‘ but don’t make a flourish.’ Then he sez, louder, ‘cos o’ the steward goin’ off, ‘ They’re the likeliest stuff, and at worst we can but drop ’em. But look sharp,’ ‘e says. So then I gets into the nearest boat, and that’s all I ‘eard.”
“That was all?” asked Hewitt, watching the man’s face sharply.
“All?” the carpenter answered with some surprise. “Yes, that was all; but I think it’s pretty well enough, don’t you? It’s plain enough what was meant — him and the steward was to take two cases, one apiece, on the quiet, and they was the likeliest stuff aboard, as he said himself. And now there’s two cases o’ bullion missin’. Ain’t that enough?”
The carpenter was not satisfied till an exact note had been made of the captain’s words. Then after Merrick’s promise on behalf of the company had been renewed, Wickens took himself off.
“Well,” said Merrick, grinning across the table at Hewitt, “this is a queer go, isn’t it? What that man says makes the skipper’s case look pretty fishy, doesn’t it? What he says, and what Brasyer says, taken together, makes a pretty strong case — I should say makes the thing a certainty. But what a business! It’s likely to be a bit serious for some one, but it’s a rare joke in a way. Wonder if Brasyer will find out anything more? Pity the skipper and steward didn’t agree as to whom they should pretend to suspect. That’s a mistake on their part.”
“Not at all,” Hewitt replied. “If they are conspiring, and know what they’re about, they will avoid seeming to be both in a tale. The bullion is in bars, I understand?”
“Yes, five bars in each case; weight, I believe, sixteen pounds to a bar.”
“Let me see,” Hewitt went on, as he looked at his watch; “it is now nearly two o’clock. I must think over these things if I am to do anything in the case. In the meantime, if it could be managed, I should like enormously to have a turn under water in a diving-dress. I have always had a curiosity to see under the sea. Could it be managed now?”
“Well,” Merrick responded, “there’s not much fun in it, I can assure you; and it’s none the pleasanter in this weather. You’d better have a try later in the year if you really want to — unless you think you can learn anything about this business by smelling about on the Nicobar down below?”
Hewitt raised his eyebrows and pursed his lips.
“I might spot something,” he said; “one never knows. And if I do anything in a case I always make it a rule to see and hear everything that can possibly be seen or heard, important or not. Clues lie where least expected. But beyond that, probably I may never have another chance of a little experience in a diving-dress. So if it can be managed I’d be glad.”
“Very well, you shall go, if you say so. And since it’s your first venture, I’ll come down with you myself. The men are all ashore, I think, or most of them. Come along.”
Hewitt was put in woollens and then in indiarubbers. A leaden-soled boot of twenty pounds’ weight was strapped on each foot, and weights were hung on his back and chest.
“That’s the dress that Gullen usually has,” Merrick remarked. “He’s a very smart fellow; we usually send him first to make measurements and so on. An excellent man, but a bit too fond of the diver’s lotion.”
“What’s that?” asked Hewitt.
“Oh, you shall try some if you like, afterwards. It’s a bit too heavy for me; rum and gin mixed, I think.”
A red nightcap was placed on Martin Hewitt’s head, and after that a copper helmet, secured by a short turn in the segmental screw joint at the neck. In the end he felt a vast difficulty in moving at all. Merrick had been meantime invested with a similar rig-out, and then each was provided with a communication cord and an incandescent electric lamp. Finally, the front window was screwed on each helmet, and all was ready.
Merrick went first over the ladder at the side, and Hewitt with much difficulty followed. As the water closed over his head, his sensations altered considerably. There was less weight to carry; his arms in particular felt light, though slow in motion. Down, down they went slowly, and all round about it was fairly light, but once on the sunken vessel and among the lower decks, the electric lamps were necessary enough. Once or twice Merrick spoke, laying his helmet against Hewitt’s for the purpose, and instructing him to keep his air-pipe, life-line, and lamp connection from fouling something at every step. Here and there shadowy swimming shapes came out of the gloom, attracted by their lamps, to dart into obscurity again with a twist of the tail. The fishes were exploring the Nicobar. The hatchway of the lower deck was open, and down this they passed to the orlop deck. A little way along this they came to a door standing open, with a broken lock hanging to it. It was the door of the bullion-room, which had been forced by the divers in the morning.
Merrick indicated by signs how the cases had been found piled on the floor. One of the sides of the room of thin steel was torn and thrust in the length of its whole upper half, and when they backed out of the room and passed the open door they stood in the great breach made by the bow of the strange coasting vessel. Steel, iron, wood, and everything stood in rents and splinters, and through the great gap they looked out into the immeasurable ocean. Hewitt put up his hand and felt the edge of the bullion-room partition where it had been torn. It was just such a tear as might have been made in cardboard.
They regained the upper deck, and Hewitt, placing his helmet against his companion’s, told him that he meant to have a short walk on the ocean bed. He took to the ladder again, where it lay over the side, and Merrick followed him.
The bottom was of that tough, slimy sort of clay-rock that is found in many places about our coasts, and was dotted here and there with lumps of harder rock and clumps of curious weed. The two divers turned at the bottom of the ladder, walked a few steps, and looked up at the great hole in the Nicobar’s side. Seen from here it was a fearful chasm, laying open hold, orlop, and lower deck.
Hewitt turned away, and began walking about. Once or twice he stood and looked thoughtfully at the ground he stood on, which was fairly flat. He turned over with his foot a whitish, clean-looking stone about as large as a loaf. Then he wandered on slowly, once or twice stopping to examine the rock beneath him, and presently stooped to look at another stone nearly as large as the other, weedy on one side only, standing on the edge of a cavity in the claystone. He pushed the stone into the hole, which it filled, and then he stood up.
Merrick put his helmet against Hewitt’s, and shouted —
“Satisfied now? Seen enough of the bottom?”
“In a moment! “Hewitt shouted back; and he straightway began striding out in the direction of the ship. Arrived at the bows, he turned back to the point he started from, striding off again from there to the white stone he had kicked over, and from there to the vessel’s side again. Merrick watched him in intense amazement, and hurried, as well as he might, after the light of Hewitt’s lamp. Arrived for the second time at the bows of the ship, Hewitt turned and made his way along the side to the ladder, and forthwith ascended, followed by Merrick. There was no halt at the deck this time, and the two made there way up and up into the lighter water above, and so to the world of air.
On the tug, as the men were unscrewing them from there waterproof prisons, Merrick asked Hewitt —
“Will you try the ‘ lotion ‘ now?”
“No,” Hewitt replied, “I won’t go quite so far as that. But I will have a little whisky, if you’ve any in the cabin. And give me a pencil and a piece of paper.”
These things were brought, and on the paper Martin Hewitt immediately wrote a few figures and kept it in his hand.
“I might easily forget those figures,” he observed.
Merrick wondered, but said nothing.
Once more comfortably in the cabin, and clad in his usual garments, Hewitt asked if Merrick could produce a chart of the parts thereabout.
“Here you are,” was the reply, “coast and all. Big enough, isn’t it? I’ve already marked the position of the wreck on it in pencil. She lies pointing north by east as nearly exact as anything.”
“As you’ve begun it,” said Hewitt, “I shall take the liberty of making a few more pencil marks on this.” And with that he spread out the crumpled note of figures, and began much ciphering and measuring. Presently he marked certain points on a spare piece of paper, and drew through them two lines forming an angle. This angle he transferred to the chart, and, placing a ruler over one leg of the angle, lengthened it out till it met the coast-line.
“There we are,” he said musingly. “And the nearest village to that is Lostella — indeed, the only coast village in that neighbourhood.” He rose. “Bring me the sharpest-eyed person on board,” he said; “that is, if he were here all day yesterday.”
“But what’s up? What’s all this mathematical business over? Going to find that bullion by rule of three?”
Hewitt laughed. “Yes, perhaps,” he said, “but Where’s your sharp look-out? I want somebody who can tell me everything that was visible from the deck of this tug all day yesterday.”
“Well, really I believe the very sharpest chap is the boy. He’s most annoyingly observant sometimes. I’ll send for him.”
He came — a bright, snub-nosed, impudent-looking young ruffian.
“See here, my boy,” said Merrick, “polish up your wits and tell this gentleman what he asks.”
“Yesterday,” said Hewitt, “no doubt you saw various pieces of wreckage floating about?”
“What were they?”
“Hatch-gratings mostly — nothin’ much else. There’s some knockin’ about now.”
“I saw them. Now, remember. Did you set a hatch-grating floating yesterday that was different from the others? A painted one, for instance — those out there now are not painted, you know.”
“Yessir, I see a little white ’un painted, bobbin’ about away beyond the foremast of the Nicobar.”
“You’re sure of that?”
“Certain sure, sir — it was the only painted thing floatin’. And to-day it’s washed away somewheres.”
“So I noticed. You’re a smart lad. Here’s a shilling for you — keep your eyes open and perhaps you’ll find a good many more shillings before you’re an old man. That’s all.”
The boy disappeared, and Hewitt turned to Merrick and said, “I think you may as well send that wire you spoke of. If I get the commission I think I may recover that bullion. It may take some little time, or, on the other hand, it may not. If you’ll write the telegram at once, I’ll go in the same boat as the messenger. I’m going to take a walk down to Lostella now — it’s only two or three miles along the coast, but it will soon be getting dark.”
“But what sort of a clue have you got? I didn’t ”
“Never mind,” replied Hewitt, with a chuckle. “Officially, you know, I’ve no right to a clue just yet — I’m not commissioned. When I am I’ll tell you everything.”
Hewitt was scarcely ashore when he was seized by the excited Brasyer. “Here you are,” he said. “I was coming aboard the tug again. I’ve got more news. You remember I said I was going out with that railway clerk this afternoon, and meant pumping him? Well, I’ve done it and rushed away — don’t know what he’ll think’s up. As we were going along we saw Norton, the steward, on the other side of the way, and the clerk recognised him as one of the men who brought the cases to be sent off; the other was the skipper, I’ve no doubt, from his description. I played him artfully, you know, and then he let out that both the cases were addressed to Mackrie at his address in London! He looked up the entry, he said, after I left when I first questioned him, feeling curious. That’s about enough, I think, eh? I’m off to London now — I believe Mackrie’s going to-night. I’ll have him! Keep it dark! “And the zealous second officer
dashed off without waiting for a reply. Hewitt looked after him with an amused smile, and turned off towards Lostella.
It was about eleven the next morning when Merrick received the following note, brought by a boatman:—
“Dear Merrick, — Am I commissioned? If not, don’t trouble, but if I am, be just outside Lostella, at the turning before you come to the Smack Inn, at two o’clock. Bring with you a light cart, a policeman — or two perhaps will be better — and a man with a spade. There will probably be a little cabbage-digging. Are you fond of the sport? — Yours, Martin Hewitt.
“P. S. — Keep all your men aboard; bring the spade artist from the town.”
Merrick was off in a boat at once. His principals had replied to his telegram after Hewitt’s departure the day before, giving him a free hand to do whatever seemed best. With some little difficulty he got the policemen, and with none at all he got a light cart and a jobbing man with a spade. Together they drove off to the meeting-place.
It was before the time, but Martin Hewitt was there, waiting. “You’re quick,” he said, “but the sooner the better. I gave you the earliest appointment I thought you could keep, considering what you had to do.”
“Have you got the stuff, then?” Merrick asked anxiously.
“No, not exactly yet. But I’ve got this,” and Hewitt held up the point of his walking-stick. Protruding half an inch or so from it was the sharp end of a small gimlet, and in the groove thereof was a little white wood, such as commonly remains after a gimlet has been used.
“Why, what’s that?”
“Never mind. Let us move along — I’ll walk. I think we’re about at the end of the job — it’s been a fairly lucky one, and quite simple. But I’ll explain after.”
Just beyond the Smack Inn, Hewitt halted the cart, and all got down. They looped the horse’s reins round a hedge-stake and proceeded the small remaining distance on foot, with the policemen behind, to avoid a premature scare. They turned up a lane behind a few small and rather dirty cottages facing the sea, each with its patch of kitchen garden behind. Hewitt led the way to the second garden, pushed open the small wicket gate and walked boldly in, followed by the others.
Cabbages covered most of the patch, and seemed pretty healthy in their situation, with the exception of half a dozen — singularly enough, all together in a group. These were drooping, yellow, and wilted, and towards these Hewitt straightway walked. “Dig up those wilted cabbages,” he said to the jobbing man. “They’re really useless now. You’ll probably find something else six inches down or so.”
The man struck his spade into the soft earth, wherein it stopped suddenly with a thud. But at this moment a gaunt, slatternly woman, with a black eye, a handkerchief over her head, and her skirt pinned up in front, observing the invasion from the back door of the cottage, rushed out like a maniac and attacked the party valiantly with a broom. She upset the jobbing man over his spade, knocked off one policeman’s helmet, lunged into the other’s face with her broom, and was making her second attempt to hit Hewitt (who had dodged), when Merrick caught her firmly by the elbows from behind, pressed them together, and held her. She screamed, and people came from other cottages and looked on. “Peter! Peter! “the woman screamed, “come ‘ee, come’ee here! Davey! They’re come! ”
A grimy child came to the cottage door, and seeing the woman thus held, and strangers in the garden, set up a piteous howl. Meantime the digger had uncovered two wooden boxes, each eighteen inches long or so, bound with hoop-iron and sealed. One had been torn partly open at the top, and the broken wood roughly replaced. When this was lifted, bars of yellow metal were visible within.
The woman still screamed vehemently, and struggled. The grimy child retreated, and then there appeared at the door, staggering hazily and rubbing his eyes, a shaggy, unkempt man, in shirt and trousers. He looked stupidly at the scene before him, and his jaw dropped.
“Take that man,” cried Hewitt. “He’s one! ” And the policeman promptly took him, so that he had handcuffs on his wrists before he had collected his faculties sufficiently to begin swearing.
Hewitt and the other policeman entered the cottage. In the lower two rooms there was nobody. They climbed the few narrow stairs, and m the front room above they found another man, younger, and fast asleep. “He’s the other,” said Hewitt. “Take him.” And this one was handcuffed before he woke.
Then the recovered gold was put into the cart, and with the help of the village constable, who brought his own handcuffs for the benefit and adornment of the lady with the broom, such a procession marched out of Lostella as had never been dreamed of by the oldest inhabitant in his worst nightmare, nor recorded in the whole history of Cornwall.
“Now,” said Hewitt, turning to Merrick, “we must have that fellow of yours — what’s his name — Gullen, isn’t it? The one that went down to measure the hole in the ship. You’ve kept him aboard, of course?”
“What, Gullen?” exclaimed Merrick. “Gullen? Well, as a matter of fact he went ashore last night and hasn’t come back. But you don’t mean to say ”
“I do” replied Hewitt. “And now you’ve lost him.”
“But tell me all about it now we’ve a little time to ourselves,” asked Merrick an hour or two later, as they sat and smoked in the after-cabin of the salvage tug. “We’ve got the stuff, thanks to you, but I don’t in the least see how they got it, nor how you found it out.”
“Well, there didn’t seem to be a great deal either way in the tales told by the men from the Nicobar. They cancelled one another out, so to speak, though it seemed likely that there might be something in them in one or two respects. Brasyer, I could see, tried to prove too much. If the captain and the steward were conspiring to rob the bullion-room, why should the steward trouble to cut through the boiler-plate walls when the captain kept the keys in his cabin? And if the captain had been stealing the bullion, why should he stop at two cases when he had all the voyage to operate in and forty cases to help himself to? Of course the evidence of the carpenter gave some colour to the theory, but I think I can imagine a very reasonable explanation of that.
“You told me, of course, that you were down with the men yourself when they opened the bullion-room door and got out the cases, so that there could be no suspicion of them. But at the same time you told me that the breach in the Nicobar’s side had laid open the bullion-room partition, and that you might more easily have got the cases out that way. You told me, of course, that the cases couldn’t have fallen out that way because of the list of the vessel, the position of the rent in the boiler-plate, and so on. But I reflected that the day before a diver had been down alone — in fact, that his business had been with the very hole that extended partly to the bullion-room: he had to measure it. That diver might easily have got at the cases through the breach. But then, as you told me, a diver can’t bring things up from below unobserved. This diver would know this, and might therefore hide the booty below. So that I made up my mind to have a look under water before I jumped to any conclusion.
“I didn’t think it likely that he had hidden the cases, mind you. Because he would have had to dive again to get them, and would have been just as awkwardly placed in fetching them to the light of day then as ever. Besides, he couldn’t come diving here again in the company’s dress without some explanation. So what more likely than that he would make some ingenious arrangement with an accomplice, whereby he might make the gold in some way accessible to him?
“We went under water. I kept my eyes open, and observed, among other things, that the vessel was one of those well-kept ‘ swell ‘ ones on which all the hatch gratings and so on are in plain oak or teak, kept holystoned. This (with the other things) I put by in my mind in case it should be useful. When we went over the side and looked at the great gap, I saw that it would have been quite easy to get at the broken bullion-room partition from outside.”
“Yes,” remarked Merrick, “it would be no trouble at all. The ladder goes down just by the side of the breach, and any one descending by that might just step off at one side on to the jagged plating at the level of the after orlop, and reach over into the bullion safe.”
“Just so. Well, next I turned my attention to the sea-bed, which I was extremely pleased to see was of soft, slimy claystone. I walked about a little, getting farther and farther away from the vessel as I went, till I came across that clean stone which I turned over with my foot. Do you remember?”
“Well, that was noticeable. It was the only clean, bare stone to be seen. Every other was covered with a green growth, and to most clumps of weed clung. The obvious explanation of this was that the stone was a new-comer — lately brought from dry land — from the shingle on the sea-shore, probably, since it was washed so clean. Such a stone could not have come a mile out to sea by itself. Somebody had brought it in a boat and thrown it over, and whoever did it didn’t take all that trouble for nothing. Then its shape told a tale; it was something of the form, rather exaggerated, of a loaf — the sort that is called a ‘ cottage ‘ — the most convenient possible shape for attaching to a line and lowering. But the line had gone, so somebody must have been down there to detach it. Also it wasn’t unreasonable to suppose that there might have been a hook on the end of that line. This, then, was a theory. Your man had gone down alone to take his measurement, had stepped into the broken side, as you have explained he could, reached into the bullion-room, and lifted the two cases. Probably he unfastened the cord, and brought them out one at a time for convenience in carrying. Then he carried the cases, one at a time, as I have said, over to that white stone which lay there sunk with the hook and line attached by previous arrangement with some confederate. He detached the rope from the stone — it was probably fixed by an attached piece of cord, tightened round the stone with what you call a timber-hitch, easily loosened — replaced the cord round the two cases, passed the hook under the cord, and left it to be pulled up from above. But then it could not have been pulled up there in broad daylight, under your very noses. The confederates would wait till night. That meant that the other end of the rope was attached to some floating object, so that it might be readily recovered. The whole arrangement was set one night to be carried away the next.”
“But why didn’t Gullen take more than two cases?”
“He couldn’t afford to waste the time, in the first place. Each case removed meant another journey to and from the vessel, and you were waiting above for his measurements. Then he was probably doubtful as to weight. Too much at once wouldn’t easily be drawn up, and might upset a small boat.
“Well, so much for the white stone. But there was more; close by the stone I noticed (although I think you didn’t) a mark in the claystone. It was a triangular depression or pit, sharp at the bottom — just the hole that would be made by the sharp impact of the square corner of a heavy box, if shod with iron, as the bullion cases are. This was one important thing. It seemed to indicate that the boxes had not been lifted directly up from the seabed, but had been dragged sideways — at all events at first — so that a sharp corner had turned over and dug into the claystone! I walked a little farther and found more indications — slight scratches, small stones displaced, and so on, that convinced me of this, and also pointed out the direction in which the cases had been dragged. I followed the direction, and presently arrived at another stone, rather smaller than the clean one. The cases had evidently caught against this, and it had been displaced by their momentum, and perhaps by a possible wrench from above. The green growth covered the part which had been exposed to the water, and the rest of the stone fitted the hole beside it, from which it had been pulled. Clearly these things were done recently, or the sea would have wiped out all the traces in the soft claystone. The rest of what I did under water of course you understood.”
“I suppose so: you took the bearings of the two stones in relation to the ship by pacing the distances.”
“That is so. I kept the figures in my head till I could make a note of them, as you saw, on paper. The rest was mere calculation. What I judged had happened was this. Gullen had arranged with somebody, identity unknown, but certainly somebody with a boat at his disposal, to lay the line, and take it up the following night. Now anything larger than a rowing boat could not have got up quite so close to you in the night (although your tug was at the other end of the wreck) without a risk of being seen. But no rowing boat could have dragged those cases forcibly along the bottom; they would act as an anchor to it. Therefore this was what had happened. The thieves had come in a large boat — a fishing smack, lugger, or something of that sort — with a small boat in tow. The sailing boat had lain to at a convenient distance, in the direction in which it was afterwards to go, so as to save time if observed, and a man had put off quietly in the small boat to pick up the float, whatever it was. There must have been a lot of slack line on this for the purpose, as also for the purpose of allowing the float to drift about fairly freely, and not attract attention by remaining in one place. The man pulled off to the sailing boat, and took the float and line aboard. Then the sailing boat swung off in the direction of home, and the line was hauled in with the plunder at the end of it.”
“One would think you had seen it all — or done it,” Merrick remarked, with a laugh.
“Nothing else could have happened, you see. That chain of events is the only one that will explain the circumstances. A rapid grasp of the whole circumstances and a perfect appreciation of each is more than half the battle in such work as this. Well, you know I got the exact bearings of the wreck on the chart, worked out from that the lay of the two stones with the scratch marks between, and then it was obvious that a straight line drawn through these and carried ahead would indicate, approximately, at any rate, the direction the thieves’ vessel had taken. The line fell on the coast close by the village of Lostella — indeed that was the only village for some few miles either way. The indication was not certain, but it was likely, and the only one available, therefore it must be followed up.”
“And what about the painted hatch? How did you guess that?”
“Well, I saw there were hatch-gratings belonging to the Nicobar floating about, and it seemed probable that the thieves would use for a float something similar to the other wreckage in the vicinity, so as not to attract attention. Nothing would be more likely than a hatch-grating. But then, in small vessels, such as fishing-luggers and so on, fittings are almost always painted — they can’t afford to be such holystoning swells as those on the Nicobar. So I judged the grating might be painted, and this would possibly have been noticed by some sharp person. I made the shot, and hit. The boy remembered the white grating, which had gone — ‘ washed away,’ as he thought. That was useful to me, as you shall see.
“I made off toward Lostella. The tide was low and it was getting dusk when I arrived. A number of boats and smacks were lying anchored on the beach, but there were few people to be seen. I began looking out for smacks with white-painted fittings in them. There are not so many of these among fishing vessels — brown or red is more likely, or sheer colourless dirt over paint unrecognisable. There were only two that I saw last night. The first might have been the one I wanted, but there was nothing to show it. The second was the one. She was half-decked and had a small white-painted hatch. I shifted the hatch and found a long line, attached to the grating at one end and carrying a hook at the other! They had neglected to unfasten their apparatus — perhaps had an idea that there might be a chance of using it again in a few days. I went to the transom and read the inscription, ‘ Rebecca. Peter and David Garthew, Lostella.’ Then my business was to find the Garthews.
“I wandered about the village for some little time, and presently got hold of a boy. I made a simple excuse for asking about the Garthews — wanted to go for a sail to-morrow. The boy, with many grins, confided to me that both of the Garthews were ‘ on the booze.’ I should find them at the Smack Inn, where they had been all day, drunk as fiddlers. This seemed a likely sort of thing after the haul they had made. I went to the Smack Inn, determined to claim old friendship with the Garthews, although I didn’t know Peter from David. There they were — one sleepy drunk, and the other loving and crying drunk. I got as friendly as possible with them under the circumstances, and at closing time stood another gallon of beer and carried it home for them, while they carried each other. I took cafe to have a good look round in the cottage. I even helped Peter’s ‘ old woman ‘ — the lady with the broom — to carry them up to bed. But nowhere could I see anything that looked like a bullion-case or a hiding-place for one. So I came away, determined to renew my acquaintance in the morning, and to carry it on as long as might be necessary; also to look at the garden in the daylight for signs of burying. With that view I fixed that little gimlet in my walking-stick, as you saw.
“This morning I was at Lostella before ten, and took a look at the Garthews’ cabbages. It seemed odd that half a dozen, all in a clump together, looked withered and limp, as though they had been dug up hastily, the roots broken, perhaps, and then replanted. And altogether these particular cabbages had a dissipated, leaning-different-ways look, as though they had been on the loose with the Garthews. So, seeing a grubby child near the back door of the cottage, I went towards him, walking rather unsteadily, so as, if I were observed, to favour the delusion that I was not yet quite got over last night’s diversions. ‘ Hullo, my b-boy,’ I said, ‘hullo, li’l b-boy, look here,’ and I plunged my hand into my trousers’ pocket and brought it out full of small change. Then, making a great business of selecting him a penny, I managed to spill it all over the dissipated cabbages. It was easy then, in stooping to pick up the change, to lean heavily on my stick and drive it through the loose earth. As I had expected, there was a box below. So I gouged away with my walking-stick while I collected my coppers, and finally swaggered off, after a few civil words with the ‘ old woman,’ carrying with me evident proof that it was white wood recently buried there. The rest you saw for yourself. I think you and I may congratulate each other on having dodged that broom. It hit all the others.”
“What I’m wild about,” said Merrick, “is having let that scoundrel Gullen get off. He’s an artful chap, without a doubt. He saw us go over the side, you know, and after you had gone he came into the cabin for some instructions. Your pencil notes and the chart were on the table, and no doubt he put two and two together (which was more than I could, not knowing what had happened), and concluded to make himself safe for a bit. He had no leave that night — he just pulled away on the quiet. Why didn’t you give me the tip to keep him?”
“That wouldn’t have done. In the first place, there was no legal evidence to warrant his arrest, and ordering him to keep aboard would have aroused his suspicions. I didn’t know at the time how many days, or weeks, it would take me to find the bullion, if I ever found it, and in that time Gullen might have communicated in some way with his accomplices, and so spoilt the whole thing. Yes, certainly he seems to have been fairly smart in his way. He knew he would probably be sent down first, as usual, alone to make measurements, and conceived his plan and made his arrangements forthwith.”
“But now what I want to know is what about
all those Nicobar people watching and suspecting
one another? More especially what about the cases
the captain and the steward are said to have fetched
Hewitt laughed. “Well,” he said, “as to that, the presence of the bullion seems to have bred all sorts of mutual suspicion on board the ship. Brasyer was over-fussy, and his continual chatter started it probably, so that it spread like an infection. As to the captain and the steward, of course I don’t know anything but that their rescued cases were bullion cases. Probably they were doing a little private trading — it’s generally the case when captain and steward seem unduly friendly for their relative positions — and perhaps the cases contained something specially valuable: vases or bronzes from Japan, for instance; possibly the most valuable things of the size they had aboard. Then, if they had insured their things. Captain Mackrie (who has the reputation of a sharp and not very scrupulous man) might possibly think it rather a stroke of business to get the goods and the insurance money too, which would lead him to keep his parcels as quiet as possible. But that’s as it may be.”
The case was much as Hewitt had surmised. The zealous Brasyer, posting to London in hot haste after Mackrie, spent some days in watching him. At last the captain and the steward with their two boxes took a cab and went to Bond Street, with Brasyer in another cab behind them. The two entered a shop, the window of which was set out with rare curiosities and much old silver and gold. Brasyer could restrain himself no longer. He grabbed a passing policeman, and rushed with him into the shop. There they found the captain and the steward with two small packing cases opened before them, trying to sell — a couple of very ancient-looking Japanese bronze figures, of that curious old workmanship and varied colour of metal that in genuine examples mean nowadays high money value.
Brasyer vanished: there was too much chaff for him to live through in the British mercantile marine after this adventure. The fact was, the steward had come across the bargain, but had not sufficient spare cash to buy, so he called in the aid of the captain, and they speculated in the bronzes as partners. There was much anxious inspection of the prizes on the way home, and much discussion as to the proper price to ask. Finally, it was said, they got three hundred pounds for the pair.
Now and again Hewitt meets Merrick still. Sometimes Merrick says, “Now, I wonder after all whether or not some of those Nicobar men who were continually dodging suspiciously about that bullion-room did mean having a dash at the gold if there were a chance?” And Hewitt replies, “I wonder.”
Last updated Monday, December 22, 2014 at 10:53