"Section 14 of The Rivals of Sherlock Holmes, Vol. 2. - This is a LibriVox recording. All LibriVox recordings are in the public domain. For more information, or to volunteer, please visit: librivox DOT org"
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"The Rivals of Sherlock Holmes, Vol. 2. The Looting of the Specie-Room by Cutcliffe Hyne, Part 2."
The time the ship was in the shore gang's hands, working cargo and getting ready for the next trip, passed miserably enough. Mr. Horrocks was at the office every day, and he saw the police every day, but nothing turned up. He quite believed they would have dismissed him out of the Birmingham, or, at any rate, suspended him, if the Line had not just then happened to be short of pursers. But the Leeds man was down with typhoid, and they had to discharge the Purser from the Stockport as he had too short a way with passengers. And so it was, Mr. Horrocks went to sea again in his old berth. But he had a near shave of it. The police got something against Clayton the very day they sailed, and locked him up as being the thief, and the wretched affair bubbled over into the papers at once. They were full of it. "Robbery of £100,000" makes a good scare-heading for the contents bills, and because they had not been given the story at once when it was fresh, the newspaper men were naturally a bit vicious, and gave the boat and the Company an unpleasant time of it.
As Mr. Horrocks expressed it afterwards: "Our Mr. William Arthur, who came to see us off, was in a proper fury about it, and he as good as said that if he'd anyone else to take my place, he'd have sent me ashore then and there. 'They've made our boats fairly stink up and down England,' said the old fellow. 'They've as good as said, if we had can't transport bullion safely, we aren't fit to carry even a down-at-the-heel Polish emigrant. There's a nice advertisement for you! And I gave all those press-men a spread that cost me $2000 not three weeks ago, and this is the way they pay me back.'"
But he had another tongue-hammering before they sailed, that was worse even than their Mr. William Arthur's. Mrs. Clayton came off in the London train-tender, desolated, so she said, with grief and horror. As Mr. Horrocks put it: "You wouldn't have thought it to look at her. She'd a wonderful array of clothes on view, with the latest thing in hats on top, and jewellery of sorts wherever it would stick. I don't know whether she thought she was dressing the part, but to my mind she overdid it. However, when it came to talking, she was sound there, all along. She got me down to my room, and ranted a bit about her poor dear boy, and the disgrace that it would bring on him, and her, and their eminent lines of ancestors. But she had a note from Clayton which she'd managed somehow to smuggle out that was very much to the point."
"Dear Horrocks," the letter ran. "/t seems you've let me in for this by repeating that silly talk we had that afternoon in your room. Now, I no more stole the money than the Emperor of China did, and you know that perfectly well. But at the same time, from what the police said to-day before the magistrate, they seem sure they've got evidence that can convict me. So what you’ve just got to do, is either to find the right man, or anyway clear me. If you don’t, and if I get sent to jail, I give you my solemn word of honor I'll kill you when I get out." After which followed the statement that the writer was Mr. Horrocks' very truly, Godfrey Clayton.
"You have read what my poor darling says?" asked the lady. The Purser told her that he had, and that he would make a note of it.
"You'd better," said she, "and you'd better get him clear, or you'll have me and my two sisters pretty sharply at your heels. I can tell you. Mr. Horrocks, we aren't going to have our bread-winner taken away from us for nothing."
"Right," said Mr. Horrocks, "you may depend upon me to do my best, Mrs. Clayton, and now, if you don't want to come with us to New York, you'd better get on board the tender." So he got rid of her. "And now," thought he, "it's just my day. If anybody else wants to take it out of me, let them come. Yes, let them all come. I'm made to be trampled on."
Come they did, too. He never saw such a lot of hard-to-please passengers in all his life. It was no use saying "See your bedroom steward," or "Won't you see the head steward about that?" They knew Mr. Horrocks was in authority, and they came to the fountain head, and (as he put it) "they said straight what they wanted, and saw that they got the exact article, and no inferior substitute." He could have read the burial service smilingly over several of them.
One portly old lady wanted him to change her room. "My dear madam," said the worried man, "I'm afraid you're too late.''
"This is pleasant sort of treatment! Surely you must remember me?"
"We had the honor of bringing you out from New York in this very boat some ten days ago."
"Well, and aren't I entitled to some particle of consideration, then? All I'm asking for is the room I came over in. It isn't occupied."
"You should have told the agent ashore when you bought your ticket. You see, madam, the stewards are very pressed just now. That the room is unoccupied is nothing to do with the case. It is not prepared. And, besides, you're in an outside room now, which is in every respect better than the one you came out in, which happens to be one of our worst."
"Look here, Mr. Purser, am I going to have that room or am I not?"
"Madam, I can only repeat my former decision"
"Very well, Mr. Purser, if you choose to be awkward, we'll see if your superiors can't teach you civility."
With that she took herself off, as Mr. Horrocks thought, to have a try at the skipper, and he wished her joy of her attempt. The Captain of the Birmingham was not the sort of man who stood much interference from passengers, and he knew well how to back up his officers. But it seems she was clever enough to go direct to Mr. William Arthur, and let him have such a taste of her tongue, that presently that great man came fuming down to the saloon in a fine state.
"Why the dickens am I pestered like this, Horrocks? Don't you know the most elementary duties of a purser, or have you completely taken leave of your senses? Kindly attend to the passengers' wants instead of gossiping with questionable females from the shore in your own room. This lady is, of course, to have the stateroom she wants. It can be got ready in five minutes."
Mr. Horrocks felt that it was little trifles like these which make one enjoy life.
However even passengers can grumble themselves dry, if one only gives them time, and the great steamer got off at last, and things soon shook into place once she began dropping down the river. Mr. Horrocks had a lot of handshaking and talk to do with passengers who crossed regularly, and he made the most of these. Getting the likings of constant passengers—business men, many of them, who cross as many as five or six times a year—are counted by pursers as a regular asset, as if they leave one ship and go to another, they can often take these passengers with them, and the companies know it. And just then Mr. Horrocks was feeling that the more weight of this kind he could carry, the better it would be for a certain institution in which he was so deeply interested. There had been a look in Mr. William Arthur's eye that he did not like.
"Funny old geezer, that one you had the fuss with over her room," said the chief steward to the Purser that night before dinner, as they were going over some accounts. "Vanrenen's her name. She's got hands like a washerwoman, and yet she seems well off. Drinks champagne every meal. She came back with us last time, if you'll remember, and she brought on board enough weight of baggage in New York to sink a lifeboat. I saw the fellows staggering below with it, and told them to carry some of it off lo the baggage room. She was down on me like a fury. 'Can't you see it is marked with your Company's label, " Wanted on Voyage ?"' 'I was only thinking of your own convenience,' I told her. 'If we have a rough passage, that heavy stuff will probably take charge, and you may have a serious accident with it.' 'You mind your own business and leave me to mine,' says she. 'I'm not going to have that baggage out of my sight, and I've taken the room to myself so that I can have plenty of space for it.'"
"What was in her baggage?"
"Lead ballast I should think by the weight of it, but I don't know for certain, and as a point of fact I asked Taylor, her bedroom steward, and he didn't know either. However, she got rid of it in England, whatever it was, and she's come back flying light."
"Well," Mr. Horrocks said, "passengers were sent into this world to annoy those who are appointed to shepherd them. And now let's get to business."
There is a saying in the Navy that if your ship is in action, and a shot strikes her, and you want to be safe, your best plan is to stick your head in that first shot-hole, as it is a sure thing that a ship never gets hit again in the same place. On this principle the Purser tried to prove to himself that because the Birmingham had been looted during her last trip, she was safe this.
Last trip the specie-room was full of big, heavy boxes which were awkward to handle, and yet thieves had managed to take their toll. This time the only thing it contained was a small sealed parcel, smaller than an ordinary cigar-box. But that small parcel held a consignment of diamonds which were being taken across to a New York gem merchant, and it had an intrinsic value of something very near to that of the previous cargo of gold.
Now when they left Liverpool, Mr. Horrocks never gave these diamonds a thought; but as they cleared from Queenstown he was beginning to get anxious about them; and by the time they had got half-way across, he had worked himself to such a pitch of nervousness that he could neither eat, sleep, nor even drink as a Purser ought if he wants to be popular. A new lock had been fitted to the door of the specie-room, and he kept the key in his pocket all day long, usually with his hand on it to make sure it was there; and at night he put it into the breast pocket of his pyjamas, and fastened it with a safety-pin.
Then suddenly like a shot came to him a horrible thought suggested by some detective novel he had once read. Supposing, in spite of all his care, he was hypnotised or chloroformed, or by some other means rendered temporarily unconscious, and a wax impression squeezed from this new key just as before? Of course the idea was absurd, and at any other time he would have scouted it utterly. But just now his nerves were in rags, and the notion rode him like an incubus.
He bore it for a day. He bore it for a second day till the smoke room rallied him on his absent-mindedness and haggard looks, and said his waistcoat was beginning to hang in loose folds. And then he gave in. He sent for the chief steward to come with him as witness, and they went down to the specie-room, and he unlocked the door with the new key, and the chief steward lit the candle-lamp.
"They should be on the shelf at the far side," said the Purser.
"Well, they're not," said the chief steward.
"My God! They've been stolen too. This means ruin for me."
"Wait a bit, Mr. Horrocks, and let's look about the floor. There was a big sea running yesterday, and she's so light she rolled a good deal, and may have shot them off.''
So they set to work and hunted. But the place was as bare as Mother Hubbard's bone cupboard, and the Purser felt like going up on deck and jumping over the side.
"It's no use being too down about it," said the chief steward. "You've done your best, and I guess that is all you were paid for. But I'd like to know if there's no other way out of this coffin. That duplicate key tale is a bit too simple for my taste."
He went outside, and presently came back with a big incandescent lamp and a coil of wire which he had coupled on to the terminals of one of the electrics in the gangway.
"Now." he said, "we can see what we are doing."
The specie-room was an oblong box of steel, some ten feet by eight, fitted with wooden shelves. There was a steel deck overhead and a steel deck underfoot, and there was no gap or hole anywhere. There was not even a ventilator, and the air inside was close and hot. The plates that made the walls were flush - jointed everywhere except in one place, and there there was a plate about two feet by three, lap-jointed on to the rest. It was at the side opposite to the door, and underneath a shelf which kept it well in shadow, and Mr. Horrocks remembered noticing it when he came in with that dry old bank messenger, and got his first shock.
But even now, when he was hunting the place over inch by inch, panting and blowing as he crawled about the floor in his search, it did not give him much concern at first. The ways of shipbuilders and safe-makers are too mysterious for any layman to follow. But when for the third time he crawled round to that part of the specie-room on his new inspection, holding the incandescent lamp, and dragging the loose wire behind him, he noticed that the paint at the edge of that plate did not seem to have quite run up to the paint on the walls where they joined. There was barely enough gap to swear to, only the faintest crack, as it were. But it gave him the idea that this overlapping plate had been added after all the rest of the room was built—and painted. Still there were rivet heads in it all complete, and at any other time these would have satisfied him.
Just now, however, he was brimful of suspicion, or, if you like, of desperation; it was all creation to a tin-tack that he got professionally ruined unless he caught this second thief; and a tight place like that sharpens a man's wits.
"What's the other side of this plate?" he asked the chief steward.
"One of those mid-ship $50 rooms."
"That fat Mrs. Vanrenen's, who came back with us last trip."
"Is she in her room now?"
"I'll find her bedroom steward."
"No, don't. If the game I think of is on, he'll have a finger in it. I wonder if there's a stewardess in it too?"
"No, I'm sure there. She isn't, anyway. Mrs. V. had quarrelled with the stewardess last back trip before we dropped the pilot, and forbidden her the room. She came blustering to me about it Either the bedroom steward, Taylor, should look after her entirely, or she'd have no attendance at all. So as they all three seemed agreed over the matter, I let it stand at that. You know what passengers are. Well, I'll slip round myself and see if she is in."
She was not, so the Purser went round too, and examined the room with care. The electric light was on, and he could see it thoroughly. It was eminently unsuspicious. But then, of course, it would be—especially if anything was wrong. However, he had got an idea in his head that was too good to be thrown away in a moment. So he fetched a long tape measure, and reckoned up accurately round the blocks of cabins till he found to an inch where that lap-jointed plate would back on Mrs. Vanrenen's room.
He decided it was at the other side of the panelling which formed the side of her bed. Was there another paint crack here? No such thing. He rapped it with his knuckles; nothing wrong still. It was as ordinary a bedside panelling as there was in the ship.
"Get a hammer and chisel from the carpenter, and we'll see what there is at the other side," he said doggedly.
"Ay, ay, sir," said the chief steward, and presently brought the tools.
It was kill or cure now, and the Purser did not mince matters. The chisel ripped out great splinters of the wood, and, when it got thin enough, he beat in the rest with the hammer.
"My Great Washington! look here!" said the Purser. "Look what there is behind this woodwork!"
"Phew! It's a back door into the specie-room right enough, but how the mischief did they make it? People say these steel plates are too hard to be touched by a drill. Besides, that doesn't look like drill work."
"There's been no drill at this. This hole in the plate has been just melted out, and I'm mechanic enough to know how it's done, and that's by an oxy-hydrogen flame."
"It's what they use in magic-lanterns. But how they got their gas I don't know."
The chief steward snapped his fingers. "Then I do. It's all as clear as daylight. They have magic-lantern gas now in steel cylinders, and that's what'll have made the excellent Mrs. V.'s cabin baggage so infernally heavy."
"Yes, by Jove, and I suppose she could have taken a good lump of gold ashore inside the empty cylinders, though not all But that can wait for the present. What I want just now is that parcel of diamonds. Has she got them on her? Are they hidden in this room? Or has somebody else got them?"
"Somebody else is likeliest. Takes away evidence in case anything goes wrong."
"I think so, too. Now, who's the assistant? Mrs. Vanrenen may have melted out the manhole in the side of the specie-room, and even have slipped this false plate inside, with its sham rivets and clever paint, and clamped it on this side here with these thumb-screws. Look, aren't they beautifully made? But that's all shore work. That was brought on board in New York, finished and ready.
"What I want to know is, who fitted fresh panelling and repainted it so perfectly? That's been done by a clever carpenter, and he's on this ship."
"Taylor, the bedroom steward of this block of cabins, is the handiest man on my staff."
"Then we'll have Mr. Taylor in irons within the next five minutes," said Horrocks; and that is exactly what they did. Taylor seemed surprised, and he looked very ugly, but the Purser who, in spite of his bulk, was powerful and active, slipped the bracelets on his wrists before he could hit, and the man contented himself with saving nothing. Mr. Horrocks took the liberty of going down to the glory hole and searching his effects. A more innocent and blameless kit never existed. But borrowing a hint from his past cleverness, the Purser got his hammer and chisel again, and set to work smashing up the woodwork of the man's bunk, and there, in a series of little slots in the wood, magnificently hidden, was a collection of diamonds that made one's mouth water. The Purser counted them: the number tallied with the invoice. And then he slipped them into his pocket in an ecstasy.
Of course Mr. Horrocks could not arrest a passenger on his own responsibility, but the Captain soon gave him power when he had heard the story, and then they invited Mrs. Vanrenen into an empty room and told her she would have to stay there under lock and key till the police took her over in New York. She was game to the end.
But if Mrs. Vanrenen intended to fight to a finish, Taylor, the bedroom steward, knew when he was beaten. He owned up to the whole tale from start to end. Mrs. Vanrenen came on board at New York with all her apparatus made and ready. It was she who had fused the hole with the oxy-hydrogen flame jet. and fitted the plate, and in fact done all the metal work. Taylor, who was an ex-cabinet maker, concealed the traces of her handiwork after it was finished.
The gold had gone ashore through the Customs under cover of compressed gas cylinders, as Mr. Horrocks had guessed. But not in the original filled cylinders which came on board openly with Mrs. Vanrenen's baggage. They were too heavy, and needlessly strong. So some other lighter cylinders, in fact mere shells of iron, were smuggled on board by Taylor, also in New York, and the gold was stowed in these, and the heavier cylinders were quietly slipped overboard. And out of a hundred guesses, how was the gold prevented from jingling? The clever Mr. Taylor stole jellies from the pantry, and they melted these and poured them in to fill up the crevices between the coins and the cylinders.
Now if Mr. Horrocks had been content with getting hold of this tale, and writing a simple report to the company, all would have been well. But as part had been in the papers already, he thought there would be no harm in writing out an "Interview with Mr. Horrocks, by our representative," and it was that which tripped him. Indeed, Mr. Wilfred told him that if Mr. William Arthur had got his own way entirely at the board meeting, he would have been dismissed from the Company's service. But as it was he was sent down the list to the Ambleside, which was the smallest ship the Line has on the New York run.
Many of his acquaintances thought he was a fool to take it. But Mr. Horrocks was a shrewd man and knew what he was doing.
Whatever happened, Rocks' Orphanage must not have its supplies cut off. With Mr. Horrocks out of employment afloat, Mr. Rocks could not pursue his philanthropic courses in the Cheshire village, and would be a man entirely miserable.
Of course, on the Ambleside his salary would be reduced. "But," as he put it to me in confidence, "a Purser can find pickings."
But Clayton was the man who scored principally out of the affair. Clayton had been hustled by the Company into jail, and they were forced to make the insult of that up to him somehow. It seems they had known all along that he was heavily dipped financially, and when he suddenly splashed out into extravagant dinners at the Adelphi, and proceeded in other ways to have a good feverish time of it, they naturally made a theory that he was doing it on plundered capital. Once, of course, one has an idea like that in one's head, it is easy enough to make proofs, and so the police soon found suspicious things against the poor fellow, and arrested him before, as they said, he could have a chance of bolting.
His own explanation of affluence was that his wife had raised ready money from a Jew, being so certain that he soon must be promoted and get Captain's pay. Of course such a tale was far too thin to be believed, and into jail he went. But as it happened to be exactly true, the Town S.S. Co. felt that they owed him something by way of reparation, and their apology took a form that suited Clayton down to the ground. They brought their senior captain ashore as superintendent, made a move up all through the fleet, and appointed Clayton to the command of the Ambleside.
Mr. Horrocks was the first to congratulate him, and to compliment him delicately on having the best Purser in the Western Ocean passenger trade to make the ship popular for him. But it would have eased Mr. Horrocks' mind much if he could have known that Captain Clayton would take a lenient view on the subject of Pursers' perquisites. He had a very keen anxiety for the future welfare of Rocks' Orphanage.
“End of The Looting of the Specie-Room by Cutcliffe Hyne, Part 2."
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