Chronicles of Martin Hewitt
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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 ?10,000 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 bullyragged me for being there and sent me on deck. But before that he bullyragged 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 fore-finger 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 'eard 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?"
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