A winding adventure that begins in an exotic, teasing location. Richard Austin Freeman introduces the reader to the delights of an extraordinary jewel heist. Hollis is a retired soap manufacturer, richer than Croesus and some say mad. Obsessed with amassing precious stones and bullion, Hollis chooses a strong room to deposit his dazzling hoard. But when he discovers that he's the victim of an elaborate and enigmatic robbery, even though the room was never broken into, Dr Thorndyke is summoned to bring his unrivalled knowledge to bear on a remarkable mystery.
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Copyright © 2016 by R. Austin Freeman
Published by Jovian Press
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BOOK I. — THE ISHMAELITE
I. — THE FUGITIVE
II. — THE LEGATEE
III. — THE MUTINY ON THE ‘SPEEDWELL’
IV. — THE PHANTOM MATE
V. — THE NEW AFTERGUARD
VI. — BETTY MAKES A DISCOVERY
VII. — THE MATE TAKES HIS DISCHARGE
VIII. — THE LAST OF THE ‘SPEEDWELL’
IX. — ARMS AND THE MAN
X. — BETTY’S APPEAL
XI. — THE ORDER OF RELEASE
BOOK II. — THE INVESTIGATOR
XII. — THE INDICTMENT
XIII. — THORNDYKE TAKES UP THE INQUIRY
XIV. — THORNDYKE MAKES A BEGINNING
XV. — MR. WAMPOLE IS HIGHLY AMUSED
XVI. — WHICH TREATS OF LAW AND BUTTONS
XVII. — THE LAPIDARY
XVIII. — THE END OF THE CLUE
XIX. — THORNDYKE CONNECTS THE LINKS
XX. — OSMOND’S MOTIVE
THE TROPIC MOON SHONE BRIGHTLY on the village of Adaffia in the Bight of Benin as a fishing-canoe steered warily through the relatively quiet surf of the dry season towards the steep beach. Out in the roadstead an anchored barque stood up sharply against the moonlit sky, the yellow spark of her riding light glimmering warmly, and a white shape dimly discernible in the approaching canoe hinted of a visitor from the sea. Soon the little craft, hidden for a while in the white smother of a breaking wave, emerged triumphant and pushed her pointed nose up the beach; the occupants leaped out and, seizing her by her inturned gunwales, hauled her forthwith out of reach of the following wave.
“You know where to go?” the Englishman demanded, turning a grim, hatchet face towards the ‘headman’. “Don’t take me to the wrong house.”
The headman grinned. “Only one white man live for Adaffia. Me sabby him proper.” He twisted a rag of cotton cloth into a kind of turban, clapped it on his woolly pate and, poising on top a battered cabin-trunk, strode off easily across the waste of blown sand that separated the beach from a forest of coconut palms that hid the village. The Englishman followed less easily, his shod feet sinking into the loose sand; and as he went, he peered with a stranger’s curiosity along the deserted beach and into the solemn gloom beneath the palms, whence came the rhythmical clamour of drums and the sound of many voices joining in a strange, monotonous chant.
Through the ghostly colonnade of palm trunks, out into the narrow, tortuous alleys that served for streets, between rows of mud-built hovels roofed with unkempt grass thatch, where all was inky blackness in the shadow and silvery grey in the light, the stranger followed his guide; and ever the noise of the drums and the melancholy chant drew nearer. Suddenly the two men emerged from an alley into a large open space and in an instant passed from the stillness of the empty streets into a scene of the strangest bustle and uproar. In the middle of the space was a group of men, seated on low stools, who held between their knees drums of various sizes, which they were beating noisily, though by no means unskillfully, some with crooked sticks, others with the flat of the hand. Around the musicians a circle of dancers moved in an endless procession, the men and the women forming separate groups; and while the former danced furiously, writhing with starting muscles and streaming skins, in gestures grotesque and obscene, the latter undulated languorously with half-closed eyes and rhythmically moving arms.
The Englishman had halted in the black shadow to look on at this singular scene and to listen to the strange chant that rang out at intervals from dancers and spectators alike, when his guide touched him on the arm and pointed.
“Look, Mastah!” said he; “dem white man live. You look um?”
The stranger looked over the heads of the dancers, and, sure enough, in the very midst of the revellers, he espied a fellow-countryman seated on a green-painted gin-case, the sides of which he was pounding with his fists in unsuccessful emulation of the drummers. He was not a spectacle to engender undue pride of race. To begin with, he was obviously drunk, and as he drummed on the case and bellowed discordantly at intervals, he was not dignified. Perhaps to be drunk and dignified at one and the same time is not easy, and assuredly the task is made no easier by a costume consisting of a suit of ragged pyjamas, the legs tucked into scarlet socks, gaudy carpet slippers, and a skullcap of plaited grass. But such was the garb of this representative of a superior race, and the final touch was given to a raffish ensemble by an unlit cigar that waggled from the corner of his mouth.
The stranger stood for a minute or more watching, in silence and with grim disapproval, this unedifying spectacle, when a sudden interruption occurred. One of the dancers, a big, powerful ruffian, in giving an extra flourish to his performance, struck his foot against the gin-case and staggered on to the seated white man, who, with a loud, foolish laugh, caught him playfully by the ankle. As a result, the big negro toppled over and fell sprawling amongst the drummers. In an instant all was confusion and uproar. The drummers pummelled the fallen man, the women howled, the men shouted, and the drunken white man yelled with idiotic laughter. Then the big negro leaped to his feet with a roar of fury, and rushing at the white man, closed with him. The gin-case turned turtle at the first onset, the two combatants flew off gyrating amongst the legs of the crowd, mowing down a little lane as they went; and for some moments nothing could be distinguished save a miscellaneous heap of black bodies and limbs with a pair of carpet slippers kicking wildly in the air. But the white man, if lacking in dignity and discretion, was not deficient in valour. He was soon on his feet and hitting out right and left with uncommon liveliness and spirit. This, however, could not, and did not, last long; a simultaneous rush of angry negroes soon bore him to the ground and there seemed every prospect of his being very severely mauled.
It was at this moment that the stranger abandoned his role of a neutral spectator. Taking off his helmet and depositing it carefully in the angle of a mud wall, he lowered his head, thrust forward his shoulder, and charged heavily into the midst of the shouting mob. Now, the Slave Coast native is a sturdy, courageous fellow and truculent withal; but he does not play the Rugby game and he is a stranger alike to the subtler aspects of pugilism and the gentle art of ju-jitsu. Consequently the tactics of the new assailant created quite a sensation among the Adaffia men. Their heels flew up unaccountably, their heads banged together from unknown causes, mysterious thumps, proceeding from nowhere in particular with the weight of a pile-monkey, stretched them gasping on the earth; and when they would have replied in kind, behold! the enemy was not there! They rushed at him with outstretched hands and straightway fell upon their stomachs; they grabbed at his head and caught nothing but a pain in the shoulder or a tap under the chin; and the sledge hammer blow that was to have annihilated him either spent itself on empty air or, impinging upon the countenance of an ally, led to misunderstanding and confusion. Hampered by their own numbers and baffled by the incredible quickness of their elusive adversary, they began to view his strange manoeuvres as feats of magic. The fire of battle died down, giving place to doubt, bewilderment, and superstitious fear. The space widened round the white, silent, swiftly-moving figure; the more faint-hearted made off with their hands clapped to their mouths, screeching forth the hideous Efé alarm cry; the panic spread, and the remainder first backed away and then fairly broke into a run. A minute later the place was deserted save or the two Europeans and the headman.
The stranger had pursued the retreating mob for some distance, tripping up the stragglers or accelerating their movements by vigorous hammerings from behind, and he now returned, straightening out his drill jacket and dusting the grimy sand from his pipe-clayed shoes with a silk handkerchief. The other white man had by this time returned to the gin-case, on which he was once more enthroned with one of the abandoned drums between his knees, and, as his compatriot approached, he executed a martial roll and would have burst into song but that the cigar, which had been driven into his mouth during the conflict, now dropped into his throat and reduced him temporarily to the verge of suffocation.
“Many thanks, dear chappie,” said he, when he had removed the obstruction; “moral s’pport most valuable; uphold dignity of white man; congratulate you on your style; do credit to Richardsons. Excuse my not rising; reasons excellent; will appear when I do.” In fact his clothing had suffered severely in the combat.
The stranger looked down at the seated figure silently and with tolerant contempt. A stern-faced, grim-looking man was this new-comer, heavy-browed, square-jawed, and hatchet-faced, and his high-shouldered, powerful figure set itself in a characteristic pose, with the feet wide apart and the hands clasped behind the back as he stood looking down on his new acquaintance.
“I suppose,” he said, at length, “you realize that you’re as drunk as an owl?”
“I s’spected it,” returned the other gravely. “Not’s an owl, though; owls very temp’rate in these parts.”
At this moment the headman rose from the cabin-trunk, on which he had seated himself to view the conflict, and, picking up the stranger’s helmet, brought it to him.
“Mastah,” said he, earnestly, “you go for house one time. Dis place no good. Dem people be angry too much; he go fetch gun.”
“You hear that?” said the stranger. “You’d better clear off home.”
“Ver’ well, dear boy,” replied the other, suavely. “Call hansom; we’ll both go.”
“Whereabouts do you live?” demanded the stranger.
The other man looked up with a bland smile. “Grosvenor Square, ol’ fellow, A1; brass knocker ‘stinguishers on doorstep. Tell cabby knock three times and ring bottom bell.” He picked up the cigar and began carefully to wipe the sand from it.
“Do you know where he lives?” asked the stranger, turning to the headman.
“Yass; me sabby. He live for factory. You make him come one time, Mastah. You hear dat?”
The sound of the strange and dismal Efé alarm cry (produced by shouting or screaming continuously and patting the mouth quickly with the flat of the hand) was borne down from the farther end of the village. The headman caught up the trunk and started off up the street, while the stranger, having hoisted the seated man off the gin-case with such energy that he staggered round in a half-circle, grasped him from behind by both arms and urged him forward at a brisk trot.
“Here, I say!” protested the latter, “nosso fast, d’ye hear? I’ve dropped my slipper. Lemme pick up my slipper.”
To these protests the stranger paid no attention, but continued to hustle his captive forward with undiminished energy.
“Lemme go, confound you! You’re shaking me all to bits!” exclaimed the captive; and, as the other continued to shove silently, he continued: “Now I un’stand why you boosted those niggers so neatly. You’re a bobby, that’s what you are. I know the professional touch. A blooming escaped bobby. Well, I’m jiggered!” He lapsed, after this, into gloomy silence, and a few minutes’ more rapid travelling brought the party to a high palm-leaf fence. A primitive gate was unfastened, by the simple process of withdrawing a skewer from a loop of cord, and they entered a compound in the middle of which stood a long, low house. The latter was mud-built and thatched with grass like the houses in the village, from which, indeed, it differed only in that its mud walls were whitewashed and pierced for several windows.
“Lemme welcome you to my humble cot,” said the proprietor, following the headman, who had unceremoniously walked into the house and dumped down the cabin-trunk. The stranger entered a small, untidy room lighted by a hurricane-lamp, and, having dismissed the headman with a substantial ‘dash’, or present, turned to face his host.
“Siddown,” said the latter, dropping into a dilapidated Madeira chair and waving his hand towards another. “Less’ have a talk. Don’t know your name, but you seem to be a decent feller—for a bobby. My name’s Larkom, John Larkom, agent for Foster Brothers. This is Fosters’ factory.”
The stranger looked curiously round the room—so little suggestive of a factory in the European sense—and then, as he seated himself, said: “You probably know me by name: I am John Walker, of whom you have—”
He was interrupted by a screech of laughter from Larkom, who flung himself back in his chair with such violence as to bring that piece of furniture to the verge of dissolution.
“Johnny Walker!” he howled. “My immortal scissors! Sh’ld think I do know you; more senses than one. I’ve got a letter about you—’ll show it to you. Where is that blamed letter?” He dragged out a table-drawer and rooted among a litter of papers, from which he at length extracted a crumpled sheet of paper. “Here we are. Letter from Hepburn. You ‘member Hepburn? He and I at Oxford together. Merton, y’know. Less see what he says. Ah! here you are; I’ll read it: ‘And now I want you to do me a little favour. You will receive a visit from a pal of mine who, in consequence of certain little indiscretions, is for the moment under a cloud, and I want you, if you can, to put him up and keep him out of sight. His fame I am not permitted to disclose, since being, as I have said, ‘sub nube’, just at present, and consequently not in search of fame or notoriety he elects to travel under the modest and appropriate name of Walker.’” At this point Larkom once more burst into a screech of laughter. “Funny devil, Hepburn! awful rum devil,” he mumbled, leering idiotically at the letter that shook in his hand; then, wiping his eyes on the gaudy ‘trade’ tablecloth, he resumed his reading. “‘He need not cause you any inconvenience, and you won’t mind his company as he is quite a decent fellow—he entered at Merton just after you went down—and he won’t be any expense to you; in fact, with judicious management, he may be made to yield a profit, since he will have some money with him and is, between ourselves, somewhat of a mug.’ Rum devil, awful rum devil,” sniggered Larkom. “Doncher think so?” he added, grinning foolishly in the other man’s face.
“Very,” replied the stranger, stolidly. But he did not look particularly amused.
“‘I think that is all I have to tell you,’” Larkom continued, reading from the letter. “‘I hope you will be able to put the poor devil up, and, by the way, you need not let on that I have told you about his little misfortunes.’” Larkom looked up with a ridiculous air of vexation. “There now,” he exclaimed, “I’ve given old Hepburn away like a silly fool. But no, it was he that was a silly fool. He shouldn’t have told me.”
“No, he should not,” agreed Walker.
“‘Course not,” said Larkom with drunken gravity. “Breach o’ confidence. However, ‘s all right. ‘Pend on me. Close as a lock-jawed oyster. What’ll you drink?”
He waved his hand towards the table, on which a plate of limes, a stone gin jar, a bottle of bitters with a quill stuck through the cork, and a swizzle-stick, stained purple by long service, invited to conviviality.
“Have a cocktail,” said Larkom. “Wine of the country. Good old swizzle-stick. I’ll mix it. Or p’rhaps,” he sniggered, slyly, “p’raps you’d rather have a drop of Johnny Walker—ha! ha! Hallo! Here they are. D’ye hear ‘em?” A confused noise of angry voices was audible outside the compound and isolated shouts separated themselves now and again from the general hubbub.
“They’re callin’ us names,” chuckled Larkom. “Good thing you don’t un’stand the language. The nigger can be rude. Personal abuse as a fine art. Have a cocktail.”
“Hadn’t I better go out and send them about their business?” asked Walker.
“Lor’ bless you, they haven’t got any business,” was the reply. “No, siddown. Lerrum alone and they’ll go home. Have a cocktail.” He compounded one for himself, swizzling up the pink mixture with deliberate care and pouring it down his throat with the skill of a juggler; and when Walker had declined the refreshment and lit his pipe, the pair sat and listened to the threats and challenges from the outer darkness. The attitude of masterly inactivity was justified by its results, for the noise subsided by degrees, and presently the rumble of drums and the sound of chanting voices told them that the interrupted revels had been resumed.
After the third application to the stone bottle Larkom began to grow sleepy and subsided into silence, broken at intervals by an abortive snore. Walker meanwhile smoked his pipe and regarded his host with an air of gloomy meditation. At length, as the latter became more and more somnolent, he ventured to rouse him up.
“You haven’t said what you are going to do, Larkom,” said he. “Are you going to put me up for a time?”
Larkom sat up in the squeaking chair and stared at him owlishly. “Put you up, ol’ f’ler?” said he. “Lor bless you, yes. Wodjer think? Bed been ready for you for mor’n a week. Come’n look at it. Gettin’ dam late. Less’ turn in.” He took up the lamp and walked with unsteady steps through a doorway into a small, bare room, the whitewashed walls of which were tastefully decorated with the mud-built nests of solitary wasps. It contained two bedsteads, each fitted with a mosquito net and furnished with a mattress, composed of bundles of rushes lashed together, and covered with a grass mat.
“Thash your doss, ol’ f’ler,” said Larkom, placing the lamp on the packing-case that served for a table, “this is mine. Goo’ night!” He lifted the mosquito-curtain, crept inside, tucked the curtain under the mattress, and forthwith began to snore softly.
Walker fetched in his trunk from the outer room, and, as he exchanged his drill clothes (which he folded carefully as he removed them) for a suit of pyjamas, he looked curiously round the room. A huge, hairy spider was spread out on the wall as if displayed in a collector’s cabinet, and above him a brown cockroach of colossal proportions twirled his long antennae thoughtfully. The low, bumpy ceiling formed a promenade for two pallid, goggle-eyed lizards, who strolled about, defiant of the laws of gravity, picking up an occasional moth or soft-shelled beetle as they went. When he was half undressed an enormous fruit-bat, with a head like that of a fox-terrier, blundered in through the open window and flopped about the room in noisy panic for several minutes before it could find its way out again.
At length he put out the lamp, and creeping inside his curtain, tucked it in securely; and soon, despite the hollow boom of the surf, the whistle of multitudinous bats, the piping of the mosquitoes, and the sounds of revelry from the village, he fell asleep and slept until the sun streamed in on to the whitewashed wall.
LARKOM APPEARED TO HAVE THAT tolerance of alcohol that is often to be observed in the confirmed soaker. As he sat with his guest in the living-room, taking his early tea, although he looked frail and broken in health, there was nothing in his appearance to suggest that he had quite recently been very drunk. Nor, on the other hand, was his manner very different from that of the previous night, save that his articulation and his wits were both clearer.
“What made you pick out this particular health-resort for your little holiday?” he asked. “It isn’t what you would call a fashionable watering-place.”
“No,” replied Walker. “That was the attraction. I had heard about you from Hepburn—he is my brother-in-law, you know—and as it seemed, from what he said, that your abode was on the very outside edge of the world, I marked it down as a good place to disappear in.”
Larkom grinned. “You are not a bad judge, old chappie. Disappearing is our speciality. We are famous for it. Always have been. How does the old mariners’ ditty run? You remember it? ‘Oh, the Bight of Benin, the Bight of Benin, One comes out where three go in.’ But perhaps that wasn’t exactly what was in your mind?”
“It wasn’t. I could have managed that sort of disappearance without coming so far. But look here, Larkom, let us have a clear understanding. I came here on spec, not having much time to make arrangements, on the chance that you might be willing to put me up and give me a job. But I haven’t come to fasten on to you. If my presence here will be in any way a hindrance to you, you’ve only got to say so and I will move on. And I shan’t take it as unfriendly. I quite understand that you have your principals to consider.”
“Principals be blowed!” said Larkom. “They don’t come into it; and as to me, I can assure you, J. W., that this is the first stroke of luck I’ve had for years. After vegetating in this God-forgotten hole with nobody but buck-niggers to speak to, you can imagine what it is to me to have a pukka white man—and a gentleman at that—under my roof. I feel like chanting ‘Domine, non sum dignus’; but if you can put up with me, stay as long as you care to, and understand that you are doing me a favour by staying.”
“It is very handsome of you, Larkom, to put it in that way,” said Walker, a little huskily. “Of course, I understand the position and I accept your offer gratefully. But we must put the arrangement on a business footing. I’m not going to sponge on you. I must pay my share of the expenses, and if I can give you any help in working the factory—”
“Don’t you be afraid, old chappie,” interrupted Larkom. “I’ll keep your nose on the grindstone; and as to sharing up, we can see to that later when we cast up the accounts. As soon as we have lapped up our tea, we will go out to the store and I will show you the ropes. They aren’t very complicated, though they are in a bit of a tangle just now. But that is where you will come in, dear boy.”
Larkom’s statement as to the ‘tangle’ was certainly no exaggeration. The spectacle of muddle and disorder that the store presented filled Walker at once with joy and exasperation. After a brief tour of the premises, during which he listened in grim silence to Larkom’s explanations, he deliberately peeled off his jacket—which he folded up neatly and put in a place of safety—and fell to work on the shelves and lockers with a concentrated energy that reduced the native helper to gibbering astonishment and Larkom to indulgent sniggers.
“Don’t overdo it, old chap,” the latter admonished. “Remember the climate. And there’s no hurry. Plenty of spare time in these parts. Leave yourself a bit for to-morrow.” To all of which advice Walker paid no attention whatever, but slogged away at the confused raffle of stock-in-trade without a pause until close upon noon, when the cook came out to announce that “chop live for table.” And even this was but a temporary pause; for soon after breakfast—or tiffin, as the Anglo-Indian calls it—when Larkom showed a tendency to doze in his chair with a tumbler of gin toddy, he stole away to renew his onslaught while the native assistant attended to the ‘trade’.
During the next few days he was kept pretty fully occupied. Not that there was much business doing at the factory, but Larkom’s hand having become of late so tremulous that writing was impossible, the posting of books and answering of letters had automatically ceased.
“You’re a perfect godsend to me, old chappie,” said Larkom, when, by dint of two days’ continuous labour, the books had been brought up to date, and Walker attacked the arrears of correspondence. “The firm wouldn’t have stood it much longer. They’ve complained of my handwriting already. If you hadn’t come I should have got the order of the boot to a certainty. Now they’ll think I’ve got a native clerk from somewhere at my own expense.”
“How about the signature?” Walker asked. “Can you manage that?”
“That’s all right, dear boy,” said Larkom cheerfully. “You sign slowly while I kick the table. They’ll never twig the difference.”
By means of this novel aid to calligraphy the letter was completed and duly dispatched by a messenger to catch the land post at Quittah. Then Walker had leisure to look about him and study the methods of West Coast trade and the manners and customs of his host. Larkom sober was not very different from Larkom drunk—amiable, easy-going, irresponsible, and only a little less cheerful. Perhaps he was better drunk. At any rate, that was his own opinion, and he acted up to it consistently. What would have happened had there had been any appreciable trade at Adaffia it is impossible to guess. As it was, the traffic was never beyond the capacity of Larkom even at his drunkest. Once or twice during the day a party of bush natives would stroll into the compound with a demijohn of palm oil or a calabash full of kernels, or a man from a neighbouring village would bring in a bushel or so of copra, and then the premises would hum with business. The demijohn would be emptied into a puncheon or the kernels stowed in bags ready for shipment, and the vendors would receive their little dole of threepenny pieces—the ordinary currency of the coast. Then the vendors would change into purchasers. A length of baft or calico, a long flint-lock gun with red-painted stock, a keg of powder, or a case of gin would replace the produce they had brought; the threepenny pieces would drift back into the chest whence they had come, and the deal would be completed.
At these functions Walker, owing to his ignorance of the language, appeared chiefly in the role of onlooker, though he took a hand at the scales, when he was about, and helped to fill the canvas bags with kernels. But he found plenty of time to wander about the village and acknowledge the appreciative grins of the men whom he had hammered on the night of his arrival or the courteous salutations of the women. Frequently in the afternoons he would stroll out to sit on the dry sand at high-water mark and, as the feathery leaves of the sea-washed palms pattered above him in the breeze, would gaze wistfully across the blue and empty ocean. One day a homeward-bound steamer came into the bay to anchor in Quittah roads; and then his gaze grew more wistful and the stern face softened into sadness.
Presently Larkom hove in sight under the palms, carolling huskily and filling a gaudy trade pipe. He came and sat down by Walker, and having struck some two dozen Swedish matches without producing a single spark, gazed solemnly at the steamer.
“Yellow funnel boat,” he observed; “that’ll be the Niger, old Rattray’s boat. She’s going home, dear boy, home to England, where hansom cabs and green peas and fair ladies and lamb chops—.”
“Oh, shut up, Larkom!” exclaimed the other, gruffly.
“Right, dear boy. Mum’s the word,” was the bland reply, as Larkom resumed his fruitless attack on the matches. “But there’s one thing I’ve been going to say to you,” he continued after a pause, “and it’s this—confound these damstinkers; I’ve used up a whole box for nothing—I was going to say that you’d better not show yourself out on the beach unnecessarily. I don’t know what your little affair amounts to, but I should say that, if it was worth your while to cut away from home, it’s worth your while to stop away.”
“What do you mean?”
“I mean that you are still within the jurisdiction of the English courts; and if you should have been traced to the ship and you let yourself be seen, say, by any of the Germans who pass up and down from Quittah to Lomé or Bagidá, why, some fine day you may see an officer of the Gold Coast bearing down on you with a file of Hausas, and then it would be ho! for England, home, and beauty. You sabby?”
“I must take that risk,” growled Walker. “I can’t stay skulking in the house, and I’m not going to.”
“As you please, dear boy,” said Larkom. “I only mentioned the matter. Verbum sap. No offence, I hope.”
“Of course not,” replied Walker.
“I don’t think you are in any immediate danger,” pursued Larkom. “Old chief Akolatchi looked in on me just now and he tells me that there are no white officers at Quittah. The doctor died of blackwater fever two days ago, and the commissioner is sick and is off to Madeira by this steamer. Still, you had better keep your weather eyelid lifting.”
“I mean to,” said Walker; and knocking out his pipe on the heel of his shoe, he rose and shook the sand from his clothes.
“If you’ll excuse my harping on a disagreeable topic, old chappie,” said Larkom, as they strolled homewards along the beach, “I think you would be wise to take some elementary precautions.”
“What sort?” asked Walker.
“Well, supposing you were traced to that barque, the Sappho, it would be easy to communicate with her skipper when she comes to her station at Half-Jack. Then they might ascertain that a gent named Johnny Walker with a golden beard and a Wellington nose had been put ashore at Adaffia. You’re a fairly easy chappie to describe, with that Romanesque boko, and fairly easy to recognize from a description.”
“But, damn it, Larkom! You’re not suggesting that I should cut off my nose, are you?”
“God forbid, dear boy! But you might cut off your beard and drop Johnny Walker. A clean shave and a new name would make a world of difference. No native would recognize you without your beard.”
“Perhaps not. But a white police officer would spot me all right. A clean shave and a different name wouldn’t deceive him.”
“Not if he really meant business. But the local officials here will be pretty willing to turn a blind eye. They are not keen on arresting a white man with a parcel of niggers looking on. Lowers the prestige of the race. If a constabulary officer came down here to arrest a bearded man named Walker and found only a clean-shaved covey of the name of Cook, he’d probably say that there was no one here answering the description and go back perfectly satisfied with his tongue in his cheek.”
“Do you think he really would?”
“I do. At any rate, you may as well give the authorities a chance; meet ‘em half-way. Don’t you think so?”
“I suppose it is the reasonable thing to do. Very well, Larkom, I will take your advice and turn myself into a bald-faced stag—I noticed that you have some razors in the store. And as to the name, well, I will adopt your suggestion in that, too. ‘Cook’ will do as well as any other.”
“Better, old chap. Distinguished name. Great man, James Cook. Circumnavigator; all round my hat.”
“All the same,” said Walker, alias Cook, “I fancy you are a trifle over-optimistic. If an officer were sent down here with a warrant, I think he would have to execute it if he could. He would be running a biggish risk if he let himself be bamboozled.”
“Well, dear boy,” replied Larkom, “you do the transformation trick and trust in Providence. It’s quite likely that the local authorities will make no move; and if a G.C.C. officer should turn up and insist on mistaking James Cook for Johnny Walker, I daresay we could find some way of dealing with him.”
The other man smiled grimly. “Yes,” he agreed. “I don’t think he’d mistake James Cook for Mary’s little lamb.”
As they entered the compound a quarter of an hour later, a native rose from the kernel bag on which he had been seated, and disengaging from the folds of his cloth a soiled and crumpled letter, held it out to Larkom. The latter opened it with tremulous haste and, having glanced through it quickly, emitted a long, low whistle.
“Sacked, by jiggers!” he exclaimed, and handed the letter to his guest. It was a brief document and came to the point without circumlocution. The Adaffia factory was a financial failure, “whatever it might have been under other management,” and the firm hereby dispensed with Mr. Larkom’s services. “But,” the letter concluded, “as we are unwilling to leave a white man stranded on the Coast, we hereby make over to you, in lieu of notice, the factory and such stock as remains in it, the same to be your own property; and we hope that you will be able to carry on the trade to more advantage for yourself than you have for us.”
“Devilish liberal of them,” groaned Larkom, “for I’ve been a rotten bad servant to the firm. But I shall never make anything of it. I’m a regular waster, old chappie, and the sooner the land-crabs have me, the better it will be for everyone.” He lifted the lid of a gin-case and dejectedly hoisted out a high-shouldered, square-faced Dutch bottle.
“Stop this boozing, Larkom,” said Cook, late Walker. “Pull yourself together, man, and let us see if we can’t make a do of it.” He spoke gently enough, with his hand on the other man’s shoulder, for the thought of his own wrecked life had helped him to understand. It was not the mere loss of employment that had hit Larkom so hard. It was the realization, sudden and complete, of his utter futility; of his final irrevocable failure in the battle of life.
“It’s awfully good of you, old chap,” he said dismally; “but I tell you, I’m beyond redemption.” He paused irresolutely and then added: “However, we’ll stow the lush for the present and talk things over,” and he let the bottle slip back into its compartment and, shut down the lid.
But he was in no mood for talking things over, at present. The sense of utter failure appeared to have overwhelmed him completely, and, though he made no further attempt upon the gin-case that evening, his spirits seemed to sink lower and lower until, about ten o’clock, he rose from his chair and silently tottered off to bed, looking pitiably frail and broken.
It was about two o’clock in the morning when Cook awoke to the consciousness of a very singular noise. He sat up in bed to listen. A strange, quick rattle, like the chatter of a jigsaw, came from the rickety bed on which Larkom slept, and with it was mingled a confused puffing that came and went in quick gusts.
“Anything the matter, Larkom?” he asked anxiously; and then, as a broken mumble and a loud chattering of teeth came in reply, he sprang from the bed and struck a match. A single glance made everything clear. The huddled body, shaking from head to foot, the white, pinched face, the bloodless hands with blue finger-nails, clutching the scanty bed-coverings to the trembling chin, presented a picture of African fever that even a newcomer could recognize. Hastily he lit a candle, and, gathering up every rag that he could lay hands on, from his own travelling-rug to the sitting-room table-cloth, piled them on to his shivering comrade until the sick man looked like a gigantic caddis worm.
After an hour or so the violence of the shivering fit abated; gradually the colour returned to the white face until its late pallor gave place to a deep flush. The heaped coverings were thrown on the floor, the sufferer fidgeted restlessly about the bed, his breathing became hurried, and presently he began to babble at intervals, This state of affairs lasted for upwards of an hour. Then a few beads of perspiration appeared on the sick man’s forehead; the chatterings and mumblings and broken snatches of song died away, and, as the parched skin broke out into dewy moisture, a look of intelligence came back to the vacant face.
“Cover me up, old chappie,” said Larkom, turning over with a deep sigh. “Air strikes chilly. Thanks, old fellow; let’s have the table-cloth, too. That’s ripping. Now you turn in and get a bit of sleep. Sorry to have routed you up like this.” He closed his eyes and at once began to doze, and Cook, creeping back to bed, lay and watched him by the light of the flickering candle. Then he, too, fell asleep.
When he awoke it was broad daylight, and through the open door he could see Larkom standing by the table in the sitting-room, wrapped in the rug. The Fanti cook was seated at the table and the solitary Kroo boy, who formed the staff of the factory, stood by his supplementary chair, his eyes a-goggle with curiosity.
“Now, Kwaku,” Larkom was saying, “you see that pencil mark. Well, you take this pen and make a mark on top of it—so.” He handed the pen to the cook, who evidently followed the instructions, for his tongue protruded several inches, and he presently rose, wiping his brow. The Kroo boy took his place and the ceremony was repeated, after which the two natives retired grinning with pride.
“Gad, Larkom,” exclaimed Cook, when he came out and joined his host; “that dose of fever has taken the starch out of you. You oughtn’t to be up, surely?” He looked earnestly at his comrade, shocked at the aspect of the pitiful wreck before him and a little alarmed at the strange, greenish-yellow tint that showed through the waxen pallor of the face.
“Shan’t be up long, dear boy,” said Larkom. “Just setting things straight before I turn in for good. Now, just cast your eye over this document—devil of a scrawl, but I expect you can make it out.” He took up a sheet of paper and handed it to Cook. The writing was so tremulous as to be almost illegible, but with difficulty Cook deciphered it; and its purport filled him with astonishment. It read thus:
‘This is the last will and testament of me John Larkom of Adaffia in the Gold Coast Colony, West Africa. I give and devise all my estate and effects, real and personal, which I may die possessed of or be entitled to, unto James Cook absolutely, and I appoint him the executor of this my will.
‘Dated this thirteenth day of November one thousand eight hundred and ninety-seven.
‘Signed by the testator in the presence of us, who thereupon made our marks in his and each other’s presence.
‘Kwaku Mensah of Cape Coast. His + mark
‘Pea Soup of Half-Jack. His + mark.’
“I’ve given you your new name, you see,” Larkom explained. “Take charge of this precious document and keep that letter from the firm. Burn all other papers.”
“But,” exclaimed Cook, “why are you talking as if you expected to snuff out? You’ve had fever before, I suppose?”
“Rather,” said Larkom. “But you’re a new-comer; you don’t sabby. I’m an old coaster, and I sabby proper. Look at that, dear boy. Do you know what that means?” He held out a shaking, lemon-coloured hand, and as his companion regarded it silently, he continued:
“That means blackwater fever; and when a Johnny like me goes in for that luxury, it’s a job for the gardener. And talking of that, you’d better plant me in the far corner of the compound where the empty casks are kept, by the prickly-pear hedge; I shall be out of the way of traffic there, though graves are a damned nuisance in business premises, anyhow.”
“Oh, dry up, Larkom, and get to bed,” growled Cook; “and, I say, aren’t there any doctors in this accursed place?”
Larkom grinned. “In the fossil state, dear boy, they are quite numerous. Otherwise scarce. The medico up at Quittah died three days ago, as I told you, and there are no others on tap just now. No good to me if they were. Remember what I’ve told you. Burn all papers and, when you’ve planted me, take over the factory and make things hum. There’s a living to be made here and you’ll make it. Leave the swizzle-stick alone, old chappie, and if ever you should chance to meet Hepburn again, give him my love and kick him—kick him hard. Now I’m going to turn in.”
Larkom’s forecast of the probable course of his illness bid fair to turn out correct. In the intervals of business—which, perversely enough, was unusually brisk on this day—Cook looked in on the invalid and at each visit found him visibly changed for the worse. The pale-lemon tint of his skin gave place to a horrible dusky yellow; his voice grew weaker and his mind more clouded, until at last he sank into a partial stupor from which it was almost impossible to rouse him. He wanted nothing, save an occasional sip of water, and nothing could be done to stay the march of the fell disease.
So the day passed on, a day of miserable suspense for Cook; the little caravans filed into the compound, the kernels and copra and knobs of rubber rolled out of the calabashes on to the ground, the oil gurgled softly into the puncheon, the bush people chattered vivaciously in the store and presently departed gleefully with their purchases; and still Larkom lay silent and apathetic and ever drawing nearer to the frontier between the known and the unknown. The evening fell, the store was locked up, the compound gate was shut, and Cook betook himself with a shaded lamp to sit by the sick man’s bed.
But presently the sight of that yellow face, grown suddenly so strangely small and pinched, the sharpened nose, and the sunken eyes with the yellow gleam of the half-seen eyeballs between the lids, was more than he could bear, and he stole softly through into the sitting-room, there to continue his vigil. So hour after weary hour passed. The village sank to rest (for it was a moonless night) and the sounds that came in through the open window were those of beast and bird and insect. Bats whistled out in the darkness, cicadas and crickets chirred and chirruped, the bark of the genet and the snuffling mutter of prowling civets came from without the compound, while far away the long-drawn, melancholy cry of a hyena could be heard in the intervals of the booming surf.
And all the while the sick man slowly drew nearer to the dread frontier.
It wanted but an hour to dawn when a change came. The feeble babblings and mumblings, the little snatches of forgotten songs chanted in a weak, quavering treble, had ceased for some time, and now through the open door came a new sound—the sound of slow breathing mingled with a soft, moist rattling. The watcher rose from his chair and once again crept, lamp in hand, into the dimly-lighted room, there to stand looking down gloomily at the one friend that Fate had left him. Larkom was now unconscious and lay quite still, save the heaving chest and the rise and fall of the chin with each breath.
Cook took put down the lamp, and, sitting down, gently took the damp and chilly hand in his, while he listened, in agony at his own helplessness, to the monotonous, rattling murmur that went on and on, to and fro, like the escapement of some horrible clock.
By and by it stopped, and Cook fumbled at the tepid wrist; then, after a pause, it began again with an altered rhythm and presently paused again, and again went on; and so the weary, harrowing minutes passed, the pauses growing ever longer and the rattling murmur more and more shallow. At last there came a pause so long that Cook leaned over the bed to listen. A little whispering sigh was borne to his ear, then all was still; and when, after waiting yet several minutes more, he had reverently drawn the gaudy table-cloth over the silent figure, he went back to his chair in the sitting room, there to wait, with grim face and lonely heart, for the coming of the day.
The late afternoon sun was slanting eagerly over the palm-tops as he took his way to the far corner of the compound that faced towards the western beach. The empty barrels had been rolled away and, in the clear space, close to the low prickly-pear hedge, a smooth mound of yellow sand and a rough wooden cross marked the spot where Larkom, stitched up in sacking in lieu of a coffin, had been laid to rest. The cross had occupied most of Cook’s scanty leisure since the hurried burial in the morning (for trade was still perversely brisk, despite the ragged house-flag half-mast on the little flag-pole), and he was now going to put the finishing touches to it.
It was a rude enough memorial, the upright from a board from one of the long gun-crates, and the cross-piece formed by a new barrel stave cut to the requisite length; and the lack of paint left it naked and staring.
Cook laid down on the sand a box containing his materials—a set of zinc stencil plates, used for marking barrels and cases, a stencil brush, and a pot of thin black paint—and sketched out lightly in pencil the words of the inscription:
JOHN LARKOM 14th November 1897
Then he picked out a J from the set of stencil plates, dipped the brush in the pot, and made the first letter, following it in order with O, H, and N. Something in the look of the familiar name—his own name as well as Larkom’s—made him pause and gaze at it thoughtfully, and his air was still meditative and abstracted as he stooped and picked up the L to commence the following word. Rising with the fresh plate in his hand, he happened to glance over the low hedge along the stretch of beach that meandered away to a distant, palm-clad headland; and then he noticed for the first time a little group of figures that stood out sharply against the yellow background. They were about half a mile distant and were evidently coming towards the village; and there was something in their appearance that caused him to examine them narrowly. Four of the figures walked together and carried some large object that he guessed to be a travelling hammock; four others straggled some little distance behind; and yet three more, who walked ahead of the hammock, seemed to carry guns or rifles on their shoulders.
Still holding the plate and brush, Cook stood motionless, watching with grim attention the approach of the little procession. On it came, at a rapid pace, each step bringing it more clearly into view. The hammock was now quite distinct and the passenger could be seen lying in the sagging cloth; eight of the figures were evidently ordinary natives while the other three were plainly black men dressed in a blue uniform, wearing red caps and carrying rifles and bayonets.
Cook stooped and dropped the plate back into the box, picking out, in place of it, a plate pierced with the letter O. Dipping his brush into the paint, he laid the plate over the pencilled L on the cross and brushed in the letter. Quietly and without hurry, he followed the O with an S, M, O, N, and D; and he had just finished the last letter when an English voice hailed him from over the hedge.
He turned and saw, a little distance away, a fresh-laced Englishman in a quiet undress uniform and a cheese-cutter cap, peering at him curiously from the top a sand-hill, at the base of which stood the group of hammockmen and the three Hausas.
“There’s a gate farther down,” said Cook; and, as the officer turned away, he dropped the plate that he was holding back into the box, laid down the brush, and took up a camel’s-hair pencil. Dipping this into the paint-pot, he proceeded deliberately and with no little skill to write the date in small letters under the name. Presently the sound of footsteps was audible from behind. Cook continued his writing with deliberate care and the footsteps drew nearer, slowing as they approached. Close behind him they halted, and a cheery voice exclaimed: “Good Lord! What a let-off!” and then added, “Poor beggar! When did he die?”
“This morning, just before dawn,” replied Cook.
“Phew!” whistled the officer. “He wasn’t long getting his ticket. But, I say, how did you know his name? I thought he called himself Walker.”
“So he did. But he wished his name to be put on his grave.”
“Naturally,” said the officer. “It’s no use giving an alias at the last muster. Well, poor devil! He’s had rough luck, but perhaps it’s best, after all. It’s certainly best for me.”
“Why for you?” asked Cook.
“Because I’ve got a warrant in my pocket to arrest him for some trouble at home—signed the wrong cheque or something of that kind—and I wasn’t very sweet on the job, as you may guess. Blood’s thicker than water, you know, and the poor chap was an English gentleman after all. However, those black devils of mine don’t know what I have come for, so now nothing need be said.”
“No.” He looked round into the bluff, rosy face and clear blue eyes of the officer and asked: “How did you manage to run him to earth?”
“He was traced to Bristol and to the barque Sappho after she had sailed. Then the Sappho was seen from Quittah to bring up here, right off her station—she trades to Half-Jack—and, as we were on the look-out, we made inquiries and found that a white man had come ashore here. Good thing we didn’t find out sooner. Well, I’ll be getting back to Quittah. I’ve just come down with a new doctor to take over there. My name’s Cockeram, assistant inspector G.C.C. You’re Mr. Larkom, I suppose?”
“Won’t you stop and have a cocktail?” asked Cook, ignoring the question.
“No, thanks. Don’t take ‘em. H2O is the drink for this country.”
He touched his cap and sauntered to the gate, and Cook saw him walk slowly up and down behind the hedge, apparently gathering something. Presently he sauntered back into the compound looking a little sheepish, and, as he came, twisting some blossoming twigs of wild cotton into a kind of grommet and shelling the little ‘prayer-beads’ out of some Jequirity pods that he had gathered. He walked up the sandy mound and, sprinkling the scarlet seeds in the form of a cross, laid the loop of cotton-blossoms above it.
“It’s a scurvy wreath,” he said, gruffly, without looking at Cook, “but it’s a scurvy country. So long.” He walked briskly out of the compound and, flinging himself into the hammock, gave the word to march.
The other looked after him with an unwonted softening of the grim face—yet grimmer and more lean now that the beard was gone—only resuming his writing when the little procession was growing small in the distance. The date was completed now, but, dipping his brush afresh, he wrote below in still smaller letters: ‘Now shall I sleep in the dust; and thou shalt seek me in the morning, but I shall not be.’
Then he picked up the box and went back into the house.
FOR A MAN IN SEARCH of quiet and retirement, the village of Adaffia would seem to be an ideally eligible spot; especially if the man in question should happen be under a rather heavy cloud. Situated in a little known part of the Slave Coast, many miles distant from any town or settlement where white men had their abodes, it offered a haven of security to the Ishmaelite if it offered little else.
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