A Crime of the Under-Seas - Guy Boothby - ebook

A Crime of the Under-Seas ebook

Guy Boothby

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There is an old saying that one half of the world does not know how the other half lives, but as far as this is true, very few of us really understand. In the East, indeed, it is almost amazing. There are people involved in trade, some of whom are very profitable, about whom the world as a whole has never heard of, and which an ordinary Englishman, in all likelihood, would refuse to believe, even if the most reliable evidence had been provided before him.

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Liczba stron: 135

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Contents

CHAPTER 1

CHAPTER 2

CHAPTER 3

CHAPTER 4

CHAPTER 5

CHAPTER 6

CHAPTER 7

CHAPTER 8

CHAPTER 9

CHAPTER 10

CHAPTER 11

CHAPTER 12

CHAPTER 1

THERE is an old saying that “one half of the world does not know how the other half lives,” but how true this is very few of us really understand. In the East, indeed, it amounts almost to the marvellous. There are men engaged in trades there, some of them highly lucrative, of which the world in general has never heard, and which the ordinary stay-at-home Englishman would in all probability refuse to believe, even if the most trustworthy evidence were placed before him.

For instance, on the evening from which I date the story I am now about to tell you, three of us were seated chatting together in the verandah of the Grand Oriental Hotel at Colombo. We were all old friends, and we had each of us arrived but recently in Ceylon. McDougall, the big red-haired Scotchman, who was sitting on my right, had put in an appearance from Tuticorin by a British India boat only that morning, and was due to leave again for Burmah the following night. As far as I could gather he earned his living mainly by smuggling dutiable articles into other countries, where the penalty, if one is caught, is a fine of at least one thousand pounds, or the chance of receiving upwards of five years’ imprisonment.

The man in the big chair next to him was Callingway, a Londoner, who had hailed the day before from South America, travelling in a P. and O. steamer from Australia. He was tracking an absconding Argentine Bank Manager, and, as it afterwards transpired, was, when we came in contact with him, on the point of getting possession of the money with which the other had left the country. Needless to say he was not a Government servant, nor were the Banking Company in question aware of his endeavours.

Lastly there was myself, Christopher Collon, aged thirty-six, whose walk in life was even stranger, if such a thing were possible, than those of the two men I have just described. One thing at any rate is certain, and that is that if I had been called upon to give an accurate description of myself and my profession at that time, I should have found it extremely difficult to do so. Had I been the possessor of a smart London office, a private secretary, and half a dozen corresponding clerks, I should probably have called myself a private detective on a large scale, or, as they put it in the advertisement columns of our daily papers, a Private Enquiry Agent. Yet that description would scarcely have suited me; I was that and something more. At any rate it was a pretty hard life, and by the same token a fairly hazardous one.

This will be the better understood when I say that one day I might receive a commission by cablegram from some London firm, who, we will suppose, had advanced goods to an Indian Rajah, and were unable to obtain payment for them. It was my business to make my way to his headquarters as soon as possible, and to get the money out of him by the best means in my power, eating nothing but what was cooked for me by my own servant meanwhile. As soon as I had done with him I might be sent on very much the same sort of errand to a Chinese Mandarin in Hankow or Canton, or possibly to worry a gold mining concession, or something of the sort, out of one of the innumerable Sultans of the protected Malayan States, those charming places where the head of the State asks you to dinner at six and you are found at midnight with six inches of cold kris in your abdomen.

On one occasion I remember being sent from Singapore to Kimberley at three hours’ notice to meet and escort a Parsee diamond merchant from that town to Calcutta. And what was funnier still, though we travelled to Cape Town together, and even shared the same cabin on board the steamer afterwards, he never for an instant suspected that I was spying upon him. Oftentimes I used to wonder what he would have thought, had he only guessed that I knew he was carrying upwards of a million pounds worth of diamonds in the simple leather belt he wore next to his skin, and that every night I used, when he was asleep, to convince myself that everything was right and that the stones were still there. His was a precious life that voyage, at least so his friends in Calcutta thought, and if I could only tell you all that happened during our intercourse, you would not wonder that I was glad when we reached India, and I had handed him over to the chief partners of his firm.

But there, if I were to go on telling you my adventures, I should be talking from now to Christmas. Rather let me get to the matter in hand, beside which everything I had ever attempted hitherto ranks as nothing. When I have done I think you will admit that the familiar saying, embodied in my first sentence, should be altered from “one half the world does not know how the other half lives” to “one half the world does not know how the other half gets its living.” There is a distinction with a good deal of difference.

I have often thought that there is no pleasanter spot in this strange old world of ours than the Grand Oriental Hotel, Colombo. Certainly there is not a more interesting place. There the student of character will have sufficient examples before him to keep him continually at work. Day and night vessels of all sorts and descriptions are entering the harbour, hailing from at least three of the four known quarters of the globe. At all hours men and women from Europe, from India, from Malaysia, from the further East, from Australia, and also from the Southern Seas and America via Australia, troop in and out of that hospitable caravanserai.

On this particular occasion, having talked of many things and half a hundred times as many places, we had come back to the consideration of our lives and the lack of home comforts they contained.

“If I could only see my way clear I’d throw it up, marry, and settle down,” said Callingway; “not in England, or Scotland, or America, for that matter; but, to my thinking, in the loveliest island in the world.”

“And where may that be?” I inquired, for I had my own ideas on the subject.

“Tasmania,” he answered promptly. “The land of the red-faced apple. I know a little place on the Derwent that would suit me down to the ground.”

“I’d na gae ye a pinch of snuff for it,” said McDougall, with conviction. “What’s life worth to a man in them hole-and-corner places? When I’ve done wi’ roamin’ it’s in my mind that I’ll set myself down at a little place I ken the name of, fifty miles north of the Clyde, where there’s a bit of fishing, and shootin’, and, if ye want it, well, just a drappie of the finest whuskey that was ever brewed in old Scotie. It’s ma thinkin’ I’ve ruined ma digestion wi’ all these outlandish liquors that I’ve been swallowin’ these twenty years gone. Don’t talk o’ your Tasmanias to me. I’m nae fond o’ them. What have you to say, Mr. Collon?”

“You needn’t be afraid. I’ll not settle down as long as I can get about,” I answered. “If you fellows are tired of your lives I’m not, and I’m certain of this much, Callingway, by the time you’ve been installed in your Tasmanian home twelve months, and you, McDougall, have been on your Scotch estate the same length of time, you’ll both be heartily sick of them and wishing yourselves back once more in the old life out here.”

“Try me, that’s all,” replied Callingway fervently. “Think what our present life is. We are here to-day and gone to-morrow. We’ve not a foot of earth in the whole wide world that we can call our own. The only home we know is a numbered room in a hotel or a cabin aboard a ship. We never know when we get up in the morning whether by nightfall we shall not be lying stark and cold shot through the heart, or with six inches of cold steel through our lungs. Our nerves from year’s end to year’s end are strained to breaking pitch, and there’s not a single decent woman to be found amongst the whole circle of our acquaintances. After all, a wife’s–”

“The lasses, the lasses, I agree with ye,” interrupted McDougall without ceremony. “After all ’tis the lasses who make the joy o’ livin’. Hear what Robbie says:–

“‘Health to the sex! ilk guid chiel says, Wi’ merry dance in winter days, An’ we to share in common: The gust o’ joy, the balm o’ woe, The soul o’ life, the Heav’n below, Is rapture-giving woman.’”

“If you’re going to get on that strain you’re hopeless,” I said. “When Callingway begins to think it is time for him to settle down, and you, McDougall, start quoting Burns, then I come to the conclusion that I’d better bid you good-night.”

As I spoke a “ricksha” drew up at the steps, and, when the coolie had set down his shafts, an elderly gentleman alighted. Having paid the man his fare he entered the verandah, and so made his way into the house. I had got so accustomed to new arrivals by this time that, beyond thinking what a good picture of the substantial old English merchant this one would have made, I did not pay much attention to him.

“Well,” said Callingway, after the few minutes’ pause which followed up my last remark, “I think I will ask you gentlemen to drink another whiskey and soda to my success, and then I will leave you and retire to my virtuous couch. My confounded boat sails at six o’clock to-morrow morning, and if I don’t sail in her I shall lose the society of a most estimable gentleman whom I am accompanying as far as Hong Kong. As it looks like being a profitable transaction I’ve no desire he should give me the slip.”

He touched the bell on the table at his side, and when the boy arrived to answer it, ordered the refreshment in question. We drank to his success in the business he was about to undertake, and then both he and McDougall bade me good-night and retired, leaving me alone in the verandah. It was a lovely evening, and as I was not at all in the humour for sleep I lit another cheroot and remained on where I was, watching the glimmering lights in the harbour beyond, and listening to the jabbering of the “ricksha” boys on the stand across the road.

As I sat there I could not help thinking of the curious life I was leading, of the many strange adventures I had had, and also of my miraculous escapes from what had seemed at the time to be almost certain death. Only that very day I had received an offer by telegram from a well-known and highly respected firm in Bombay inviting me to undertake a somewhat delicate piece of business in the Philippine Islands. The price offered me was, in every sense of the word, a good one; but I detested Spanish countries so much that if anything better turned up I was prepared to let the other fall through without a second thought. But one has to live, even in the East, and for this reason I did not feel justified in throwing dirty water away before I had got clean.

As these thoughts were passing through my mind I distinctly heard some one step into the verandah from the door on my right, and a moment later, to my surprise, the stout old gentleman who, half an hour or so before, I had thought so typical of an English merchant, came round the chairs towards me. Having reached the place where I was sitting he stopped, and, taking a cheroot from his pocket, proceeded to light it. During the operation I noticed that he took careful stock of me, and, when he had finished, said quietly:–

“Mr. Collon, I believe?”

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