The Saving Clause - H.C. McNeile - ebook

The Saving Clause ebook

H. C. Mcneile



A collection of nine superb Sapper stories. Of course, in the stories are present Ronald Standish and Bulldog Drummond. Two indispensable hero. They again take up their lovely deal, begin to solve various crimes. They are crazy in their own business. Detectives are so obsessed with crime that they are ready to do anything.

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I guess I don’t hold with missionaries. I’ve been in most corners of this globe, and I reckon that the harm they do easily outweighs the good. Stands to reason, don’t it, that we can’t all have the same religion, same as we can’t all have the same shaped nose? So what in thunder is the good of trying to put my nose on to your face, where it won’t fit? And it sort of riles me to see these good earnest people labouring and sweating to do to others what they would only describe as damned impertinence if those others tried to do it to them. Yet, as I see it, there’s no reason why the others shouldn’t. ‘Tisn’t as if any particular bunch had a complete corner in truth, is it?

But there are exceptions, same as to most things. And for the past twenty years whenever I’ve said I don’t hold with missionaries, I’ve always added a saving clause in my mind. Care to hear what that saving clause is? Right: mine’s the same as before.

It was just after the Boer War that it happened. I’d come home: got a job of sorts in London. Thought a few years of the quiet life would do me good, and an old uncle of mine wangled me into the office of a pal of his. Funny old thing my boss was, with a stomach like a balloon. And I give you my word that he was the last man in London whom you’d have expected to meet at the Empire on a Saturday night. It was sheer bad luck, though I don’t suppose I could have stood that job, anyway, for long.

I’d met a pal there, you see, and I suppose we’d started to hit it a bit. Anyway a darned great chucker-out came and intimated that he thought the moment had come when we’d better sample the cool night air of Leicester Square.

Well, I don’t say I was right: strictly speaking, I suppose I should have accepted his remark in the spirit in which it was intended. But the fact remains that I didn’t like his face or his frock coat–and we had words. And finally the chucker-out sampled the cool night air–not me. The only trouble was that just as he went down the stairs, my boss was coming up with wife and family complete. And that chucker-out was a big man: I guess it was rather like being bit by a steam roller. Anyway the whole blessed family turned head over heels, and landed on the pavement simultaneously with the chucker-out on top.

Again strictly speaking, I suppose I should have gone and picked them up with suitable words of regret. But I just couldn’t do it: I was laughing too much. In fact I didn’t stop laughing till I began to run–the police were heaving in sight. Still you boys know what the Empire was like in those days: so I’ll pass on to Monday morning.

Not that there’s much to say about Monday morning, except that it dosed my connection with the firm. The old man had a black eye where the chucker-out had trodden on his face, and the hell of a liver. And he utterly failed to see the humorous side of the episode. As far as I could make out his wife had smashed her false teeth in the melee, and was as wild as a civet cat; and only the fact that his own firm would be involved had prevented him giving my name to the police. My own private opinion was that it wasn’t so much the firm he was worrying about as himself. Still, that’s neither here nor there: all that matters is that my job in London terminated that morning.

Maybe you’re wondering what the dickens all this has to do with missionaries and my saving clause, but I’m coming to that part soon. And I want you to realize the frame of mind I was in when I found myself propping up the Criterion bar just before lunch on that Monday. It may seem strange to you that a bloke like me could ever have stomached quill driving in a City office, but the fact remains that at the time I was almighty sick with myself at having got the sack. And as luck would have it, I hadn’t been in t hat bar more than five minutes when a bunch of four of the boys blew in, whom I’d last seen in South Africa. They were the lads all right, I give you my word: four of the toughest propositions you’re ever likely to meet in your life. There was Bill Merton who had graduated in the Kimberley diamond rush: Andy Fraser who had left Australia hurriedly, and it didn’t lo to ask why: Tom Jerrold with a five-inch scar on his face that he’d picked up in Chicago: and last but not least Pete O’Farrell.

Gad I he was a character, was Pete. A great big hulking fellow of about six feet three, with muscles like an ox, and a pair of blue eyes that went clean through you and came out the other side. I once saw him tackle four policemen in Sydney, and get away with it. So did one policeman who ran for his life: the other three went to hospital.

As soon as they saw me Pete let out a bellow like a bull, and led the charge.

“If it isn’t old Mac,” he shouted. “Gee–boy, but it’s great to see you, even if your face is like a wet street. What’s stung you?”

“I’ve lost my job, Pete,” I said. “Upset the boss and all his belongings into Leicester Square on Saturday night and got the boot.”

“You mean you’re at a loose-end,” he said, and he looked at the other three. “What about it, boys?”

“Sure thing,” said Andy, “if he’ll come.”

“Of course he’ll come,” cried Pete. “Bring your poison into this corner, Mac, and we’ll put you wise.”

So we went and sat down in a corner, and they told me the scheme. It doesn’t much matter what it was: it’s got nothing to do with the yarn. But it appeared they were sailing for South America the following Friday, and they wanted to know if I’d go with them. Something to do with a revolution in some bally little state, and Pete swore we’d all make our fortunes.

Well, I guess if I hadn’t been feeling so sick with myself I shouldn’t have gone. I ain’t no lizard hunger myself, but from past experience I knew that hunting with that bunch meant a pretty fast pace. Particularly Pete. He was a darned good fellow, but if he got a bit of liquor inside him, it was well not to contradict him. I will say, to do him justice, it took more than a bottle of whisky to get him into that condition, but whisky was only four bob in those days.

At any rate I did go. And on Friday morning we sailed in a tin-can sort of effect from Liverpool. She was really a cargo boat that took a few passengers, and she just suited our pockets. Moreover she was going to call at some obscure spot, where none of the big lines touched, and which, according to Pete, was the exact place from which we could best start our operations.

We ran into bad weather right away, and by Jove! that old tub could roll.

Mercifully we were all good sailors, and it wasn’t until we went below for dinner that we realized there was another passenger. She only accommodated six, and up till then we had thought we were one short. But there were six places laid at the table, with a seat at the end for the skipper, who was on the bridge and had sent down word for us to start without him.

The cabins led off the dining-saloon, and suddenly Tiring a slight lull in the ship’s movement, Pete began to laugh.

“Holy Smoke! boys,” he cried, “listen. Steward, who is the occupant of the sixth seat, whom I hear enjoying himself in his cabin?”

The steward grinned.

“Gent by the name of Todmarsh, sir,” he answered. “Ain’t never been to sea before. ‘E’s in a hawful condition.”

“Well, I hope he doesn’t make that row all night,” said Pete. “I’m in the next cabin. Good-evening, skipper. We’ve taken you at your word and started.”

“Quite right,” said the captain, hanging up his oilskin. “We’re in for a bad forty-eight hours, I’m afraid.”

“You’ve got the brass band all complete, anyway,” grinned Andy. “Who is Mr. Todmarsh, skipper?”

For a moment or two he didn’t answer. From under a pair of great bushy eyebrows he took us all in: then he chuckled.

“Well, gentlemen,” he said, “I’ve had some pretty strangely assorted bunches in this saloon during my time but I’ll stake my oath that mixing you five and Mr. Todmarsh will constitute a record.”

It was Andy Fraser who turned pale.

“Don’t say,” he gasped, “that he’s a parson.”

“That’s just what I do say,” howled the skipper delightedly. “At least he’s a missionary.”

“Steward–a double whisky,” said Pete feebly.

“Skipper–it ain’t fair. You ought to have had a notice hung over the side. Where’s he going to?”

“Same place as you,” answered the other. “Then he’s going up into the interior. So you’ll be able to look after him when he lands. It’s the first time he’s left England.”

Well, gentlemen, I don’t want to tread on anybody’s corns. I have always had the highest respect for the Church myself, but I think you’ll agree with me that what the skipper said about ill-assorted bunches was right. The trouble was that the ship was so small–at least the passenger part of it–that you couldn’t get away from one another. And the prospect of three weeks cooped up with a devil-dodger was a bit of a staggerer.

It was three days before we saw him, and then the staggerer became a knock-out. I found Pete and Andy holding one another’s heads on the deck, and asked ‘em what the trouble was. Personally I hadn’t seen him yet, and it was just as they began to sob in unison that Mr. Todmarsh appeared from below. Gosh! I’ve never thought of such an extraordinary-looking little bird in my life. Boys–that man had to be seen to be believed. Making all due allowances for the fact that he had been sick for three days without cessation, Todmarsh won the freak stakes in a canter.

His face was pasty, and his eyes behind his spectacles were weak and watery. He can’t have stood more than five feet three, and his physique was that of a stunted child.

“Good morning, Mr. Todmarsh,” said Pete gravely. “Hope you’re feeling better.”

“I thank you, yes,” he answered, and at that moment Bill Merton and Tom Jerrold hove in sight. Then they disappeared again quickly and I saw ‘em a minute or two later with their foreheads pressed against something cold.

It was Pete who called a council of war, which was duly held in the saloon over the forenoon bracer. Todmarsh, enveloped in a rug, was up on deck, and we knew we shouldn’t be disturbed.

“Look here, boys,” said Pete, “that little guy is worse than anything I could have believed possible. I reckon that the temptation to pull his leg is going to be almost more than we can bear. But it seems to me that since there are five of us and only one of him, it’s up to us to give the poor beggar a sporting chance. He must have a certain amount of guts presumably to start off on his own, when he’s made that way. So I votes we play the game by him and treat him square. Anyway no monkeying about with religion–that’s his affair, not ours.”

Well, we did our best. Pete only blasphemed twice at lunch, and Andy darned near choked in biting off a story half-way through, that he’d suddenly remembered was unprintable. But that guy was difficult. He didn’t say anything on the subject of alcohol–but he looked a lot. Still we could have stood that, and the general cramped style of the conversation, if he hadn’t come butting in after dinner.

We were playing poker, when in he comes from a stroll on deck. I’ll admit his arrival coincided with Pete’s remarks on the subject of a full house aces while Tom had fours, and for a moment or two we didn’t see him. But the next instant, blowed if he hadn’t advanced to the table and snatched up the pack of cards.

Well, I suppose, looking back on it now, that it showed a certain amount of pluck. But at the moment it struck us as an unwarrantable piece of impertinence.

“Look here, little man,” said Pete ominously, “if that’s your idea of fun and laughter it isn’t mine. Put back those cards on the table.”

“Never,” cried Mr. Todmarsh. “These are the devil’s counters!”

“Devil’s grandmother,” said Pete getting up, and putting his hand on the little man’s shoulder. “See here, Mr. Todmarsh–you’re a missionary. I and my pals are not: it takes all sorts to make a world, you know. But there’s no reason why we shouldn’t all live quite happily together on board this ship, if you’ll mind your business same as we’re going to mind ours.”

“This is my business,” answered the other. “To play cards for money is one step down the road to Hell.”

“Well, I’m afraid we’re too darned near the bottom of the hill to worry about that,” said Pete quietly. “Put back those cards on the table.”

“I will not,” said Todmarsh defiantly.

For just a moment I thought Pete was going to lose his temper, and Heaven alone knows what would have happened to the little blighter if Pete had hit him. He’d have burst. However he didn’t: he took both Mr. Todmarsh’s wrists in one of his hands and took the pack out of his pocket with the other.

“Don’t do it again,” he said gently. “You’re a stupid little man, and you’ve got a lot to learn. But now you’ve lodged your complaint, and salved your conscience: so, all I say to you is–don’t do it again. Next time I might hurt you.”

And it wasn’t until we were having our final nightcap that anyone alluded to it again.

“You know,” said Andy as he put down his glass, “he’s mad and all that, but for a thing of that size to do what he did to five fellows like us–well, it’s not too bad.”

And that, I think, is what we all felt until the following day, when a thing happened that changed the whole atmosphere. In the bucketing we’d had, a lot of the cargo had got shifted, and the men were straightening things up under the first officer. As a matter of fact Pete and I for want of a bit of exercise were lending a hand ourselves, and the job was almost done when a heavy case suddenly toppled over and caught one of the sailors underneath.

My God! but it was a nasty sight. The poor devil had the lower part of his body pretty well squashed flat: the mess was something frightful. There he was screaming fit to beat the band, though it was obvious to all of us that he was a goner. As I say–still, I’ll draw a veil over the details.

“Get the missionary, Mac,” shouted Pete to me. I raced off, and found him on deck.

“Accident, Mr. Todmarsh,” I said. “Man dying. No hope.”

I’d got him by the arm and was hurrying him along. “You can say a prayer or something, can’t you? It’s a matter of seconds.”

It was: the poor chap’s groans were getting feebler. A bunch of his pals were round him, while Pete was holding up his head. They made room for us as we came, and I heard Pete mutter–“Hurry: hurry.”

And then I looked round: there was no missionary. He was being sick in the corner: he was still being sick when the groans ceased. And it was left to Pete to say–“God rest your soul, old chap.”

Then he got up, and I can’t say I blame him. He lifted Mr. Todmarsh some five feet in the air with his boot, and left him where he lay.

“And if the little swab complains to the Captain, Mac,” he said to me grimly, “I’ll do it again.”

But he didn’t complain: he shut himself into his cabin for twenty-four hours. He didn’t even come on deck when we sewed up in some canvas what was left of the poor devil who had been crushed, and buried him overboard.

“Ashamed to show his face,” remarked Pete. “And that’s the wretched little coward who had the gull to speak about devil’s counters.”

It was about three o’clock next afternoon that he suddenly appeared again. We were lounging about on deck–it was beginning to get almighty hot–and he went straight up to Pete.

“I want to thank you, Mr. O’Farrell,” he said, “for kicking me.”

Pete stared at him.

“Are you trying to be sarcastic?” he said curtly.

“Far from it,” answered the other. “The fact that you did what you did is as nothing to the mental torture I’ve been suffering since it happened. I failed that poor chap, and my only prayer is that I may have a chance of atoning. It’s no excuse to say that it was the first time I’d ever seen an accident, and that the sight of it made me physically sick. I failed him, and there’s no more to be said. I realize that I was just a rotten coward. And that’s why I’m glad you kicked me, because it’s part of my punishment that I should realize the contempt you rightly feel for me.”

With that he was gone, leaving Pete staring after him speechlessly.

“Well, I’m damned,” he muttered at length. “I reckon that little cove has me beat.”

He filled his pipe thoughtfully, and then he looked at me.

“What do you make of him, Mac?”

“Well, it was a nasty sight, Pete,” I answered. “And they say that medical students often faint at their first operation. But for all that if you hadn’t kicked him yesterday, I should.”

“I reckon I just felt wild at the moment,” he said. “But now–somehow or other–I wish I hadn’t.”

And for the next two or three days I often noticed a puzzled frown on his face. He seemed to be trying to size the little man up. He used to peer at him, when he wasn’t looking, as if he was some strange specimen, until we started pulling his leg about it.

“Can’t help it,” he grinned. “The blighter sort of fascinates me. I’ve never met anybody like him before. But what for the life of me I can’t make out is what good he thinks he’s going to do. I was leaning over the side this morning talking to him. And there were a couple of sharks in the water. So I told him a pretty lurid story of what I’d once seen happen to a fellow bathing at Durban, when a shark got him. I give you my word, boys, he was the colour of putty and shaking like a leaf when I’d finished. Well, what I want to get at is what earthly use a freak with nerves like that is going to be. Told me he always suffered from a vivid imagination ever since he could remember: told me–hullo! what on earth has bitten the skipper?”

The captain was coming along the deck towards us, and his face was white.

“I’ve got the most appalling news, gentlemen,” he said gravely. “There’s a case of plague on board.”

“Good God!” Pete sat up staring at him. “Plague!”

“Yes. I’m sorry to say there’s no doubt about it whatever. We’ve got, as you know, no doctor on board, but I’ve seen plague before. And the symptoms are absolutely unmistakable.”

It was then that for the first time I noticed Todmarsh. His eyes were fixed on the skipper’s face, with a look in them of such terror as I have never seen before or since. His lips were moving as if he was trying to speak, but no words came.

“There is only one thing to be done,” went on the captain, “and that is to try not to think about it. I shall segregate the case completely, but in a boat of this size it’s very difficult. And since I’ve been in contact with it I shall take my meals in future by myself. But I thought it was only fair to warn you at once, gentlemen, as to what has happened. I’ll get every ounce I can out of her, but we can’t make land in under eleven days at the earliest.”

“Plague!” Tony Jerrold got up suddenly. “I was in Canton in ‘94. We had a hundred thousand deaths. Hell!”

He moved over to the side as the skipper left us–and I noticed that Todmarsh had gone too.

“This is a proper lucky trip, boys,” said Pete. “First a man crushed to death, and now plague. The tame freak is a mascot all right.”

He laughed, but it didn’t ring quite true.

“Where is the little blighter?” he went on. “This will put the wind up him.”

“Probably gone below to pray,” sneered Andy. “Plague! What the hell did we come in this rank tub for?”

“Go to blazes,” snarled Pete. “Sorry, Andy.” He pulled himself together. “No good quarrelling. I guess we’re all in the same boat, literally as well as metaphorically.”

The breeze blew over, but it showed which way the wind had already begun to set. I don’t know if any of you gentlemen have ever had a similar experience; if not I hope for your sake that you never will. Hot as blazes: a dead flat calm: a small cargo boat with no doctor–and plague. Men’s tempers become a bit ragged: they get apt to see insults where none are intended. And, what is worse still, you begin to watch your next-door neighbour when you think he isn’t looking. You see, there’s nothing to do: it’s the inaction that frays one’s nerves–and the fear. You can banish it for a bit: you can forget it for a while with the help of some whisky–but back it comes gnawing at you sooner or later. Are you going to be the next victim?

The first afternoon it wasn’t so bad. After all there was only one case: with luck it might not spread. Besides we had something to amuse us–Todmarsh. It was Andy who discovered him, sitting in a deserted corner reading a medical book. And it was Andy who, of the whole bunch of us, took the show hardest from the very beginning. Outwardly, at least. It seemed to bring out all his worst points.

“Hullo! missionary,” he said harshly, “reading about the plague, are you? You don’t need to read, my lad: I’ll tell you.”

And he did for five minutes, till Pete growled at him to shut up, and Todmarsh sweated and shook like a man bereft of his senses.

“Don’t worry, little man,” said Tom Jerrold, “you’ll be all right out in the open here. As long as you keep away from infection.”

“Is it terribly infectious?” quavered the other.

“To blazes with you,” cried Pete angrily. “You haven’t got the courage of a louse. Why don’t you draw a circle round yourself, and stop inside it? We’ll throw you your food.”

It was the following morning that the first man died, and we had him overboard almost before the life was out of his body. And that afternoon there were two more cases. If possible it was hotter–the sea more oily. There wasn’t a breath of wind: the deck was like a burning plate. And still ten days to go. But what finished us was that Todmarsh seemed to have taken Pete literally. He hadn’t actually drawn a circle round himself, but when he wasn’t below in his cabin he was sitting as far away from us as possible. He used to eat his grub on deck, and after he’d finished it he’d disappear for hours on end.

And we baited him–baited him brutally. I make no excuses for it: I was as bad as the others. We used to form a ring round him, and rag him cruel. This second exhibition of cowardice had put the tin-hat on. We were none of us too happy ourselves: only, you see, you don’t show that sort of thing.

But it had no effect: he just stood there and sweated, and backed away if any of us came close to him. It was the day that three men went down with it, I remember, that Andy suddenly lost control of himself. He made a sudden dart for the little man and shook him like a rat. And Todmarsh screamed like a wounded hare.

“Stand away! Don’t touch me!”

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