The Joss: A Reversion/Chapter 19
THE RETICENCE OF CAPTAIN LANDER.
The office door was ajar. I remembered that I had left it so when I came to bed. Through the opening a dim light was visible. I peeped in.
I had expected to find that my guest would take the shape of the individual who had dogged my footsteps home from Camford Street. I hardly know on what I based my expectation, but there it was. A single glance, however, was sufficient to show that “guest” should read “guests,” for they were three. One was the pock-marked gentleman in question; a second was seemingly his brother—they were as alike as two peas; the third was as remarkable a person as I had ever yet beheld. He was of uncommon height and uncommon thinness. I never saw a smaller head set on human shoulders. My impression was that it was a monstrously attenuated monkey, which had thrown a yellow dust sheet about it anyhow. And it was only when I perceived the deftness with which the contents of my drawers were being emptied out upon the table that it occurred to me that, man or monkey, it was advisable I should interfere.
Just as I had decided that it was about time for me to have a finger in the pie, my beady-eyed acquaintance of the afternoon lighted on the God of Fortune, which I had tossed upon the table on my return from Pryor’s. Snatching it up with a curious cry, he handed it to his monkey-headed friend. That long-drawn-out gentleman, after a rapid glance at it, held it up with both hands high above his head. At once his two associates threw themselves down flat on their faces, grovelling before the penny doll as if it had been an object too sacred for ordinary eyes to look upon. The man of length without breadth began to say something in a high pitched monotone, which was in a language quite unknown to me, but which sounded as if it were a prayer or invocation. He spoke rapidly, as if he were repeating a form of words which he knew by heart.
I was getting interested. It seemed that I was surreptitiously assisting at some sort of religious service in which the doll played a conspicuous part. As I was momentarily expecting something to happen, something in the Arabian Nights way, as it were, that stupid hockey stick, slipping somehow from my grasp, fell with a bang upon the floor. That concluded the service on the spot. It must needs strike against the door in falling, driving it further open, so that I stood revealed to the trio in plain sight.
My impression is that they took me for something of horror; a demoniacal visitation, for all I know. My costume was weird enough to astonish even the Occidental mind. Anyhow, no sooner did they get a glimpse at me than they stood not on the order of their going, but went at once. Out went the light, and, also, out went they, through the window by which they had entered, and that with a show of agility which did them credit. I caught up that wretched stick, rushed after them in the darkness, and had the satisfaction of giving someone a pretty smart crack upon the head as he dropped from the sill on to the pavement below. I am not sure, but I fancy it was the lengthy one.
Striking a light I looked to see what damage had been done. So far as I could discover the only thing which was missing was the God of Fortune, to which they were entirely welcome. Apparently they prized it more than I did. I had a kind of notion, born of I know not what, that they had been after the Batters’ papers. If so, they were disappointed, for I had taken them with me into my bedroom, and at that moment they were reposing on a chair by my bedside.
The greater part of the following day I spent in searching for someone who knew something about Benjamin Batters, or Great Ka Island, or Arthur Lennard, missionary—without result I learned what I was already aware of, that there were numerous missionary societies, both in England and America; and acquired the additional information that to try to find out something about a particular missionary without knowing by which society he had been accredited, resembled the well-known leading case of the search for the needle in the haystack. At the great shipping office at which I made inquiries no one knew anyone who had ever been to Great Ka Island, or ever wanted to go. And as for Benjamin Batters, the general impression seemed to be that if I wanted to know anything about him I had better put an advertisement in the agony column, and see what came of that.
Altogether, I felt that the day had been pretty well wasted. But as it would probably have been wasted anyhow, I had the consolation of knowing that there had not been so much harm done after all. To the credit side of the account was the fact that I had picked up three or four odds and ends of curious information which had never come my way before. And, as luck would have it, shortly after my return I actually had a client. Or something like one, at any rate.
Crumper was making ready for departure, when he appeared at the door with a face on which was an unmistakable grievance.
“Gentleman wishes to see you, sir. Told him that the office was just closing.”
“Did you? Then don’t be so liberal with information of the kind. Show the gentleman in.”
Crumper showed him in. When I saw him I was not sure that, in the colloquial sense, he was a gentleman. And yet I did not know.
He was a tall, well set-up man of between thirty and forty, distinctly good-looking, with fair hair and beard, and a pair of the bluest eyes I ever saw. He wore a blue serge suit, a turn down collar, and a scarlet tie. I know something of the sea and of sailors, having several of the latter among my closest friends. If he was not a sailor I was no judge of the breed. He brought a whiff of sea air into the room.
I motioned him to a chair, on which he placed himself as if he was not altogether at his ease. He glanced at a piece of paper which he had in his hand.
“You are Mr. Frank Paine?” I inclined my head. “A lawyer?”
I nodded again. He pulled at his beard; observing me with his keen blue eyes, as if he was thinking that for a lawyer I was rather young.
“I want a lawyer, or rather I want advice which I suppose only a lawyer can give me. I was speaking about it to George Gardiner, and he mentioned your name.”
“I am obliged to George; he is my very good friend . To whom have I the pleasure of speaking?”
“I’m Max Lander.”
“I am pleased to make your acquaintance, as I should any friend of Mr. Gardiner’s. You, like him, are connected with the sea.”
“How did you find that out? Do I look as if I were?”
“Perhaps only to the instructed eye.” I wondered who, with ordinary perception, could associate him with anything else. “I am so fortunate as to have many friends among sailors, therefore I am always on the look-out for one.”
He kept trifling with his beard, apparently desirous that the burden of the conversation should rest with me.
“You know Mr. Gardiner well?”
“Not over well.”
“He was my schoolfellow, with another man who is now also a sailor—another George; George Kingdon.”
“Kingdon. He has lately received his first command; of a ship named The Flying Scud.”
Mr. Lander ceased to play with his beard. His hands dropped on to his knees. He sat forward on his chair, staring at me as if I were some strange animal.
He seemed agitated. I had no notion why. Something I had said had apparently disturbed him.
“You know Mr. Kingdon?”
“Kingdon? Kingdon? Is that his name? Then devil take him! No, I don’t mean that. Perhaps it’s not his fault after all; it’s the fortune of war. Still—devil take him all the same.”
“What has Mr. Kingdon done to you, Mr. Lander?”
“Done!—done!” Apparently his feelings were too strong for words. Rising from his seat he began to stride about the room. Then, resting both hands upon the table, he glared at me. “What has Mr. Kingdon done to me? Did you hear my name?”
“I understood you to say it was Lander.”
“That’s it, Lander; Max Lander. Now don’t you know who I am?”
“It may be my stupidity, but I have not the least idea.”
“Do you mean to say that you don’t know George Kingdon’s taken my ship from me?”
“Taken her from you? I don’t understand. I understood that. The Flying Scud was the property of Messrs.——”
“Staple, Wainwright and Friscoe; that’s so. That’s the name and title of the firm; they’re the owners. But I was in command of her the last three voyages; and when I brought her home I was hoping it was for the last time.”
“It seems that your hope was justified.”
“Are you laughing at me, Mr. Paine? Because, if you are, take my tip and don’t. I don’t mind being laughed at in a general way; but this is a subject on which I bar so much as a smile. I’m too sore, sir, too sore. Do you know the circumstances under which I got chucked from The Flying Scud?”
“I do not. May I ask if that is the matter on which you are seeking my advice?”
“Well,” he began, pulling at his beard again, hesitating, as if fearing to say too much. “What I want to know is, are your sympathies with the owner, with Kingdon, or with me?”
“Since I know nothing of what you are referring to, what answer do you expect me to give? So far as I am concerned, you are talking in riddles.”
“Look here, Mr. Paine, I’ll make a clean breast of the whole thing. Gardiner told me you were a decent sort, so I’ll take his word for it. You see before you the best done man in London—in England—in the world, for all I know. Done all round! I knew I was taking a certain risk, but I didn’t know it was a risk in that particular direction, and that’s where I was had. I saw my way to a real big thing. I went for it, shoved on all steam; brought the ship home, pretty well empty as she was; then got diddled. So, when I laid the ship alongside, and the owners found that there was scarcely enough on board to pay expenses, they didn’t like it. I got my marching ticket, and Mr. George Kingdon was in command instead. If it hadn’t been that I’d got a little money of my own, I should have been on my beam ends before now.”
“Do I gather that you complain of the way in which the owners of The Flying Scud have treated you?”
“Not a bit of it; nothing of the kind. The only person I complain of is—we’ll say a party. If I got that, we’ll say, party, alone in a nice quiet little spot for about ten minutes, after that time I wouldn’t complain of him. The complaint would be on the other foot.”
“Then do you wish me to assist you in a scheme of assault and battery?”
“I don’t want that either. The fact is, it’s a queer story. You wouldn’t believe me if I told it; no one has done yet, so I’m not going to try my luck again with you. What I want to know is this. Suppose I ship, we’ll say, a man, and that, we’ll say, man, undertakes to hand over certain—well, articles, to pay for passage, and deposits certain other articles by way of earnest money. Before the ship reaches port that, we’ll say, man, vanishes into air, the articles which were to have been handed over, vanish with him, and the deposit likewise. What offence has that, we’ll say, man, been guilty of against the English law?”
“Your point is a knotty one. Where was the deposit?”
“In a locker in my cabin.”
“Secured by lock and key?”
“Secured by lock and key. And the key was in my pocket”
“How was it taken out?”
“That’s what I want to know.”
“You are sure it was taken out?”
“If you have evidence which will show that the person to whom you refer made free with the contents of your locker, then I should say that it was a case of felony. But there may be other points which would have to be considered. I should have to be placed in possession of all the facts of the case before I could pronounce an opinion. The matter may not be so simple as you think.”
“Simple! I think it simple! Good Lord!” He held up his hands, as if amazed at the suggestion. “There’s another thing I want to know. Suppose on the strength of that, we’ll say, man’s promises, I make promises on my own account to certain members of the crew. Being done by that, we’ll say, man, I was obliged to do them. What is my position, Mr. Paine, toward those members of the crew?”
“That is a question to which I cannot reply off-hand. It would depend on so many circumstances. I am afraid you will have to tell me the whole of your story before I can be of use to you.”
“Ah! That so? I was afraid it would be. I said to myself that you can’t expect a man, lawyer or no lawyer, to see what’s inside a box unless you open the lid. But I can’t tell you the story; I can’t. I’m too sore, sir, too sore. Smarting almost more than I can bear. I’ve been done out of a fortune, out of my good name, and out of something I value more than both. That’s a fact. I’ll look round a bit more, and try to get one of them back, in my own way. Then, if I can’t, perhaps I’ll come to you again. Sorry to have troubled you, Mr. Paine. What’s your fee?”
“For what? I’ve been of no use to you. For a pleasant conversation with my friend’s friend? I charge no fee for that, Mr. Lander.”
“You’re a lawyer. A lawyer’s time is money. I’ve always understood that a lawyer’s fee is six and eightpence. You’ve found me pretty trying. So I’ll make it a pound if you don’t mind.”
He laid a sovereign on the table. Without another word he left the room. I did not try to stop him. To my thinking the whole interview had verged perilously near to the ridiculous. I took the coin and locked it in a drawer, proposing, with Gardiner’s assistance, to hunt up Mr. Lander again. His money should be restored to him, if not in one form, then in another.
I would dine the man, and make him tell his funny tale.