Pursuit of the House-Boat/Chapter VII

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Pursuit of the House-Boat by John Kendrick Bangs
Chapter VII
The "Gehenna" is Chartered


It was about twenty-four hours after the events narrated in the preceding chapters that Mr. Sherlock Holmes assumed command of the Gehenna, which was nothing more nor less than the shadow of the ill-starred ocean steamship City of Chicago, which tried some years ago to reach Liverpool by taking the overland route through Ireland, fortunately without detriment to her passengers or crew, who had the pleasure of the experience of shipwreck without any of the discomforts of drowning. As will be remembered, the obstructionist nature of the Irish soil prevented the City of Chicago from proceeding farther inland than was necessary to keep her well balanced amidships upon a convenient and not too stony bed; and that after a brief sojourn on the rocks she was finally disposed of to the Styx Navigation Company, under which title Charon had had himself incorporated, is a matter of nautical history. The change of name to the Gehenna was the act of Charon himself, and was prompted, no doubt, by a desire to soften the jealous prejudices of the residents of the Stygian capital against the flourishing and ever-growing metropolis of Illinois.

The Associated Shades had had some trouble in getting this craft. Charon, through his constant association with life on both sides of the dark river, had gained a knowledge, more or less intimate, of modern business methods, and while as janitor of the club he was subject to the will of the House Committee, and sympathized deeply with the members of the association in their trouble, as president of the Styx Navigation Company he was bound up in certain newly attained commercial ideas which were embarrassing to those members of the association to whose hands the chartering of a vessel had been committed.

"See here, Charon," Sir Walter Raleigh had said, after Charon had expressed himself as deeply sympathetic, but unable to shave the terms upon which the vessel could be had, "you are an infernal old hypocrite. You go about wringing your hands over our misfortunes until they've got as dry and flabby as a pair of kid gloves, and yet when we ask you for a ship of suitable size and speed to go out after those pirates, you become a sort of twin brother to Shylock, without his excuse. His instincts are accidents of birth. Yours are cultivated, and you know it."

"You are very much mistaken, Sir Walter," Charon had answered to this. "You don't understand my position. It is a very hard one. As janitor of your club I am really prostrated over the events of the past twenty-four hours. My occupation is gone, and my despair over your loss is correspondingly greater, for I have time on my hands to brood over it. I was hysterical as a woman yesterday afternoon--so hysterical that I came near upsetting one of the Furies who engaged me to row her down to Madame Medusa's villa last evening; and right at the sluice of the vitriol reservoir at that."

"Then why the deuce don't you do something to help us?" pleaded Hamlet.

"How can I do any more than I have done? I've offered you the Gehenna," retorted Charon.

"But on what terms?" expostulated Raleigh. "If we had all the wealth of the Indies we'd have difficulty in paying you the sums you demand."

"But I am only president of the company," explained Charon. "I'd like, as president, to show you some courtesy, and I'm perfectly willing to do so; but when it comes down to giving you a vessel like that, I'm bound by my official oath to consider the interest of the stockholders. It isn't as it used to be when I had boats to hire in my own behalf alone. In those days I had nobody's interest but my own to look after. Now the ships all belong to the Styx Navigation Company. Can't you see the difference?"

"You own all the stock, don't you?" insisted Raleigh.

"I don't know," Charon answered, blandly. "I haven't seen the transfer-books lately."

"But you know that you did own every share of it, and that you haven't sold any, don't you?" put in Hamlet.

Charon was puzzled for a moment, but shortly his face cleared, and Sir Walter's heart sank, for it was evident that the old fellow could not be cornered.

"Well, it's this way, Sir Walter, and your Highness," he said, "I--I can't say whether any of that stock has been transferred or not. The fact is, I've been speculating a little on margin, and I've put up that stock as security, and, for all I know, I may have been sold out by my brokers. I've been so upset by this unfortunate occurrence that I haven't seen the market reports for two days. Really you'll have to be content with my offer or go without the Gehenna. There's too much suspicion attached to high corporate officials lately for me to yield a jot in the position I have taken. It would never do to get you all ready to start, and then have an injunction clapped on you by some unforeseen stockholder who was not satisfied with the terms offered you; nor can I ever let it be said of me that to retain my position as janitor of your organization I sacrificed a trust committed to my charge. I'll gladly lend you my private launch, though I don't think it will aid you much, because the naphtha-tank has exploded, and the screw slipped off and went to the bottom two weeks ago. Still, it is at your service, and I've no doubt that either Phidias or Benvenuto Cellini will carve out a paddle for you if you ask him to."

"Bah!" retorted Raleigh. "You might as well offer us a pair of skates."

"I would, if I thought the river'd freeze," retorted Charon, blandly.

Raleigh and Hamlet turned away impatiently and left Charon to his own devices, which for the time being consisted largely of winking his other eye quietly and outwardly making a great show of grief.

"He's too canny for us, I am afraid," said Sir Walter. "We'll have to pay him his money."

"Let us first consult Sherlock Holmes," suggested Hamlet, and this they proceeded at once to do.

"There is but one thing to be done," observed the astute detective after he had heard Sir Walter's statement of the case. "It is an old saying that one should fight fire with fire. We must meet modern business methods with modern commercial ideas. Charter his vessel at his own price."

"But we'd never be able to pay," said Hamlet.

"Ha-ha!" laughed Holmes. "It is evident that you know nothing of the laws of trade nowadays. Don't pay!"

"But how can we?" asked Raleigh.

"The method is simple. You haven't anything to pay with," returned Holmes. "Let him sue. Suppose he gets a verdict. You haven't anything he can attach--if you have, make it over to your wives or your fiancées."

"Is that honest?" asked Hamlet, shaking his head doubtfully.

"It's business," said Holmes.

"But suppose he wants an advance payment?" queried Hamlet.

"Give him a check drawn to his own order. He'll have to endorse it when he deposits it, and that will make him responsible," laughed Holmes.

"What a simple thing when you understand it!" commented Raleigh.

"Very," said Holmes. "Business is getting by slow degrees to be an exact science. It reminds me of the Brighton mystery, in which I played a modest part some ten years ago, when I first took up ferreting as a profession. I was sitting one night in my room at one of the Brighton hotels, which shall be nameless. I never give the name of any of the hotels at which I stop, because it might give offence to the proprietors of other hotels, with the result that my books would be excluded from sale therein. Suffice it to say that I was spending an early summer Sunday at Brighton with my friend Watson. We had dined well, and were enjoying our evening smoke together upon a small balcony overlooking the water, when there came a timid knock on the door of my room.

"'Watson,' said I, 'here comes some one for advice. Do you wish to wager a small bottle upon it?'

"'Yes,' he answered, with a smile. 'I am thirsty and I'd like a small bottle; and while I do not expect to win, I'll take the bet. I should like to know, though, how you know.'

"'It is quite simple,' said I. 'The timidity of the knock shows that my visitor is one of two classes of persons--an autograph-hunter or a client, one of the two. You see I give you a chance to win. It may be an autograph-hunter, but I think it is a client. If it were a creditor, he would knock boldly, even ostentatiously; if it were the maid, she would not knock at all; if it were the hall-boy, he would not come until I had rung five times for him. None of these things has occurred; the knock is the half-hearted knock which betokens either that the person who knocked is in trouble, or is uncertain as to his reception. I am willing, however, considering the heat and my desire to quench my thirst, to wager that it is a client.'

"'Done,' said Watson; and I immediately remarked, 'Come in.'

"The door opened, and a man of about thirty-five years of age, in a bathing-suit, entered the room, and I saw at a glance what had happened.

"'Your name is Burgess,' I said. You came here from London this morning, expecting to return to-night. You brought no luggage with you. After luncheon you went in bathing. You had machine No. 35, and when you came out of the water you found that No. 35 had disappeared, with your clothes and the silver watch your uncle gave you on the day you succeeded to his business.'

"Of course, gentlemen," observed the detective, with a smile at Sir Walter and Hamlet--"of course the man fairly gasped, and I continued: 'You have been lying face downward in the sand ever since, waiting for nightfall, so that you could come to me for assistance, not considering it good form to make an afternoon call upon a stranger at his hotel, clad in a bathing-suit. Am I correct?'

"'Sir,' he replied, with a look of wonder, 'you have narrated my story exactly as it happened, and I find I have made no mistake in coming to you. Would you mind telling me what is your course of reasoning?'

"'It is plain as day,' said I. 'I am the person with the red beard with whom you came down third class from London this morning, and you told me your name was Burgess and that you were a butcher. When you looked to see the time, I remarked upon the oddness of your watch, which led to your telling me that it was the gift of your uncle.'

"'True,' said Burgess, 'but I did not tell you I had no luggage.'

"'No,' said I, 'but that you hadn't is plain; for if you had brought any other clothing besides that you had on with you, you would have put it on to come here. That you have been robbed I deduce also from your costume.'

"'But the number of the machine?' asked Watson.

"'Is on the tag on the key hanging about his neck,' said I.

"'One more question,' queried Burgess. 'How do you know I have been lying face downward on the beach ever since?'

"'By the sand in your eyebrows,' I replied; and Watson ordered up the small bottle."

"I fail to see what it was in our conversation, however," observed Hamlet, somewhat impatient over the delay caused by the narration of this tale, "that suggested this train of thought to you."

"The sequel will show," returned Holmes.

"Oh, Lord!" put in Raleigh. "Can't we put off the sequel until a later issue? Remember, Mr. Holmes, that we are constantly losing time."

"The sequel is brief, and I can narrate it on our way to the office of the Navigation Company," observed the detective. "When the bottle came I invited Mr. Burgess to join us, which he did, and as the hour was late when we came to separate, I offered him the use of my parlor overnight. This he accepted, and we retired.

"The next morning when I arose to dress, the mystery was cleared."

"You had dreamed its solution?" asked Raleigh.

"No," replied Holmes. "Burgess had disappeared with all my clothing, my false-beard, my suit-case, and my watch. The only thing he had left me was the bathing-suit and a few empty small bottles."

"And why, may I ask," put in Hamlet, as they drew near to Charon's office--"why does that case remind you of business as it is conducted to-day?"

"In this, that it is a good thing to stay out of unless you know it all," explained Holmes. "I omitted in the case of Burgess to observe one thing about him. Had I observed that his nose was rectilinear, incurved, and with a lifted base, and that his auricular temporal angle was between 96 and 97 degrees, I should have known at once that he was an impostor. Vide Ottolenghui on 'Ears and Noses I Have Met,' pp. 631-640."

"Do you mean to say that you can tell a criminal by his ears?" demanded Hamlet.

"If he has any--yes; but I did not know that at the time of the Brighton mystery. Therefore I should have stayed out of the case. But here we are. Good morning, Charon."

By this time the trio had entered the private office of the president of the Styx Navigation Company, and in a few moments the vessel was chartered at a fabulous price.

On the return to the wharf, Sir Walter somewhat nervously asked Holmes if he thought the plan they had settled upon would work.

"Charon is a very shrewd old fellow," said he. "He may outwit us yet."

"The chances are just two and one-eighth degrees in your favor," observed Holmes, quietly, with a glance at Raleigh's ears. "The temporal angle of your ears is 93 1/8 degrees, whereas Charon's stand out at 91, by my otometer. To that extent your criminal instincts are superior to his. If criminology is an exact science, reasoning by your respective ears, you ought to beat him out by a perceptible though possibly narrow margin."

With which assurance Raleigh went ahead with his preparations, and within twelve hours the Gehenna was under way, carrying a full complement of crew and officers, with every state-room on board occupied by some spirit of the more illustrious kind.

Even Shylock was on board, though no one knew it, for in the dead of night he had stolen quietly up the gang-plank and had hidden himself in an empty water-cask in the forecastle.

"'Tisn't Venice," he said, as he sat down and breathed heavily through the bung of the barrel, "but it's musty and damp enough, and, considering the cost, I can't complain. You can't get something for nothing, even in Hades."