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   Chapter 20 No.20

Tom Gerrard By Louis Becke Characters: 9902

Updated: 2017-12-06 00:03

Not only the saloon, but the steerage accommodation of the Gambier was taxed to the utmost, and Gerrard and Fraser were not surprised to see that there were quite a hundred diggers on board, for Lacey had told them a few days previously that the Sydney and Melbourne newspapers as well as the Queensland Press had, weeks previously, reported that many prospecting parties were doing well on both sides of Cape York Peninsula.

Some of them the ex-judge quickly recognised as men he had met at Gympie and other Queensland gold-fields, and he was especially pleased to see one man-a tall, broad-shouldered Irishman named Blake, who at that moment was engaged in an altercation with the fore-cabin steward, and causing roars of laughter every few moments from his rough companions.

"That's a 'broth av a boy,' and no mistake," said Captain MacAlister, coming over to Fraser and Gerrard; "he's as full of mischief as a monkey, but a great favourite with every one on board, except the unfortunate stewards. He is a lucky digger from Gympie, and came aboard at Brisbane, and has kept the ship in an uproar ever since. He took a four-berth state-room for himself, but only uses it to sleep in-if the devil ever does sleep-and spends all his time among the other diggers in the fore-cabin."

"I know him," said Fraser with a smile. "Just listen now-he is taking a rise out of the poor steward."

The fore-cabin steward, a fat, podgy, little man, was speaking; beside him was Cockney Smith, who kept giving him sympathetic punches in the back to go on.

"I won't 'ave it, even if yer are a cabbing passinger. Wot do yer come into the fore-cabbing for, upsettin' me an' my men, and a-usin' langwidge when I can't open four dozen bottles of beer at onct. I never seed such a crowd! I'm alius willin' to oblige any man wot is thirsty, and wot wants a drink; but I aint a-goin' to attend on yer like a slave when I 'as cleanin' to do. So there, big as yer are, yer 'ave it-straight."

"'Ear, 'ear," said Cockney Smith, who was thoroughly enjoying himself. "Who's a-goin' to be bullied by any cove because he is a cabbing passinger?" and he gave Blake an almost imperceptible wink.

Blake outspread his huge hands and rolled up his eyes, in sorrowful indignation. "Me little mahn, I can see that ye and the steward mane to parsecute me, and make me loife a mishery-an' me doin' no harm at all, at all. Sure, I'll not stand it anny more. It's to the captain I'll go, and complain av ye both. He's a MacAlister, he is, an' I'll call on him to purtect me from your violent conduct-me sufferin' from a wake heart, an' liable to fall dead on yez at anny moment, when yez luk at me like that, wid that ferocioushness in yez eyes. Sure, an' me own father dhropped dead off the car he was drivin' whin an ould maid from Belfast gave him two sovereigns in mistake for two shillin's for takin' her from Dawson Street to St Stephen's Green. It was short-sighted she was, but it made me the poor orphan I am this minute."

Amidst much laughter, the irate steward went off, and left the field to his antagonist, and then Douglas Fraser left the bridge, made his way forward, and clapping the Irishman on the shoulder, said:

"At your old tricks again, Larry."

Blake stared at him for a moment, and then gave a shout of delight as he seized Fraser's hand, and in a few seconds other diggers also recognised and crowded about him.

"An' how's the wee girl?" was Blake's first question.

"Come and see for yourself," and Fraser led the way to the saloon, where they found Kate. She was delighted to see the big digger, and blushed scarlet at his loudly expressed compliments, for there were a number of other passengers near. Leaving her with Blake, Fraser rejoined Gerrard, and together they went to the purser, whom they found in his cabin, and asked to see the passenger list. He was an old accquaintance of Gerrard's, and readily complied. Running down the names, they failed to see either that of Merriton or Green.

"Who is that big, good-looking man with the yellow moustache, carrying field-glasses, Adlam?" asked Gerrard carelessly.

"Oh," and the purser shrugged his shoulders. "Here he is," and he pointed to a name on the list-"'Captain Forreste.' He's one of a party of four, who have a cabin to themselves. They put on no end of frills, and practically boss the saloon. Between ourselves, I have every reason to believe they are a gang of sharpers. I know for a fact that one of them-this fellow here, 'Mr Bernard Capel'-has a hand-bag literally packed with unopened packs of cards, every one of which no doubt is marked. I happened to be passing their state-room late at night, after all the other passengers were asleep, and when the ship was rolling heavily. The door flew open, and I saw this fellow Capel and the big man Forreste had the bag open on the table, and there must have been at least twenty unopened packs of cards piled

up on the table, besides those in the bag. I pretended I didn't notice, for the moment the door flew open, Capel called Forreste a --- idiot for not turning the key. Now, I haven't been pursering for ten years without learning something, and I can smell a swell-mobsman almost before I see him."

Fraser nodded. "I daresay you are right, Mr Adlam. When a man travels with a handbag full of packs of cards one naturally would suspect that he was either very eccentric, or was a commercial traveller, with samples of his wares." His eyes twinkled. "It is a very old dodge that-an apparently unopened pack of cards, every one of which has been systematically marked, and then the wrapper with the revenue stamp is carefully put on again."

"Just so," assented the purser. "And the other night, a big digger-one of our saloon passengers-was taken down by Forreste for a hundred and twenty pounds. The great Irish ass, however, thinks that Forreste is no end of a gentleman. The skipper and I gave him a hint, which he wouldn't take, however. The worst of it is that I must keep my mouth shut about the bag full of packs of cards. Diggers are rough customers, and if these now on board knew that Forreste and his friends were a gang of sharpers, they would handle them very severely, and create a fearful disturbance."

"What is Mr Bernard Capel like?" asked Fraser.

"Oh, a short, black-moustached chap with curly hair, and a hook nose, wears a lot of jewellery. The lady passengers think that he and Captain Forreste are most charming men."

"Who are the other two?"

"Pinkerton and Cheyne. They are as well-dressed as the others, but don't push themselves much-the other two are the bosses of the gang."

Fraser thought a moment or two. Then he spoke.

"I think I ought to tell you, Mr Adlam. I know the man who calls himself Capel. His real name is Barney Green, and he is a bad lot-gold thief and coiner. And I advise you to take good care of your safe. I daresay these four gentlemen have a very interesting collection of safe keys."

Adlam laughed. "Ah, our Company has learnt something by experience. There, you see, is the safe which is supposed to contain all the money committed to my care; but there is nothing in it but loose cash; the safe that does hold all the money is here," and he tapped the varnished cedar panels of his bunk; "no one, even if he knew the secret, could get at it without disturbing me. When the strong room of the Andes was broken into five years ago, between Melbourne and Colombo, and six hundred-weight of gold bars stolen, I set my wits to work, and devised this idea of mine. Only the captain, chief officer, chief engineer, and myself, and, of course, the Company's general manager at Sydney, know of it; even my own bedroom steward has no idea that there is a second safe, although he turns out my cabin twice a week for a general cleaning. If he did discover the fact, I should have to shunt him at once, as he is quite a new hand in the service."

"Well, you have given the secret away to us, Adlam," said Gerrard, with a laugh, "and I have had some bad luck of late."

The purser laughed in unison, and then turning the key of his door, rose, went to his bunk, and touched a concealed spring in the heavy panelling at the back. It at once slid down noiselessly, and revealed the safe, about the sides of which were a number of electric wires and bells.

"The current is turned off now," he explained, as he again touched the panelling, which ascended as quickly and softly as it had fallen; "but if any one did try to prize up the panelling, there would be a devil of a row; not only the six bells in this cabin but those in the captain's and chief mate's room would begin to ring, and keep ringing, and they and the chief engineer would know something was wrong. We have tried it several times when in dock, after clearing every one out of the ship but ourselves, and it works splendidly-kicks up a fearful din. Now, last voyage, independent of ten thousand ounces of gold in the strong room, I had seventeen thousand pounds in notes and sovereigns in that safe; this trip there is only about one thousand two hundred pounds, mostly passengers' money, and a packet of five thousand new unsigned one pound notes for the bank just opened at Cooktown. Now, I hope with four such gentry as we have on board that you and Mr Fraser will be careful; better give me your cash."

"Thank you, I will," said Fraser; "I have seven hundred pounds in notes."

"And I about three hundred pounds," said Gerrard.

"Well, go and get them now if you will," said the obliging purser.

This was done, and then the two friends, as they were returning to the bridge, met Kate.

"I have honours conferred on me, father. Captain MacAlister is having afternoon tea in his cabin, and you, Mr Gerrard, and Jim are invited; I am to be hostess. In another hour I shall be the best hated woman on board."

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