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   Chapter 21 No.21

Tom Gerrard By Louis Becke Characters: 9502

Updated: 2017-12-06 00:03


It was past midnight, and the chief steward of the Gambier was taking a last glance through the empty saloon to see that everything was in order before he turned in, when Swires, the purser's bedroom steward, came to him.

"If you please, sir, the gentlemen in No. 16 send their compliments, and would be obliged to you if you will let them have their lights on full for an hour or so for a game. And they want a couple of bottles of Usher's and a dozen of soda."

"Why can't they play cards in the-smoking-room on deck?" grumbled the chief steward; "there's a man on duty there until two o'clock-they know that well enough. Who's going to wait on them, and see after the lights?"

"I will, sir, if you don't mind," replied Swires, a clean-shaven, deferential young man with shifty eyes.

"Well, it's against the rules. And if the skipper or the purser comes along, and finds you loafing about in, the alley-way when you ought to be turned in, I'll get into trouble as well as yourself. Captain Forreste is a very liberal gentleman, but he puts it on a bit too thick when he asks me to run risks." But as he spoke he took out his keys, and proceeded to open his sideboard lockers-he had already received several golden tips from Captain Forreste and his friends, and felt certain of more in the future.

"I told the gentlemen, sir, that I would get into trouble if the purser or yourself seen me in the alley-way after eight bells, and they said that I might sit in their state-room until they had finished their game."

"Oh, well, I suppose I must give in to 'em. Tell 'em not to make too much noise."

As soon as Swires entered No. 16 with the whisky and sodas, Cheyne turned the key in the lock.

"Well?" asked Forreste interrogatively, as the steward laid the bottles down in one of the berths.

Helping himself to a cigar from a box on the table, the man lit it, and then sat down familiarly.

"Well," he replied, "I've found out that we are going to coal from a collier at Cooktown-that's one thing. Another is that there is a dinner-party to be given on shore to the skipper by the saloon passengers on the night after we get there, and most likely the purser is going."

"Ah," and Capel's black beady eyes glittered, "that'll be our chance."

"Yes, we'll be coaling for about sixteen hours, beginning in the afternoon. There will be a dust screen put up just near the purser's cabin, because one of the bunker shoots is just a little for'ard of his door-see?"

"Yes," and all four men bent eagerly towards Swires.

"Well, there'll be a thundering clatter with the coals as they come pouring down from the upper deck, and that will be the time to get in, cut the wire, and do the job right away. There'll be no one this side of the dust screen after eleven at night, as most of the passengers will be ashore at the dinner, and those who don't go will be asleep."

"Supposin' the flamin' purser don't go?" said Cheyne, a small, wiry, sunburned man, who, although like his confederates was extremely well-dressed, was an exceedingly illiterate man. He was Australian born, and from his youth upward, when not occupied in horse-stealing or thimble-rigging on bush race-courses, had spent the intervening time in gaol. Pinkerton, who was an American of a somewhat similar type to Cheyne, but of a more villainous nature, was an expert burglar, and a very fitting companion to the astute and well-educated Forreste, and the Jew, Barney Green.

"Well, what if he doesn't?" responded Swires, turning to Forreste; "you've got the stuff for me to give him in his B and S before he turns in. You're always cacklin' about it. Where is it?"

"Here you are," and Forreste went to his Gladstone bag, opened it, and took out a tin box containing a number of very small unlabeled phials, each holding about ten drops of colourless liquid. "Empty one of these into the tumbler before you put in the brandy, and he'll be dead to the world in ten minutes after he drinks it."

"I'd like to know how many flimsies there are in that packet," said Capel.

"We'll know before long," replied the steward. "It is a good big bundle. I seed the bank clerk give it to him in the saloon, and take a receipt for it, but couldn't get a look to see how much it was for."

Discussion then followed as to the future movements of the gang after the robbery, and it was decided that Capel and Cheyne should take the plunder on shore and hide it, and the following morning they should inform the purser that they intended to remain at Cooktown instead of going on in the steamer to Somerset and the newly-discovered rushes further north. This would cause no surprise, for already a number of the diggers on board had formed a deputation to A

dlam, asking him if he would make them a rebate on their passage money if they landed at Cooktown; explaining that they had learnt at Port Denison that it would be easier to get to the new gold-fields from Cooktown than from any other place to the north of that port.

Swires was to receive a fifth share of the plunder, and was to desert from the ship as soon as possible after the robbery. He had long been associated with the gang, and indeed it was at his suggestion, made in Sydney, that they should attempt to open the ship's safe. After a separation of twelve months-spent in prison-from his former companions, he had succeeded by means of an excellent "discharge," which he had stolen from an unfortunate steward named Swires, in getting a berth on the Gambier, and the first thing he did was to look up Forreste and Capel, and suggest their all going to the new gold-fields, pointing out that there would be a great number of passengers on board, and that they were bound to do well.

"That is just what we meant to do," Capel had said, "and we can wire to Cheyne and Pinkerton to join us. They are 'working' Bathurst just now, and will be here by to-morrow night." Then he added that it was a bit of luck that he (Swires) should be the purser's attendant-it would give them a very fair chance of making a big haul. If, however, they did not succeed in their anticipation of perpetrating any robberies or swindling on the voyage by cards, they knew that on a new gold-field they would have glorious opportunities. Swires-who really was a ship steward-they had become acquainted with in San Francisco, and had admitted into their fraternity. For quite two years they had "worked" the mail steamers between Sydney and San Francisco, fleecing the passengers who were foolish enough to be enticed into playing with them. Sometimes there would be but two of them-with Swires-sometimes three, and they usually took their passages separately, met on board as strangers, and, being always well-dressed, and very agreeable in their manners, soon ingratiated themselves with the rest of the passengers. Their lavish manner of living and courteous attention to ladies and children always paved the way to success; but at last they became too well known, and had to change their sphere of work from the American steamers-which are always infested by sharpers-to other lines. As "the Hon. Wilburd Merriton" the chief scoundrel of the gang had travelled all over the world, changing his name and appearance as occasion demanded. In the mining towns of California and Nevada he would be a wealthy English gentleman looking for suitable investments; on a Peninsular and Oriental liner from Melbourne to London, he would be either a college professor enjoying a twelve months' holiday trip, a squatter in the Northern Territory of South Australia, or the owner of a nitrate mine in Peru; and whatever role he played, he always succeeded in swindling some one. Women were his chief victims. His handsome appearance, fascinating manners, and easy courtesy were as fatal to a confiding woman as to the managers of banks who cashed his cheque when he was "temporarily short for a few hundreds." An excellent linguist in the principal Continental languages, he could also talk like, and assume the manners of, the rough gold-diggers with whom he so frequently associated for his nefarious purposes. Unlike his associates-the Jew, Barney Green (alias Capel), and Pinkerton and Cheyne-he had only once seen the inside of the prison, when as "the Hon. Wilburd Merriton" he was given a sentence of two years' hard labour for forgery in Auckland, New Zealand.

Lacey, who was then editing a newspaper in that somnolent little city, had seen him in the dock, and heard something of his career; and so, when he saw him standing on the after-deck of the Gambier, he had given Gerrard his hurriedly scribbled warning.

The discovery by Swires of the location of the secret safe in the purser's cabin had come about in a very simple manner. A plan of the electric connections between the dynamo in the engine-room, and Adlam's cabin and other parts of the ship, had come under his notice through the carelessness of the chief engineer, who had left it on the purser's table, and Swires had studied it so carefully that although he had not the time to make a copy, he had been able to explain the mechanism perfectly to Pinkerton and Capel. The unlocking of the door of the purser's cabin was a very easy matter to professionals like Cheyne, Pinkerton, and Barney Green, and so when their conference closed, and the oily-voiced steward bade the gang good-night, the latter were highly elated at the prospect of making a big haul with scarcely any danger of detection.

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