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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesThe Grand Babylon Hotel - Chapter 25 - THE STEAM LAUNCH
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The Grand Babylon Hotel - Chapter 25 - THE STEAM LAUNCH Post by :biznewstoday Category :Long Stories Author :Arnold Bennett Date :March 2011 Read :1429

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The Grand Babylon Hotel - Chapter 25 - THE STEAM LAUNCH

MR TOM JACKSON's notion of making good his escape from the
hotel by means of a steam launch was an excellent one, so far as it
went, but Theodore Racksole, for his part, did not consider that it
went quite far enough.

Theodore Racksole opined, with peculiar glee, that he now had a
tangible and definite clue for the catching of the Grand Babylon's
ex-waiter. He knew nothing of the Port of London, but he
happened to know a good deal of the far more complicated, though
somewhat smaller, Port of New York, and he sure there ought to
be no extraordinary difficulty in getting hold of Jules'

steam launch. To those who are not thoroughly familiar with it the
River Thames and its docks, from London Bridge to Gravesend,
seems a vast and uncharted wilderness of craft - a wilderness in
which it would be perfectly easy to hide even a three-master
successfully. To such people the idea of looking for a steam launch
on the river would be about equivalent to the idea of looking for a
needle in a bundle of hay. But the fact is, there are hundreds of
men between St Katherine's Wharf and Blackwall who literally
know the Thames as the suburban householder knows his
back-garden - who can recognize thousands of ships and put a
name to them at a distance of half a mile, who are informed as to
every movement of vessels on the great stream, who know all the
captains, all the engineers, all the lightermen, all the pilots, all the
licensed watermen, and all the unlicensed scoundrels from the
Tower to Gravesend, and a lot further. By these experts of the
Thames the slightest unusual event on the water is noticed and
discussed - a wherry cannot change hands but they will guess
shrewdly upon the price paid and the intentions of the new owner
with regard to it. They have a habit of watching the river for the
mere interest of the sight, and they talk about everything like
housewives gathered of an evening round the cottage door. If the
first mate of a Castle Liner gets the sack they will be able to tell
you what he said to the captain, what the old man said to him, and
what both said to the Board, and having finished off that affair
they will cheerfully turn to discussing whether Bill Stevens sank
his barge outside the West Indian No.2 by accident or on purpose.

Theodore Racksole had no satisfactory means of identifying the
steam launch which carried away Mr Tom Jackson. The sky had
clouded over soon after midnight, and there was also a slight mist,
and he had only been able to make out that it was a low craft,
about sixty feet long, probably painted black. He had personally
kept a watch all through the night on vessels going upstream, and
during the next morning he had a man to take his place who
warned him whenever a steam launch went towards Westminster.
At noon, after his conversation with Prince Aribert, he went down
the river in a hired row-boat as far as the Custom House, and
poked about everywhere, in search of any vessel which could by
any possibility be the one he was in search of.

But he found nothing. He was, therefore, tolerably sure that the
mysterious launch lay somewhere below the Custom House. At the
Custom House stairs, he landed, and asked for a very high official
- an official inferior only to a Commissioner - whom he had
entertained once in New York, and who had met him in London on
business at Lloyd's. In the large but dingy office of this great man a
long conversation took place - a conversation in which Racksole
had to exercise a certain amount of persuasive power, and which
ultimately ended in the high official ringing his bell.

'Desire Mr Hazell - room No. 332 - to speak to me,' said the
official to the boy who answered the summons, and then, turning
to Racksole: 'I need hardly repeat, my dear Mr Racksole, that this
is strictly unofficial.'

'Agreed, of course,' said Racksole.

Mr Hazell entered. He was a young man of about thirty, dressed in
blue serge, with a pale, keen face, a brown moustache and a rather
handsome brown beard.

'Mr Hazell,' said the high official, 'let me introduce you to Mr
Theodore Racksole - you will doubtless be familiar with his name.
Mr Hazell,' he went on to Racksole, 'is one of our outdoor staff -
what we call an examining officer. Just now he is doing night duty.
He has a boat on the river and a couple of men, and the right to
board and examine any craft whatever. What Mr Hazell and his
crew don't know about the Thames between here and Gravesend
isn't knowledge.'

'Glad to meet you, sir,' said Racksole simply, and they shook
hands.

Racksole observed with satisfaction that Mr Hazell was entirely at
his ease.

'Now, Hazell,' the high official continued, 'Mr Racksole wants you
to help in a little private expedition on the river to-night. I will
give you a night's leave. I sent for you partly because I thought you
would enjoy the affair and partly because I think I can rely on you
to regard it as entirely unofficial and not to talk about it. You
understand? I dare say you will have no cause to regret having
obliged Mr Racksole.'

'I think I grasp the situation,' said Hazell, with a slight smile.

'And, by the way,' added the high official, 'although the business is
unofficial, it might be well if you wore your official overcoat.
See?'

'Decidedly,' said Hazell; 'I should have done so in any case.'

'And now, Mr Hazell,' said Racksole, 'will you do me the pleasure
of lunching with me? If you agree, I should like to lunch at the
place you usually frequent.'

So it came to pass that Theodore Racksole and George Hazell,
outdoor clerk in the Customs, lunched together at 'Thomas's
Chop-House', in the city of London, upon mutton-chops and
coffee. The millionaire soon discovered that he had got hold of a
keen-witted man and a person of much insight.

'Tell me,' said Hazell, when they had reached the cigarette stage,
'are the magazine writers anything like correct?'

'What do you mean?' asked Racksole, mystified.

'Well, you're a millionaire - "one of the best", I believe. One often
sees articles on and interviews with millionaires, which describe
their private railroad cars, their steam yachts on the Hudson, their
marble stables, and so on, and so on. Do you happen to have those
things?'

'I have a private car on the New York Central, and I have a two
thousand ton schooner-yacht - though it isn't on the Hudson. It
happens just now to be on East River. And I am bound to admit
that the stables of my uptown place are fitted with marble.'
Racksole laughed.

'Ah!' said Hazell. 'Now I can believe that I am lunching with a
millionaire.

It's strange how facts like those - unimportant in themselves -
appeal to the imagination. You seem to me a real millionaire now.
You've given me some personal information; I'll give you some in
return. I earn three hundred a year, and perhaps sixty pounds a year
extra for overtime. I live by myself in two rooms in Muscovy
Court. I've as much money as I need, and I always do exactly what
I like outside office. As regards the office, I do as little work as I
can, on principle - it's a fight between us and the Commissioners
who shall get the best. They try to do us down, and we try to do
them down - it's pretty even on the whole. All's fair in war, you
know, and there ain't no ten commandments in a Government
office.'

Racksole laughed. 'Can you get off this afternoon?' he asked.

'Certainly,' said Hazell; 'I'll get one of my pals to sign on for me,
and then I shall be free.'

'Well,' said Racksole, 'I should like you to come down with me to
the Grand Babylon. Then we can talk over my little affair at
length. And may we go on your boat? I want to meet your crew.'

'That will be all right,' Hazell remarked. 'My two men are the
idlest, most soul-less chaps you ever saw. They eat too much, and
they have an enormous appetite for beer; but they know the river,
and they know their business, and they will do anything within the
fair game if they are paid for it, and aren't asked to hurry.'

That night, just after dark, Theodore Racksole embarked with his
new friend George Hazell in one of the black-painted Customs
wherries, manned by a crew of two men - both the later freemen of
the river, a distinction which carries with it certain privileges
unfamiliar to the mere landsman. It was a cloudy and oppressive
evening, not a star showing to illumine the slow tide, now just past
its flood. The vast forms of steamers at anchor - chiefly those of
the General Steam Navigation and the Aberdeen Line - heaved
themselves high out of the water, straining sluggishly at their
mooring buoys. On either side the naked walls of warehouses rose
like grey precipices from the stream, holding forth quaint arms of
steam-cranes. To the west the Tower Bridge spanned the river with
its formidable arch, and above that its suspended footpath - a
hundred and fifty feet from earth.

Down towards the east and the Pool of London a forest of funnels
and masts was dimly outlined against the sinister sky. Huge barges,
each steered by a single man at the end of a pair of giant oars,
lumbered and swirled down-stream at all angles. Occasionally a
tug snorted busily past, flashing its red and green signals and
dragging an unwieldy tail of barges in its wake. Then a Margate
passenger steamer, its electric lights gleaming from every porthole,
swerved round to anchor, with its load of two thousand fatigued
excursionists. Over everything brooded an air of mystery - a spirit
and feeling of strangeness, remoteness, and the inexplicable. As
the broad flat little boat bobbed its way under the shadow of
enormous hulks, beneath stretched hawsers, and past buoys
covered with green slime, Racksole could scarcely believe that he
was in the very heart of London - the most prosaic city in the
world. He had a queer idea that almost anything might happen in
this seeming waste of waters at this weird hour of ten o'clock. It
appeared incredible to him that only a mile or two away people
were sitting in theatres applauding farces, and that at Cannon
Street Station, a few yards off, other people were calmly taking the
train to various highly respectable suburbs whose names he was
gradually learning. He had the uplifting sensation of being in
another world which comes to us sometimes amid surroundings
violently different from our usual surroundings. The most ordinary
noises - of men calling, of a chain running through a slot, of a
distant siren - translated themselves to his ears into terrible and
haunting sounds, full of portentous significance. He looked over
the side of the boat into the brown water, and asked himself what
frightful secrets lay hidden in its depth. Then he put his hand into
his hip-pocket and touched the stock of his Colt revolver - that
familiar substance comforted him.

The oarsmen had instructions to drop slowly down to the Pool, as
the wide reach below the Tower is called. These two men had not
been previously informed of the precise object of the expedition,
but now that they were safely afloat Hazell judged it expedient to
give them some notion of it. 'We expect to come across a rather
suspicious steam launch,' he said. 'My friend here is very anxious
to get a sight of her, and until he has seen her nothing definite can
be done.'

'What sort of a craft is she, sir?' asked the stroke oar, a fat-faced
man who seemed absolutely incapable of any serious exertion.

'I don't know,' Racksole replied; 'but as near as I can judge, she's
about sixty feet in length, and painted black. I fancy I shall
recognize her when I see her.'

'Not much to go by, that,' exclaimed the other man curtly. But he
said no more. He, as well as his mate, had received from Theodore
Racksole one English sovereign as a kind of preliminary fee, and
an English sovereign will do a lot towards silencing the natural
sarcastic tendencies and free speech of a Thames waterman.

'There's one thing I noticed,' said Racksole suddenly, 'and I forgot
to tell you of it, Mr Hazell. Her screw seemed to move with a
rather irregular, lame sort of beat.'

Both watermen burst into a laugh.

'Oh,' said the fat rower, 'I know what you're after, sir - it's Jack
Everett's launch, commonly called "Squirm". She's got a
four-bladed propeller, and one blade is broken off short.'

'Ay, that's it, sure enough,' agreed the man in the bows. 'And if it's
her you want, I seed her lying up against Cherry Gardens Pier this
very morning.'

'Let us go to Cherry Gardens Pier by all means, as soon as
possible,'

Racksole said, and the boat swung across stream and then began to
creep down by the right bank, feeling its way past wharves, many
of which, even at that hour, were still busy with their cranes, that
descended empty into the bellies of ships and came up full. As the
two watermen gingerly manoeuvred the boat on the ebbing tide,
Hazell explained to the millionaire that the 'Squirm' was one of the
most notorious craft on the river. It appeared that when anyone had
a nefarious or underhand scheme afoot which necessitated river
work Everett's launch was always available for a suitable monetary
consideration. The 'Squirm' had got itself into a thousand scrapes,
and out of those scrapes again with safety, if not precisely with
honour. The river police kept a watchful eye on it, and the chief
marvel about the whole thing was that old Everett, the owner, had
never yet been seriously compromised in any illegal escapade. Not
once had the officer of the law been able to prove anything definite
against the proprietor of the 'Squirm', though several of its
quondam hirers were at that very moment in various of Her
Majesty's prisons throughout the country. Latterly, however, the
launch, with its damaged propeller, which Everett consistently
refused to have repaired, had acquired an evil reputation, even
among evil-doers, and this fraternity had gradually come to
abandon it for less easily recognizable craft.

'Your friend, Mr Tom Jackson,' said Hazell to Racksole,
'committed an error of discretion when he hired the "Squirm". A
scoundrel of his experience and calibre ought certainly to have
known better than that. You cannot fail to get a clue now.'

By this time the boat was approaching Cherry Gardens Pier, but
unfortunately a thin night-fog had swept over the river, and objects
could not be discerned with any clearness beyond a distance of
thirty yards. As the Customs boat scraped down past the pier all its
occupants strained eyes for a glimpse of the mysterious launch, but
nothing could be seen of it. The boat continued to float idly
down-stream, the men resting on their oars.

Then they narrowly escaped bumping a large Norwegian sailing
vessel at anchor with her stem pointing down-stream. This ship
they passed on the port side. Just as they got clear of her bowsprit
the fat man cried out excitedly, 'There's her nose!' and he put the
boat about and began to pull back against the tide. And surely the
missing 'Squirm' was comfortably anchored on the starboard
quarter of the Norwegian ship, hidden neatly between the ship and
the shore. The men pulled very quietly alongside.

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AS regards Theodore Racksole, who was to have caught his manfrom the outside of the cellar, he made his way as rapidly aspossible from the wine-cellars, up to the ground floor, out of thehotel by the quadrangle, through the quadrangle, and out into thetop of Salisbury Lane. Now, owing to the vastness of the structureof the Grand Babylon, the mere distance thus to be traversedamounted to a little short of a quarter of a mile, and, as it includeda number of stairs, about two dozen turnings, and several passageswhich at that time of night were in darkness more or lesscomplete, Racksole
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