The End of the Islander

Our meal was a merry one. Holmes could talk exceedingly well when he
chose, and that night he did choose. He appeared to be in a state of
nervous exaltation. I have never known him so brilliant. He spoke on
a quick succession of subjects,–on miracle-plays, on medieval pottery,
on Stradivarius violins, on the Buddhism of Ceylon, and on the
war-ships of the future,–handling each as though he had made a special
study of it. His bright humor marked the reaction from his black
depression of the preceding days. Athelney Jones proved to be a
sociable soul in his hours of relaxation, and faced his dinner with the
air of a bon vivant. For myself, I felt elated at the thought that we
were nearing the end of our task, and I caught something of Holmes’s
gaiety. None of us alluded during dinner to the cause which had
brought us together.

When the cloth was cleared, Holmes glanced at his watch, and filled up
three glasses with port. “One bumper,” said he, “to the success of our
little expedition. And now it is high time we were off. Have you a
pistol, Watson?”

“I have my old service-revolver in my desk.”

“You had best take it, then. It is well to be prepared. I see that
the cab is at the door. I ordered it for half-past six.”

It was a little past seven before we reached the Westminster wharf, and
found our launch awaiting us. Holmes eyed it critically.

“Is there anything to mark it as a police-boat?”

“Yes,–that green lamp at the side.”

“Then take it off.”

The small change was made, we stepped on board, and the ropes were cast
off. Jones, Holmes, and I sat in the stern. There was one man at the
rudder, one to tend the engines, and two burly police-inspectors
forward.

“Where to?” asked Jones.

“To the Tower. Tell them to stop opposite Jacobson’s Yard.”

Our craft was evidently a very fast one. We shot past the long lines
of loaded barges as though they were stationary. Holmes smiled with
satisfaction as we overhauled a river steamer and left her behind us.

“We ought to be able to catch anything on the river,” he said.

“Well, hardly that. But there are not many launches to beat us.”

“We shall have to catch the Aurora, and she has a name for being a
clipper. I will tell you how the land lies, Watson. You recollect how
annoyed I was at being balked by so small a thing?”

“Yes.”

“Well, I gave my mind a thorough rest by plunging into a chemical
analysis. One of our greatest statesmen has said that a change of work
is the best rest. So it is. When I had succeeded in dissolving the
hydrocarbon which I was at work at, I came back to our problem of the
Sholtos, and thought the whole matter out again. My boys had been up
the river and down the river without result. The launch was not at any
landing-stage or wharf, nor had it returned. Yet it could hardly have
been scuttled to hide their traces,–though that always remained as a
possible hypothesis if all else failed. I knew this man Small had a
certain degree of low cunning, but I did not think him capable of
anything in the nature of delicate finesse. That is usually a product
of higher education. I then reflected that since he had certainly been
in London some time–as we had evidence that he maintained a continual
watch over Pondicherry Lodge–he could hardly leave at a moment’s
notice, but would need some little time, if it were only a day, to
arrange his affairs. That was the balance of probability, at any rate.”

“It seems to me to be a little weak,” said I. “It is more probable
that he had arranged his affairs before ever he set out upon his
expedition.”

“No, I hardly think so. This lair of his would be too valuable a
retreat in case of need for him to give it up until he was sure that he
could do without it. But a second consideration struck me. Jonathan
Small must have felt that the peculiar appearance of his companion,
however much he may have top-coated him, would give rise to gossip, and
possibly be associated with this Norwood tragedy. He was quite sharp
enough to see that. They had started from their head-quarters under
cover of darkness, and he would wish to get back before it was broad
light. Now, it was past three o’clock, according to Mrs. Smith, when
they got the boat. It would be quite bright, and people would be about
in an hour or so. Therefore, I argued, they did not go very far. They
paid Smith well to hold his tongue, reserved his launch for the final
escape, and hurried to their lodgings with the treasure-box. In a
couple of nights, when they had time to see what view the papers took,
and whether there was any suspicion, they would make their way under
cover of darkness to some ship at Gravesend or in the Downs, where no
doubt they had already arranged for passages to America or the
Colonies.”

“But the launch? They could not have taken that to their lodgings.”

“Quite so. I argued that the launch must be no great way off, in spite
of its invisibility. I then put myself in the place of Small, and
looked at it as a man of his capacity would. He would probably
consider that to send back the launch or to keep it at a wharf would
make pursuit easy if the police did happen to get on his track. How,
then, could he conceal the launch and yet have her at hand when wanted?
I wondered what I should do myself if I were in his shoes. I could
only think of one way of doing it. I might land the launch over to
some boat-builder or repairer, with directions to make a trifling
change in her. She would then be removed to his shed or yard, and so
be effectually concealed, while at the same time I could have her at a
few hours’ notice.”

“That seems simple enough.”

“It is just these very simple things which are extremely liable to be
overlooked. However, I determined to act on the idea. I started at
once in this harmless seaman’s rig and inquired at all the yards down
the river. I drew blank at fifteen, but at the
sixteenth–Jacobson’s–I learned that the Aurora had been handed over
to them two days ago by a wooden-legged man, with some trivial
directions as to her rudder. ‘There ain’t naught amiss with her
rudder,’ said the foreman. ‘There she lies, with the red streaks.’ At
that moment who should come down but Mordecai Smith, the missing owner?
He was rather the worse for liquor. I should not, of course, have
known him, but he bellowed out his name and the name of his launch. ‘I
want her to-night at eight o’clock,’ said he,–‘eight o’clock sharp,
mind, for I have two gentlemen who won’t be kept waiting.’ They had
evidently paid him well, for he was very flush of money, chucking
shillings about to the men. I followed him some distance, but he
subsided into an ale-house: so I went back to the yard, and, happening
to pick up one of my boys on the way, I stationed him as a sentry over
the launch. He is to stand at water’s edge and wave his handkerchief
to us when they start. We shall be lying off in the stream, and it
will be a strange thing if we do not take men, treasure, and all.”

“You have planned it all very neatly, whether they are the right men or
not,” said Jones; “but if the affair were in my hands I should have had
a body of police in Jacobson’s Yard, and arrested them when they came
down.”

“Which would have been never. This man Small is a pretty shrewd
fellow. He would send a scout on ahead, and if anything made him
suspicious lie snug for another week.”

“But you might have stuck to Mordecai Smith, and so been led to their
hiding-place,” said I.

“In that case I should have wasted my day. I think that it is a hundred
to one against Smith knowing where they live. As long as he has liquor
and good pay, why should he ask questions? They send him messages what
to do. No, I thought over every possible course, and this is the best.”

While this conversation had been proceeding, we had been shooting the
long series of bridges which span the Thames. As we passed the City
the last rays of the sun were gilding the cross upon the summit of St.
Paul’s. It was twilight before we reached the Tower.

“That is Jacobson’s Yard,” said Holmes, pointing to a bristle of masts
and rigging on the Surrey side. “Cruise gently up and down here under
cover of this string of lighters.” He took a pair of night-glasses
from his pocket and gazed some time at the shore. “I see my sentry at
his post,” he remarked, “but no sign of a handkerchief.”

“Suppose we go down-stream a short way and lie in wait for them,” said
Jones, eagerly. We were all eager by this time, even the policemen and
stokers, who had a very vague idea of what was going forward.

“We have no right to take anything for granted,” Holmes answered. “It
is certainly ten to one that they go down-stream, but we cannot be
certain. From this point we can see the entrance of the yard, and they
can hardly see us. It will be a clear night and plenty of light. We
must stay where we are. See how the folk swarm over yonder in the
gaslight.”

“They are coming from work in the yard.”

“Dirty-looking rascals, but I suppose every one has some little
immortal spark concealed about him. You would not think it, to look at
them. There is no a priori probability about it. A strange enigma is
man!”

“Some one calls him a soul concealed in an animal,” I suggested.

“Winwood Reade is good upon the subject,” said Holmes. “He remarks
that, while the individual man is an insoluble puzzle, in the aggregate
he becomes a mathematical certainty. You can, for example, never
foretell what any one man will do, but you can say with precision what
an average number will be up to. Individuals vary, but percentages
remain constant. So says the statistician. But do I see a
handkerchief? Surely there is a white flutter over yonder.”

“Yes, it is your boy,” I cried. “I can see him plainly.”

“And there is the Aurora,” exclaimed Holmes, “and going like the devil!
Full speed ahead, engineer. Make after that launch with the yellow
light. By heaven, I shall never forgive myself if she proves to have
the heels of us!”

She had slipped unseen through the yard-entrance and passed behind two
or three small craft, so that she had fairly got her speed up before we
saw her. Now she was flying down the stream, near in to the shore,
going at a tremendous rate. Jones looked gravely at her and shook his
head.

“She is very fast,” he said. “I doubt if we shall catch her.”

“We MUST catch her!” cried Holmes, between his teeth. “Heap it on,
stokers! Make her do all she can! If we burn the boat we must have
them!”

We were fairly after her now. The furnaces roared, and the powerful
engines whizzed and clanked, like a great metallic heart. Her sharp,
steep prow cut through the river-water and sent two rolling waves to
right and to left of us. With every throb of the engines we sprang and
quivered like a living thing. One great yellow lantern in our bows
threw a long, flickering funnel of light in front of us. Right ahead a
dark blur upon the water showed where the Aurora lay, and the swirl of
white foam behind her spoke of the pace at which she was going. We
flashed past barges, steamers, merchant-vessels, in and out, behind
this one and round the other. Voices hailed us out of the darkness,
but still the Aurora thundered on, and still we followed close upon her
track.

“Pile it on, men, pile it on!” cried Holmes, looking down into the
engine-room, while the fierce glow from below beat upon his eager,
aquiline face. “Get every pound of steam you can.”

“I think we gain a little,” said Jones, with his eyes on the Aurora.

“I am sure of it,” said I. “We shall be up with her in a very few
minutes.”

At that moment, however, as our evil fate would have it, a tug with
three barges in tow blundered in between us. It was only by putting
our helm hard down that we avoided a collision, and before we could
round them and recover our way the Aurora had gained a good two hundred
yards. She was still, however, well in view, and the murky uncertain
twilight was setting into a clear starlit night. Our boilers were
strained to their utmost, and the frail shell vibrated and creaked with
the fierce energy which was driving us along. We had shot through the
Pool, past the West India Docks, down the long Deptford Reach, and up
again after rounding the Isle of Dogs. The dull blur in front of us
resolved itself now clearly enough into the dainty Aurora. Jones
turned our search-light upon her, so that we could plainly see the
figures upon her deck. One man sat by the stern, with something black
between his knees over which he stooped. Beside him lay a dark mass
which looked like a Newfoundland dog. The boy held the tiller, while
against the red glare of the furnace I could see old Smith, stripped to
the waist, and shovelling coals for dear life. They may have had some
doubt at first as to whether we were really pursuing them, but now as
we followed every winding and turning which they took there could no
longer be any question about it. At Greenwich we were about three
hundred paces behind them. At Blackwall we could not have been more
than two hundred and fifty. I have coursed many creatures in many
countries during my checkered career, but never did sport give me such
a wild thrill as this mad, flying man-hunt down the Thames. Steadily
we drew in upon them, yard by yard. In the silence of the night we
could hear the panting and clanking of their machinery. The man in the
stern still crouched upon the deck, and his arms were moving as though
he were busy, while every now and then he would look up and measure
with a glance the distance which still separated us. Nearer we came
and nearer. Jones yelled to them to stop. We were not more than four
boat’s lengths behind them, both boats flying at a tremendous pace. It
was a clear reach of the river, with Barking Level upon one side and
the melancholy Plumstead Marshes upon the other. At our hail the man
in the stern sprang up from the deck and shook his two clinched fists
at us, cursing the while in a high, cracked voice. He was a good-sized,
powerful man, and as he stood poising himself with legs astride I could
see that from the thigh downwards there was but a wooden stump upon the
right side. At the sound of his strident, angry cries there was
movement in the huddled bundle upon the deck. It straightened itself
into a little black man–the smallest I have ever seen–with a great,
misshapen head and a shock of tangled, dishevelled hair. Holmes had
already drawn his revolver, and I whipped out mine at the sight of this
savage, distorted creature. He was wrapped in some sort of dark ulster
or blanket, which left only his face exposed; but that face was enough
to give a man a sleepless night. Never have I seen features so deeply
marked with all bestiality and cruelty. His small eyes glowed and
burned with a sombre light, and his thick lips were writhed back from
his teeth, which grinned and chattered at us with a half animal fury.

“Fire if he raises his hand,” said Holmes, quietly. We were within a
boat’s-length by this time, and almost within touch of our quarry. I
can see the two of them now as they stood, the white man with his legs
far apart, shrieking out curses, and the unhallowed dwarf with his
hideous face, and his strong yellow teeth gnashing at us in the light
of our lantern.

It was well that we had so clear a view of him. Even as we looked he
plucked out from under his covering a short, round piece of wood, like
a school-ruler, and clapped it to his lips. Our pistols rang out
together. He whirled round, threw up his arms, and with a kind of
choking cough fell sideways into the stream. I caught one glimpse of
his venomous, menacing eyes amid the white swirl of the waters. At the
same moment the wooden-legged man threw himself upon the rudder and put
it hard down, so that his boat made straight in for the southern bank,
while we shot past her stern, only clearing her by a few feet. We were
round after her in an instant, but she was already nearly at the bank.
It was a wild and desolate place, where the moon glimmered upon a wide
expanse of marsh-land, with pools of stagnant water and beds of
decaying vegetation. The launch with a dull thud ran up upon the
mud-bank, with her bow in the air and her stern flush with the water.
The fugitive sprang out, but his stump instantly sank its whole length
into the sodden soil. In vain he struggled and writhed. Not one step
could he possibly take either forwards or backwards. He yelled in
impotent rage, and kicked frantically into the mud with his other foot,
but his struggles only bored his wooden pin the deeper into the sticky
bank. When we brought our launch alongside he was so firmly anchored
that it was only by throwing the end of a rope over his shoulders that
we were able to haul him out, and to drag him, like some evil fish,
over our side. The two Smiths, father and son, sat sullenly in their
launch, but came aboard meekly enough when commanded. The Aurora
herself we hauled off and made fast to our stern. A solid iron chest
of Indian workmanship stood upon the deck. This, there could be no
question, was the same that had contained the ill-omened treasure of
the Sholtos. There was no key, but it was of considerable weight, so
we transferred it carefully to our own little cabin. As we steamed
slowly up-stream again, we flashed our search-light in every direction,
but there was no sign of the Islander. Somewhere in the dark ooze at
the bottom of the Thames lie the bones of that strange visitor to our
shores.

“See here,” said Holmes, pointing to the wooden hatchway. “We were
hardly quick enough with our pistols.” There, sure enough, just behind
where we had been standing, stuck one of those murderous darts which we
knew so well. It must have whizzed between us at the instant that we
fired. Holmes smiled at it and shrugged his shoulders in his easy
fashion, but I confess that it turned me sick to think of the horrible
death which had passed so close to us that night.