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Title: The Loss Of The "Eastern Empress"
Author: Fred M White
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Language: English
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THE MASTER CRIMINAL

XI. - THE LOSS OF THE "EASTERN EMPRESS"

by

Fred M White

ILLUSTRATED BY PAUL HARDY

First published in The Ludgate, London, Apr 1898


Felix Gryde - Master Criminal


CHAPTER I

GRYDE was dining the Accredited Agent-General of the State of Mineria at his club. Here Felix Gryde was known as Count Dumaresque, a South American grandee of wealth recently settled in England. For the most part, he surrounded himself with a halo of frosty politeness, which served to keep his fellows at a distance, and prevented the asking of questions. For the rest, he was lean and brown; his buttonhole flaunted the ribbon of some foreign Order.

The Minerian representative was also lean and brown, with a furtive eye and a reputation for dubious veracity. His life was one long battle with the capitalists who regarded Minerian Bonds dubiously. But a liar at once so picturesque and audacious as Don Marcos did not live in vain. At the present moment some twenty millions of British capital were buried in the pocket State, and, like a financial Oliver Twist, Don Marcos asked for more.

In desperate need of five millions, he asked for ten, and consequently got two. Things were very bad in the City, and "dilly-dally duck" cared nothing for the Minerian salt Marcos desired to put on his tail. And this was all the more annoying because Mineria was on the verge of war with the neighbouring "State" of Catagonia over that turtle-fishing business.

Marcos was in despair. His finest romantic flights were spent in Lombard Street in vain. An expert in gold mining had worked at his samples of the precious ore and asked if they had come via the Cape.

"Over the walnuts and the wine" Marcos became expansive. Count Dumaresque, his fellow-countryman, was duly sympathetic. And the latter betrayed such an astounding knowledge of the tortuous ways of Minerian finance as rendered Don Marcos uneasy.

"I declare I am afraid of you," he muttered.

Dumaresque smiled in the most reassuring manner.

"Positively there is no need," he replied. "I have no need to love my country, as you would say if you knew my story; but as she laid down my fortune for me I am not ungrateful, and I hate the Catagonians."

Marcos started. Really, this wonderful man knew everything.

"You are aware we are at loggerheads there?" he suggested.

"Dear friend, you will be at one another's throats ere two months are past," said Dumaresque, with a wave of his cigarette. "Under existing circumstances the prospect frightens you."

"Another million and I should feel easy enough. We want—"

"A line-of-battle ship," Dumaresque put in. "One big armed cruiser to blockade Inique and you would settle the business in a month."

"Parbleu, a wonderful man," Marcos muttered. "Your Excellency has guessed it."

"That is because I have studied the question," said Dumaresque. "A cruiser such as you require would, fully equipped, cost a million. The manning is of no great consequence, nor the officering either for the matter of that. Good men with an eye to ultimate income will flock round you as a matter of course. What could you put down in cash for a ship such as you require?"

"I took £200,000 with me to Belfast and offered to secure the rest," Marcos responded, almost tearfully, "and they laughed politely in my beard."

Dumaresque lent across the table and dropped his voice to a whisper.

"If I provide you with one of the finest line-of-battle ships afloat," he said, "will you hand over the sum in question to me?"

Marcos smiled; and yet Dumaresque's face was grave enough.

"My noble friend is pleased to jest," Marcos muttered.

"Your noble friend was never more serious in his life," came the response.

"You have heard of that new man-o'-war, the Eastern Empress?" The listener's eyes sparkled at the mere suggestion. The Eastern Empress, recently launched from Belfast, was the finest belted cruiser afloat. Her triple-expansion engines were wonders, those quick-firing guns were an army corps in themselves, goodness knows what was the resisting power of the armour-plating; whilst on the trial trip even the boiler tubes had failed to leak, which fact in itself marked a new departure in naval engineering.

"Ah, if we only had a ship like that!" Marcos sighed.

Dumaresque's reply was brief but thrilling.

"Guarantee to hand me over £200,000 at the time I may demand it," he said, "and within two months the Eastern Empress shall be lying in the mouth of your de la Guarde river to do as you please with."

Marcos hastily swallowed another glass of claret. Such an audacious proposal came as a shock to the nerve centres

"I presume you do not mean to insult me?" he gasped.

"You allude to your sense of honour, doubtless," Dumaresque sneered.

"Bah! the sense I mean is my common sense," Marcos responded promptly. "Such a thing could not be done. Even if it were possible detection could speedily follow. Otherwise, the £200,000 is your own."

"It has been as good as my own for some time," said Dumaresque. "The thing is easy as easy—when you know how it is done. What my plans are and whence I derived all my information is my own secret. Within three months, two months, the Eastern Empress shall be at the mouth of de la Guarde. The spot is desolate; there is a good natural harbour there, and with your own engineers specially imported with the necessary appliances to the spot, a few days will alter the Eastern Empress beyond recognition. Then you can boldly sail into your chief harbour of San Maza and make up your complement of men and officers."

"Still, there are lions in the path," Marcos suggested. "Where did the ship come from?"

"Let a paragraph go round the papers that an American firm has turned out the cruiser for you. Do this at once. Mention a well-known firm by name— and if it is only for the sake of the advertisement they will never contradict the report."

Marcos wagged his head sagely.

"My faith, but you are a wonderful man!" he said. "O, yes; you shall do as you like, all the more as I run no risk in the matter. Still, there remains one lion, the biggest of the lot. The British lion, what of him?"

"You mean there will be a fuss over the loss of the ship?" Dumaresque smiled in the orthodox Mephistophelian manner. "My friend, there will be no fuss whatever. For months I have laid my plans, and they are absolutely flawless. How the thing is to be managed is my secret for the present. I give you my word that there will be no fuss or bother whatever."

"And as to the rest?"

"As to the rest, two months from to-day you will be at de la Guarde with your engineers and workmen. To the hour I shall steam into the harbour. You will come aboard and pay me the £200,000 and provide me with a coaster to take me to San Maza. Is that so?"

Marcos stretched out a lean brown claw eagerly.

"Shake hands upon it," he gurgled. "Providence must have brought us together."

Dumaresque, otherwise Gryde,smiled.

"Heaven helps those who help themselves," he said sotto voce.


DUMARESQUE SMILED IN THE ORTHODOX MEPHISTOPHELIAN MANNER

CHAPTER II

GRYDE'S audacious scheme was by no means the inspiration of a moment. Neither could the main idea be termed altogether novel, since the stealing of barks and luggers has ever been a favourite theme of nautical writers. But the spiriting away of a line-of-battle ship at the end of the nineteenth century was quite another matter. Like Mark Twain's "Stolen White Elephant," the affair was certain to cause an immense sensation, for big cruisers, unlike big diamonds, cannot be hidden away in a waistcoat pocket.

Under ordinary circumstances, the recovery of the Eastern Empress was a certainty. True, this could have mattered little to Gryde, provided he got his money, but at the same time he was too finished an artist in crime to leave a thing to chance in this clumsy way. There had to be exceptions, of course, but he preferred the crime that on the surface appeared no crime at all.

In this case there was to be no sensation. This statement seems absurd on the face of it, but nevertheless Gryde had found a way.

Needless to say, the scheme had entailed a considerable expenditure of time and money, Gryde holding with Walpole that the latter commodity will do anything. Certainly it had unlocked certain of the minor secrets of the Admiralty. For instance, the golden key supplied the information that some little friction had arisen between this country und Spain as to the pearl-fishing rights in the Eastralian Ocean, where, strange to say, Mineria and Catagonia bordered. It was an open secret also that the first commission of the Eastern Empress would be for two years in these same waters. This step was intended to serve a dual purpose—to prove to Spain that no nonsense would be entertained, and also to revise the Admiralty charts, which were acknowledged to be defective so far as certain parts of the Eastralian Ocean were concerned.

Gryde's movements were carefully arranged. All that the Admiralty were doing in the matter he knew perfectly well. He knew, for instance, that the First Lord and the commander of the Eastern Empress were discussing certain important matters late on the night following his meeting with Marcos, long after the First Lord's household had gone to bed. Gryde had oral and ocular demonstration of this fact, and he stood outside Sir Dorian Bax's library door in his stocking feet listening to the palaver. This act of burglary was necessary, as will hereafter appear.

A scent of fresh tobacco smoke floated out from the library. Gryde wondered if he might indulge himself, then he abandoned the suggestion. The mixture of pleasure and business rarely leads to satisfactory results.

To overhear and oversee this interview Gryde had remained perdu in the Grosvenor Crescent house for two hours. Through the half-opened door he could see Lord Ararat and Captain James Clinton carefully studying a huge chart laid out before them on the table.

"Not altogether satisfactory," said his lordship.

"Well, no," Clinton admitted. "The fact is we want a new survey of this portion of the Eastralian Seas. This Mineria-Catagonia business will be a fine excuse for sounding The Gut without arousing the suspicion of anybody. We are there to protect English interests in case of trouble."

Captain Clinton smiled, and the First Lord smiled also. An eminent cotton-spinner who had made a fortune, and attained a peerage, was just the very man for an enlightened Government to choose as head of the Admiralty. Lord Ararat was profoundly ignorant of everything appertaining to his office, and did no worse for the fact.

"Dangerous place, The Gut, isn't it?" he asked.

Clinton replied in the affirmative. Still, the chart lying on the table there was a reliable one, with all the dangerous rocks and shoals marked upon it. The same had been recently purchased from a scientific Catagonian with a bent for turning his knowledge to account.

"The only place we have to fear," Clinton concluded, "is the Hen and Chickens reef. The currents there are extremely dangerous. Still, with a chart like this, I fail to see how we can get into trouble. My intention is to go entirely by the chart, taking fresh soundings by the way. In two years the whole thing should be complete."

"You are taking a scientific survey party along?"

"Yes, four of them altogether. Mr. Erenthal is an exceedingly clever German, and his friends are all enthusiasts, I'm told. The thing is somewhat irregular, but I've no doubt we shall find these gentlemen of great assistance."

The listening Gryde smiled. A little while later and he would be playing the part of the distinguished German savant about to become a guest on the Eastern Empress in the cause of science. As to the others, they are merely accomplices to be used and discarded at leisure.

Lord Ararat yawned, and looked somewhat pointedly at his watch. The hour was late, and his lordship had been to many functions the same evening. Clinton rose.

"I will not detain you any longer," he said.

"Well, I am tired," the First Lord confessed. "Leave this chart with me till to-morrow; I will show it to Cansford as arranged. You shall have it back before you leave for Portsmouth on Saturday. Good-night."

Clinton took another cigarette and departed. Then the First Lord proceeded to fasten up the house and creep yawningly to bed, having first dropped the Eastralian chart into a drawer under the library table.

Half an hour later Gryde sat at the same piece of furniture carefully examining the chart with the aid of a shaded candle. The chart he compared minutely with several scraps of paper which he produced from his pocket. Then, with a pair of compasses and an ivory scale, he went over the glazed cloth. From his pocket he produced a tiny phial and a camel's-hair pencil. A few strokes with the latter, charged with some of the liquid from the phial, left every portion touched blank. A box of water-colours were next brought into use, and then an hour's careful work followed. The alterations made were so skilful as to defy detection, but they were ample for Gryde's purpose.


CAREFULLY EXAMINING THE CHART

Once dry the chart was replaced in the drawer, and for the present Gryde's task was at an end. A few minutes later he stood in the deserted street.

"A pity to leave the door unfastened," he muttered, "because those little things are inartistic. Not that the servants will notice: they will merely conclude that their master came in late and forgot to lock up. And I can safely indulge in a smoke now."

Gryde strolled along the street to his lodgings in an amiable frame of mind; all his plans were complete and success semed assured. The alterations made in the chart were mere pin points by comparison, but then an inch thereon meant miles of blue water. The work of a few moments was the result of months of steady toil and study. If genius be an infinite capacity for taking pains, then veritably Gryde was a genius in his way.


* * * * *

Two days later Gryde started for Portsmouth to take his place on the Eastern Empress. He was altered out of recognition. He had a rotund figure, a profusion of fair hair, and his eyes looked out from rimmed spectacles. In the gaze of the world he was no longer Felix Gryde, but Herr Max Erenthal.

CHAPTER III

THE latest and most expensive addition to Her Majesty's Navy had been at sea now for some six weeks. The Eastern Empress had exceeded the same sanguine estimate formed of her character, and Captain Clinton was serene in the knowledge that he commanded the finest ironclad afloat.

It was a perfect October night, summer in those favoured seas where the breeze came cool and crisp, yet laden with spices and perfumes from the group of islands that fringed the mainland of Mineria, hard against the coastline at the end of which lay the harbour of San Maza. Millions of stars flamed in the deep blue of the arch; on the water lay an arc of lights, the meaning of which those upon the Eastern Empress knew perfectly well. They were Catagonian gunboats watching San Maza as a cat watches a mouse.

Clinton, with some of his officers about him, was smoking a cigar on the quarter-deck. Amongst the group was Herr Erenthal. His subordinates were somewhere down in the engine-rooms. Being of a mechanical turn of mind they haunted the engineers.

"Why don't those beggars fight?" Clinton asked. "Those gunboats are enough in themselves to force a declaration of war."

"They wait for their new ship from America, these Minerians," Erenthal smiled. "When she come you will see what you call ructions. And I shall like to see der fun. One gets tired mit all dese dredging and sounding."

"You can take the steam pinnace and go ashore if you like," said Clinton.

Erenthal expressed his thanks. He was just going to ask the same favour, he said. An hour later he was waddling across the quay-head at San Maza looking about him as if quite uncertain of his direction, and yet at the same time there seemed to be a deal of method in his drifting. Quite naturally he found himself at length in a café, and as if the thing were the merest accident in the world, who should be there but Marcos.

"A fine night, my friend," said the latter.

"Fine indeed," Gryde responded. "But you would not have recognised me had I not given you what some people call the office. You have seen the ship?"

"Ay, indeed. If she were only ours! Those gunboats! Well, if you are successful we will make short work of them."

"I am always successful," Gryde said calmly. "Three days from now the Eastern Empress will sail into de la Guarde. All your men are ready?"

"They are now waiting with all appliances."

"Good. I leave it to your people to alter the Eastern Empress beyond recognition. The thing is nothing like so difficult as it would appear. There is another thing to which I would direct your earnest attention. About the same time that my prize arrives at de la Guarde the complement of an English man-o'-war will reach San Maza—in boats. They must be got away at once: plead the disturbed state of the country or what you will. Because, if they should happen to be still there when your fine cruiser arrives—"

And Gryde paused significantly. Marcos nodded.

"I am obliged to you," he said; "it shall be done. "Is there any more?"

"A little thing—a mere trifle," Gryde replied. "When you board the Eastern Empress and hand me over that money, you will find my four accomplices on board. Whilst I go on to San Maza with the coaster you have for me, they will remain to enjoy your hospitality for a day or two. If anything happens to them in the meantime I will try and put up with the loss with fortitude."

"Dead men tell no tales," Marcos whispered.

"I never heard of one who did," Gryde said drily; "neither do they ever cause trouble as to their share of the plunder."

The two men exchanged significant glances and Gryde rose from his seat. He lapsed quite naturally into his rolling gait again; he looked the amiable absent-minded savant to the life. San Maza was a charming place, he informed Captain Clinton a little time later.


HE LOOKED THE AMIABLE, ABSENT-MINDED SAVANT TO THE LIFE

"Sorry not to have seen it," said the latter.

"Perhaps you may yet," Gryde smiled. "One never can tell. Pouf, I must now to my cabin to write up those soundings. I wonder where my fellows are."

As it happened the confederates were in the cabin awaiting the chief. As he closed the door they looked towards him eagerly.

"You have news for us," one of them asked.

"Yes, I have news," Gryde whispered. "I have at length all the information about the tides that I require. An intelligent native yonder told me everything. On Wednesday night at ten we shall be on the edge of the Hen and Chickens reef. I have arranged all that very nicely with the Captain. There will be no moon, and it will be pitch dark for some hours afterwards. At eleven o'clock on the night in question you will all be at your posts down below. There will be no need for me to give you the signal, you will feel it. If all goes well, a few hours later will see you worth £10,000 apiece."

The listeners smiled: the prospect was an exceedingly pleasant one.

"It all depends upon you now," Gryde proceeded. "The ship is steering by the chart, as these people think, a degree or so to the south of the reef. As you know perfectly well, we are steering right on to it. When you feel the first shock, you will know exactly what to do. That water balance must be shifted as arranged to convey the idea that the vessel is filling, and thus increase the confusion. This course will also lighten the ship by the head, and enable her to float."

"Yes, but will she float?" a listener asked.

"Naturally. The reef we shall strike upon will be the softest coral, and we shall run aground at dead low water. An hour later and we shall be off. By this time the ship's complement will have taken to the boats, and we shall be left on board. With fair weather, it's hard if four practical engineers like you cannot navigate this boat the hundred odd miles to de la Guarde. And long before daylight the ship's crew will be hull down behind the horizon."

With perfect confidence in his scheme, and his ability to carry it out, Gryde dismissed his confederates, and retired to rest. Next morning showed the coast of Mineria, a faint blue streak upon the weather bow, and the whole of that day Gryde was busy with her soundings.

The succeeding day worked slowly out, and night fell at length like a black cloud out of nothingness. Till nearly ten o'clock Gryde was busy in his cabin, and then he crept up on deck, as if desiring not to be noticed.

His gait had lost its roll, his step was lithe and elastic as that of a cat. He crept from place to place, avoiding the lanes of light left by the ship's lanterns, and crouching in the shadows.

Presently he gained the coign of vantage he required—the shadow of the wheel-house. A calm and balmy night, with a clear seaboard, the watch were half sleeping on the deck. Not a single officer was to be seen. Gryde peeped at his watch, and saw that the hour had come.

Where the Eastern Empress was on that placid sea he knew to an inch, and the knowledge was not without its meed of anxiety. The ship was listing away a little to the south; a space longer, and the reef would be missed. The carelessness or ignorance of the steersman was wrecking Gryde's plans.

He shut his teeth close together. Like a shadow he slid into the wheel-house. Something long and bright came from his pocket: it flashed high in the air, and then crashed at some soft substance.

Pierced to the heart by the unerring sweep of Gryde's blade, the steersman collapsed upon the floor with one long sigh, and then all was still. The die was cast now; this rash step had become absolutely necessary. Gryde laid his hand upon the powerful yet delicate machinery, and altered the ship's course almost imperceptibly. Still, it was sufficient for his purpose.


GRYDE ALTERED THE SHIP'S COURSE

"That's the worst of having a lot of fools to deal with," he muttered. "When you have to rely upon anyone else, it always upsets your plans. A risk of this kind should have been absolutely unnecessary."

Cool as he was, Gryde was conscious of the blood singing in his ears. Left alone for five minutes, he knew that he was safe. But already there were steps coming in his direction. It became a mere matter of seconds. Would it become necessary to take a second life, Gryde wondered, and were they never going to strike—

A hand was laid on the door of the wheel-house. Gryde was preparing to spring forward, when the Eastern Empress gave a shiver and groan from end to end like some gigantic creature in mortal agony. Then there followed a tremendous crashing and grinding, and the cruiser was still.

A yell of triumph rose to Gryde's lips, but he suppressed the desire. All the same, it is doubtful as to whether or not it would have been heard, for already hundreds of feet were trampling the decks.

As if to increase the horror of the situation, there followed a loud report from below, and then the sound of water as if pouring ton after ton into the hold of the doomed vessel. Almost immediately she began to sink by the stern.

"Get out the boats!" came the stern command. "Steady there! Plenty of time if you fellows only keep your heads."

Gryde watched everything from the seclusion of the wheel-house. The crew worked as steadily and as orderly as if on parade. In a remarkably short space of time the last boat was lowered and manned.

Gryde and his confederates had the Eastern Empress to themselves. All the same, it was some time before they dared to move, and then one by one the lights were put out and the ship plunged into darkness. Down in the engine-room Gryde found his grimy, perspiring assistants.

"Remarkably well done," he said, approvingly. "That explosion and the rush of water finished the business off dramatically. When the tide rises, the water-ballast will find its way back again quite naturally, and all we shall have to do is to steer by the chart—our chart, of course."

"But will she float?" one of the confederates asked.

"As sure as you will some day be hanged," Gryde responded pleasantly. "Can't you feel her swinging at the bows already? One of you go up to the wheel-house with some sacking and a shot or two. You'll find a body there to dispose of. That fool of a steersman didn't know his business, and I had to— Mind you clear everything up."

Higher and higher rose the tide and more buoyant became the Eastern Empress. Finally, she rose like a thing of life. It was two o'clock before Gryde gave the signal. There was a stern triumph in his eyes.

"Start the engines again," he said curtly. "By noon to-morrow we shall be ready for them off de la Guarde."


* * * * *

Three days later, at about the same time that the news of the total loss of the Eastern Empress reached England, her ship's company, intact save one missing man, were leaving Mineria by a special steamer chartered for them out of courtesy by the Government of the country. The steamer contained one passenger besides, a boasting, inquisitive Yankee, who speedily rendered himself so objectionable as to be tabooed by the rest of the little colony. But the Yankee bore it all philosophically.

"A very good disguise," he told himself, as his cab rolled out of the dock gates a few weeks later. I wonder what those fellows, particularly Clinton, would have said if he'd known the bounder, 'Ezra P. Stanton' and 'Max Erenthal' were one and the same? And I wonder if ever they will discover the trick played upon them? In any case it can't make any difference to me. My dead men will tell no tales."


Felix Gryde - Master Criminal


THE END

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