Around the World in Eighty Days Yeller Brick Road – Chapter Six

Chapter VI

In which Filch, the Detective, Betrays a Very Natural Impatience

The circumstances under which this telegraphic dispatch about Philanderous Flogg was sent were as follows:

The steamer Mongolian Falcon, belonging to the Peculiar and Ornamental Company, built of iron, of two thousand eight hundred tons burden, and five hundred horse-power, complete with on-board casino, bordello and swimming-pool, was due at eleven a.m. on Wednesday, the 9th of October, at Suez. The Mongolian Falcon plied regularly between Brindisi, Italy, and Bombay, India, via the Suez Canal and was one of the fastest steamers belonging to the company, always making more than ten knots an hour between Brindisi and Suez, and nine and a half between Suez and Bombay, but not yet fast enough to cross the ten or twelve parsecs to Kessel in a single run.

Two men were promenading up and down the wharves, among the crowd of natives and strangers who were sojourning at this once straggling village – the farms were not nearly so well cared for here as they were farther back. There were fewer houses and fewer fruit trees, and the farther they went the more dismal and lonesome the country became. But now, thanks to the enterprise of M. Lesseps, a fast-growing town.

One of the men was the British consul at Suez, who, despite the prophecies of the English Government, and the unfavourable predictions of Stephenson, was in the habit of seeing, from his office window, English ships daily passing to and fro on the great canal, by which the old roundabout route from England to India by the Cape of Good Hope was abridged by at least a half. The consul was a man of a rugged countenance, that was never lighted by a smile; cold, scanty and embarrassed in discourse; backward in sentiment; lean, long, dusty, dreary, and yet somehow lovable. At friendly meetings, and when the wine was to his taste, something eminently human beaconed from his eye; something indeed which never found its way into his talk, but which spoke not only in these silent symbols of the after-dinner face, but more often and loudly in the acts of his life. He was austere with himself; drank gin when he was alone, to mortify a taste for vintages; and though he enjoyed the theatre, had not crossed the doors of one for twenty years – not since his dearest Sybil had turned her infatuated eye away from him, and onto the undead husk of the cussed Dorian Gray instead. But he had an approved tolerance for others; sometimes wondering, almost with envy, at the high pressure of spirits involved in their misdeeds; and in any extremity inclined to help rather than to reprove.

The other was a small, slight-built personage, with a nervous, intelligently-represented face, and bright eyes peering out from under eyebrows which he was incessantly twitching. He was just now manifesting unmistakable signs of impatience, nervously pacing up and down, and unable to stand still for a moment; as if, like Lord Albatross, he were caught short too far from the privy.

He was not easy to describe. There was something wrong with his appearance; something displeasing, something downright detestable. The consul never saw a man he so disliked, and yet he scarce knew why. ‘He must be deformed somewhere; he gives a strong feeling of deformity, although I couldn’t specify the point. He’s an extraordinary-looking man, and yet I really can name nothing out of the way. No, sir; I can make no hand of it; I can’t describe him,’ he thought.

This was Filch, one of the detectives who had been dispatched from England in search of the bank robber; it was his task to narrowly watch every passenger who arrived at Suez, and to follow up all who seemed to be suspicious characters, or bore a resemblance to the description of the criminal, which he had received two days before from the police headquarters at London. The detective was evidently inspired by the hope of obtaining the splendid reward which would be the prize of success, not to mention the Employee of the Month plaque which would adorn the wall above his desk; and awaited with a feverish impatience, easy to understand, the arrival of the steamer Mongolian Falcon.

Here and there, the road began to be rough, and the walking grew so difficult that the detective often stumbled over the yellow bricks, which were here very uneven. Sometimes, indeed, they were broken or missing altogether, leaving holes that natives jumped across and the consul walked around. As for the detective Filch, having no brains, he walked straight ahead, and so stepped into the holes and fell at full length on the hard bricks. It never hurt him, however, and the consul would pick him up and set him upon his feet again, while he joined him in laughing merrily at his own mishap.

Presently they sat down by the dockside, near a little boat, and the consul opened his basket and got out some bread. He offered a piece to the detective, but he refused.

“I am never hungry,” he said, “and it is a lucky thing I am not, for my mouth is only painted on, and if I should cut a hole in it so I could eat, the straw I am stuffed with would come out, and that would spoil the shape of my head.”

The consul saw at once that this was true, so he only nodded and went on eating.

“Tell me something about yourself and the country you came from,” said the consul, when he had finished his dinner. So Filch told him all about London, and how gray everything was there, and how the cyclone carried him here to the queer land of Suez.

The consul listened carefully, and said, “I cannot understand why you should wish to leave this beautiful country and go back to the dry, gray place you call London.”

“That is because we have no brains,” answered the detective. “No matter how dreary and gray our homes are, we people of lesser flesh and blood would rather live there than in any other country, be it ever so beautiful. There is no place like home.”

The consul sighed.

“Of course I cannot understand it. If your heads were all stuffed with straw, like yours is, you would probably all live in the beautiful places, and then London would have no people at all. It is fortunate for places like Suez that you have no brains.”

“So you say, consul,” asked Filch for the twentieth time, “that this steamer is never behind time?”

“No, Mr. Filch,” replied the consul. “She was bespoken yesterday at Port Said, and the rest of the way is of no account to such a craft. I repeat that the Mongolian Falcon has been in advance of the time required by the company’s regulations, and gained the prize awarded for excess of speed. She is no piece of junk, I can tell you.”

“Does she come directly from Brindisi?”

“Directly from Brindisi; she takes on the Indian mails there, and she left there Saturday at five p.m. Have patience, Mr. Filch; she will not be late. But really, I don’t see how, from the description you have, you will be able to recognise your man, even if he is on board the Mongolian Falcon.”

“A man rather feels the presence of these fellows, consul, than recognises them. You must have a scent for them, and a scent is like a sixth sense which combines hearing, seeing, smelling, and nonsense. I’ve arrested more than one of these gentlemen in my time, and, if my thief is on board, I’ll answer for it; he’ll not slip through my fingers.”

“I hope so, Mr. Filch, for it was a heavy robbery.”

“A magnificent robbery, consul; fifty-five thousand pounds! We don’t often have such windfalls. Burglars are getting to be so contemptible nowadays! A fellow gets hung for a handful of shillings!”

“Mr. Filch,” said the consul, “I like your way of talking, and hope you’ll succeed; but I fear you will find it far from easy. Don’t you see, the description which you have there has a singular resemblance to an honest man?”

“Consul,” remarked the detective, dogmatically, “great robbers always resemble honest folks. Fellows who have rascally faces have only one course to take, and that is to remain honest; otherwise they would be arrested off-hand. The artistic thing is, to unmask honest countenances; it’s no light task, I admit, but a real art.”

Mr. Filch evidently was not wanting in a tinge of self-conceit.

Little by little the scene on the quay became more animated; sailors of various nations, merchants, ship-brokers, porters, fellahs, ticket-touts and minicab drivers bustled to and fro, as if the steamer were immediately expected. The weather was clear, and slightly chilly. The minarets of the town loomed above the houses in the pale rays of the sun. A jetty pier, some two thousand yards along, extended into the roadstead. A number of fishing-smacks and coasting boats, some retaining the fantastic fashion of ancient galleys, were discernible on the Red Sea.

As he passed among the busy crowd, Filch, according to habit, scrutinised the passers-by with a keen, rapid glance.

It was now half-past ten.

“The steamer doesn’t come!” he exclaimed, as the port clock struck.

“She can’t be far off now,” returned his companion.

“How long will she stop at Suez?”

“Four hours; long enough to get in her coal. It is thirteen hundred and ten miles from Suez to Aden, at the other end of the Red Sea, and she has to take in a fresh coal supply.”

“And does she go from Suez directly to Bombay?”

“Without putting in anywhere.”

“Good!” said Filch. “If the robber is on board he will no doubt get off at Suez, so as to reach the Dutch or French colonies in Asia by some other route. He ought to know that he would not be safe an hour in India, which is English soil.”

“Unless,” objected the consul, “he is exceptionally shrewd. An English criminal, you know, is always better concealed in London than anywhere else.”

“You take care of the passports and the visas,” said Filch. “Let me deal with the miscreants.”

This observation, nonetheless, had furnished the detective food for thought, and meanwhile the consul went away to his office. Filch, left alone, was more impatient than ever, having a presentiment that the robber was on board the Mongolian Falcon. If he had indeed left London intending to reach the New World, he would naturally take the route via India, which was less watched and more difficult to watch than that of the Atlantic.

But Filch’s reflections were soon interrupted by a succession of sharp whistles, which announced the arrival of the Mongolian Falcon. The porters and fellahs rushed down the quay, and a dozen boats pushed off from the shore to go and meet the steamer. Soon her gigantic hull appeared passing along between the banks, and eleven o’clock struck as she anchored in the road. She brought an unusual number of passengers, some of whom remained on deck to scan the picturesque panorama of the town, while the greater part disembarked in the boats, and landed on the quay.

Filch took up a position, and carefully examined each face and figure which made its appearance.

Presently one of the passengers, after vigorously pushing his way through the importunate crowd of porters, came up to him and politely asked if he could point out the English consulate, at the same time showing a passport which he wished to have visaed. Filch instinctively took the passport, and with a rapid glance read the description of its bearer.

An involuntary motion of surprise nearly escaped him, for the description in the passport was identical with that of the bank robber which he had received from Scotland Yard.

“Is this your passport?” asked he, looking the French poodle up and down.

“No, it’s my master’s.”

“And your master is…?”

“He stayed on board.”

“But he must go to the consul’s in person, so as to establish his identity.”

“Oh, is that necessary? My master is rather inextricably tied up at the moment.”

“Quite indispensable.”

“And where is the consulate?”

“There, on the corner of the square,” said Filch, pointing to a house two hundred steps off.

It seemed scarcely a house. There was no other door, and nobody went in or out of that one, but once in a great while the gentleman consul of today’s adventure. There were three windows looking on the court on the first floor; none below; the windows were always shut but they were clean. And then there was a chimney which was generally smoking; so somebody must live there. And yet it was not so sure; for the buildings were so packed together about that court, that it was hard to say where one ended and another began.

“I’ll go and fetch my master, who won’t be much pleased, however, to be disturbed.”

The passenger bowed to Filch, took out a lockpick and a crowbar with a sigh, and returned to the steamer.

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