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The Sign of the Four

Chapter X
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 warships of the future -- handling
each as though he had made a special study of it. His bright
humour 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 expedi-
tion. 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 to 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 baulked 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 hypothe-
sis if all else failed. I knew that 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 headquarters 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. l 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 hand 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 alehouse; 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 the 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 he would 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 downstream 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 downstream,
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!"
  "Someone 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
between 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 still 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 settling 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 into the dainty Aurora. Jones turned
our searchlight 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 clenched 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 downward there was but a wooden stump upon the right
side. At the sound of his strident, angry cries, there was move-
ment 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 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 glim-
mered upon a wide expanse of marsh-land, with pools of stag-
nant 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 forward or backward. 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 upstream
again, we flashed our searchlight 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 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.
 
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