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Chapter 36 - Nayland Smith Comes Abord

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Author Topic: Chapter 36 - Nayland Smith Comes Abord  (Read 12 times)
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« on: January 04, 2023, 07:33:11 am »

THE Indramatra lay off the pontoon, opposite the Custom House at Port Said; and it was a night sailing. Ali Mahmoud had arrived in the nick of time; I could see him now from where I stood, supervising shipment of the heavy baggage.

That curious sustained murmur, a minor chord made up of human voices, audible whenever cargo is being worked in this odd portal of the East, came to my ears, as I craned out watching the pontoon. I had left Ramin, a stewardess, and two coolies busily unpacking trunks; for Ramin had something of his uncle’s gift for making people work enthusiastically in his interests. Part of his personal baggage had been deposited in his cabin, and, having explored the first of his trunks:

“There isn’t a thing that’s fit!” he had declared. . . .

I had considered it prudent to join the chief.

That experienced old traveler had secured a suite with bath, at the Cairo office. Admittedly, the ship was not full, but, nevertheless, someone else had been pencilled in for this accommodation ahead of him. The someone else (a Member of Parliament, he turned out to be) was reduced to an ordinary double cabin, and the purser was having a bad quarter of an hour.

Sir Lionel, armed with a whisky and soda, was sprawling on the little sofa in his sitting room, his feet resting upon a stout wooden chest. He reminded me of an old buccaneer, gloating over ill-gotten treasure; and: “Has Smith arrived?” he demanded.

“No. I’m just going up to make inquiries, chief . . .”

And so, now, I found myself craning out and watching the pontoon. It would be nearly an hour before the Indramatra sailed, but I could not imagine, since Sir Denis had missed us in Cairo, how he hoped to reach Port Said before we left. Nevertheless, he had advised us to expect him.

I glanced down at Ali Mahmoud, patiently checking the items of our baggage destined for the hold, and experienced a pang of regret in parting from him. Then again I stared towards the shore. I saw the headlights of a car which was being driven rapidly along the waterfront. I saw it pull up just short of the Custom House.

No other steamer was leaving that night, and although, admittedly, this might have been a belated passenger, something told me that it was Nayland Smith.

I was right.

Above the clatter of machinery and minor drone of human voices, with the complementary note of water lapping at the ship’s side, a clamour reached me from the shore. There was urgency in the sound. And as I watched, I saw a police launch which had been lying just off the pontoon, run in, in response to a signal. A few moments later, and the little craft was describing a flattened arc as she headed out rapidly for the Indramatra.

One glimpse I had in a momentary glare of the searchlight, of a man seated in the stern, and then I was hurrying down to the lower deck. I had no more than reached the head of the ladder when Nayland Smith came bounding up. As I greeted him:

“Quick!” he snapped and grasped my arm. “The purser’s office—where is it? I don’t know this ship.”

“This way, Sir Denis.”

Pushing past groups of passengers, mostly planters and officials from the Dutch East Indies, we went racing across to the purser’s office. As I had expected, a number of people were waiting to interview that harassed official, but the curtain was drawn over his door, and I could hear an excited voice within. Sir Denis never hesitated for a moment. He rapped loudly, jerked the curtain aside, and:

“Mr. Purser!” he said, “I regret that I don’t know your name—my apologies. But it is vitally urgent that I should see you for a few moments.”

The purser, a Sumatra-born Dutchman, stout and normally good-humored, I judged, was not at the moment in an amiable mood. Mr. John Kennington, M. P., a fussy little man resembling Tweedledee in spectacles, was literally dancing about in his room.

“I say it’s an outrage, sir,” he was exclaiming, “an outrage. This fellow, Sir Lionel Barton, this travelling mountebank, has almost literally thrown me out of the cabin which I reserved in Cairo. As a British member of Parliament, I wish to state——”

“I don’t know your name, sir,” said the purser, looking up wearily at Sir Denis—he spoke excellent English, for the Dutch are first-class linguists; “mine is Voorden: but you can see that I am very much engaged.”

“Such a state of affairs,” Mr. Kennington continued, extending his rotund person in the manner of a frog about to burst, “such a state of affairs would not be tolerated for a moment in the P. & O.”

That, of course, was a slip, and put the purser on our side at once. His growing distaste for the angry passenger was reflected upon normally placid features.

“The P. & O., sir,” said Nayland Smith, “is an admirable line, to which I can give you a personal introduction ensuring excellent accommodation.”

Mr. Kennington paused, turned, and looked up at the grim face of the speaker; then: “Possibly, sir, you may know that members of Parliament, traveling officially, are afforded certain facilities——”

“I do know it, and I feel sure that your complaint is a just one. But since you are a member of Parliament, you will naturally do everything in your power to assist me. A matter of national urgency demands that I should have two minutes’ private conversation with Mr. Voorden.”

Mr. Kennington blew himself up again.

“My dear sir,” he replied, “I must take this opportunity of pointing out to you that I have certain rights here.”

Sir Denis’s temper, never of the best, was growing dangerously frayed.

“Mr. Voorden,” he said quietly, “I don’t know this gentleman’s name, but have I your permission to place him in the alleyway until our very urgent business is concluded?”

The purser’s broad face broke into a smile. It was a suggestion after his own heart; and:

“May I ask you, Mr. Kennington,” he said, addressing the outraged M. P., whose features were now assuming a hectic florid hue, “to allow me two minutes with this gentleman? His business, I think, is important.”

“Important!” the other exploded. “Important! By heavens, sir, Rotterdam shall hear of you—Rotterdam shall hear of you!”

He expelled himself from the cabin.

“Here is my card, Mr. Voorden,” said Sir Denis, laying a card upon the purser’s table; “but in order to save your time and my own, I called upon the Dutch consul on my way to the docks. He was unable to accompany me, but he sends this note.”

He laid upon the table a sheet of paper bearing the letterhead of the Dutch consulate at Port Said. The purser put on a pair of horn-rimmed glasses and read the note. Mr. Kennington, not far away, might be heard demanding an interview with the captain.

“Sir Denis Nayland Smith,” said the purser, standing up, “I am at your service. What can I do for you?”

“Thank you,” said Sir Denis, and shook his hand. “Your passenger list, if you please. I want the name of everyone joining the ship at this port.”

“Certainly! that is very simple. You will also wish to know, of course, what accommodation they have reserved?”

“Exactly.”

A moment later Nayland Smith was bending over a plan of the ship, in close consultation with the purser. I moved to the curtain, drew it aside, and stepped into the alleyway. Mr. Kennington had discovered the second steward and was insisting that that official should conduct him to the captain. I had it in mind to endeavour to pacify the infuriated little man, when the matter was taken out of my hands.

“Sir Lionel Barton is the person’s name,” shouted Mr. Kennington—“who the devil may I ask is Sir Lionel Barton?”

Unfortunately for Mr. Kennington, at that moment Sir Lionel appeared on the scene.

“Does anybody want me?” he inquired in his deep gruff voice.

Mr. Kennington turned and looked up into that sun-baked, truculent mask. He tried bravely to sustain the glare of deep-set eyes beneath tufted brows. But when he spoke, it was with a notable lack of confidence.

“Are you Sir Lionel Barton?”

“I am. Did you want me?”

The second steward escaped, leaving Mr. Kennington to fight his battle alone.

“There seems to be some misunderstanding about our cabins,” he said in a tone of gentle melancholy. . . .

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