I took an axe to it, readily forced the paltry Chinese fastening, and, like a Custom-House officer, plunged my hands among the contents. For some while I groped among linen and cotton. Then my teeth were set on edge with silk, of which I drew forth several strips covered with mysterious characters. And these settled the business, for I recognised them as a kind of bed- hanging popular with the commoner class of the Chinese. Nor were further evidences wanting, such as night-clothes of an extraordinary design, a three-stringed Chinese fiddle, a silk handkerchief full of roots and herbs, and a neat apparatus for smoking opium, with a liberal provision of the drug. Plainly, then, the cook had been a Chinaman; and, if so, who was Jos. Amalu? Or had Jos. stolen the chest before he proceeded to ship under a false name and domicile? It was possible, as anything was possible in such a welter; but, regarded as a solution, it only led and left me deeper in the bog. For why should this chest have been deserted and neglected, when the others were rummaged or removed? and where had Jos. come by that second chest, with which (according to the clerk at the What Cheer) he had started for Honolulu?
"And how have YOU fared?" inquired the captain, whom I found luxuriously reclining in our mound of litter. And the accent on the pronoun, the heightened colour of the speaker's face, and the contained excitement in his tones, advertised me at once that I had not been alone to make discoveries.
"I have found a Chinaman's chest in the galley," said I, "and John (if there was any John) was not so much as at the pains to take his opium."
Nares seemed to take it mighty quietly. "That so?" said he. "Now, cast your eyes on that and own you're beaten!" And with a formidable clap of his open hand he flattened out before me, on the deck, a pair of newspapers.
I gazed upon them dully, being in no mood for fresh discoveries.
"Look at them, Mr. Dodd," cried the captain sharply. "Can't you look at them?" And he ran a dirty thumb along the title. "'_Sydney Morning Herald, November 26th,' can't you make that out?" he cried, with rising energy. "And don't you know, sir, that not thirteen days after this paper appeared in New South Pole, this ship we're standing in heaved her blessed anchors out of China? How did the _Sydney Morning Herald_ get to Hong Kong in thirteen days? Trent made no land, he spoke no ship, till he got here. Then he either got it here or in Hong Kong. I give you your choice, my son!" he cried, and fell back among the clothes like a man weary of life.
"Where did you find them?" I asked. "In that black bag?"
"Guess so," he said. "You needn't fool with it. There's nothing else but a lead-pencil and a kind of worked-out knife."
I looked in the bag, however, and was well rewarded.
"Every man to his trade, captain," said I. "You're a sailor, and you've given me plenty of points; but I am an artist, and allow me to inform you this is quite as strange as all the rest. The knife is a palette-knife; the pencil a Winsor and Newton, and a B B B at that. A palette-knife and a B B B on a tramp brig! It's against the laws of nature."
"It would sicken a dog, wouldn't it?" said Nares.
"Yes," I continued, "it's been used by an artist, too: see how it's sharpened--not for writing--no man could write with that. An artist, and straight from Sydney? How can he come in?"
"O, that's natural enough," sneered Nares. "They cabled him to come up and illustrate this dime novel."
We fell a while silent.
"Captain," I said at last, "there is something deuced underhand about this brig. You tell me you've been to sea a good part of your life. You must have seen shady things done on ships, and heard of more. Well, what is this? is it insurance? is it piracy? what is it ABOUT? what can it be for?"
"Mr. Dodd," returned Nares, "you're right about me having been to sea the bigger part of my life. And you're right again when you think I know a good many ways in which a dishonest captain mayn't be on the square, nor do exactly the right thing by his owners, and altogether be just a little too smart by ninety-nine and three-quarters. There's a good many ways, but not so many as you'd think; and not one that has any mortal thing to do with Trent. Trent and his whole racket has got to do with nothing--that's the bed-rock fact; there's no sense to it, and no use in it, and no story to it: it's a beastly dream. And don't you run away with that notion that landsmen take about ships. A society actress don't go around more publicly than what a ship does, nor is more interviewed, nor more humbugged, nor more run after by all sorts of little fussinesses in brass buttons. And more than an actress, a ship has a deal to lose; she's capital, and the actress only character--if she's that. The ports of the world are thick with people ready to kick a captain into the penitentiary if he's not as bright as a dollar and as honest as the morning star; and what with Lloyd keeping watch and watch in every corner of the three oceans, and the insurance leeches, and the consuls, and the customs bugs, and the medicos, you can only get the idea by thinking of a landsman watched by a hundred and fifty detectives, or a stranger in a village Down East."