The Great Charas: Fighting The Drug Ring
And so I embarked on my lasl and most important cliaras venture. Tlie charas adventure, I miglu well, call it,
My original plan was simple. I learned that Greek hashish had vanished from the market. The thought of another smuggling trip to Bombay, of traveling indefinitely shul-tlewise from the Himalayas to Suez, the endless formalities, the shady interventions, the journey ilself-the battle with the monsoon and the tedious weeks of tossing in the swelL of the Indian Ocean-all inspired a distinct aversion.
I longed for a respite-a villa by the Mediterranean. "Why not grow hemp myself: compete openly with Chinese charas and have done with contraband? I realized the logical country for a liemp plantation was Abyssinia. Hemp-fiber would be welcomed for local rope manufacture and hemp leaves for export.. But il would be several years before I could count on my hemp plantations producing a high-grade quality of ganja. To put Abyssinian ganja 011 the market immediately, the best method, I fell, was to mix with the dried hemp leaves some powdered charas, the resin from the tops of the finest female ganja plants.
The story of the great charas began wilh a business letter addressed to Edwin Tumwell, captain of the schooner Evelyn, Bombay. Would he be willing to act in a new purchase of charas? Six tons to be bought in Chinese Turkestan, if possible, and sent across India by rail.. Although it was illegal to sell hashish in the British colonies, il could be shipped over British soil if il was destined for a country where hashish was still legal.. Hashish was legal in Abyssinia.
Turnwell's answer arrived by telegraph. "Accept.. EnchanteV I could almost hear him jubilate over the wires. But difficulties on Thrnwell's end mounted as the months passed. Wires flashed back and forth, endlessly, permils were obtained, but no charas materialized. I had just formulated an energetic message to send over the wires when I received a cable: "Your presence here imperative. Come immediately. Urgent Turn well,"
That night I left on the Allair for Aden, and four days later, via a P. & O. liner, I landed in Bombay. Thrnwell was on the dock, waving his arms like a disjointed windmill. His round eyes popped with excitement.. I could see he was literally bursting with news.
"Well, Thrnwell, what is the matter now?" The question seemed to startle him. He gripped my arm above (he elbow and flinging a nervous glance to right and left, (owards the groups of homecoming colonials proceeding imperlur-bably down the pier amid shoals of baggage, murmured through his teeth in a melodramatic tone, (hough scarcely audible:
"Not here, this is no place; wait, later,"
As our cab bumped over the uneven pavement, he sat looking mystetipus, his lips pressed together, like a small boy with a secret.. We drew up at last before the liltle bungalow in the suburbs, wi(h which I was already acquainted.
ThrnweH's room stood like an oasis in that unspeakable cottage. I have no distinct recollection of it, except (hat i( was quiet and in order. He shut Ihe door carefully behind me, motioned me to a chair by the window and took a seat opposite me. He was beaming with importance.
"Man, that charas of yours. U is a fortune!" he burst out. "Do you know, you can sell it here in Bombay for ten pounds sterling a seer!" He leaned back in his chair to note (he effect of the bomb. His joy in the discovery was so sincere, thai I hesitated to dampen it. For in one sense he had made a discovery, which I was curious to fathom.
"You don't say!" I murmured, trying to look as astonished as possible before the question which interested me primarily. "Sell it ... to whom?"
"Ohk that is a long story," Thrnwell settled himself in his chair. "But to begin with, have you ever heard about hashish? They get it from charas, you know. Smuggled into Egypt, it is worlh its weight of gold!"
Something in the lone of that lasl remark of his, a certain excited glitter of his round eyes, affected me disagreeably. I began to regret not having taken Thrnwell more fully into my confidence. But where had he acquired his information? "Who told you, and how-?" I started to question. He did not let me finish.
"As I said, it is quiie a story," he broke in importantly. He related how two mysterious strangers, a Greek and a Levantine, had approached him with generous offers to ourchase Ihe entire six tons of charas.
"Did tliey give you a contract?"
"Noi directly. 1 received a iliird visit. An Englishman. Oh, a geinJeman. Here you liave his name." He handed me I lie bil of cardboard, neatly engraved.
Leonard W,T. Ashby, Esq.
"He sent up his card one evening about seven," Thrawell weni on. "Apologized for ihe hour, but said he had jusi arrived in Bombay and did not want to waste a minule before seeing me. Would I give him ilie pleasure of dining with him? Afterwards we could talk business. Sucli a dinner!" Thrnwell. sighed beatifically at (lie recollection. "Later we came up here. And what do you think were the first words he said? 'Mr. Turnwe 1L,' he remarked, offering me a Havana (lie had a monogrammed case fulL of tliem). 'I hear you have just taken out a permit to export six tons of charas. Do you mind telling me what you are going to do with it?' 'Oh,' 1 answered carelessly, 'I am going to export iu The Englishman thought a while, turning his cigar round and round in Ills fingers. Then he spoke crisply. 'Preliaps, Mr. ThrnwelL, 1 might make you a better offer than your present customer. What would you say to five pounds a seer?' At that 1 nearly fell off my chair, but ltook care not to show my feelings. 1 lold him 1 wasn't in a position to make any promises. He said prehaps he could gel six pounds a seer and maybe seven.
1 told him I couldn't give him as answer immediately. I would have to consult, my associate. 'Ah, you have an associate?' He said that in such an odd lone, I couldn't make out whether he was displeased or merely surprised. But, he added quickly, of course he understood. He would waiL for an answer, and in the meantime I could always find him at his hotel.. Wel)-and then 1 sent you the telegram.;''
"When was it you said Mr. Ashby came to Bombay?"
"Two weeks ago.."1
That is lo say he had telegraphed me neatly a week after their conversation. Why the delay, 1 reflected, or rather why had he telegraphed me at all? Was it loyally or discretion, 1 wondered, studying the rosy face before me, wreathed in cigarette smoke like an elderly cherub on a cloud.
"... I wanted to get you here as soon as possible, for naturally 1 would rather work with you. (Was this meant for flattery?) 1 don't know any oftiiat crowd. They may be a gang of bandits. And besides ... the permit is in your name ... "
Naive young man-so that was Ilie key lo the mystery. Had it not been for that detail, 1 might never have heard of my agent nor the charas he had agreed lo purchase for me. Volikis, 1 realized, had spoken the truth. That charas shipment of ours had upset the Egyptian market.. The "Ring" was out lo eliminate the competition. But if 1 let them have that particular six tons of charas, it would be at my own terms, and when and where 1 chose
"I suppose the first thing is to see Ashby," 1 suggested. With that ThrawelL agreed. We parted that evening planning lo meet again as soon as he had arranged an interview. Allen the next mottling, he was at my hotel..
"I have just seen him,'," he announced. "Ashby will meet us in an hour.;" "On the boulevaid?" I inquired as he gave an order to the cab-driver.
"Ashby will pick up his car. There we can talk freely."'
Promptly at eleven by Thru well's wsisi watch, a rented automobile, very vast with its one passenger lost in Ilie wide back seat, drove slowly past and stopped a few rods ahead. Thrnwell. presented me to a little man of about fifty with sharp features over which a yellow skin lay in innumerable wrinkles. One would have said he had just issued from the hands of the laundress, so spotless he was from sun helmet to gaiters. He reached me a claw-like hand, with a smije that added additional creases to the waxy folds about his mouili.
"Charmed at this meeting, Monsieur Franqui,' ' he chiiped in excellent French. '(I had charged Thrnwell lo withhold my true name, preferring for a variety of reasons to remain incognito.)
"I may say that not a gram of hashish reaches the consumer that does not first pass through the hands of our organization,",' he affirmed. (A statement which 1 could have contradicted had I so chosen.) His group had become interested recently (and how recently I alone knew) in Indian charas. Ashby remarked in passing that he had unlimited funds at his disposal and he was prepared to make an offer which Thjwell had let him understand was superior to what 1 was accustomed to receive from my usual customers. What would I say to a tentative figure of six or seven pounds a seer?
I replied thai seven pounds seemed a fair basis for discussion. We finally agreed on ten, including Ashby's commission. He (ired lo gel me lo make over the charas to him in Bomaby; but I explained that I had obtained the permit for exporting the drag with the understanding that il was lo be shipped 10 Djibouti.. If ii were to become known that I had disposed of the charas in Bombay lo the Egyptian hashish syndicate, it would undoubtedly compromise the success of any further purchases I might desire to make in India. We ended our conversation with the understanding that I was to inform him at his Cairo address when the charas might be expected at Djibouti- In the meantime he would make all the necessary arrangements for its delivery.
I was not over-pleased to enter in contact with the Egyptian hashish syndicate, which Volikis had always characterized as a "den of bandits.'." Ifl let them have the charas it would mean postponing my Abyssinian project, prehaps indefinitely. 1 pretended to accept the Englishman's offer chiefly because I saw no other way out of the situation.
I had a boat leaving for Aden within two days. Thrnwell was to leave within twenty-four hours for Kashmir to purchase the drug. Ashby, too, was eager to return to Cairo, but he felt that it was imprudent to travel 011 the same boat as I. He would wait over for the next one. Besides he had a little affair to finisli up in Bombay-for in addition lo his connection with the hashish syndicate, lie attended lo matters of publicity 011 the side-and he was making engagements with a troupe of Indian dancers for music-halls of Cairo and Alexandria. An odd little man, Ashby, in appearance stiff and reserved as a Protestant pastor. He had a finger in a good many odd operations, among which the hashish trade, I suspected, was perhaps the most reputable.
In my last conversation with Thrnwell, I learned that my irrepressible agent had still, another scheme up his sleeve.
"How soon do you suppose it will be before I can count on my commission?" he inquired as we sat over our coffee after dinner that evening. "As soon as your friend Ashby makes the first payment. Why?" I inquired, wondering what lay back of the question ..
"It... that ... I have found another steamer for sale. The Caiman, a former Chinese coast-guard. A much belter bargain than the Southern , Cross; it can be bought for a song."
I was in no mood for philanthropy. Nor did I intend to let my sensibilities be moved by the pathos of the silualion. I quashed his enthusiasm with brutal directness, telling him that once he had fulfilled his obligations towards me, he could buy a fleet of steamers if he chose. That was his affair. Personally I had no need of a steamer. It was for him, as my agent, to see that the charas arrived in Bombay at a time when it could be loaded immediately on a boat for Aden. If he felt incapable of assuring me that, I would remain in Bombay myself lo handle the affair.
Two weeks after my return to the African coast, I received a telegram from Thrnwell, announcing the purchase of the charas and his own arrival in Bombay. Owing to certain difficulties of transport, he explained, he had been obliged 10 abandon the drug in the north, 10 follow after him, he assured me, within a few days. That news gave me a fresh opportunity. lo regrel my choice of Thrnwell as a business agent. I could not help wondering what pressing business had demanded Thrnwell's pres
ence in Bombay, while my charas wandered over the railroads of India, unattended.
After that first telegram I received no further news from Bombay for fully two weeks. Then in reply to a letter and a cable of my own, demanding news of the traveling charas, a letter came, crammed with excuses. The shipment had been held up at Srinagar. When he wrote, he was about to make a flying trip 10 Rawalpindi with the papers. He urged me to be patient, assuring me that such delays could not be avoided, and promised to put the drug aboard a steamer leaving a week later or at most within ten days.
A week passed, Iwo weeks, and no further news came from Bombay. I cabled again. In reply, I received a reassuring message.
"Merchandise leaving end of week 011 slearner Canossa after difficulty wilh Excise Office."
I drew a breath of relief, reproaching myself with having noucrshed unjust suspicions. Such delays, as Thrnwell. had said, were not extraordinary under Ihe circumstances, as I knew from personal experience with, the Indian administration. I made the Aliair ready for sea; several days later, we hoisted sail for Aden. We reached port 011 the eve of the day scheduled for ihe arrival of the Canossa. I went ashore1 to spend the night at a little hotel in which I had put up many times before. The proprietor greeted me like an old friend.
"Well, Abd el Hai, on your way to India again?"
I explained that this lime I had merely come for goods the Canossa was bringing from Bombay. In ihe course of our conversation, I mentioned Thrnwell, whom the I10-telkeeper remembered.
"Odd you should speak of him. Only the other day I had news of Thrnwell. from one of our guests. I had not thought of Ihe man for months. It seems he is going back to
ihe sea again J*
"On an old Chinese freighter, I believe. Belongs now to an Englishman who boughi it in Bombay. It was (he owner himself who told me. He engaged ThmwelL to bring it to Europe
"Do you remember the owner's name?"
"Fellow by the name of Ashby. Though what he could want with an old Chinese tramp, I can't »» /
"Youdon't recollect what he called the steamer?" 1 broke in hastily.
"He told me, but I have forgotten» Some Chinese name, 1 suppose. He bragged a lot about his purchase, that Mr. Ashby. I took it he had never owned a boat before^1
The news, I confess, staggered me. Ashby, Thriiwell, and presumably, the Caiman The situation seemed all too clear. The Caiman 011 the way to Europe with Thrn.well.and doubdess my six tons of charas on board. The hashish syndicate had carried the day; 1 could imagine no other explanation. At any rate, the arrival of the Canossa would remove any doubts 1 stilL might cherish in the matter.
Then I came off an empty Canossa, I found a reply to my Bombay cable awaiting me at the hotel. "Owner and master steamer Caiman: Captain Thrnwell. Destination, Abyssinia, via Perirn," My charas had been stolen. It was oil the way to Egypt.. But by what route? The dec)ared port, Perirn, was manifesdy a blind. Thrnwell, Ashby as well, knew better than to toucli at an English port, as dangerous for a vessel carrying stolen goods as a French one, under the circumstances. I had the right to appeal both to English and Frencli authorities to protect my interests-a right I intended to utilized to the utmost..
On the other hand, the men who had appropriated the charas had committed an act of piracy; there was no other name for it. They had loaded it on a ship which left Bombay with false papers, to be smuggled into Egypt in contraband. For once, Iliad the powers of the law on my side!
Then began the battle of telegrams. A one-sided battle, at the beginning.
During a week or more, answers to my cables poured in from all directions» No news of the Caiman anywhere. As if it had disappered into thin air. Then one morning, 1 received a dispatch from Alexandria. It was signed Vaporidis (the name of a Cairo banker whom I had already he aid mentioned in connection with the activities of the hashish syndicate),, and read:
"Cease action. Goods in out hands. Come Alexandria for understanding.".'
The first concrete result.. Five days later, I climbed a dark stairway of an old house in Alexandria, and was received in a dusty office, much less luxurious than I had anticipated, by an Egyptian clerk who opened his eyes wide as 1 handed him my card. The banker was absent; he would not return, to his office before five in the afternoon. Promptly at five, I repeated my visit,.
When I had sat there for neacly an hour, a bell, buzzed somewhere overhead. Getting instantly to his feet, the clerk with an air of mystery, swung aside a row of bookshelves that masked a door in the wall. A door which, even without the protecting shelves, was all but invisible, as the chocolate-colored wall, paper of the room lay smooth across the panels. 1 heard the clink of a bolt on the other side, and the door opened inward oil well-oiled hinges.
'Beyond, in a vast room containing massive office furniture, had assembled what looked like a Board of Directors* meeting. Ten men sat about a mahogany table at the end of which a gray-bearded Greek presided with the dignity of a Cabinet Minister. He waved me to a chair facing him and during the conversation that followed, acted as spokesman.
"We are glad of the chance to talk with you J" he began as 1 took my place in the circle- "By the publicity you have given to-ahem-certain matters, you threaten to compromise your own interests and ours.."" "Publkuty?" I repeated stiffly. "I fail to grasp your point of view. There is nothing Illicit, about the merchandise you refer to. I shipped it to Djibouti through the regular channels ... "
"You were to have shipped it .. .'the speaker corrected with a dry smde. "Come now, Abd el HaL" he went on with a change of tone. "We are men of business and this is a business matter. How much do you want?"
"Not a piastre. When the charas reaches Djibouti we will, talk business if you choose so. Not before,," My inteulocutor_* bin his lips with impatience. "There is no question of returning you anything,"4 he returned coldly» "We offer to make you a fair payment, nothing more. If you do not choose to accept it, that is your affair. We are seated here, comfortably,,"* lie went oil. "Keep on running about; make all the noise you want to; we can afford to waiL" At the words, a discreet smile went the rounds of the table. J got to my feeL
"Stay in your armchairs, gendemen» Take your rest while you may; you may have plenty of sleepless nights ahead ... "I took my leave, flaunting an air of confidence which in no way expressed the true state of my feelings.
I planned to leave Alexandria that night, but as I passed before the Hotel Claridge on my way to the station, I caught sight of a familiar figure in the lighted hallway. Ash by himself. A sudden impulse carried me through the door. The Englishman had disappeared.
"Mr. Ashby?" I inquired at the desk^ The clerk consulted the register.
"The gentjeman is not in." I came near protesting he was mistaken, but thought better of it and walked away. Half an hour later I again demanded Ash by. He was still invisible. But I did not intend to be disposed of so easily.
I waited on the terrace until the day clerk of the hotel went off duty. As soon as he left the building, I presented myself at the desk, carrying a bag, and asked for a room. On the register I signed, "Captain Thrnwell, Bombay," and walked off to the room assigned me, wondering how long it would take before the fish rose to the bail ... I did not have long to wait.. Barely an hour later, a call came from the desk. Could I receive Mr. Ashby?
1 switched off the electricity, leaving the room in semi-darkness, lighted only from street-lamps beyond the window. At Ashby's knock, I admitted my visitor, closed the door behind him, and turned on the lights again. The Englishman tottered as if he had received a blow. His waxy features went dead white. Visibly he was frightened. My back against the door, I spoke with utmost affability.
"See here, Ashby;* I stated frankly. "You have been working for a group of bandits> It may mean serious trouble for you in the near future. Don't you think it might be more to your interest to swing over to my way of thinking? I could make il worth your while ..
"No doubt, no doubt."' Again a nervous glance towards the door. Manifestly the man was thoroughly seated.
"I make no threats of any sort:' I reassured him. "You have only to tell me what became of the Caiman .. J"
"I ... I have no idea where your charas is:' Ashby muttered. His face had not yet resumed a normal color and his fingers twitched as lie spoke.
"And there is no convenient means of reviving your memory?" I glanced casually towards a check book which lay on the table between us.
"I tell you, 1 don't know what has become of your charas:' he repeated unsteadily. Then without transition, he broke into a hysterical tirade. Some one had played him false. He had done all the work; and now he had been shoved aside. He continued for several minutes in the same strain, almost on the point of tears. Was the man lying? In any case, it seemed clear that he could or would furnish me with no information. I put the check book back in my pocket and rose to my feet, signifying that my visitor was free to leave. At the door, he turned to me with a word of entreaty.
"Don't show yourself much in the hotel, I beg you. If they learn that the two of us are staying here, no knowing what might happen. They already accuse me of having warned you...
I closed the door on the worthy servant of the drug ring. Perhaps the scene had been carefully played; but something told me the man had spoken the truth.
Volikis, whom I saw in Cairo the following day, shared the opinion.
According to Volikis, the cargo was still on the high seas.
"My advice is to keep your eyes fixed on the south of the Indian Ocean. They may try to send the Caiman around the Cape,'1
The idea seemed plausible. In that case, ThrCLwell's steamer would have to put in somewhere to take on coal. I found the optimism of the Greek most consoling. Though as I thought il over later, the south of the Indian Ocean seemed rather too large a region for one man to survey ... by telegraph.
During that trip to Egypt, I acquired another ally. A young French pearl merchant established in Cairo, with whom I had done considerable business, offered to help me in the quest for the lost charas. Pelleticr viewed the whole matter with romantic enthusiasm; he knew several members of the hashish syndicate personally; and he felt convinced that he would have little difficulty in ferreting out information. I counted little on the aid that might be furnished by the amateur detective ... but I considered it useful to possess a partisan in no way connected with the drug trade.
Pelletiei took his role seriously. I had scarcely returned to Djibouti when I received a telegram.
"Discovered whereabouts Caiman. At Socotra. Will transfer cargo to ship for Zanzibar..,b
Within twenty-four hours, a second cable from Pellelier arrived, contradicting the first.
"Caiman hiding Red Sea. Information sure.." Six hours later, the peail merchant telegraphed again.
"News confirmed. Steamer Elsa passing Canal to meet Caiman.^
That was an eventuality I had not foreseen. The Ring had decided to risk no encounter with the Bedouins of the Red Sea coasts They were sending the charas through the Canal on another ship, to land it somewhere on the north shore of Egypt..
I wasted no time. Preparing the Altair for sea, I mounted a toy cannon in the bow; provided the crew with rifles or revolvers; and manufactured several hand-grenades-a capsule of dynamite and a handful of buckshot in a pickle bottle. Nor did we lack the customary classic equipment for such expeditions; each man wore a curved gembia, belted at the waist. When we met with the Caiman, I planned to send a shot into the engines, and in case of resistance to recover my property by force of arms, if necessary. However, knowing Thrnwell as I did, I little feared, that matters would progress as far as thaL A mere show of force would suffice. *
As we passed before Perirn, we crossed an Arab boutre traveling south. Approaching within hailing distance, I called to (he nakboda to ask whether he had seen a small steamer with three masts and a yellow funnel..
"T»vo days ago," came tlie answer. "Fifteen miles nortli of Moka, close to the land.'." My suspicions seemed confirmed.
We reached Moka the next morning. No trace of the Caiman in the liarbor. The usual crowd liad gathered on the beach-askari with guns and silver dagger-liilts; Bedouins shining with butter, black-skinned coolies and Sou danese slaves, splendid of torso, but invariably bow-legged or knock-kneed. An askac offered to conduct me to the house of the Sheik-for I had brought with me a letter from a former Arab customer of mine, requesting the dignitary to furnish me alL cooperation in getting back my stolen charas.
My guide left me at the door of the Sheik's house, an ancient building four stories high, with a spiral stair, built doubtless for strategic reasons, narrow and steep; lighted only by occasional slits in the walL. A slave to whom I surrendered my letter, led me into a dark little room in which twenty Arabs sal about, chewing the green shoois of kat. In a few words, I related the stoiy of the stolen cargo and my quest of Caiman, the fugitive. But no such steamer had entered the pott of Moka. Incase it should, the Sheik promised me to lute the captain on land and to hold him prisoner till my return.. For my part, I guaranteed a reward of 1,000 francs payable when die prisoner was turned over to me. Inquires made in town and along the beach brought no further information. Absolutely no one had seen the Caiman nor' any ship like it The steamer had evidently avoided the port; perhaps it lay at anchor among the Han-ish Islands, the only possible hiding place for a boat of its dimensions.
Accordingly at midnight, we hoisted sail for Djebbel Hanisli. Morning came as we rounded its southern., tip. Not a boat in sight; not even a boutrc of fishers for us to question. We headed for little Hanish Island, a rock three miles long, which at the north encloses a little bay affording excellent shelter.
As we rounded the northern., end of the island, I made out between the two capes that mark the limits of the bay, the vertical lines of three masts against the sky. A single cry went up from the deck: the Caiman! Starting the motor for greater speed, I swung the Altair to starboard and steered straight for I lie anchorage. To my surprise, as we changed our direction, I saw the three masts shift their position against the sky and disappear. Had we been seen? In thirty minutes we rounded the cape into the bay. It was empty. Far out at sea, a big freighter was making for the horizon.
The Caiman, I decided, must have slipped around the southern., end of Little Hanish as we approached, and from that point, hidden from us, had headed for the east coast of Djebbel Hanish. The wind had risen in the meantime and the sea was running high. I dated not risk the Altair on the eastern, side of Great Hanish; it look us neady three hours to beat our way across to a liule anchorage at its southwestern. tip. I left the boutre, and accompanied by Abdi, climbed painfully up a sleep slope of crumbling lava-iock to the summit, of the island. From that point we could view the entire sea. Not a boat anywhere. Even the big freighter had disappeared. I had been duped by an optical illusion. What I had taken for the Caiman lying at anchor, had evidently been the freighter passing between the two islands. When I changed our- direction, its speed became apparent as it continued its route towards the north.
Feeling it useless to play hide-and-seek with our- own shadows, I resolved to return., straightway to Djibouti, in the hope that during out1 absence fresh news of the fugitives might have come. Instead of the anticipated telegrams, I found only a letter from Pellelier, explaining with pride how he had happened on the news of the Caiman. Il appeared that while waiting in an anteroom at the house of Vaporidis, lie had "discovered" an open telegram lying on a table. As if by accident... ... The amateur.-detective had led me on a pretty chase. The Drug Ring must hugged themselves with delight at Pelletier's gullibility ... and mine. How nicely I had fallen into their trap.
Where was the Caiman? As if in answer to the unspoken question, a pair of bare feel thudded across the room behind me. A Somali, car lying a blue envelope. I lore it open; read it once, read it twice.
"Steamer Caiman at Seychelles Islands."' Signed French Consulate, Bombay.
"Nothing yet, Abdi?"
"No bottom, Abd el HaL"
My mate drew in ihe lead, in wet, even coils. The metal clinked on Ihe deck. All about us, black waves it>6e and sank wiili clock-like regularity. The seventh sounding since sunset, and still, no sign of the submerged plateau thai rises, a vast submarine mountain, sheer out of 9,000 feel of water.
"No bottom, Abdi?"
"Not yet, Abd el HaL"
A mo mil liad passed since I received from Bombay the news of the Caiman's presence in the Seychelles Islands. For days the wires hummed with messages. Telegram to the Governor of Seychelles: ..Seize the cargo of the Caiman-"' Telegram from Seychelles: "Regret, impossible under local laws." More cables to Bombay; the cumbersome machine of the law put in motion. A silence, of consternation no doubt, followed the command; then a reply came from the distant islands: "Seizure effective Monday providing owner of cargo transmits 30,000 rupees bond..'" At (he same time I received an urgent dispatch from the attorney whose services 1 had engaged at Mahe-s-also by cable. "Send bond sure. Dutch ship in harbor will load cargo Caiman Monday if seizure not made J*
I received the two telegrams on a Saturday afternoon. The banks of Aden were closed. I had until . Monday morning at nine o'clock to deliver the sum at Mah£: otherwise, once more the Fugitiye charas would slip through my fingers. On the Face of it, it seemed obvious that others beside Thrnwell had an interest in preventing the seizure of the Caiman's cargo. It scarcely seemed probable that Thrnwell would have put in to Mah6 harbor without assurance in advance of certain protection
But for once I had the Empire on my side. It alone could dominate the situation. I climbed the hill above the port of Aden to call upon the Resident. The official was not at home. He had left to play golf that afternoon and would dine in town. Undiscouraged-by this time, I had been given many a lesson in Oriental patience-I sal down by the roadside at the gale of the villa, to wait for the dinner-guest's return.
A midnight interview, courteous and brief.
"Deposit the sum with the trading-house of Cowadjee," the Resident told me. "Bring me the receipt and I will guarantee the transaction.'.''
Sunday morning an official cable went over the wires to Seychelles: "Bond deposited here. Seize the Caiman's cargo." Twenty-four hours later the reply came announcing the seizure. I had scored my first victory.
I consulted the sailing-lists. The only boats for Seychelles left via Bombay or Dar es Salaam on the African coast. No sailing was scheduled for a month. Odd coincir dence
There remained the Aliair. It had made the crossing lo Bombay; it could also attempt Seychelles. I equipped the boutre, selected a crew with care, and we headed south into the Indian Ocean.
"What does the lead say, Abdi?"
"Nothing as yet, Abd el HaL"
Morning broke over the sea whipped at the surface by a fine rain. Were the currents carrying us east and north? Had we left the Seychelles behind us? If so, we might plow on indefinitely Only three days of the allotted weeks were left! That plateau, over a hundred miles square, shrank to a grain of sand in the immensity of the ocean.
The day dragged through and brought no change. At each sounding, the lead spun out endlessly Night came; I resolved to keep on until noon next day, before
putting about. At midnight, a sharp cry forward-echoed ;
joyfully by a dozen voices: ^
"Bottom, Abd el HaL Twelve fathoms..'" ]
The currents had not carried the Altair out of her course. J
They had merely held us back. J
When morning came, the Seychelles lay before us, gran- 1
ite peaks, their summits wrapped with rain clouds and ]
streaked by torrents; their base green with coconut palms. j
By noon we reached the channel of Mahe, above which the j town lay piled in a succession of terraces, gleaming white )
through a heavy curtain of leaves. But mote welcome still, j sight of a ship moored to the wliacf-a steamer painted >
while, carrying three masts and a yellow funnel.. The 3
When I came to take over the stock of charas, I made a ;
surprising and agreeable discovery. Its quantity had multi- j plied. From six tons, it had grown to twelve! Thrnwell had \ made use of my purchase-and-export permit not once but twice. Their attempt at piracy was costing the Hashish Syndicate a pretty sum. The great charas adventure was turning out better than I dreamed.
"I hope you bear me no ill will,," Thrnwell mumbled as we parted, offering me a hand that trembled slightly.
"An contraire," I assured him. I shook the limp hand ; vigorously as I left him, solitary, round-eyed, and pathetic, helpless as a lost dog in the pelting tropical rain. I never saw liim again.
But the charas adventure was not over. In two weeks' time, the Altair with its precious cargo, put into Djibouti, and unloaded on the Customs' docks. There it could not long remain; goods of that nature deteriorate in the heat, and it was lo my interest to transport it as rapidly as possible (o (he Abyssinian plateau, to my future hemp plantations.
The night of our arrival in Djibouti* J received a visitor. A gentleman preferring not to give his name, but who presented himself, as an old friend. "Old friend" was scarcely the title 1 myself should have given him-I had last seen the gentleman comfortably seated in an armchair in Alexandria, as he said, to await my return* Vaporidis himself.
He came towards me, very man-of-the-world» his hand outstretched.
"I congratulate you sincerely. You have given my former associates the lesson they deserved.V'
lrose to the bait obligingly.
" Your former ass ooa te sV
"I have broken with them completely. Disapprove heartily of their methods. The affair of the Caiman proved the last straw .. He paused with a virtuous sign. "And now, if you have time, we can talk business.'."
"Business," 1 repeated innocently. "But if you have severed connections with the Syndicate?"
"From now on I plan to work independently. Like your friend Volikis. 1 am sure we can cooperate Tell me, how much do you want for your charas?"
"Noprice you can pay," ltold him bluntly. "lam keeping it for myself/'
"Come, come.0 the Greek retorted with impatience. "This is a business proposition. I have told you I condemn the attitude of the Syndicate.!"
"You took a different view when you held the upper hand,;0 1 reminded.
"You are not the man to nourish a grudge,!" he flattered. "I am ready to pay any price ..
"And 1 tell you 1 do not intend to sell/'
"But you are taking the charas out of the country/," Vaporidis objected.
"Youcan sell it to us from Abyssinia as well as Djibouti/" he suggested slyly. "We have a man up there who can arrange matters. A European who-"
"I am not going to sell/1 1 cut in briefly, "to you, nor to anyone else."
"Not even six tons?"
"Not even six/'
"If that is the case/' the smooth features of the Greek grew sharp with restrained anger, "look for trouble ahead. Only, don't come to me to help you out!"
"Trouble ahead .. 1 wondered what the Greek had meant« 1 had purchased the goods legally; the forces of international law, of two governments, had aided me in recovering iU 1 had been authorized, legally, to import it into Abyssinia.
Iwas still naive ... Ten days after this interview, 1 found myself in a situation fully as serious as the affair of the fugitive Caiman, though less spectacular. 1 lingered on the coast, making preparations for a prolonged absence from the sea, a telegram informed me that the charas which 1 had shipped to Harrar in Abyssinia and which lay in deposit at the Customs, had been seized by the order of the
Ethiopian government and transported to the capital, Addis Ababa.
At the news that my charas had been seized, 1 took the next train for Addis Ababa to plead my case. At the British legation, 1 learned from a slim young le van tine, a Greek naturalized citizen of the Empire, to whom the new charas offensive had been entrusted, that it was indeed true that his government had decided to interfere; in fact no stone was to be left unturned until the charas was destroyed.
A sad blow to my dream of hemp-cultivation. The most I could hope was to prevent the destruction of the merchandise 1 had spent so much time, money, and effort in procuring. Was it just, I argued, to destcoy goods which I had been authorized to import? That argument, I observed, made a serious impression on the Ethiopian authorities. With the matter still pending, 1 lost no time in calling on the chief of the local Customs, a Syrian who, 1 may add, was subsequently, dismissed from office. That elegant young man received me in silk pajamas, having just risen from his bed at eleven in the morning. He motioned me to a chair, yawning copiously, ordered coffee for the two of us, and remarked with a smile of disdainful compassion:
"You are making a desperate struggle, but lwarn_you in advance you will not succeed. The odds are stacked against you. What do you plan to do? Fight the Union Jack alone?"
Ireplied hotly that I did not see what the British Empire.! had to do with it; and that 1 still was confident the Ethiopian government would restore the charas, even if it obliged me to take the drug out of the country. The official shook his head.
"The government is going to burn your charas/" he staled definitely; "Only," he paused with an enigmatic smile, "as you know, charas is a poor combustible» It might be-hem-more practical to burn. something else in its place! That is, if you are interested in getting your merchandise back again.."
"If I am interested , ? I repeated with considerable astonishment. "What do you mean? Is it a question ... of price?'11
The Syrian yawned ostentatiously.
"Of course. What did you think I meant? Suppose you recover a part of the charas; a ton, say; will you be content to let the matter rest?"
For an instant I experience an hallucination: the shade of Vaporidis standing by the speaker's elbow. Yield to them my charas? Far better destroy it! 1 had been ruined before. Rather than lose the batile to the Greek and his associates (I had not believed for a moment that he had broken with the group) I would burn the shipment myself^ and stand over the bonfire until, the last gram of charas was consumed!
"I want all my merchandise or none at all," I told the Syrian firmly: "What is more, I have no intention of paying for it twice J* With that, I took leave of the official, leaving his coffee untouched.
Ten minutes later I reported the conversation to a friend at the French consulate. It was clear, the diplomat assured me, that the Syrian had acted entirely outside his official capacity. The Ethiopian government had no inkling of the matter. Were it to learn of the proposed bargain, the Syrian would not remain five minutes in office
"But tell me," the speaker continued, eyeing me quizzically. " If tlx: Ethiopians do give you back the charas and order you to take it out of the country (which they are perfectly justified in doing), once you have the shipment in Djibouti, what do you plan to do with it?"
"Ship it to Germany and sell it to manufacturers of chemicals,"' I told him. "And what is more, 1 will send it from Aden in a British shipi"
The Frenchman opened round eyes of astonishment. „
"But, my dear man, it will be like putting your hand into-» the jaws of the lion!"
"Take into account the sporting spiriL of the race," I disagreed "If I entrust the charas to the English, they will watch over it like a babe in arms J*
The Ethiopian government sent me forthwith, a notification stating that the charas would be returned to me ... in Djibouti; and that all expenses incurred, transport and storage, would be refunded. I was present when the charas received careful inspection from the Anglo-Levantine, who pronounced the drug authentic; after which an armed guard conveyed it to the station and locked it in a freightcar, sealed with the arms of three nations: Ethiopia, England, France. Whereupon the charas and I in the same train began the long descent to the coast.
Until Dire Daoua all went well. There, as is the custom, the train stopped for the night. The following morning, when I arrived at the station, I discovered that the car containing the charas was no longer attached to the train.
"A hot-box,,"1 some one explained. "The inspector gave orders to have the car uncoupled.'*
"A hot-box ... during the night?" 1 remarked incredulously. "Call the inspector.:"
He came straightway, a Greek employee of the road. The man explained that an axle had heated. He had taken off the car because of the value of the goods it contained.
"It can continue, of course,',"' he admitted dubiously, "though at your own riskj"
I replied that I was willing to assume the entire responsibility; the car was brought from a far coroer-a particularly discreet corner of the yards; coupled to the end of the train, and we got under way at last, one hour after the scheduled time of leaving.
I decided now not to take my eyes off the precious shipment until our arrival in Djibouti. I installed myself in a third-class compartment crowded with natives, separated from the charas by two freight-cars and a third filled with baggage: As the tram pulled out of the station, a section-boss-also a Greek-ran down the track and jumped aboard. He traveled with us until Adagala. I confess I remarked his departure with relief. I had begun to view every Greek, however humble and innocent in appearance, with suspicion.
During that halt at Adagala, I walked up and down the platform surveying the car of charas and chuckling inwardly at the myth of the hot-box» For myth it was undoubtedly; I had examined the axle at every station-it -showed no signs of heating. On leaving Adagala, the road climbs a steep grade for six miles or more to a tunnel, beyond which the roadbed becon*es level again. I remained at the window, leaning out from time to time to assure, myself that the car of charas still followed docilely at the rear of the train.
Straining and puffing, the locomotive attacked the grade. When we had covered over five miles of the distance between Adagala and the tunnel,, my diligence te-ceived its reward. A dark form slipped through the doorway of the baggage car, felt its way cautiously along the rail, and disappeared between the baggage car and the car of charas. In one bound I reached the platform. No means of passing around the two freight cars; I hoisted myself to the roof and ran towards the end of the train-no great feat in view of the slow speed we were making up the grade. I leaned over the rim of the baggage car. Below me, a Somali was working at the coupling.
"Esh te savvi? (What are you doing?)" I shouted. His start of surprise almost threw the Somali on the tracks. I clambered down beside him.
He mumbled something about the guard having sent him to repair the coupling (he had been trying obviously to knock out the coupling pin!) The plan was clear. The car, uncoupled in the tunnel, would have rolled down the grade, carried by its own weight,. By the time the "accident" was discovered, or I had Lime to notify the station or return to Adagala, the trick would have been played. I would have found the seals broken, the car empty, and the charas vanished beyond recovery.
I rode beside the Somali on the couplings, to the next station. There I confronted (he man wilh (lie train guard, an Abyssinian whom I knew personally. As J suspecled, he had given no orders whatsoever to (lie Somali^ who did not belong to the train-crew. He was a sectlonhand, it appeared, who had boarded the train at Dire Daoua. I let the fellow off without punishment. I held no grudge against him; he had merely done what he had been told.
At Djibouti, where I and my charas arrived that evening, I saw the drug deposited at the Customs and straightway set about obtaining a permit, for its transport to Aden. My countrymen seemed to think 1 had gone temporarily mad. The officials humored my folly to the extent of granting me the permit, on the receipt of which I paid down 50,000 francs in bond, to be refunded when I brought word from the authorities in Aden stating that the chatas had been delivered into their hands.
The next day, a squad of askaii loaded the charas on the Altair. A government launch accompanied us to the limit, of French waters, and twenty-four hours later we arrived in the Bay of Aden. At the Customs, to which I went to inquire where 1 might unload the cliaras, I was ordered none too courteously to return_ to my boutre. A tug lay alongside the Altair, maiuied by soldiers in uniform.
" Keep your hands off the cargo. My men wilL attend to the unloading,",' an officer commanded.
Obediently the crew and 1 stood aside while the askari emptied the hold, conveying the charas between two rows of bayonets to (lie Customs. The assistant director, an Indian, received the merchandise and delivered me a receipt-so many tons of cliaras, to be shipped to Hamburg. For the first lime in months, 1 breathed a long sigh of relief. The shipment was at last in safe-keeping ... in tlie hands of the English.
In Djibouti I presented ihe receipt and had the bond refunded. It was evident that the Europeans of the port,, my countrymen in particular, viewed my content wilh considerable amazemenL , They took pleasure in painting for my benefil the jubilation of the British legation at my lack of elementary foresightedness. I let them talk; my responsibility hadl ended. The merchandise was on the way to Hamburg. That part of the transaction, I felL assured, would be carried out wilh scrupulous exactitude. Once the shipment arrived in Hamburg ... well, we would see
And we did. Not being possessed of second sight, I could not follow from afar the details of its reception. But all in due time the story came to me.
In Hamburg the charas received a welcome generally reserved for traveling diplomats. The representative of three nations, the Customs, and the police, stood wailing on the pier to receive it> The British agent was particularly in evidence, for once again the influence of the Empire had been at work persuading the local authorities that wiiliin the heavy cases lurked a grave menace, only to be avoided by seizure \ and destruction.
A procession formed, the merchandise carried in the lead like a catafalque, and diplomatic agents, customs men, and police following behind. Escorted to a private room and in the presence of two chemists, the cases were ripped open and the firsi of tixe sacks opened to the UghL.
The chemists bttit over die contents, which, gave off a slight musty odor. One of the scientists dipped his fingers, in the dark mass, lifting a fragment to his nose. He wrinkled his brows in a puzzled frown.
"1 have never seen any charas lijce this,?' he muttered.
He turned to his colleague, who also was busy examining a dark powder in the palm of his hand. The two men conferred together in undertones. Then they tinned to the representatives of the three nations who stood looking on against a background of uniforms.
"Gentlemen,"/ the spokesman began. He said "Gentlemen,^ but his remarks were addiessed to Ihe English in particular. "This is not-ahem-precisely^i charas. In. fact-ahem-it _ is not charas at all."
"Not charas? Then what is it?"
The chemist tossed aside the sample, dusting his fingers.
"Erde,' 'he said shortly. "Humus, or, if you wi)l, topsoil."
Hastily the other cases were hammered open, the sacks torn, apart and their contents dumped on the cement floor. All contained the same dark powdery substance. Erde ... as the chemist had said. And while less interesting, no doubt, than the charas it had replaced, it offered a certain rarity to the group that crowded about the heap of earth to finger and comment ... for it was authentic-the rusty-red soil of the African desert..
Abd el Hai set down (he keshir cup lie had been turning in his fingers as he lalked, and looked out over the water, his eyes reminiscent, his lips pressed together as if to check a smile.
"But the charas?" I persisted.
"What more is there to tell? The Drug Syndicate checkmated; the Intelligence as well ... /
"I told you once, (hat like (lie rat of (lie fable, 1 have left a good many lails on the battlefield. But not on that particular occasion.*."*
With that, J had lo be content.
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