The Red Herring
by William Hope Hodgson
WE DOCKED this morning, and the customs
gave us the very devil of a turnout; but they found nothing.
"We shall get you, one of these days,
Captain Gault," the head of the searchers told me.
"We've gone through you pretty carefully; but I'm not
satisfied. We've had information that I could swear was sound;
but where you've hidden the stuff I'll confess stumps me."
"Don't be so infernally ready to give the
dog the bad name, and then add insult to injury by trying to
hang him," I said. "You know you've never caught me
yet trying to shove stuff through."
The head searcher laughed.
"Don't rub it in, Captain," he said.
"That's just it! Take the last little flutter of yours,
with the pigeons, and the way you made money both ways, both
on the hens and on the diamonds; and all the rest of your devil's
tricks. You've got the nerve! You ought to be able to retire by
"I'm afraid I'm neither so fortunate nor
so clever as you seem to think, Mr. Anderson," I told him.
"You had no right to kill my hens, and I made your man
apologize for his abominable suggestion about the pigeons!"
"You did so, Cap'n," he said. "But
we'll get you yet. And I'll eat my hat if you get a thing through
the gates this time, even if we've missed finding it now. We're
bound to get you at last. Good morning, Captain."
"Good morning, Mr. Anderson," I said.
And he went ashore.
There you have the position. I've got six thousand
dollars' worth of pearls in a remarkable little hiding place of my
own aboard; and somehow word has been passed to the Customs, and
it's going to make the getting of them ashore a deuced diflicult
thing, that will take some planning. All my old methods they're
up to. Besides, I never try the same plan twice, if I can help
it; for it is altogether too risky.
And a lot of them are not half so practicable as
they appear at first. That carrier-pigeon idea, for instance, was
both good and bad; but Mr. Brown and I lost nearly a thousand
pounds' worth of stones through it; for there's a class of oaf
with a gun who would shoot his own mother-in-law, if she passed
him on wings. Perhaps he'd not be really to blame in such
circumstances; but he is certainly to blame when he looses off at
a "carrier." Any shooting man should be able to recognize
them from the common or garden variety. But I fancy the
afore-mentioned oaf does the recognizing cheerfully, and shoots
promptly. Some of these gentlemen must have made a haul! That was
why we never loosed off the pigeons before reaching port. We never
meant to trust all that value in the air, except as a last resort.
Anyway, Mr. Anderson and his lot have got it in for
me; and I shall have a job to get the stuff safely into the right
hands by the twentieth, which is the date we sail.
I have hit on what I believe is rather a smart
notion, and I began to develop it today.
When I went up to the dock gates this morning, with
my bag, I was met by a very courteous and superior person of the
Customs Department, who invited me to step into his office. Here,
I was again invited into quite a snug little cubicle, and there
two searchers made a very thorough examination of me (very
thorough indeedl), also of my bag; but, as you may imagine, there
was nothing dutiable within a hundred yards of me that is, nothing
At the conclusion of the search, after the superior
and affable personage had departed, pleasingly apologetic, I was
left to acquire clothing and mental equilibrium in almost equal
quantities; for I can tell you I was a bit wrathy. And then perhaps
it was just because my mental pot was so a-boil up simmered
the idea; and I began straight away on the afore-mentioned
By the time that I had completed my dressing, I had
learned not only that the names of the two official searchers were
Wentock and Ewiss, but also the numbers of their respective families,
and other pleasing details. I dispensed tact and bonhomie with
liberality, and eventually suggested an adjournment to the place
across the road, for a drink.
But my two new (very new) friends shook their heads
at this. The "boss" might see them. It would not do. I
nodded a complete comprehension. Would they be off duty tonight?
They would, at six-thirty prompt.
"Meet me at the corner at seven o'clock,"
I said. "I've nothing to do and no one to talk to. We'll make
an evening of it."
They smiled cheerfully and expansively, and
agreed well, as only such people do agree!
The dinner came off, and was in every way a success,
both from their point and my point of view. And I think I may say
the same of the two dinners that followed on the fifteenth and the
seventeenth. That was yesterday.
It is now the evening of the eighteenth, and I'm
jotting down what happened, in due order.
It was last night, at our third little dinner together
(which for a change I had aboard), that we got really friendly over
some of my liqueur whisky. And I saw the chance had come to ask them
straight out if they were open to make a fiver each.
The two men looked at each other for a few moments,
"Well, sir, it all depends," said Wentock,
the older of the two.
"On what?" I asked.
"We've our place to think of," he said.
"It's no use asking us to risk anything, if that's what you mean,
"There's no risk at all," I told him. "At
least, I mean the risk is so infinitesimal as hardly to count at all.
What I want you to do is simply this. Tonight, if you agree, I'll hand
you over this bag I've got here with me. Take it down to the gates
tomorrow, and put it somewhere handy in the office. When I come off from
the ship, to come ashore through the gates, I shall be carrying another
bag, exactly the same as this in every single detail. You see, I've got
two of them, made exactly alike.
"Well, I shall be stopped, as usual, at the gates,
and taken into the office, and I and my bag will be pretty well turned
inside out again; which I can tell you I'm getting sick of, only your
people have got it in for me, pretty savage."
The two searchers grinned at this.
"I ain't surprised, Cap'n," said Wentock,
"with a reputation like yours. Why, they say as you could retire
this minute, with the brass you've made, running in stuff without our
smelling out the way you do it."
"Don't be so infernally flattering," I told
him. "You mustn't believe half you hear. And I don't want you to
get imagining I do this kind of thing regularly. It's just a few trifling
trinkets I want to pass in, as a favor to a friend. Not a habit of mine;
but just once in a way."
Both of the men burst into roars of laughter. They
evidently considered this a great joke.
"Well," I said, "let me tell you just
what I want you to do.
"When I go into the office, one of you always
takes my bag from me. Well, I simply want you to substitute for it
the one I shall give you tonight, and which, of course, you can
search then as hard as you like, before the boss. Then, when he
goes out hand me back the unsearched one, and I shall just clear
off with it, and the trick is done. No risk for you at all. You've
simply to take this bag I have here, with a few shore clothes in it,
up to the office tomorrow. When I appear, and am searched, you
substitute this Number 1 bag for Number 2 which I shall bring in;
and you search this Number 1 as fiercely as you like before the boss.
Then, when I am let out, you hand me Number 2, and I go. As for Number
1 I'll make you a present of it, as a little souvenir. Now, say 'yes,'
and I'll hand you the fivers now."
Wentock said "yes" promptly for the two of
them, and I pulled out my pocketbook, and handed each a five-pound note.
"No," said Wentock quickly. "Gold, if
you please, Cap'n. Them things is too easy traced."
I laughed, and passed him across ten sovereigns, and
took back my notes.
"You're a smart man, Wentock," I said.
"Have to be, sir, in our business," he
replied, grinning in his cheerfully unscrupulous fashion.
August 19. A.M.
I sail tomorrow; so if I don't manage to get the
stuff through today, I shall be in a hole; for I promised it faithfully
for not later than the twentieth.
When I took my bag down to the gates today to go out,
it can be easily imagined that I felt a bit of tension. Six thousand
pounds is a lot of risk, apart from the possibility of serious trouble
if one is nailed.
However, it had to be done; so I went up to the gates,
trying to look as cheerful as usual, and made my accustomed protest
against searching, to the genial and diplomatic officer who met me,
and invited me to my expected séance in the cubicle.
As I was entering the doorway of the outer office, a
messenger boy came up to me, and touched his cap.
"Are you Cap'n Gault, sir?" he asked me.
"I am," I said.
"I just been down to the ship, sir," he
explained. "They said you was just off through the gates, and
I might catch you if I hurried. I'm to deliver this letter to you,
sir, and to tell you there ain't no answer. Good morning, sir."
"Good morning," I said, and tipped him a
quarter. Then, as I entered the office with my polite official, I
opened the letter.
What I found therein could hardly be supposed to
decrease my feelings of tension. The note was printed, crudely,
so as to disguise the handwriting. It ran exactly thus:
Be advised, and do not attempt to smuggle your stuff
through the Customs. You will be sold if you do, and someone who
cannot help a friendly feeling for you would regret not to have given
you this chance to draw back. Pay the duty, even if you lose money.
The Authorities know far more than you can think. They know absolutely
that you bought the "material" you wish to smuggle through,
and they know the price you paid, which was £5997. That is a lot
of money to risk losing, apart from fines and imprisonment. So be
warned and pay the duty in the ordinary way. I can do no more for you
Now, that was what might really be called a nerve-racker
to read, and just after I had entered the very place that the warning
begged me to avoid, at least in what I might call a "smuggling
capacity." I could not possibly back out now; for suspicion would
be inevitable; also my plans were all arranged.
I went straight on into the place, looking more comfortable
than I felt. I took a quick look round the inner office, and saw the end
of a bag, half hidden, under a table. That, at any rate, looked as if
Ewiss and Wentock meant to be faithful and carry out the substitution, as
arranged. If they had given me away, it might be supposed that the bag I
had given them would be now in the hands of their superior officers.
I looked at the problem every way. And all the time, as I
puzzled, I kept asking myself not only who wrote that warning; but
who, of all the people I knew, had the necessary knowledge of detail
that it showed.
Ewiss and Wentock rose from their desks as I entered the
private room, and Wentock came forward and took my bag from me, while
Ewiss beckoned me towards the cubicle.
The search they made of me was not drastic; but even had
it been I should not have minded, in the circumstances. What I was
thinking about, all the time, was the bags, and whether the two searchers
meant to be faithful to their part of our bargain.
One thing, at first, I placed as an argument in their
favor. It was that the unemotional courtesy of the head official was
quite unimpaired; and I could not imagine that even he would be able
to remain so absolutely and almost statuesquely calm if my two presumed
confederates had given me away to him, and told him that a big capture
was on the carpet (it was really linoleum, and cold to the feet).
There was, however, something disturbing in the attitude
of Ewiss. The man seemed almost hangdoggish, in the way he avoided meeting
my eye. But I could not say this of Wentock; for that cheerful person was
completely his own glad and (as I always felt) unscrupulous self.
While I was dressing, my bag was banged down onto the
table, and I knew the instant it was thrown open that Wentock and Ewiss
had sold me; for they had not carried out the substitution of the Number 1
bag for the Number 2 which I had just brought in; but had frankly and
brutally ignored our whole arrangement, and opened Number 2 the bag
I had bargained with them should not be opened.
As he flung the bag open, Wentock looked up at me and
grinned broadly. He considered it evidently a splendid effort of smartness;
but it was a faint comfort to my belief in the goodness of human nature
that Ewiss looked down at the table and seemed decidedly uncomfortable.
I felt so fierce that I could have given them away, in
turn, to their superior for accepting bribes; for it was quite plain
now that they had said nothing to him about the plan I had proposed to
them to substitute one bag for the other. I could see their way of
looking at the whole business. They were not readily bribable; but
if people were foolish enough to offer them a bribe it was accepted as
a present; and so much the worse for the person who offered it, and so
much the better for the officer presented with this kind of shall I
say "honorarium"! I think anyone must admit I had cause to
I did not, of course, think really of giving them away;
for there might have been a charge made of bribery and corruption;
whilst they, as I was pretty sure, would say nothing, lest they be
mulcted of the "presents" I had made them; and also,
possibly, have a reprimand for meddling with my proposition in any
way at all.
The search Wentock gave that bag was a revelation of
drastic thoroughness. I remonstrated once, and said I would put in
a claim for a new bag; for Wentock, as he went further and further,
and found nothing, seemed almost inclined to rip the bag to pieces,
so sure was he that he "had me safe."
At last, he had to give it up, and pronounced it free
of all dutiable stuff, which of course it was; for, as I told him
later, I had considered the chances of their proving treacherous,
and had carefully omitted on this occasion to put anything dutiable
into the bag. I told them that it must be regarded as a kind of trial
trip, to test their intentions.
This was as soon as the Boss had left the cubicle; and
then I cut loose on the two of them.
"For a couple of treacherous, grunting human hogs,
you two are something to talk about!" I told them. "You take
my money with one hand, and try to do me in with the other. Suppose you
hand out that cash I gave you!"
Wentock laughed outright at this, as if it were a
particularly nutty kind of joke; but I was glad to see that Ewiss looked
more uncomfortable than ever.
"Our perquisites, Cap'n," said Wentock.
"We're often asked out to a bit of dinner, and we get people who
are mighty anxious to hand us nice little cash presents, ad lib., as you
might say, every once in a while. And we don't say 'no,' do we, Ewiss?
Seeing we're both married men, with families to bring up, and remembering,
Cap'n, how affectionate you've asked after the youngsters, you might
remember us again, Cap'n, when you've any odd cash as you don't want
burning holes in your pocket. Likewise we both admired them dinners
you stood us uptown. You can do it again, Cap'n, any time you like,
and keep on doing it. We're always open. If you can stand it, we can.
Now, how would tonight suit you? We're both free and "
"Go to blazes!" I said, "and stay there.
You're a pair of treacherous animals, like all your kind, and you might
have ruined me, if I hadn't been careful. Give me my bags, and be damned
to you! They say never trust a policeman, even if he's your own brother.
He'll lock you up the first chance he gets for the sake of promotion. And
I guess you're the same kind of cheap stuff."
And with that I picked up my bags and walked out, Wentock
holding the door for me. But Ewiss was looking as thoroughly miserable
and ashamed as a man need look.
"How would tonight suit you, sir?" called Wentock
after me as I passed through the gates.
"Go to the devil!" I said. "And get him to
shut your infernal mouth with a red-hot brick."
And with that I boarded a streetcar and went rather
August 19. Later still
As it chances, I have invited the men to dinner
again both of them; for I'm not the kind of man who likes taking
a fall too quietly. This is what I wrote, addressing it to Wentock
at the office:
Dear Mr. Wentock,
I have been thinking things over a bit, and have
come to the conclusion that everything was not said at our last
meeting that might have been said. I bear no malice at all for
the somewhat pungent wit you handed out to me. I guess I was in
the position that invited a few jabs.
I have been thinking that perhaps there is still
a way to arrange this affair a little more to my liking, and I
can assure you and your friend that you will be the gainers, and
without having your strict feelings for high honesty and fairness
Will you both meet me at our little restaurant
tonight at the usual time, and I will go thoroughly into the
matter; for as I start off tomorrow, it is imperative to me to
carry through my plan before I sail.
Remember, I bear no malice at all. Look upon this
as an entirely businesslike and reasonable friendly little invite.
I sent this by messenger, and tonight I shall be at the restaurant.
They both came to time. Wentock as cheerful and
unscrupulous as ever. Ewiss, looking awkward, and as if he would
rather have stopped away.
"Now," I said as we sat down, "pleasure
first and business afterwards." And I reached for the hock.
"One moment, sir," said Ewiss, suddenly,
and pushed forward a small roll of paper, which I took from him,
feeling a little puzzled. It contained dollar notes to the approximate
value of five pounds.
I looked across at Ewiss with sudden gladness and
respect in my heart, for I understood. But what I said was: "What
are these, Mr. Ewiss?"
"It's your brass, Cap'n," he said. "I've
thought a deal lately, an' I reckon I can't hold onto it. I'm not
grumbling at Mr. Wentock's way of looking at it. Lots of our men look
at it that way; but even if you'd no right to try to bribe me, that
doesn't say as I'm right to take your brass, an' mean to sell you all
the time. If I'm above the job you wanted me to do, I feel I ought to
be above taking the brass for it, too. So take it back, sir; an' after
that I shall enjoy my dinner with you as well as anyone."
I looked across at Wentock.
"And you?" I asked.
"Well," he said, grinning in his cheerful
fashion, I don't see it that way, Cap'n. Ewiss, here, always was a bit
funny on that point. Sometimes I've screwed him up to our general way
of looking at it; but, in the main, he's not built on those lines, and
I don't grumble at him any more than he don't grumble at me. I look at
it this way. You, or any man as insults me by tryin' to buy me, has got
to pay for it."
"Good man, Wentock," I said. "It takes
a deal of different opinions to oil the different kinds of consciences.
I've a brand of my own, and you've a brand of your own, and Mr. Ewiss,
there, has his. Anyway, you're welcome to the cash, Mr. Wentock. As for
you, Mr. Ewiss, I see you can't take yours; so I'll have it back, and I
apologize to you. I think your way is the soundest of the three of us.
Now, forgetting all this, let's drop the serious for a time, and we'll
have our dinner."
It was over the wine that I explained to Wentock the
things I had to explain. Ewiss was out of it, though he listened quietly,
with the deepest interest, and a flash of a smile now and again that
showed he had a sense of humor.
"You see, Wentock," I said, "I never meant
to bribe either of you, but only to make you think that I did. No
man in his senses would risk £6000 to be exact £5997 I
glanced at Ewiss and smiled; for I had guessed who was my
"wellwisher" "on a piffly little bribe like a couple of
fivers. If I had seriously meant to buy you, I should have offered
something nearer your price, say fifty or a hundred pounds. As it
was, I wanted merely, by means of my trifling bribes, to make you
think I was going to run the stuff through in the way I explained
so carefully. In other words, I wished to focus your entire suspicions
upon Number 2 bag, thereby insuring that the Number 1 bag, which I left
in your hands, should receive only the most casual attention; for you
would, naturally, taking my plan at its face value, think only of the
second bag, which I assured you I did not want searched. Moreover, it
would seem self-evident to you that the Number 1 bag, which I handed
entirely over to your care, would never have anything dutiable in it;
for, had you acted up to your agreement, there was no apparent reason
for supposing that I would ever even handle it again. To insure your
subconsciously realizing this, I even told you you could keep it, once
it had served me in the matter of the substitution.
"Of course, had you been faithful to our arrangement
and substituted the Number 1 bag, to be searched, for the Number 2 bag,
which I brought with me, I might have been in a hole. You see, the handle
of the Number 1 bag contained the particular, shall we say, trinkets you
were anxious to lay hands on.
"But then, I knew, both from the smallness of my
bribe and from my reading of your faces, and from the ways of customs
officials in general, that you would go for the big 'cop' you felt
sure you were wise to. It might have meant promotion oh, and quite a
number of desirable things, from your point of view.
"After all, Wentock, even you," I said quietly
and pleasantly, "will now agree that honesty's the best policy!
"And that concludes all I have to say, practically.
I planned it all out, even to the burst of anger and the snatching up of
both my bags and walking off in that quite superb indignation, on
discovery of your treachery. I did it well, didn't I? while you were
so pleasingly and wittily inviting yourself to this final little dinner,
which I had, even then, planned, like all the rest of it.
"As I said in my note, you would be the gainers for
coming tonight. That is so; for you are the richer for a dinner and an
explanation, and Mr. Ewiss for an apology. That is all."