XL. Dawn at the Nore
 

The river police seemed to be floating, suspended in the fog, which now was so dense that the water beneath was invisible. Inspector Rogers, who was in charge, fastened up his coat collar about his neck and turned to Stringer, the Scotland Yard man, who sat beside him in the stern of the cutter gloomily silent.

"Time's wearing on," said Rogers, and his voice was muffled by the fog as though he were speaking from inside a box. "There must be some hitch."

"Work it out for yourself," said the C. I. D. man gruffly. "We know that the office in Globe Road belongs to Gianapolis, and according to the Eastern Exchange he was constantly ringing up East 39951; that's the warehouse of Kan-Suh Concessions. He garages his car next door to the said warehouse, and to-night our scouts follow Gianapolis and Max from Piccadilly Circus to Waterloo Station, where they discharge the taxi and pick up Gianapolis' limousine. Still followed, they drive--where? Straight to the garage at the back of that wharf yonder! Neither Gianapolis, Max, nor the chauffeur come out of the garage. I said, and I still say, that we should have broken in at once, but Dunbar was always pigheaded, and he thinks Max is a tin god." . . .

"Well, there's no sign from Max," said Rogers; "and as we aren't ten yards above the wharf, we cannot fail to hear the signal. For my part I never noticed anything suspicious, and never had anything reported, about this ginger firm, and where the swell dope-shop I've heard about can be situated, beats me. It can't very well be under the place, or it would be below the level of the blessed river!"

"This waiting makes me sick!" growled Stringer. "If I understand aright--and I'm not sure that I do--there are two women tucked away there somewhere in that place"--he jerked his thumb aimlessly into the fog; "and here we are hanging about with enough men in yards, in doorways, behind walls, and freezing on the river, to raid the Houses of Parliament!"

"It's a pity we didn't get the word from the hospitals before Max was actually inside," said Rogers. "For three wealthy ladies to be driven to three public hospitals in a sort of semi-conscious condition, with symptoms of opium, on the same evening isn't natural. It points to the fact that the boss of the den has unloaded! He's been thoughtful where his lady clients were concerned, but probably the men have simply been kicked out and left to shift for themselves. If we only knew one of them it might be confirmed."

"It's not worth worrying about, now," growled Stringer. "Let's have a look at the time."

He fumbled inside his overcoat and tugged out his watch.

"Here's a light," said Rogers, and shone the ray of an electric torch upon the watch-face.

"A quarter-to-three," grumbled Stringer. "There may be murder going on, and here we are." . . .

A sudden clamor arose upon the shore, near by; a sound as of sledge-hammers at work. But above this pierced shrilly the call of a police whistle.

"What's that?" snapped Rogers, leaping up. "Stand by there!"

The sound of the whistle grew near and nearer; then came a voice-- that of Sergeant Sowerby--hailing them through the fog.

"Dunbar's in! But the gang have escaped! They've got to a motor launch twenty yards down, on the end of the creek" . . .

But already the police boat was away.

"Let her go!" shouted Rogers--"close inshore! Keep a sharp lookout for a cutter, boys!"

Stringer, aroused now to excitement, went blundering forward through the fog, joining the men in the bows. Four pairs of eyes were peering through the mist, the damnable, yellow mist that veiled all things.

"Curse the fog!" said Stringer; "it's just our damn luck!"

"Cutter 'hoy!" bawled a man at his side suddenly, one of the river police more used to the mists of the Thames. "Cutter on the port bow, sir!"

"Keep her in sight," shouted Rogers from the stern; "don't lose her for your lives!"

Stringer, at imminent peril of precipitating himself into the water, was craning out over the bows and staring until his eyes smarted.

"Don't you see her?" said one of the men on the lookout. "She carries no lights, of course, but you can just make out the streak of her wake."

Harder, harder stared Stringer, and now a faint, lighter smudge in the blackness, ahead and below, proclaimed itself the wake of some rapidly traveling craft.

"I can hear her motor!" said another voice.

Stringer began, now, also to listen.

Muffled sirens were hooting dismally all about Limehouse Reach, and he knew that this random dash through the night was fraught with extreme danger, since this was a narrow and congested part of the great highway. But, listen as he might, he could not detect the sounds referred to.

The brazen roar of a big steamer's siren rose up before them. Rogers turned the head of the cutter sharply to starboard but did not slacken speed. The continuous roar grew deeper, grew louder.

"Sharp lookout there!" cried the inspector from the stern.

Suddenly over their bows uprose a black mass.

"My God!" cried Stringer, and fell back with upraised arms as if hoping to fend off that giant menace.

He lurched, as the cutter was again diverted sharply from its course, and must have fallen under the very bows of the oncoming liner, had not one of the lookouts caught him by the collar and jerked him sharply back into the boat.

A blaze of light burst out over them, and there were conflicting voices raised one in opposition to another. Above them all, even above the beating of the twin screws and the churning of the inky water, arose that of an officer from the bridge of the steamer.

"Where the flaming hell are you going?" inquired this stentorian voice; "haven't you got any blasted eyes and ears" . . .

High on the wash of the liner rode the police boat; down she plunged again, and began to roll perilously; up again--swimming it seemed upon frothing milk.

The clangor of bells, of voices, and of churning screws died, remote, astern.

"Damn close shave!" cried Rogers. "It must be clear ahead; they've just run into it."

One of the men on the lookout in the bows, who had never departed from his duty for an instant throughout this frightful commotion, now reported:

"Cutter crossing our bow, sir! Getting back to her course."

"Keep her in view," roared Rogers.

"Port, sir!"

"How's that?"

"Starboard, easy!"

"Keep her in view!"

"As she is, sir!"

Again they settled down to the pursuit, and it began to dawn upon Stringer's mind that the boat ahead must be engined identically with that of the police; for whilst they certainly gained nothing upon her, neither did they lose.

"Try a hail," cried Rogers from the stern. "We may be chasing the wrong boat!"

"Cutter 'hoy!" bellowed the man beside Stringer, using his hands in lieu of a megaphone--"heave to!"

"Give 'em 'in the King's name!'" directed Rogers again.

"Cutter 'hoy," roared the man through his trumpeted hands,--"heave to--in the King's name!"

Stringer glared through the fog, clutching at the shoulder of the shouter almost convulsively.

"Take no notice, sir," reported the man.

"Then it's the gang!" cried Rogers from the stern; "and we haven't made a mistake. Where the blazes are we?"

"Well on the way to Blackwall Reach, sir," answered someone. "Fog lifting ahead."

"It's the rain that's doing it," said the man beside Stringer.

Even as he spoke, a drop of rain fell upon the back of Stringer's hand. This was the prelude; then, with ever-increasing force, down came the rain in torrents, smearing out the fog from the atmosphere, as a painter, with a sponge, might wipe a color from his canvas. Long tails of yellow vapor, twining--twining--but always coiling downward, floated like snakes about them; and the oily waters of the Thames became pock-marked in the growing light.

Stringer now quite clearly discerned the quarry--a very rakish- looking motor cutter, painted black, and speeding seaward ahead of them. He quivered with excitement.

"Do you know the boat?" cried Rogers, addressing his crew in general.

"No, sir," reported his second-in-command; "she's a stranger to me. They must have kept her hidden somewhere." He turned and looked back into the group of faces, all directed toward the strange craft. "Do any of you know her?" he demanded.

A general shaking of heads proclaimed the negative.

"But she can shift," said one of the men. "They must have been going slow through the fog; she's creeping up to ten or twelve knots now, I should reckon."

"Your reckoning's a trifle out!" snapped Rogers, irritably, from the stern; "but she's certainly showing us her heels. Can't we put somebody ashore and have her cut off lower down?"

"While we're doing that," cried Stringer, excitedly, "she would land somewhere and we should lose the gang!"

"That's right," reluctantly agreed Rogers. "Can you see any of her people?"

Through the sheets of rain all peered eagerly.

"She seems to be pretty well loaded," reported the man beside Stringer, "but I can't make her out very well."

"Are we doing our damnedest?" inquired Rogers.

"We are, sir," reported the engineer; "she hasn't got another oat in her!"

Rogers muttered something beneath his breath, and sat there glaring ahead at the boat ever gaining upon her pursuer.

"So long as we keep her in sight," said Stringer, "our purpose is served. She can't land anybody."

"At her present rate," replied the man upon whose shoulders he was leaning, "she'll be out of sight by the time we get to Tilbury or she'll have hit a barge and gone to the bottom!"

"I'll eat my hat if I lose her!" declared Rogers angrily. "How the blazes they slipped away from the wharf beats me!"

"They didn't slip away from the wharf," cried Stringer over his shoulder. "You heard what Sowerby said; they lay in the creek below the wharf, and there was some passageway underneath."

"But damn it all, man!" cried Rogers, "it's high tide; they must be a gang of bally mermaids. Why, we were almost level with the wharf when we left, and if they came from below that, as you say, they must have been below water!"

"There they are, anyway," growled Stringer.

Mile after mile that singular chase continued through the night. With every revolution of the screw, the banks to right and left seemed to recede, as the Thames grew wider and wider. A faint saltiness was perceptible in the air; and Stringer, moistening his dry lips, noted the saline taste.

The shipping grew more scattered. Whereas, at first, when the fog had begun to lift, they had passed wondering faces peering at them from lighters and small steamers, tow boats and larger anchored craft, now they raced, pigmy and remote, upon open waters, and through the raindrift gray hulls showed, distant, and the banks were a faint blur. It seemed absurd that, with all those vessels about, they nevertheless could take no steps to seek assistance in cutting off the boat which they were pursuing, but must drive on through the rain, ever losing, ever dropping behind that black speck ahead.

A faint swell began to be perceptible. Stringer, who throughout the whole pursuit thus far had retained his hold upon the man in the bows, discovered that his fingers were cramped. He had much difficulty in releasing that convulsive grip.

"Thank you!" said the man, smiling, when at last the detective released his grip. "I'll admit I'd scarcely noticed it myself, but now I come to think of it, you've been fastened onto me like a vise for over two hours!"

"Two hours!" cried Stringer; and, crouching down to steady himself, for the cutter was beginning to roll heavily, he pulled out his watch, and in the gray light inspected the dial.

It was true! They had been racing seaward for some hours!

"Good God!" he muttered.

He stood up again, unsteadily, feet wide apart, and peered ahead through the grayness.

The banks he could not see. Far away on the port bow a long gray shape lay--a moored vessel. To starboard were faint blurs, indistinguishable, insignificant; ahead, a black dot with a faint comet-like tail--the pursued cutter--and ahead of that, again, a streak across the blackness, with another dot slightly to the left of the quarry . . .

He turned and looked along the police boat, noting that whereas, upon the former occasion of his looking, forms and faces had been but dimly visible, now he could distinguish them all quite clearly. The dawn was breaking.

"Where are we?" he inquired hoarsely.

"We're about one mile northeast of Sheerness and two miles southwest of the Nore Light!" announced Rogers--and he laughed, but not in a particularly mirthful manner.

Stringer temporarily found himself without words.

"Cutter heading for the open sea, sir," announced a man in the bows, unnecessarily.

"Quite so," snapped Rogers. "So are you!"

"We have got them beaten," said Stringer, a faint note of triumph in his voice. "We've given them no chance to land."

"If this breeze freshens much," replied Rogers, with sardonic humor, "they'll be giving us a fine chance to sink!"

Indeed, although Stringer's excitement had prevented him from heeding the circumstance, an ever-freshening breeze was blowing in his face, and he noted now that, quite mechanically, he had removed his bowler hat at some time earlier in the pursuit and had placed it in the bottom of the boat. His hair was blown in the wind, which sang merrily in his ears, and the cutter, as her course was slightly altered by Rogers, ceased to roll and began to pitch in a manner very disconcerting to the lands-man.

"It'll be rather fresh outside, sir," said one of the men, doubtfully. "We're miles and miles below our proper patrol" . . .

"Once we're clear of the bank it'll be more than fresh," replied Rogers; "but if they're bound for France, or Sweden, or Denmark, that's our destination, too!" . . .

On--and on--and on they drove. The Nore Light lay astern; they were drenched with spray. Now green water began to spout over the nose of the laboring craft.

"I've only enough juice to run us back to Tilbury, sir, if we put about now!" came the shouted report.

"It's easy to talk!" roared Rogers. "If one of these big 'uns gets us broadside on, our number's up!" . . .

"Cutter putting over for Sheppey coast, sir!" bellowed the man in the bows.

Stringer raised himself, weakly, and sought to peer through the driving spray and rain-mist.

"By God! They've turned--turtle!" . . .

"Stand by with belts!" bellowed Rogers.

Rapidly life belts were unlashed; and, ahead, to port, to starboard, brine-stung eyes glared out from the reeling craft. Gray in the nascent dawn stretched the tossing sea about them; and lonely they rode upon its billows.

"Port! Port! Hard a-port!" screamed the lookout.

But Rogers, grimly watching the oncoming billows, knew that to essay the maneuver at that moment meant swamping the cutter. Straight ahead they drove. A wave, higher than any they yet had had to ride, came boiling down upon them . . . and twisting, writhing, upcasting imploring arms to the elements--the implacable elements--a girl, a dark girl, entwined, imprisoned in silken garments, swept upon its crest!

Out shot a cork belt into the boiling sea . . . and fell beyond her reach. She was swept past the cutter. A second belt was hurled from the stern . . .

The Eurasian, uttering a wailing cry like that of a seabird, strove to grasp it . . .

Close beside her, out of the wave, uprose a yellow hand, grasping-- seeking--clutching. It fastened itself into the meshes of her floating hair . . .

"Here goes!" roared Rogers.

They plunged down into an oily trough; they turned; a second wave grew up above them, threateningly, built its terrible wall higher and higher over their side. Round they swung, and round, and round . . .

Down swept the eager wave . . . down--down--down . . . It lapped over the stern of the cutter; the tiny craft staggered, and paused, tremulous--dragged back by that iron grip of old Neptune--then leaped on--away--headed back into the Thames estuary, triumphant.

"God's mercy!" whispered Stringer--"that was touch-and-go!"

No living thing moved upon the waters.