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The Mary Celeste
By Brian Freemantle
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1979 Innslodge Publications Ltd.
All rights reserved.
Already it had been officially recognised as the worst winter for centuries and the storms and gales that had scoured the Atlantic for months were even affecting Gibraltar. It was colder than normal for January and the familiar mist clung stubbornly to the Peak, like a tuft of sheep's wool on a hedgerow thistle.
Despite the coolness of the weather, Attorney-General Frederick Solly Flood drove with the carriage hood down. He liked to be seen and his position within the tiny community to be marked with the respectful smiles and occasional head-nod of greeting, particularly since his additional appointment as Admiralty Proctor.
Speed was rarely possible anyway along the narrow, cluttered streets, but his coachman proceeded in the knowledge that there was no hurry.
Today the attention was greater than normal, because everyone knew where he was going. The Gibraltar Chronicle and Commercial Intelligencer had announced the commencement of the enquiry and even published a review of everything so far known about the American half-brig Mary Celeste since she had been brought in by the salvage crew.
Where the highway suddenly climbed, between the Fortress and the Governor's residence, he strained up, to catch sight of the tiny vessel far below in the bay, secure under its order of Admiralty arrest. Before he had finished with the witnesses who had been assembling during the past weeks, there would be available a great deal more information than that recorded by the Intelligencer. It wouldn't be easy, because Flood recognised that much effort had been devoted to destroying the evidence. But some still remained; more than the culprits suspected, he believed. Upon that evidence he was going to prove that a dreadful crime had been committed. And the Board of Trade in London were going to appreciate the advantage of having as their representative a lawyer of his ability.
The far-away mist had merged with the rainclouds and as the carriage reached the Supreme Court building the shower began. There was already a crowd waiting for the doors to open and they began shifting impatiently at the prospect of being kept in the wet. The smiles of recognition were more obvious as the Attorney-General's carriage passed through the gate and pulled up in front. He saw among the spectators several foreign journalists, some even from as far away as New York, who had arrived to report the proceedings. He had already been interviewed by most of them and consented to having his picture taken to accompany the articles; he hoped they used the one of him in his official robes.
Flood responded to their greetings, remaining seated in the carriage until the door was opened for him. He hurried inside, a diminutive, portly man who held his head high in an effort to attain the height he didn't possess. He was aware but unworried that his critics called him 'pouter pigeon'. Some thought it an apt description; he had a jerky, bird-like habit of moving his head during conversations or court appearances and walked in abrupt, thrusting movements. Had he had any say in the appellation, Flood would have preferred being called a hawk. After all, a hawk was a wary, sharp-sighted bird. And that's how the enquiry was going to find him.
His clerk had already preceded him with his document case, so Flood went immediately to the robing room. He had almost finished dressing when the door tentatively opened behind him and Edward Baumgartner, the court registrar, entered.
'Morning, Attorney-General,' he said formally.
Flood nodded, but didn't speak.
'So at last everything is to become clear?'
Baumgartner spoke hopefully, anxious to convey the belief that the elucidation would come from the cleverness of Flood's questioning.
'That's my intention,' said Flood. He had been so long in Gibraltar that there was hardly a trace of his Irish accent. Only when he was excited or angry did it become pronounced.
'Quite a number of witnesses,' said Baumgartner.
'There's no hurry,' said the Attorney-General. 'I'll keep the court convened for a year if necessary.'
'Sure it won't be,' said Baumgartner, again intending the remark as admiration for the Attorney-General's ability to get to the truth. He waited, but when Flood failed to respond, said, 'Sir James would like to see you before we begin.'
Flood nodded again, as if he had anticipated the invitation, and followed the official out into the corridor and along to the Commissary's rooms.
Flood was glad it was Sir James Cochrane who was to preside at the hearing. Although it would have been an exaggeration for him to regard Sir James as a friend, the Attorney-General felt they understood each other. He was confident there would be no interference from Sir James if he extended the questioning beyond that which might have normally been regarded as necessary for the purpose of a salvage enquiry. With so little positive evidence, he was going to need such allowance. Would he succeed in obtaining a blurted confession? he wondered. They were probably simple men, even if they were criminals. It might be possible.
Sir James was at his window, staring out at the bay and Algeciras and La Linea beyond when Flood entered. He turned at the sound, smiling.
'A little madeira, for a cold day?' he asked.
'Thank you,' said Flood.
The judge poured from a decanter alongside the desk and then handed the Attorney-General his drink. 'Anticipating difficulties?' Sir James indicated the room beyond the closed door where the enquiry was assembling.
'If there's a guilty man there, he'll be evasive,' predicted Flood.
'Is there a guilty man?'
'There's been murder committed.'
'Murder!' The judge's astonishment showed in his voice.
'That's my belief.'
'It's a salvage claim we'll be considering,' said Sir James gently.
'Which makes the circumstances leading up to that salvaging very pertinent to the proceedings,' replied Flood.
'Quite,' said the judge. 'I'd just welcome a little more positive evidence than that which I've so far seen in the reports and affidavits. Murder's a strong accusation.'
'The evidence will be forthcoming.' Flood was confident. 'We've encountered a devilish clever scheme but I'm determined to upset the whole affair.'
'If there's been a crime, you'll get every support from me,' promised Sir James.
'I knew I would,' said Flood.
The judge finished his drink, replacing the glass on the decanter stand, and Flood took the lead to do the same. The man's assurance encouraged him.
'Consul Sprague tells me there's great interest in Washington over the whole affair,' said Sir James. 'I gather some well-known American journals have even sent special correspondents to report the enquiry.'
A look of irritation settled upon the Attorney-General's face.
'It's a pity the American Consul doesn't see fit to pursue his position here more rigorously,' he said.
It was accepted within the tiny British colony that there was antipathy between the two men but to Sir James it appeared that the Attorney-General's remark indicated more than their usual reserve towards each other.
'How so?' he said.
'He feels there might be a normal explanation for the affair,' disclosed Flood.
'Can't there be?'
'Not for anyone of average intelligence,' said Flood.
Sir James disguised the frown by returning to the window. The Attorney-General appeared very convinced of his case, he thought. He wondered if Flood had evidence of which he was unaware. London would expect him to do all he could to uncover a crime if one had been perpetrated; particularly murder.
Baumgartner appeared at the door, reminding them of the time. Sir James nodded, following the man from the room, with the Attorney-General behind him. In the corridor outside the enquiry chamber, Sir James paused to allow Flood to overtake and precede him, so that court protocol could be observed.
Everyone gazed at Flood as he bustled into the room. He hurried expressionlessly to his place, turning to nod at the counsel representing the claimant captain and crew and the Mary Celeste owner only after he had shuffled through some papers, as if expecting some vital document to be missing.
Flood, who was fond of amateur dramatics, often thought of court and enquiry rooms as being very similar to the theatre, places where people staged performances. He gazed around the room, about which there was already an atmosphere of staleness because the windows were closed against the rain and cold, wondering at the portrayals they would witness before this hearing was concluded. He had no doubt that, whatever was attempted, he would be able to strip away the pretence.
From pre-hearing interviews and meetings, Flood was able to recognise everybody who would be testifying.
Captain James Winchester, the principal owner, who had travelled from New York to enter claim for possession of the vessel, sat immediately behind the counsels' table, a neat, precise man whose deeply tanned face indicated the mariner's life he had led before going ashore to become a businessman-sailor. It appeared to have been a successful transition. Winchester sat with a pince-nez upon his nose, pens regimented in his waistcoat pocket and an initialled briefcase by his side.
Respectfully in the row behind him and then assembled in order of priority were the crew of the Dei Gratia, shifting and moving in their uncertainty in such official surroundings, too ready to smile at whispered asides.
Nearest the aisle, as his seniority befitted, was Captain David Reed Morehouse, master of the Dei Gratia. He sat stiffly in his creased unaccustomed going-ashore suit, head positioned high by the starched collar, gazing straight ahead and refusing any involvement in the hushed conversation alongside. He was a formidable, almost wild-looking man, his beard grown freely over his chest and then parted, so that two bushy tails appeared to be growing from his chin.
Next to him sat Oliver Deveau, the first mate, who had transferred to the Mary Celeste and captained her to Gibraltar. He was a dark-haired, sallow-faced man in a thick serge suit. Like his commanding officer, he had a full, chest-length beard, but better combed than Morehouse's. The first mate's hair was greased tightly to his head and he kept darting looks at the captain, trying to emulate the man's demeanour.
Next to him was second mate John Wright and then seaman John Johnson, whom the Attorney-General knew to be the men who had crossed from the Dei Gratia in the ship's dory and had been the first to board the abandoned vessel. Then came seamen Charles Lund and Augustus Anderson, who, with Deveau, had formed the salvage crew. They wore reefer jackets and coarse work trousers. They sat rigidly, almost to attention, nervously alert for any summons they might receive.
The sort of people to be led into an incautious admission, decided Flood. They wouldn't expect him to have isolated a motive for the crime, any more than those who had led them into it.
The Attorney-General had already learned that the Mary Celeste was insured by the Atlantic Mutual Insurance Company of New York for $14,000, with her cargo covered through Lloyd's of London for £6,522. Not a fortune, Flood had to admit. But sufficient for desperate men to engage in some desperate activity. Upon established precedents, the Dei Gratia crew could anticipate an award of anything up to 40 per cent of that value if their claim were judged to be valid. For such men, it would be a lot of money.
In an aisle seat opposite the seamen was surveyor John Austin, who had carried out a comprehensive examination of the Mary Celeste, and further to the left, in his official place, was Thomas Vecchio, marshal of the court, who had impounded the vessel upon its arrival and accompanied Flood upon several personal visits.
To Flood's right sat Horatio Sprague. The American Consul smiled up at Flood's sudden attention. Sprague was a sparse, stooping man who was usually the listener in any conversation. He had a curiously attentive way of holding his head and he smiled a lot, an expression Flood frequently suspected to be one of mockery.
'All set, Frederick?'
Flood frowned at both the vernacular and the familiarity, particularly in surroundings where his title should have been most respected. Damned man had done it purposely, he thought. Flood knew the American Consul had been a personal friend of the Mary Celeste captain and had even proposed him for the masonic lodge in Gibraltar. If anyone should have been seeking the real cause of the mystery, it was Sprague. Instead of which he kept attempting to curry favour with the Americans who had come to the colony for the enquiry. He was a disgrace to the office he was supposed to be holding, judged the Attorney-General.
'Of course I'm prepared,' he said.
'Gather there have been a lot of visits to the ship.'
'That's where the evidence is.'
'You've found some, then?'
Flood ignored the question, moving to the counsels' table. The Attorney-General was familiar with all the lawyers. Henry Pisani was representing Captain Morehouse and the crew in their claim for salvage and George Cornwell was entering Captain Winchester's formal claim for return of the vessel. Martin Stokes was appearing for the owners of the cargo. Flood thought them all to be dour, unimaginative men. If any inconsistency suddenly appeared in the evidence, he doubted whether any of these men would recognise it as such.
'Court will rise,' announced Baumgartner.
Flood was first on his feet as Sir James Cochrane entered and proceeded slowly to his place upon the raised dais. He nodded to the Attorney-General, the advocates and the American Consul before seating himself, immediately opening his file and a large, hardbound note pad.
Everyone except Baumgartner resumed their seats. Taking up the official document lying ready before him, Baumgartner announced:
'This court, under the jurisdiction of Her Highness, Queen Victoria, is assembled to consider the demand for salvage entered by the master and crew of the British brigantine Dei Gratia against the owners and insurers of the Mary Celeste, the said vessel claimed to have been discovered derelict and abandoned on December 5,1872, at latitude 38.20 N. by longitude 17.15 W., from which it was brought to this port.'
He sat down, half turning to the judge. Sir James cleared his throat, staring down into the well of the court.
'There has arisen over this matter much speculation and conjecture,' he said, choosing the advocates' bench as the object for his attention. 'It is therefore my intention to allow this enquiry to range as widely as I consider necessary to enable that speculation and conjecture to be resolved ...'
He paused at the obvious indication from the lawyer Cornwell that the man wished to speak.
'You have an observation?'
Cornwell rose, smiling gratefully:
'It is, of course, vital that everything considered necessary by this court is done to bring this investigation to a satisfactory conclusion. But I would respectfully remind the court that lying in the holds of the Mary Celeste is an extremely valuable cargo which the owners are still under contract to deliver to Genoa ...'
'What is your point, Mr Cornwell?'
'That the vessel should be released from Admiralty seizure and restored to Captain Winchester as soon as possible to enable that contract to be fulfilled,' said Cornwell.
Cochrane lowered his head over his papers and Flood recognised the indication of annoyance. It was several moments before Cochrane looked up.
'I am aware of the contractual obligations binding Captain Winchester and his associates,' he said evenly. 'I am even more aware of the obligations under which this court has been brought into session and which I, as a judge appointed by Her Majesty, the Queen of England, am required to fulfil. This enquiry will continue as long as I deem it necessary. And the vessel in question will remain under Admiralty bond until I decide it shall be released.'
Cornwell hesitated for a moment, then slowly sat down. His 'Of course, sir,' was barely audible.
As Cornwell sat, Cochrane looked over to the Attorney-General. There was no expression on the judge's face, but Flood knew the reason for the look. He was as intrigued as Sir James at the request for speed before an enquiry had even commenced. Since the arrival of the Mary Celeste on December 12, barely a day had passed when something had not arisen to provide fresh grounds for suspicion. He glanced sideways at the American Consul.
It was remarkable that he appeared to be the only one who recognised it, thought Flood. But now the enquiry was about to begin.
It would not take long for them to realise how obtuse they had all been.
Excerpted from The Mary Celeste by Brian Freemantle. Copyright © 1979 Innslodge Publications Ltd.. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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