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The Grand Babylon Hotel

25. The Steam Launch
MR TOM JACKSON's notion of making good his escape from the hotel by means
of a steam launch was an excellent one, so far as it went, but Theodore
Racksole, for his part, did not consider that it went quite far enough.
Theodore Racksole opined, with peculiar glee, that he now had a tangible and
definite clue for the catching of the Grand Babylon's ex-waiter. He knew nothing
of the Port of London, but he happened to know a good deal of the far more
complicated, though somewhat smaller, Port of New York, and he sure there
ought to be no extraordinary difficulty in getting hold of Jules'
steam launch. To those who are not thoroughly familiar with it the River Thames
and its docks, from London Bridge to Gravesend, seems a vast and uncharted
wilderness of craft - a wilderness in which it would be perfectly easy to hide even
a three-master successfully. To such people the idea of looking for a steam
launch on the river would be about equivalent to the idea of looking for a needle
in a bundle of hay. But the fact is, there are hundreds of men between St
Katherine's Wharf and Blackwall who literally know the Thames as the suburban
householder knows his back-garden - who can recognize thousands of ships and
put a name to them at a distance of half a mile, who are informed as to every
movement of vessels on the great stream, who know all the captains, all the
engineers, all the lightermen, all the pilots, all the licensed watermen, and all the
unlicensed scoundrels from the Tower to Gravesend, and a lot further. By these
experts of the Thames the slightest unusual event on the water is noticed and
discussed - a wherry cannot change hands but they will guess shrewdly upon the
price paid and the intentions of the new owner with regard to it. They have a
habit of watching the river for the mere interest of the sight, and they talk about
everything like housewives gathered of an evening round the cottage door. If the
first mate of a Castle Liner gets the sack they will be able to tell you what he said
to the captain, what the old man said to him, and what both said to the Board,
and having finished off that affair they will cheerfully turn to discussing whether
Bill Stevens sank his barge outside the West Indian No.2 by accident or on
purpose.
Theodore Racksole had no satisfactory means of identifying the steam launch
which carried away Mr Tom Jackson. The sky had clouded over soon after
midnight, and there was also a slight mist, and he had only been able to make
out that it was a low craft, about sixty feet long, probably painted black. He had
personally kept a watch all through the night on vessels going upstream, and
during the next morning he had a man to take his place who warned him
whenever a steam launch went towards Westminster. At noon, after his
conversation with Prince Aribert, he went down the river in a hired row-boat as
far as the Custom House, and poked about everywhere, in search of any vessel
which could by any possibility be the one he was in search of.
But he found nothing. He was, therefore, tolerably sure that the mysterious
launch lay somewhere below the Custom House. At the Custom House stairs, he
landed, and asked for a very high official - an official inferior only to a
 
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