by Captain W. E. Johns



IX.           A NASTY CUSTOMER  (Pages 130 – 152)


They go to Commander Sullivan’s cabin “where the three airmen threw off their coats and sank wearily into such seats as they could find, for although the port-hole was wide open, the atmosphere was heavy and oppressive”.  Sullivan says “One can’t make an omelette without breaking eggs, and one can’t conduct a war without casualties; but I must admit that I’m beginning to wonder is we haven’t taken on something rather beyond our limited resources”.  “I’m beginning to wonder the same thing,” confessed Biggles.  Biggles is convinced that the natives have only come here today, otherwise they would have been molested before.  He asks Sullivan if he has seen any native craft and the reply is only a junk.  A distinctive description confirms it is the same one Biggles saw.  The conversation continues until “Algy noticed that Biggles was staring at Sullivan with a most extraordinary expression on his face; heard him say ‘No’ in a detached sort of way, as if he were suddenly disinterested in the conversation.  Then he appeared to recover himself”.  Biggles walks to the open port-hole and thrust his right arm through it.  “A brown face, wearing an expression of astonished alarm, appeared in the circular brass frame of the port-hole.  Biggles’s fingers were twisted in the long, greasy hair”.  Algy grabs the man’s neck while sailors get the man from outside using a boat.  Biggles had seen the man’s fingers pulling himself up in a mirror in the room.  The man had paddled out on a length of tree-trunk.  The man is bought in, “his wrists had been handcuffed behind his back.  (Two sailors between them held the prisoner by the arms - is the illustration on page 137).  He was stark naked and dripping wet, and as Ginger gazed at him in morbid fascination, he thought he had never seen a worse type of the human species.  Small, and thin to the point of emaciation, in colour he was a light brown, almost a tawny yellow, mottled by countless scars of some skin disease.  His eyes were tiny, black, and elongated, with a definite upward tilt at the outer ends, while his nose, set above a mouth of discoloured teeth, was squat, with expanded nostrils.  Lank black hair hung half-way down his neck”.  (That passage is extensively cut in the 1994 Red Fox reprint, “Biggles and the Secret Mission” so that it just reads “his wrists had been handcuffed behind his back.  He was stark naked and dripping wet.  Lank black hair hung half-way down his neck”).  Biggles questions the prisoner but gets no response.  Biggles is convinced he speaks some English; otherwise why would he have been sent?  “Biggles glanced at Sullivan.  “Do you think your stoker could loosen his tongue?” he asked meaningly.  The commander nodded.  “Yes,” he said simply, “they’d make a dumb man speak if I told them to”.  “Very well.  Let them take him below and see what they can do,” ordered Biggles harshly.  “And you can tell them that if they fail they needn’t bring him back here’ tell them to open one of the furnaces and throw him in”.  Biggles’s eyelids flickered slightly as he caught Ginger’s gaze on him”.  “No!  I speak,” gasped the prisoner desperately.  In Pidgin English, the prisoner says he has come from Manilla.  His master is on the junk that lays off the island, round the headland.  Biggles suspects the man is just a deck-hand sent over to listen because he knows a smattering of English.  Biggles tells the Chief Petty Officer to keep the man in irons and under guard.  Biggles suggests to Sullivan they try to take the junk using a score of men in the long-boat (score is slang for 20).  “Serve them out with cutlasses and pistols”.  (Although it sounds completely archaic for the modern navy to have cutlasses, it would appear this is entirely accurate.  In ‘The Times’ newspaper, on 24th October 1936 the British Royal Navy announced that from then on cutlasses would be carried only for ceremonial duties and not used in landing parties!  Although this book was published in May 1937, it was obviously written prior to that date.  The story was in fact first published in “The Modern Boy”, in ten instalments, from 3rd October 1936 to the 5th December 1936.  Part four of the story was published the same day as that Times newspaper report!  This line about “serve them out with cutlasses and pistols” appeared in ‘The Modern Boy’ exactly a week later on 31st October.  Had Johns seen the notice in the Times?  Was he submitting each part of his story just the week before the publication date?).  Ginger goes with Biggles on the raiding party.  “Following the policy of always leaving a pilot with the Nemesis, Algy, much to his disgust, had been left behind”.  The sailors row the boat round the headland and get within a hundred yards of the junk before they are seen.  They storm the junk and guns go off.  “A sailor fell back into the boat, swearing fluently and clutching at his shoulder”.  Biggles has already detailed the Bo’sun to take two good men and make for the captain’s quarters.  As Biggles makes his way there, a cry from Ginger, helps him avoid a knife thrown by a man in the rigging.  Ginger shoots into the rigging, without hitting anyone.  As Biggles and Ginger arrive at the captain’s cabin, the captain shoots himself.  In the hold of the junk torpedoes are found, together with cases of small-arms and large and small shells.  Back with Sullivan, Biggles tells him “Finding those “mouldies” (slang for torpedoes) tells us what we want to know.  These enemy operations are no myth”.  Biggles wonders what to do with the junk and its crew.  “Obviously we can’t let them go loose or the fat would be in the fire before we could say Jack Robinson”.  (As early as Grose’s 1811 edition of the Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue, this phrase was defined as ‘Before one could say Jack Robinson; a saying to express a very short time, originating from a very volatile gentleman of that appellation, who would call on his neighbours and be gone before his name could be announced’).  The crew is marooned on the island and the junk scuttled, keeping one torpedo aboard the Seafret for evidence in case it is needed.  They have seized a collection of papers all penned in Oriental characters but nobody can read them, but a chart has fine pencil lines all pointing to Elephant Island in the Mergui Archipelago, some 30 to 40 miles away.  Biggles says they need to confirm that is the base before they order any strike on it.  Sullivan says to Biggles “There’s something I’ve been wanting to ask you, but what with one thing and another I haven’t had a chance.  What about that seaplane?  Did you find anything of importance?  Biggles nodded.  “I know who made the aircraft,” he said softly, giving the naval officer a queer look.  He leaned forward and whispered something in his ear.  “Was there nothing on the pilot?” asked Sullivan.  “There wasn’t any pilot,” replied Biggles grimly.  “The crocs – or a panther – got to him first”.