The Last of Mr Benjimen
by Rick Kennett
During the Inquiry into the sinking of the steam ship Hexiter on the Yann River, a strange circumstance emerged, beginning with the testimony of first class passenger Mrs Alice Appleby. A diminutive woman of mature years, the broad brim of her floral hat threw a shadow over her furrowing forehead as she remembered things she had rather not.
“The corridor was very crowded and had by then a decided uphill angle. I was being pushed and pulled along and had just reached the stairway to the main deck when the ship started to roll.”
“When would this have been, Mrs Appleby?” asked Lord Dobley, the Examiner of Wrecks. Bewigged and robed in black, he was the essence of magisterial sartorial elegance, imposing and just a little intimidating despite his courteous tione. “That is to say, how many minutes after the Theodora struck the Hexiter?”
“I cannot say for sure. You must understand that it was the middle of the night and everything was confusion and noise with people shoving each other in a most unseemly manner.”
“Could you hazard a guess as to when the ship began to capsize?”
The grandmotherly Mrs Appleby thought for a moment then said, “Well, it happened a moment after I saw Mr Benjimen dancing.”
Lord Dobley slowly removed the gold pince-nez spectacles balancing on his nose. “I beg your pardon?”
“Yes. I was being pushed past the open door of his cabin, and I could see him dancing within. I knew it was he as we had spoken earlier that evening at dinner. He was holding out the hem of his green frock-coat as if performing a coat-tail dance, and he was kicking up his long legs with surprising agility. It was then that the ship began to roll and in the chaos I lost sight of him. Most curious,” she mused.
Chief Steward William Tengal of the Hexiter was a big, bluff man with curly red hair, the sort of fellow whose ready smile suited him admirably behind a ship’s bar. He was unsmiling now as he gave evidence to the Inquiry.
“I was closing down the B deck saloon when the Theodora struck. I’d stepped out on deck ten minutes before and saw the fog coming … like an arm of mist bending out from the far shore. ’Funny, that.’ I remember thinking then … and come to that, still do. I went back inside and it was then I started hearing the Theodora’s whistle signalling at intervals, distant and in short bursts. Then I didn’t hear it for a while and I supposed we’d passed her by. But all of a sudden it came again, close up and in one long scream. I ran to the port side door and saw lights coming out of the fog, red and green side lights, then steaming lights, then lights from a pilot house, clear and close.”
“What did you do then?”
“I flung myself down on the deck, sir. Safest thing to do, considering.”
“And then the crash?”
“Yes, sir. One almighty crash just forward of the saloon. The deck cantered up and I went sliding across the deck. I heard metal ripping and the sound of the wooden deck outside splintering. After that it got all very quiet.”
“Why was that, Tengal? You say the Theodora struck just forward of you, which is where the amidships cabins are located. Why was there no commotion among the passengers there?”
“All them up forward were asleep; and when the crash came, right on top of them as it were … ” Tengal bowed his head and said gravely, “Well, they all stayed asleep, if you see what I mean.”
Lord Dobley, unmoved, continued. “What did you do then?”
“I ran out on deck, sir. I ran out on deck and tried to reach those self same cabins. In an emergency my duty is to get those people out on deck and to the boats. I didn’t know then that it was no use, though I remember thinking how deathly quiet everything now was. Any rate, I couldn’t make it. The prow of the Theodora was still deep into us and the deck was all heaved up, barring my way. It was then that I ran slap into Mr Benjimen. How he got there all of a sudden I don’t know, but he asked if the saloon was still open –”
Lord Dobley held up a hand, interrupting the barman’s testimony. “What’s this, Tengal?”
“Mr Benjimen, sir. He said, ‘Is the saloon still open?’”
The Examiner waited for the murmur in the courtroom to subside, then said levelly, “Did you not think this a curious thing for him to ask at such a moment?”
“I did, sir.”
“Are you sure it was Mr Benjimen?”
“With his long legs, green frock-coat and sharp features there was no mistaking him, sir. Earlier that day one of the stewards had said as how he looked like an oversized leprechaun and as how he looked as troubled in mood as a leprechaun who had misplaced his crock of gold.”
“How did Mr Benjimen seem? Was he drunk? Was he excited?”
“He looked … he looked very single-minded, sir, as if getting a drink was the only thing that mattered. I told him he should think more of saving his life than quenching his thirst.”
“Did he take your advice?”
“Well, sir, this is strange. Though he was of a very ordinary build, the sort that looks like they don’t have much weight to them, he put a hand against my chest and moved me to one side.”
“He pushed you?”
“No, sir, he didn’t exactly … I don’t know, sir. He didn’t push exactly … I felt no pressure against my chest. He just sort of moved me.”
“Then he went into the bar. I had a mind to go after him as I thought he was going to start looting. But by this time the Theodora was going astern and pulling out of the hole she made, and that’s when the ship started taking on a heavy list. So I cut along sharpish for the B deck companionway.”
“Did you see Mr Benjimen again that night?”
“I have never seen him since.”
Stoker Reg Cahill, the sole survivor from the Hexiter’s engine room, stood in the witness box and fingered his cloth cap in his twitching hands. He began his evidence by describing how he’d been spared by a peculiar happenstance.
“I was down on the lower plates working the port side valves … the bridge had rung down a couple of minutes before for Slow Ahead. That needed some careful handling of steam pressure. After I got it all set I happened to look up and saw Mr Benjimen standing on the grating atop the access ladder.”
Lord Dobley peered at Cahill through his gold pince-nez spectacles, blinked several times then said, “As I understand, the engineering staff do not commonly acquaint themselves with the passengers. How could you have known the personage you saw was Mr Benjiment?”
“One of the stewards had pointed him out to me earlier. Long-legged gentleman in green with a hawk face, he was. Couldn’t mistake him. Steward called him a real odd-bod. Said he was always looking over his shoulder as if expecting to be collared at any moment.”
“Were you surprised to see him where he was?”
“I was, sir. Passengers aren’t allowed down in the engine spaces.”
“When was this in respect to the time of the collision?”
“Just before it, sir.”
A moment of confusion flashed across Lord Dobley’s expression and was as quickly gone. He consulted his notes, then with a glint of suspicion looked up again at the stoker. “Continue.”
“I called to him to get up top, that he wasn’t permitted to be down there. But he didn’t seem to take any heed.”
“Why was that? Was the engine room a noisy place?”
“No, sir. The engine room of a steamer isn’t as noisy as people think. The machinery rumbles and the steam hisses, yes, but that’s all. I spoke to Mr Benjimen in a clear voice, and he could’ve heard me if he’d a mind to.”
“What did he do?”
“Do? Well, I’ll tell you, sir.” Cahill leaned forward in the witness box and looked the Examiner in the eye. “It’s god’s truth, but he started scooping grease out of a tub we had stowed on the grating and smeared it all over hisself — in his hair and all over his nice green coat. Then he kind of gestured with one hand in a sort of swooping way and said something I did not hear.”
“Cahill,” said Lord Dobley, quietly, menacingly, “you do understand that you are under oath to tell the truth?”
The stoker drew himself up and said forthrightly, “I saw what I saw.”
“Did the behaviour of Mr Benjimen not strike you as bizarre?”
Cahill glanced about the court, at the other officials, the other witnesses, the people in the gallery, then back to Lord Dobley, his face a blank.
“‘Bizarre’, Cahill,” said Lord Dobley. “It means strange. Yes? Yes?”
“Yes, sir. Buzzer.”
“And you tell us Mr Benjimen, after performing this improbable action, then said something you were unable to hear?”
“Cahill, you have just told the court that the engine room was not a noisy place.”
“That’s as be, sir, but I still could not catch what Mr Benjimen was saying. To be sure, I don’t believe he was speaking to me at all, nor was he talking in any lingo I’d ever heard before – and I’ve sailed round the world several times and have heard lots of different chatter. I could see there’d be a row with the Chief — that is Chief Engineer Worrell, god rest his soul — if he caught sight of a passenger acting the goat in the engine room, and there was me doing nothing about it. So what with the pressure gauges being steady for the moment I left the valves and started up the ladder. I was almost at the top when the other ship hit us. For an instant I swung out into space with only one hand clung tight to the ladder. The whole engine room tilted over and I saw men go spilling across the decking, wrapping themselves around steam pipes … and some of them into the machinery.” Cahill paused a moment. He looked down at the cap in his hands and his face spasmed into a grimace part pain, part horror.
Recovering, he said, “A mountain of water came thundering in. The lights went out and I just hung there swinging on the ladder in the dark and I could feel the water surging up and grabbing my legs. Then the ship straightened a bit, I got my feet on the rungs again and scrambled up the ladder with the water sucking at my knees and so I made the deck.”
“Most fortuitous, Cahill. But no one else down there made it out alive?”
“No, sir. If I hadn’t been already up the ladder when we was struck, I’d be down there with those other poor devils to this day.”
“If it wasn’t for Mr Benjimen supposedly being where he should not have been.”
“I can’t speaks for Mr Benjimen, sir. I can only speaks for meself.”
“And what of Mr Benjimen?”
“When I got to the top of the ladder he was gone. He must’ve fell from the grating when we was struck.”
“Cahill, you say he was gesticulating and smearing grease on himself at the top of the engine room ladder; yet another witness puts him on the saloon deck at that moment while a further witness saw him in his cabin.”
“I am not mistaken, sir.”
“Are you always this obstinate?”
“I don’t know about obstinate, sir, but I saw what I saw. There he was standing on the grating, and then there he was gone, so he must have fell.”
There were no further questions and Stoker Reg Cahill was permitted to leave the witness box.
Mr Benjimen’s body was not among those recovered from the Yann River, either washed ashore, fished out down stream, or retrieved by hard-helmet divers descending to the wreck. His fate remains as unknown as his final moments were a mysterious contradiction.
“He was a queer sort,” said Mrs Alice Appleby in an interview not long after the disaster. “I had been invited to the Captain’s Table that night. Mr Benjimen was there as well. Later in the evening when the ship was first enveloped in fog it seemed to me he became preoccupied by it, peering out through the dining room windows and looking more and more anxious as the fog thickened. At length I said, ‘Come, Mr Benjimen, it is only fog’ or something like that. He turned to me with an expression I was unable to read — and I pride myself in being able to read people by their faces, particularly the eyes. But Mr Benjimen was a blank. I thought he said, ‘What a mistake’ or ‘I am so afraid’. I could not be certain.
“I strove to make conversation with him. I had lost the thread of the table talk of the others, so Mr Benjimen and I were in a sense on our own. I said to him, ‘What do you do?’ and he replied that he was a trickster, adding that he was not a very favoured one just at that moment. I took this to mean he was on the stage, though he did not strike me as being stage folk – rather something else entirely, I imagine. He looked again into the night and said ‘Fog’ three times slowly, then, “Yes, it is what I would’ve done.” His manner perturbed me, and perhaps he sensed this for with something of a feigned smile and said, ‘Mrs Appleby, allow me to show you a parlour trick.’
“He took out his pocket watch and coated it with butter. ‘It will do as any lubricant,’ he said and made some passes over it as a conjurer might. Then, while mumbling words like those from an exotic song, he placed two fingers either side of the watch and moved them about like little dancing men. ‘A watch is inanimate,’ he said, ‘and need not be anaesthetized against the shock.’ I hardly knew what to make of that and glanced into his face to see if it was some joke I was missing. It was barely a second, yet when I looked again there was only a smear of butter on the table cloth and Mr Benjimen’s hands empty either side. ‘There is your watch gone’ I said, amazed. ‘Yes,’ he said. ‘Where it has gone time is not really that important.’
“I often wonder what became of Mr Benjimen. Such a strange man.”
The Clerk of the court where the Hexiter Inquiry was conducted works from a little cubby-hole on the top floor. He has, somewhere among the dust and the red-ribboned papers of his office, a framed black and white photograph which he will show to any who are curious enough to ask.
“Few are,” he says when someone does ask, and he’ll wipe the dust from the picture glass with a frayed cardigan sleeve. “Most don’t know to start with, and most that know don’t care, and most that care don’t believe. Not sure I believe it myself.” And here he’ll set the photograph upright on any available space on his desk as if to let the people within it — officials and witnesses of the Hexiter Inquiry — stare out at the world. Taken on the steps of the Court Building on that grey day the Inquiry ended in an Open Verdict, it shows Lord Dobley, Examiner of Wrecks, standing central of the group, imperious in gown and wig. Leaning out from behind him is another man’s head and shoulders. Smiling and impish, his hair and the top of his frock-coat slicked and shining, he is out of place among the others standing stiffly posed and solemn.
“I reckon that’s Mr Benjimen,” says the Clerk of courts.
But nobody is really sure.