DEAD MEN TELL NO TALES
By E. W. Hornung
Chapter I Love on the Ocean
Chapter II The Mysterious Cargo
Chapter III To the Water's Edge
Chapter IV The Silent Sea
Chapter V My Reward
Chapter VI The Sole Survivor
Chapter V I Find a Friend
Chapter VI A Small Precaution
Chapter VII My Convalescent Home
Chapter VIII Wine and Weakness
Chapter IX I Live Again
Chapter X My Lady's Bidding
Chapter XI The Longest Day of My Life
Chapter XII In the Garden
Chapter XIII First Blood
Chapter XIV A Deadlock
Chapter XV When Thieves Fall Out
Chapter XVI A Man of Many Murders
Chapter XVII My Great Hour
Chapter XVIII The Statement of Francis Rattray
CHAPTER I. LOVE ON THE OCEAN
Nothing is so easy as falling in love on a long sea voyage, except falling out of love. Especially was this the case in the days when the wooden clippers did finely to land you in Sydney or in Melbourne under the four full months. We all saw far too much of each other, unless, indeed, we were to see still more. Our superficial attractions mutually exhausted, we lost heart and patience in the disappointing strata which lie between the surface and the bed-rock of most natures. My own experience was confined to the round voyage of the Lady Jermyn, in the year 1853. It was no common experience, as was only too well known at the time. And I may add that I for my part had not the faintest intention of falling in love on board; nay, after all these years, let me confess that I had good cause to hold myself proof against such weakness. Yet we carried a young lady, coming home, who, God knows, might have made short work of many a better man!
Eva Denison was her name, and she cannot have been more than nineteen years of age. I remember her telling me that she had not yet come out, the very first time I assisted her to promenade the poop. My own name was still unknown to her, and yet I recollect being quite fascinated by her frankness and self-possession. She was exquisitely young, and yet ludicrously old for her years; had been admirably educated, chiefly abroad, and, as we were soon to discover, possessed accomplishments which would have made the plainest old maid a popular personage on board ship. Miss Denison, however, was as beautiful as she was young, with the bloom of ideal health upon her perfect skin. She had a wealth of lovely hair, with strange elusive strands of gold among the brown, that drowned her ears (I thought we were to have that mode again?) in sunny ripples; and a soul greater than the mind, and a heart greater than either, lay sleeping somewhere in the depths of her grave, gray eyes.
We were at sea together so many weeks. I cannot think what I was made of then!
It was in the brave old days of Ballarat and Bendigo, when ship after ship went out black with passengers and deep with stores, to bounce home with a bale or two of wool, and hardly hands enough to reef topsails in a gale. Nor was this the worst; for not the crew only, but, in many cases, captain and officers as well, would join in the stampede to the diggings; and we found Hobson's Bay the congested asylum of all manner of masterless and deserted vessels. I have a lively recollection of our skipper's indignation when the pilot informed him of this disgraceful fact. Within a fortnight, however, I met the good man face to face upon the diggings. It is but fair to add that the Lady Jermyn lost every officer and man in the same way, and that the captain did obey tradition to the extent of being the last to quit his ship. Nevertheless, of all who sailed by her in January, I alone was ready to return at the beginning of the following July.
I had been to Ballarat. I had given the thing a trial. For the most odious weeks I had been a licensed digger on Black Hill Flats; and I had actually failed to make running expenses. That, however, will surprise you the less when I pause to declare that I have paid as much as four shillings and sixpence for half a loaf of execrable bread; that my mate and I, between us, seldom took more than a few pennyweights of gold-dust in any one day; and never once struck pick into nugget, big or little, though we had the mortification of inspecting the "mammoth masses" of which we found the papers full on landing, and which had brought the gold-fever to its height during our very voyage. With me, however, as with many a young fellow who had turned his back on better things, the malady was short-lived. We expected to make our fortunes out of hand, and we had reckoned without the vermin and the villainy which rendered us more than ever impatient of delay. In my fly-blown blankets I dreamt of London until I hankered after my chambers and my club more than after much fine gold. Never shall I forget my first hot bath on getting back to Melbourne; it cost five shillings, but it was worth five pounds, and is altogether my pleasantest reminiscence of Australia.
There was, however, one slice of luck in store for me. I found the dear old Lady Jermyn on the very eve of sailing, with a new captain, a new crew, a handful of passengers (chiefly steerage), and nominally no cargo at all. I felt none the less at home when I stepped over her familiar side.
In the cuddy we were only five, but a more uneven quintette I defy you to convene. There was a young fellow named Ready, packed out for his health, and hurrying home to die among friends. There was an outrageously lucky digger, another invalid, for he would drink nothing but champagne with every meal and at any minute of the day, and I have seen him pitch raw gold at the sea-birds by the hour together. Miss Denison was our only lady, and her step-father, with whom she was travelling, was the one man of distinction on board. He was a Portuguese of sixty or thereabouts, Senhor Joaquin Santos by name; at first it was incredible to me that he had no title, so noble was his bearing; but very soon I realized that he was one of those to whom adventitious honors can add no lustre. He treated Miss Denison as no parent ever treated a child, with a gallantry and a courtliness quite beautiful to watch, and not a little touching in the light of the circumstances under which they were travelling together. The girl had gone straight from school to her step-father's estate on the Zambesi, where, a few months later, her mother had died of the malaria. Unable to endure the place after his wife's death, Senhor Santos had taken ship to Victoria, there to seek fresh fortune with results as indifferent as my own. He was now taking Miss Denison back to England, to make her home with other relatives, before he himself returned to Africa (as he once told me) to lay his bones beside those of his wife. I hardly know which of the pair I see more plainly as I write—the young girl with her soft eyes and her sunny hair, or the old gentleman with the erect though wasted figure, the noble forehead, the steady eye, the parchment skin, the white imperial, and the eternal cigarette between his shrivelled lips.
No need to say that I came more in contact with the young girl. She was not less charming in my eyes because she provoked me greatly as I came to know her intimately. She had many irritating faults. Like most young persons of intellect and inexperience, she was hasty and intolerant in nearly all her judgments, and rather given to being critical in a crude way. She was very musical, playing the guitar and singing in a style that made our shipboard concerts vastly superior to the average of their order; but I have seen her shudder at the efforts of less gifted folks who were also doing their best; and it was the same in other directions where her superiority was less specific. The faults which are most exasperating in another are, of course, one's own faults; and I confess that I was very critical of Eva Denison's criticisms. Then she had a little weakness for exaggeration, for unconscious egotism in conversation, and I itched to tell her so. I felt so certain that the girl had a fine character underneath, which would rise to noble heights in stress or storm: all the more would I long now to take her in hand and mould her in little things, and anon to take her in my arms just as she was. The latter feeling was resolutely crushed. To be plain, I had endured what is euphemistically called "disappointment" already; and, not being a complete coxcomb, I had no intention of courting a second.
Yet, when I write of Eva Denison, I am like to let my pen outrun my tale. I lay the pen down, and a hundred of her sayings ring in my ears, with my own contradictious comments, that I was doomed so soon to repent; a hundred visions of her start to my eyes; and there is the trade-wind singing in the rigging, and loosening a tress of my darling's hair, till it flies like a tiny golden streamer in the tropic sun. There, it is out! I have called her what she was to be in my heart ever after. Yet at the time I must argue with her—with her! When all my courage should have gone to love-making, I was plucking it up to sail as near as I might to plain remonstrance! I little dreamt how the ghost of every petty word was presently to return and torture me.
So it is that I can see her and hear her now on a hundred separate occasions beneath the awning beneath the stars on deck below at noon or night but plainest of all in the evening of the day we signalled the Island of Ascension, at the close of that last concert on the quarter-deck. The watch are taking down the extra awning; they are removing the bunting and the foot-lights. The lanterns are trailed forward before they are put out; from the break of the poop we watch the vivid shifting patch of deck that each lights up on its way. The stars are very sharp in the vast violet dome above our masts; they shimmer on the sea; and our trucks describe minute orbits among the stars, for the trades have yet to fail us, and every inch of canvas has its fill of the gentle steady wind. It is a heavenly night. The peace of God broods upon His waters. No jarring note offends the ear. In the forecastle a voice is humming a song of Eva Denison's that has caught the fancy of the men; the young girl who sang it so sweetly not twenty minutes since who sang it again and again to please the crew she alone is at war with our little world she alone would head a mutiny if she could.
"I hate the captain!" she says again.
"My dear Miss Denison!" I begin; for she has always been severe upon our bluff old man, and it is not the spirit of contrariety alone which makes me invariably take his part. Coarse he may be, and not one whom the owners would have chosen to command the Lady Jermyn; a good seaman none the less, who brought us round the Horn in foul weather without losing stitch or stick. I think of the ruddy ruffian in his dripping oilskins, on deck day and night for our sakes, and once more I must needs take his part; but Miss Denison stops me before I can get out another word.
"I am not dear, and I'm not yours," she cries. "I'm only a school-girl—you have all but told me so before to-day! If I were a man—if I were you—I should tell Captain Harris what I thought of him!"
"Why? What has he done now?"
"Now? You know how rude he was to poor Mr. Ready this very afternoon!"
It was true. He had been very rude indeed. But Ready also had been at fault. It may be that I was always inclined to take an opposite view, but I felt bound to point this out, and at any cost.
"You mean when Ready asked him if we were out of our course? I must say I thought it was a silly question to put. It was the same the other evening about the cargo. If the skipper says we're in ballast why not believe him? Why repeat steerage gossip, about mysterious cargoes, at the cuddy table? Captains are always touchy about that sort of thing. I wasn't surprised at his letting out."
My poor love stares at me in the starlight. Her great eyes flash their scorn. Then she gives a little smile—and then a little nod—more scornful than all the rest.
"You never are surprised, are you, Mr. Cole?" says she. "You were not surprised when the wretch used horrible language in front of me! You were not surprised when it was a—dying man—whom he abused!"
I try to soothe her. I agree heartily with her disgust at the epithets employed in her hearing, and towards an invalid, by the irate skipper. But I ask her to make allowances for a rough, uneducated man, rather clumsily touched upon his tender spot. I shall conciliate her presently; the divine pout (so childish it was!) is fading from her lips; the starlight is on the tulle and lace and roses of her pretty evening dress, with its festooned skirts and obsolete flounces; and I am watching her, ay, and worshipping her, though I do not know it yet. And as we stand there comes another snatch from the forecastle:—
"What will you do, love, when I am going. With white sail flowing, The seas beyond? What will you do, love—"
"They may make the most of that song," says Miss Denison grimly; "it's the last they'll have from me. Get up as many more concerts as you like. I won't sing at another unless it's in the fo'c'sle. I'll sing to the men, but not to Captain Harris. He didn't put in an appearance tonight. He shall not have another chance of insulting me."
Was it her vanity that was wounded after all? "You forget," said I, "that you would not answer when he addressed you at dinner."
"I should think I wouldn't, after the way he spoke to Mr. Ready; and he too agitated to come to table, poor fellow!"
"Still, the captain felt the open slight."
"Then he shouldn't have used such language in front of me."
"Your father felt it, too, Miss Denison."
I hear nothing plainer than her low but quick reply:
"Mr. Cole, my father has been dead many; many years; he died before I can remember. That man only married my poor mother. He sympathizes with Captain Harris—against me; no father would do that. Look at them together now! And you take his side, too; oh! I have no patience with any of you—except poor Mr. Ready in his berth."
"But you are not going."
"Indeed I am. I am tired of you all."
And she was gone with angry tears for which I blamed myself as I fell to pacing the weather side of the poop—and so often afterwards! So often, and with such unavailing bitterness!
Senhor Santos and the captain were in conversation by the weather rail. I fancied poor old Harris eyed me with suspicion, and I wished he had better cause. The Portuguese, however, saluted me with his customary courtesy, and I thought there was a grave twinkle in his steady eye.
"Are you in deesgrace also, friend Cole?" he inquired in his all but perfect English.
"More or less," said I ruefully.
He gave the shrug of his country—that delicate gesture which is done almost entirely with the back—a subtlety beyond the power of British shoulders.
"The senhora is both weelful and pivish," said he, mixing the two vowels which (with the aspirate) were his only trouble with our tongue. "It is great grif to me to see her growing so unlike her sainted mother!"
He sighed, and I saw his delicate fingers forsake the cigarette they were rolling to make the sacred sign upon his breast. He was always smoking one cigarette and making another; as he lit the new one the glow fell upon a strange pin that he wore, a pin with a tiny crucifix inlaid in mosaic. So the religious cast of Senhor Santos was brought twice home to me in the same moment, though, to be sure, I had often been struck by it before. And it depressed me to think that so sweet a child as Eva Denison should have spoken harshly of so good a man as her step-father, simply because he had breadth enough to sympathize with a coarse old salt like Captain Harris.
I turned in, however, and I cannot say the matter kept me awake in the separate state-room which was one luxury of our empty saloon. Alas? I was a heavy sleeper then.
CHAPTER II. THE MYSTERIOUS CARGO
"Wake up, Cole! The ship's on fire!"
It was young Ready's hollow voice, as cool, however, as though he were telling me I was late for breakfast. I started up and sought him wildly in the darkness.
"You're joking," was my first thought and utterance; for now he was lighting my candle, and blowing out the match with a care that seemed in itself a contradiction.
"I wish I were," he answered. "Listen to that!"
He pointed to my cabin ceiling; it quivered and creaked; and all at once I was as a deaf man healed.
One gets inured to noise at sea, but to this day it passes me how even I could have slept an instant in the abnormal din which I now heard raging above my head. Sea-boots stamped; bare feet pattered; men bawled; women shrieked; shouts of terror drowned the roar of command.
"Have we long to last?" I asked, as I leaped for my clothes.
"Long enough for you to dress comfortably. Steady, old man! It's only just been discovered; they may get it under. The panic's the worst part at present, and we're out of that."
But was Eva Denison? Breathlessly I put the question; his answer was reassuring. Miss Denison was with her step-father on the poop. "And both of 'em as cool as cucumbers," added Ready.
They could not have been cooler than this young man, with death at the bottom of his bright and sunken eyes. He was of the type which is all muscle and no constitution; athletes one year, dead men the next; but until this moment the athlete had been to me a mere and incredible tradition. In the afternoon I had seen his lean knees totter under the captain's fire. Now, at midnight—the exact time by my watch—it was as if his shrunken limbs had expanded in his clothes; he seemed hardly to know his own flushed face, as he caught sight of it in my mirror.
"By Jove!" said he, "this has put me in a fine old fever; but I don't know when I felt in better fettle. If only they get it under! I've not looked like this all the voyage."
And he admired himself while I dressed in hot haste: a fine young fellow; not at all the natural egotist, but cast for death by the doctors, and keenly incredulous in his bag of skin. It revived one's confidence to hear him talk. But he forgot himself in an instant, and gave me a lead through the saloon with a boyish eagerness that made me actually suspicious as I ran. We were nearing the Line. I recalled the excesses of my last crossing, and I prepared for some vast hoax at the last moment. It was only when we plunged upon the crowded quarter-deck, and my own eyes read lust of life and dread of death in the starting eyes of others, that such lust and such dread consumed me in my turn, so that my veins seemed filled with fire and ice.
To be fair to those others, I think that the first wild panic was subsiding even then; at least there was a lull, and even a reaction in the right direction on the part of the males in the second class and steerage. A huge Irishman at their head, they were passing buckets towards the after-hold; the press of people hid the hatchway from us until we gained the poop; but we heard the buckets spitting and a hose-pipe hissing into the flames below; and we saw the column of white vapor rising steadily from their midst.
At the break of the poop stood Captain Harris, his legs planted wide apart, very vigorous, very decisive, very profane. And I must confess that the shocking oaths which had brought us round the Horn inspired a kind of confidence in me now. Besides, even from the poop I could see no flames. But the night was as beautiful as it had been an hour or two back; the stars as brilliant, the breeze even more balmy, the sea even more calm; and we were hove-to already, against the worst.
In this hour of peril the poop was very properly invaded by all classes of passengers, in all manner of incongruous apparel, in all stages of fear, rage, grief and hysteria; as we made our way among this motley nightmare throng, I took Ready by the arm.
"The skipper's a brute," said I, "but he's the right brute in the right place to-night, Ready!"
"I hope he may be," was the reply. "But we were off our course this afternoon; and we were off it again during the concert, as sure as we're not on it now."
His tone made me draw him to the rail.
"But how do you know? You didn't have another look, did you?"
"Lots of looks-at the stars. He couldn't keep me from consulting them; and I'm just as certain of it as I'm certain that we've a cargo aboard which we're none of us supposed to know anything about."
The latter piece of gossip was, indeed, all over the ship; but this allusion to it struck me as foolishly irrelevant and frivolous. As to the other matter, I suggested that the officers would have had more to say about it than Ready, if there had been anything in it.
"Officers be damned!" cried our consumptive, with a sound man's vigor. "They're ordinary seamen dressed up; I don't believe they've a second mate's certificate between them, and they're frightened out of their souls."
"Well, anyhow, the skipper isn't that."
"No; he's drunk; he can shout straight, but you should hear him try to speak."
I made my way aft without rejoinder. "Invalid's pessimism," was my private comment. And yet the sick man was whole for the time being; the virile spirit was once more master of the recreant members; and it was with illogical relief that I found those I sought standing almost unconcernedly beside the binnacle.
My little friend was, indeed, pale enough, and her eyes great with dismay; but she stood splendidly calm, in her travelling cloak and bonnet, and with all my soul I hailed the hardihood with which I had rightly credited my love. Yes! I loved her then. It had come home to me at last, and I no longer denied it in my heart. In my innocence and my joy I rather blessed the fire for showing me her true self and my own; and there I stood, loving her openly with my eyes (not to lose another instant), and bursting to tell her so with my lips.
But there also stood Senhor Santos, almost precisely as I had seen him last, cigarette, tie-pin, and all. He wore an overcoat, however, and leaned upon a massive ebony cane, while he carried his daughter's guitar in its case, exactly as though they were waiting for a train. Moreover, I thought that for the first time he was regarding me with no very favoring glance.
"You don't think it serious?" I asked him abruptly, my heart still bounding with the most incongruous joy.
He gave me his ambiguous shrug; and then, "A fire at sea is surely sirrious," said he.
"Where did it break out?"
"No one knows; it may have come of your concert."
"But they are getting the better of it?"
"They are working wonders so far, senhor."
"You see, Miss Denison," I continued ecstatically, "our rough old diamond of a skipper is the right man in the right place after all. A tight man in a tight place, eh?" and I laughed like an idiot in their calm grave faces.
"Senhor Cole is right," said Santos, "although his 'ilarity sims a leetle out of place. But you must never spik against Captain 'Arrees again, menma."
"I never will," the poor child said; yet I saw her wince whenever the captain raised that hoarse voice of his in more and more blasphemous exhortation; and I began to fear with Ready that the man was drunk.
My eyes were still upon my darling, devouring her, revelling in her, when suddenly I saw her hand twitch within her step-father's arm. It was an answering start to one on his part. The cigarette was snatched from his lips. There was a commotion forward, and a cry came aft, from mouth to mouth:
"The flames! The flames!"
I turned, and caught their reflection on the white column of smoke and steam. I ran forward, and saw them curling and leaping in the hell-mouth of the hold.
The quarter-deck now staged a lurid scene: that blazing trap-door in its midst; and each man there a naked demon madly working to save his roasting skin. Abaft the mainmast the deck-pump was being ceaselessly worked by relays of the passengers; dry blankets were passed forward, soaking blankets were passed aft, and flung flat into the furnace one after another. These did more good than the pure water: the pillar of smoke became blacker, denser: we were at a crisis; a sudden hush denoted it; even our hoarse skipper stood dumb.
I had rushed down into the waist of the ship—blushing for my delay—and already I was tossing blankets with the rest. Looking up in an enforced pause, I saw Santos whispering in the skipper's ear, with the expression of a sphinx but no lack of foreign gesticulation—behind them a fringe of terror-stricken faces, parted at that instant by two more figures, as wild and strange as any in that wild, strange scene. One was our luckless lucky digger, the other a gigantic Zambesi nigger, who for days had been told off to watch him; this was the servant (or rather the slave) of Senhor Santos.
The digger planted himself before the captain. His face was reddened by a fire as consuming as that within the bowels of our gallant ship. He had a huge, unwieldy bundle under either arm.
"Plain question—plain answer," we heard him stutter. "Is there any —— chance of saving this —— ship?"
His adjectives were too foul for print; they were given with such a special effort at distinctness, however, that I was smiling one instant, and giving thanks the next that Eva Denison had not come forward with her guardian. Meanwhile the skipper had exchanged a glance with Senhor Santos, and I think we all felt that he was going to tell us the truth.
He told it in two words—"Very little."
Then the first individual tragedy was enacted before every eye. With a yell the drunken maniac rushed to the rail. The nigger was at his heels—he was too late. Uttering another and more piercing shriek, the madman was overboard at a bound; one of his bundles preceded him; the other dropped like a cannon-ball on the deck.
The nigger caught it up and carried it forward to the captain.
Harris held up his hand. We were still before we had fairly found our tongues. His words did run together a little, but he was not drunk.
"Men and women," said he, "what I told that poor devil is Gospel truth; but I didn't tell him we'd no chance of saving our lives, did I? Not me, because we have! Keep your heads and listen to me. There's two good boats on the davits amidships; the chief will take one, the second officer the other; and there ain't no reason why every blessed one of you shouldn't sleep in Ascension to-morrow night. As for me, let me see every soul off of my ship and perhaps I may follow; but by the God that made you, look alive! Mr. Arnott—Mr. McClellan—man them boats and lower away. You can't get quit o' the ship too soon, an' I don't mind tellin' you why. I'll tell you the worst, an' then you'll know. There's been a lot o' gossip goin', gossip about my cargo. I give out as I'd none but ship's stores and ballast, an' I give out a lie. I don't mind tellin' you now. I give out a cussed lie, but I give it out for the good o' the ship! What was the use o' frightenin' folks? But where's the sense in keepin' it back now? We have a bit of a cargo," shouted Harris; "and it's gunpowder—every damned ton of it!"
The effect of this announcement may be imagined; my hand has not the cunning to reproduce it on paper; and if it had, it would shrink from the task. Mild men became brutes, brutal men, devils, women—God help them!—shrieking beldams for the most part. Never shall I forget them with their streaming hair, their screaming open mouths, and the cruel ascending fire glinting on their starting eyeballs!
Pell-mell they tumbled down the poop-ladders; pell-mell they raced amidships past that yawning open furnace; the pitch was boiling through the seams of the crackling deck; they slipped and fell upon it, one over another, and the wonder is that none plunged headlong into the flames. A handful remained on the poop, cowering and undone with terror. Upon these turned Captain Harris, as Ready and I, stemming the torrent of maddened humanity, regained the poop ourselves.
"For'ard with ye!" yelled the skipper. "The powder's underneath you in the lazarette!"
They were gone like hunted sheep. And now abaft the flaming hatchway there were only we four surviving saloon passengers, the captain, his steward, the Zambesi negro, and the quarter-master at the wheel. The steward and the black I observed putting stores aboard the captain's gig as it overhung the water from the stern davits.
"Now, gentlemen," said Harris to the two of us, "I must trouble you to step forward with the rest. Senhor Santos insists on taking his chance along with the young lady in my gig. I've told him the risk, but he insists, and the gig'll hold no more."
"But she must have a crew, and I can row. For God's sake take me, captain!" cried I; for Eva Denison sat weeping in her deck chair, and my heart bled faint at the thought of leaving her, I who loved her so, and might die without ever telling her my love! Harris, however, stood firm.
"There's that quartermaster and my steward, and Jose the nigger," said he. "That's quite enough, Mr. Cole, for I ain't above an oar myself; but, by God, I'm skipper o' this here ship, and I'll skip her as long as I remain aboard!"
I saw his hand go to his belt; I saw the pistols stuck there for mutineers. I looked at Santos. He answered me with his neutral shrug, and, by my soul, he struck a match and lit a cigarette in that hour of life and death! Then last I looked at Ready; and he leant invertebrate over the rail, gasping pitiably from his exertions in regaining the poop, a dying man once more. I pointed out his piteous state.
"At least," I whispered, "you won't refuse to take him?"
"Will there be anything to take?" said the captain brutally.
Santos advanced leisurely, and puffed his cigarette over the poor wasted and exhausted frame.
"It is for you to decide, captain," said he cynically; "but this one will make no deeference. Yes, I would take him. It will not be far," he added, in a tone that was not the less detestable for being lowered.
"Take them both!" moaned little Eva, putting in her first and last sweet word.
"Then we all drown, Evasinha," said her stepfather. "It is impossible."
"We're too many for her as it is," said the captain. "So for'ard with ye, Mr. Cole, before it's too late."
But my darling's brave word for me had fired my blood, and I turned with equal resolution on Harris and on the Portuguese. "I will go like a lamb," said I, "if you will first give me five minutes' conversation with Miss Denison. Otherwise I do not go; and as for the gig, you may take me or leave me, as you choose."
"What have you to say to her?" asked Santos, coming up to me, and again lowering his voice.
I lowered mine still more. "That I love her!" I answered in a soft ecstasy. "That she may remember how I loved her, if I die!"
His shoulders shrugged a cynical acquiescence.
"By all mins, senhor; there is no harm in that."
I was at her side before another word could pass his withered lips.
"Miss Denison, will you grant me five minutes', conversation? It may be the last that we shall ever have together!"
Uncovering her face, she looked at me with a strange terror in her great eyes; then with a questioning light that was yet more strange, for in it there was a wistfulness I could not comprehend. She suffered me to take her hand, however, and to lead her unresisting to the weather rail.
"What is it you have to say?" she asked me in her turn. "What is it that you—think?"
Her voice fell as though she must have the truth.
"That we have all a very good chance," said I heartily.
"Is that all?" cried Eva, and my heart sank at her eager manner.
She seemed at once disappointed and relieved. Could it be possible she dreaded a declaration which she had foreseen all along? My evil first experience rose up to warn me. No, I would not speak now; it was no time. If she loved me, it might make her love me less; better to trust to God to spare us both.
"Yes, it is all," I said doggedly.
She drew a little nearer, hesitating. It was as though her disappointment had gained on her relief.
"Do you know what I thought you were going to say?"
"Dare I tell you?"
"You can trust me."
Her pale lips parted. Her great eyes shone. Another instant, and she had told me that which I would have given all but life itself to know. But in that tick of time a quick step came behind me, and the light went out of the sweet face upturned to mine.
"I cannot! I must not! Here is—that man!"
Senhor Santos was all smiles and rings of pale-blue smoke.
"You will be cut off, friend Cole," said he. "The fire is spreading."
"Let it spread!" I cried, gazing my very soul into the young girl's eyes. "We have not finished our conversation.
"We have!" said she, with sudden decision. "Go—go—for my sake—for your own sake—go at once!"
She gave me her hand. I merely clasped it. And so I left her at the rail-ah, heaven! how often we had argued on that very spot! So I left her, with the greatest effort of all my life (but one); and yet in passing, full as my heart was of love and self, I could not but lay a hand on poor Ready's shoulders.
"God bless you, old boy!" I said to him.
He turned a white face that gave me half an instant's pause.
"It's all over with me this time," he said. "But, I say, I was right about the cargo?"
And I heard a chuckle as I reached the ladder; but Ready was no longer in my mind; even Eva was driven out of it, as I stood aghast on the top-most rung.
CHAPTER III. TO THE WATER'S EDGE
It was not the new panic amidships that froze my marrow; it was not that the pinnace hung perpendicularly by the fore-tackle, and had shot out those who had swarmed aboard her before she was lowered, as a cart shoots a load of bricks. It was bad enough to see the whole boat-load struggling, floundering, sinking in the sea; for selfish eyes (and which of us is all unselfish at such a time?) there was a worse sight yet; for I saw all this across an impassable gulf of fire.
The quarter-deck had caught: it was in flames to port and starboard of the flaming hatch; only fore and aft of it was the deck sound to the lips of that hideous mouth, with the hundred tongues shooting out and up.
Could I jump it there? I sprang down and looked. It was only a few feet across; but to leap through that living fire was to leap into eternity. I drew back instantly, less because my heart failed me, I may truly say, than because my common sense did not.
Some were watching me, it seemed, across this hell. "The bulwarks!" they screamed. "Walk along the bulwarks!" I held up my hand in token that I heard and understood and meant to act. And as I did their bidding I noticed what indeed had long been apparent to idler eyes: the wind was not; we had lost our southeast trades; the doomed ship was rolling in a dead calm.
Rolling, rolling, rolling so that it seemed minutes before I dared to move an inch. Then I tried it on my hands and knees, but the scorched bulwarks burned me to the bone. And then I leapt up, desperate with the pain; and, with my tortured hands spread wide to balance me, I walked those few yards, between rising sea and falling fire, and falling sea and rising fire, as an acrobat walks a rope, and by God's grace without mishap.
There was no time to think twice about my feat, or, indeed, about anything else that befell upon a night when each moment was more pregnant than the last. And yet I did think that those who had encouraged me to attempt so perilous a trick might have welcomed me alive among them; they were looking at something else already; and this was what it was.
One of the cabin stewards had presented himself on the poop; he had a bottle in one hand, a glass in the other; in the red glare we saw him dancing in front of the captain like an unruly marionette. Harris appeared to threaten him. What he said we could not hear for the deep-drawn blast and the high staccato crackle of the blazing hold. But we saw the staggering steward offering him a drink; saw the glass flung next instant in the captain's face, the blood running, a pistol drawn, fired without effect, and snatched away by the drunken mutineer. Next instant a smooth black cane was raining blow after blow on the man's head. He dropped; the blows fell thick and heavy as before. He lay wriggling; the Portuguese struck and struck until he lay quite still; then we saw Joaquin Santos kneel, and rub his stick carefully on the still thing's clothes, as a man might wipe his boots.
Curses burst from our throats; yet the fellow deserved to die. Nor, as I say, had we time to waste two thoughts upon any one incident. This last had begun and ended in the same minute; in another we were at the starboard gangway, tumbling helter-skelter aboard the lowered long-boat.
She lay safely on the water: how we thanked our gods for that! Lower and lower sank her gunwale as we dropped aboard her, with no more care than the Gadarene swine whose fate we courted. Discipline, order, method, common care, we brought none of these things with us from our floating furnace; but we fought to be first over the bulwarks, and in the bottom of the long-boat we fought again.
And yet she held us all! All, that is, but a terror-stricken few, who lay along the jibboom like flies upon a stick: all but two or three more whom we left fatally hesitating in the forechains: all but the selfish savages who had been the first to perish in the pinnace, and one distracted couple who had thrown their children into the kindly ocean, and jumped in after them out of their torment, locked for ever in each other's arms.
Yes! I saw more things on that starry night, by that blood-red glare, than I have told you in their order, and more things than I shall tell you now. Blind would I gladly be for my few remaining years, if that night's horrors could be washed from these eyes for ever. I have said so much, however, that in common candor I must say one thing more. I have spoken of selfish savages. God help me and forgive me! For by this time I was one myself.
In the long-boat we cannot have been less than thirty; the exact number no man will ever know. But we shoved off without mischance; the chief mate had the tiller; the third mate the boat-hook; and six or eight oars were at work, in a fashion, as we plunged among the great smooth sickening mounds and valleys of fathomless ink.
Scarcely were we clear when the foremast dropped down on the fastenings, dashing the jib-boom into the water with its load of demented human beings. The mainmast followed by the board before we had doubled our distance from the wreck. Both trailed to port, where we could not see them; and now the mizzen stood alone in sad and solitary grandeur, her flapping idle sails lighted up by the spreading conflagration, so that they were stamped very sharply upon the black add starry sky. But the whole scene from the long-boat was one of startling brilliancy and horror. The fire now filled the entire waist of the vessel, and the noise of it was as the rumble and roar of a volcano. As for the light, I declare that it put many a star clean out, and dimmed the radiance of all the rest, as it flooded the sea for miles around, and a sea of molten glass reflected it. My gorge rose at the long, low billows-sleek as black satin—lifting and dipping in this ghastly glare. I preferred to keep my eyes upon the little ship burning like a tar barrel as the picture grew. But presently I thanked God aloud: there was the gig swimming like a beetle over the bloodshot rollers in our wake.
In our unspeakable gladness at being quit of the ship, some minutes passed before we discovered that the long-boat was slowly filling. The water was at our ankles before a man of us cried out, so fast were our eyes to the poor lost Lady Jermyn. Then all at once the ghastly fact dawned upon us; and I think it was the mate himself who burst out crying like a child. I never ascertained, however, for I had kicked off my shoes and was busy baling with them. Others were hunting for the leak. But the mischief was as subtle as it was mortal—as though a plank had started from end to end. Within and without the waters rose equally—then lay an instant level with our gunwales—then swamped us, oh! so slowly, that I thought we were never going to sink. It was like getting inch by inch into your tub; I can feel it now, creeping, crawling up my back. "It's coming! O Christ!" muttered one as it came; to me it was a downright relief to be carried under at last.
But then, thank God, I have always been a strong swimmer. The water was warm and buoyant, and I came up like a cork, as I knew I should. I shook the drops from my face, and there were the sweet stars once more; for many an eye they had gone Out for ever; and there the burning wreck.
A man floundered near me, in a splutter of phosphorescence. I tried to help him, and in an instant he had me wildly round the neck. In the end I shook him off, poor devil, to his death. And he was the last I tried to aid: have I not said already what I was become?
In a little an oar floated my way: I threw my arms across it and gripped it with my chin as I swam. It relieved me greatly. Up and down I rode among the oily black hillocks; I was down when there was a sudden flare as though the sun had risen, and I saw still a few heads bobbing and a few arms waving frantically around me. At the same instant a terrific detonation split the ears; and when I rose on the next bald billow, where the ship lay burning a few seconds before, there remained but a red-hot spine that hissed and dwindled for another minute, and then left a blackness through which every star shone with redoubled brilliance.
And now right and left splashed falling missiles; a new source of danger or of temporary respite; to me, by a merciful Providence, it proved the latter.
Some heavy thing fell with a mighty splash right in front of me. A few more yards, and my brains had floated with the spume. As it was, the oar was dashed from under my armpits; in another moment they had found a more solid resting-place.
It was a hen-coop, and it floated bars upwards like a boat. In this calm it might float for days. I climbed upon the bars-and the whole cage rolled over on top of me.
Coming to the surface, I found to my joy that the hen-coop had righted itself; so now I climbed up again, but this time very slowly and gingerly; the balance was undisturbed, and I stretched myself cautiously along the bars on my stomach. A good idea immediately occurred to me. I had jumped as a matter of course into the flannels which one naturally wears in the tropics. To their lightness I already owed my life, but the common cricket-belt which was part of the costume was the thing to which I owe it most of all. Loosening this belt a little, as I tucked my toes tenaciously under the endmost bar, I undid and passed the two ends under one of the middle bars, fastening the clasp upon the other side. If I capsized now, well, we might go to the bottom together; otherwise the hen-coop and I should not part company in a hurry; and I thought, I felt, that she would float.
Worn out as I was, and comparatively secure for the moment, I will not say that I slept; but my eyes closed, and every fibre rested, as I rose and slid with the smooth, long swell. Whether I did indeed hear voices, curses, cries, I cannot say positively to this day. I only know that I raised my head and looked sharply all ways but the way I durst not look for fear of an upset. And, again, I thought I saw first a tiny flame, and then a tinier glow; and as my head drooped, and my eyes closed again, I say I thought I smelt tobacco; but this, of course, was my imagination supplying all the links from one.
CHAPTER IV. THE SILENT SEA
Remember (if indeed there be any need to remind you) that it is a flagrant landsman who is telling you this tale. Nothing know I of seamanship, save what one could not avoid picking up on the round voyage of the Lady Jermyn, never to be completed on this globe. I may be told that I have burned that devoted vessel as nothing ever burned on land or sea. I answer that I write of what I saw, and that is not altered by a miscalled spar or a misunderstood manouvre. But now I am aboard a craft I handle for myself, and must make shift to handle a second time with this frail pen.
The hen-coop was some six feet long, by eighteen or twenty inches in breadth and depth. It was simply a long box with bars in lieu of a lid; but it was very strongly built.
I recognized it as one of two which had stood lashed against either rail of the Lady Jermyn's poop; there the bars had risen at right angles to the deck; now they lay horizontal, a gridiron six feet long-and my bed. And as each particular bar left its own stripe across my wearied body, and yet its own comfort in my quivering heart, another day broke over the face of the waters, and over me.
Discipline, what there was of it originally, had been the very first thing to perish aboard our ill-starred ship; the officers, I am afraid, were not much better than poor Ready made them out (thanks to Bendigo and Ballarat), and little had been done in true ship-shape style all night. All hands had taken their spell at everything as the fancy seized them; not a bell had been struck from first to last; and I can only conjecture that the fire raged four or five hours, from the fact that it was midnight by my watch when I left it on my cabin drawers, and that the final extinction of the smouldering keel was so soon followed by the first deep hint of dawn. The rest took place with the trite rapidity of the equatorial latitudes. It had been my foolish way to pooh-pooh the old saying that there is no twilight in the tropics. I saw more truth in it as I lay lonely on this heaving waste.
The stars were out; the sea was silver; the sun was up.
And oh! the awful glory of that sunrise! It was terrific; it was sickening; my senses swam. Sunlit billows smooth and sinister, without a crest, without a sound; miles and miles of them as I rose; an oily grave among them as I fell. Hill after hill of horror, valley after valley of despair! The face of the waters in petty but eternal unrest; and now the sun must shine to set it smiling, to show me its cruel ceaseless mouthings, to reveal all but the ghastlier horrors underneath.
How deep was it? I fell to wondering! Not that it makes any difference whether you drown in one fathom or in ten thousand, whether you fall from a balloon or from the attic window. But the greater depth or distance is the worse to contemplate; and I was as a man hanging by his hands so high above the world, that his dangling feet cover countries, continents; a man who must fall very soon, and wonders how long he will be falling, falling; and how far his soul will bear his body company.
In time I became more accustomed to the sun upon this heaving void; less frightened, as a child is frightened, by the mere picture. And I have still the impression that, as hour followed hour since the falling of the wind, the nauseous swell in part subsided. I seemed less often on an eminence or in a pit; my glassy azure dales had gentler slopes, or a distemper was melting from my eyes.
At least I know that I had now less work to keep my frail ship trim, though this also may have come by use and practice. In the beginning one or other of my legs had been for ever trailing in the sea, to keep the hen-coop from rolling over the other way; in fact, as I understand they steer the toboggan in Canada, so I my little bark. Now the necessity for this was gradually decreasing; whatever the cause, it was the greatest mercy the day had brought me yet. With less strain on the attention, however, there was more upon the mind. No longer forced to exert some muscle twice or thrice a minute, I had time to feel very faint, and yet time to think. My soul flew homing to its proper prison. I was no longer any unit at unequal strife with the elements; instincts common to my kind were no longer my only stimulus. I was my poor self again; it was my own little life, and no other, that I wanted to go on living; and yet I felt vaguely there was some special thing I wished to live for, something that had not been very long in my ken; something that had perhaps nerved and strengthened me all these hours. What, then, could it be? I could not think.
For moments or for minutes I wondered stupidly, dazed as I was. Then I remembered—and the tears gushed to my eyes. How could I ever have forgotten? I deserved it all, all, all! To think that many a time we must have sat together on this very coop! I kissed its blistering edge at the thought, and my tears ran afresh, as though they never would stop.
Ah! how I thought of her as that cruel day's most cruel sun climbed higher and higher in the flawless flaming vault. A pocket-handkerchief of all things had remained in my trousers pocket through fire and water; I knotted it on the old childish plan, and kept it ever drenched upon the head that had its own fever to endure as well. Eva Denison! Eva Denison! I was talking to her in the past, I was talking to her in the future, and oh! how different were the words, the tone! Yes, I hated myself for having forgotten her; but I hated God for having given her back to my tortured brain; it made life so many thousandfold more sweet, and death so many thousandfold more bitter.
She was saved in the gig. Sweet Jesus, thanks for that! But I—I was dying a lingering death in mid-ocean; she would never know how I loved her, I, who could only lecture her when I had her at my side.
Dying? No—no—not yet! I must live—live—live—to tell my darling how I had loved her all the time. So I forced myself from my lethargy of despair and grief; and this thought, the sweetest thought of all my life, may or may not have been my unrealized stimulus ere now; it was in very deed my most conscious and perpetual spur henceforth until the end.
From this onward, while my sense stood by me, I was practical, resourceful, alert. It was now high-noon, and I had eaten nothing since dinner the night before. How clearly I saw the long saloon table, only laid, however, abaft the mast; the glittering glass, the cool white napery, the poor old dried dessert in the green dishes! Earlier, this had occupied my mind an hour; now I dismissed it in a moment; there was Eva, I must live for her; there must be ways of living at least a day or two without sustenance, and I must think of them.
So I undid that belt of mine which fastened me to my gridiron, and I straddled my craft with a sudden keen eye for sharks, of which I never once had thought until now. Then I tightened the belt about my hollow body, and just sat there with the problem. The past hour I had been wholly unobservant; the inner eye had had its turn; but that was over now, and I sat as upright as possible, seeking greedily for a sail. Of course I saw none. Had we indeed been off our course before the fire broke out? Had we burned to cinders aside and apart from the regular track of ships? Then, though my present valiant mood might ignore the adverse chances, they were as one hundred to a single chance of deliverance. Our burning had brought no ship to our succor; and how should I, a mere speck amid the waves, bring one to mine?
Moreover, I was all but motionless; I was barely drifting at all. This I saw from a few objects which were floating around me now at noon; they had been with me when the high sun rose. One was, I think, the very oar which had been my first support; another was a sailor's cap; but another, which floated nearer, was new to me, as though it had come to the surface while my eyes were turned inwards. And this was clearly the case; for the thing was a drowned and bloated corpse.
It fascinated me, though not with extraordinary horror; it came too late to do that. I thought I recognized the man's back. I fancied it was the mate who had taken charge of the long-boat. Was I then the single survivor of those thirty souls? I was still watching my poor lost comrade, when that happened to him against which even I was not proof. Through the deep translucent blue beneath me a slim shape glided; three smaller fish led the way; they dallied an instant a fathom under my feet, which were snatched up, with what haste you may imagine; then on they went to surer prey.
He turned over; his dreadful face stared upwards; it was the chief officer, sure enough. Then he clove the water with a rush, his dead hand waved, the last of him to disappear; and I had a new horror to think over for my sins. His poor fingers were all broken and beaten to a pulp.
The voices of the night came back to me—the curses and the cries. Yes, I must have heard them. In memory now I recognized the voice of the chief mate, but there again came in the assisted imagination. Yet I was not so sure of this as before. I thought of Santos and his horrible heavy cane. Good God! she was in the power of that! I must live for Eva indeed; must save myself to save and protect my innocent and helpless girl.
Again I was a man; stronger than ever was the stimulus now, louder than ever the call on every drop of true man's blood in my perishing frame. It should not perish! It should not!
Yet my throat was parched; my lips were caked; my frame was hollow. Very weak I was already; without sustenance I should surely die. But as yet I was far enough from death, or I had done disdaining the means of life that all this time lay ready to my hand. A number of dead fowls imparted ballast to my little craft.
Yet I could not look at them in all these hours; or I could look, but that was all. So I must sit up one hour more, and keep a sharper eye than ever for the tiniest glimmer of a sail. To what end, I often asked myself? I might see them; they would never see me.
Then my eyes would fail, and "you squeamish fool!" I said at intervals, until my tongue failed to articulate; it had swollen so in my mouth. Flying fish skimmed the water like thick spray; petrels were so few that I could count them; another shark swam round me for an hour. In sudden panic I dashed my knuckles on the wooden bars, to get at a duck to give the monster for a sop. My knuckles bled. I held them to my mouth. My cleaving tongue wanted more. The duck went to the shark; a few minutes more and I had made my own vile meal as well.
CHAPTER V. MY REWARD
The sun declined; my shadow broadened on die waters; and now I felt that if my cockle-shell could live a little longer, why, so could I.
I had got at the fowls without further hurt. Some of the bars took out, I discovered how. And now very carefully I got my legs in, and knelt; but the change of posture was not worth the risk one ran for it; there was too much danger of capsizing, and failing to free oneself before she filled and sank.
With much caution I began breaking the bars, one by one; it was hard enough, weak as I was; my thighs were of more service than my hands.
But at last I could sit, the grating only covering me from the knees downwards. And the relief of that outweighed all the danger, which, as I discovered to my untold joy, was now much less than it had been before. I was better ballast than the fowls.
These I had attached to the lashings which had been blown asunder by the explosion; at one end of the coop the ring-bolt had been torn clean out, but at the other it was the cordage that had parted. To the frayed ends I tied my fowls by the legs, with the most foolish pride in my own cunning. Do you not see? It would keep them fresh for my use, and it was a trick I had read of in no book; it was all my own.
So evening fell and found me hopeful and even puffed up; but yet, no sail.
Now, however, I could lie back, and use had given me a strange sense of safety; besides, I think I knew, I hope I felt, that the hen-coop was in other Hands than mine.
All is reaction in the heart of man; light follows darkness nowhere more surely than in that hidden self, and now at sunset it was my heart's high-noon. Deep peace pervaded me as I lay outstretched in my narrow rocking bed, as it might be in my coffin; a trust in my Maker's will to save me if that were for the best, a trust in His final wisdom and loving-kindness, even though this night should be my last on earth. For myself I was resigned, and for others I must trust Him no less. Who was I to constitute myself the protector of the helpless, when He was in His Heaven? Such was my sunset mood; it lasted a few minutes, and then, without radically changing, it became more objective.
The west was a broadening blaze of yellow and purple and red. I cannot describe it to you. If you have seen the sun set in the tropics, you would despise my description; and, if not, I for one could never make you see it. Suffice it that a petrel wheeled somewhere between deepening carmine and paling blue, and it took my thoughts off at an earthy tangent. I thanked God there were no big sea-birds in these latitudes; no molly-hawks, no albatrosses, no Cape-hens. I thought of an albatross that I had caught going out. Its beak and talons were at the bottom with the charred remains of the Lady Jermyn. But I could see them still, could feel them shrewdly in my mind's flesh; and so to the old superstition, strangely justified by my case; and so to the poem which I, with my special experience, not unnaturally consider the greatest poem ever penned.
But I did not know it then as I do now—and how the lines eluded me! I seemed to see them in the book, yet I could not read the words!
"Water, water, everywhere, Nor any drop to drink."
That, of course, came first (incorrectly); and it reminded me of my thirst, which the blood of the fowls had so very partially appeased. I see now that it is lucky I could recall but little more. Experience is less terrible than realization, and that poem makes me realize what I went through as memory cannot. It has verses which would have driven me mad. On the other hand, the exhaustive mental search for them distracted my thoughts until the stars were back in the sky; and now I had a new occupation, saying to myself all the poetry I could remember, especially that of the sea; for I was a bookish fellow even then. But I never was anything of a scholar. It is odd therefore, that the one apposite passage which recurred to me in its entirety was in hexameters and pentameters:
Me miserum, quanti montes volvuntur aquarum! Jam jam tacturos sidera summa putes. Quantae diducto subsidunt aequore valles! Jam jam tacturas Tartara nigra putes. Quocunque adspicio, nihil est nisi pontus et aether; Fluctibus hic tumidis, nubibus ille minax....
More there was of it in my head; but this much was an accurate statement of my case; and yet less so now (I was thankful to reflect) than in the morning, when every wave was indeed a mountain, and its trough a Tartarus. I had learnt the lines at school; nay, they had formed my very earliest piece of Latin repetition. And how sharply I saw the room I said them in, the man I said them to, ever since my friend! I figured him even now hearing Ovid rep., the same passage in the same room. And I lay saying it on a hen-coop in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean!
At last I fell into a deep sleep, a long unconscious holiday of the soul, undefiled by any dream.
They say that our dreaming is done as we slowly wake; then was I out of the way of it that night, for a sudden violent rocking awoke me in one horrid instant. I made it worse by the way I started to a sitting posture. I had shipped some water. I was shipping more. Yet all around the sea was glassy; whence then the commotion? As my ship came trim again, and I saw that my hour was not yet, the cause occurred to me; and my heart turned so sick that it was minutes before I had the courage to test my theory.
It was the true one.
A shark had been at my trailing fowls; had taken the bunch of them together, dragging the legs from my loose fastenings. Lucky they had been no stronger! Else had I been dragged down to perdition too.
Lucky, did I say? The refinement of cruelty rather; for now I had neither meat nor drink; my throat was a kiln; my tongue a flame; and another day at hand.
The stars were out; the sea was silver; the sun was up!
. . . . .
I was waiting now for my delirium.
It came in bits.
I was a child. I was playing on the lawn at home. I was back on the blazing sea.
I was a schoolboy saying my Ovid; then back once more.
The hen-coop was the Lady Jermyn. I was at Eva Denison's side. They were marrying us on board. The ship's bell was ringing for us; a guitar in the background burlesqued the Wedding March under skinny fingers; the air was poisoned by a million cigarettes, they raised a pall of smoke above the mastheads, they set fire to the ship; smoke and flame covered the sea from rim to rim, smoke and flame filled the universe; the sea dried up, and I was left lying in its bed, lying in my coffin, with red-hot teeth, because the sun blazed right above them, and my withered lips were drawn back from them for ever.
So once more I came back to my living death; too weak now to carry a finger to the salt water and back to my mouth; too weak to think of Eva; too weak to pray any longer for the end, to trouble or to care any more.
Only so tired.
. . . . .
Death has no more terrors for me. I have supped the last horror of the worst death a man can die. You shall hear now for what I was delivered; you shall read of my reward.
My floating coffin was many things in turn; a railway carriage, a pleasure boat on the Thames, a hammock under the trees; last of all it was the upper berth in a not very sweet-smelling cabin, with a clatter of knives and forks near at hand, and a very strong odor of onions in the Irish stew.
My hand crawled to my head; both felt a wondrous weight; and my head was covered with bristles no longer than those on my chin, only less stubborn.
"Where am I?" I feebly asked.
The knives and forks clattered on, and presently I burst out crying because they had not heard me, and I knew that I could never make them hear. Well, they heard my sobs, and a huge fellow came with his mouth full, and smelling like a pickle bottle.
"Where am I?"
"Aboard the brig Eliza, Liverpool, homeward bound; glad to see them eyes open."
"Have I been here long?"
"Matter o' ten days."
"Where did you find me?"
"Floating in a hen-coop; thought you was a dead 'un."
"Do you know what ship?"
"Do we know? No, that's what you've got to tell us!"
"I can't," I sighed, too weak to wag my head upon the pillow.
The man went to my cabin door.
"Here's a go," said he; "forgotten the name of his blessed ship, he has. Where's that there paper, Mr. Bowles? There's just a chance it may be the same."
"I've got it, sir."
"Well, fetch it along, and come you in, Mr. Bowles; likely you may think o' somethin'."
A reddish, hook-nosed man, with a jaunty, wicked look, came and smiled upon me in the friendliest fashion; the smell of onions became more than I knew how to endure.
"Ever hear of the ship Lady Jermyn?" asked the first corner, winking at the other.
I thought very hard, the name did sound familiar; but no, I could not honestly say that I had beard it before.
The captain looked at his mate.
"It was a thousand to one," said he; "still we may as well try him with the other names. Ever heard of Cap'n Harris, mister?"
"Not that I know of."
"Nor yet of Ready—a passenger?"
"It's no use goin' on," said the captain folding up the paper.
"None whatever, sir," said the mate
"Ready! Ready!" I repeated. "I do seem to have heard that name before. Won't you give me another chance?"
The paper was unfolded with a shrug.
"There was another passenger of the name of San-Santos. Dutchman, seemin'ly. Ever heard o' him?"
My disappointment was keen. I could not say that I had. Yet I would not swear that I had not.
"Oh, won't you? Well, there's only one more chance. Ever heard of Miss Eva Denison—"
"By God, yes! Have you?"
I was sitting bolt upright in my bunk. The skipper's beard dropped upon his chest.
"Bless my soul! The last name o' the lot, too!"
"Have you heard of her?" I reiterated.
"Wait a bit, my lad! Not so fast. Lie down again and tell me who she was."
"Who she was?" I screamed. "I want to know where she is!"
"I can't hardly say," said the captain awkwardly. "We found the gig o' the Lady Jermyn the week arter we found you, bein' becalmed like; there wasn't no lady aboard her, though."
"Was there anybody?"
"Two dead 'uns—an' this here paper."
"Let me see it!"
The skipper hesitated.
"Hadn't you better wait a bit?"
"No, no; for Christ's sake let me see the worst; do you think I can't read it in your face?"
I could—I did. I made that plain to them, and at last I had the paper smoothed out upon my knees. It was a short statement of the last sufferings of those who had escaped in the gig, and there was nothing in it that I did not now expect. They had buried Ready first—then my darling—then her step-father. The rest expected to follow fast enough. It was all written plainly, on a sheet of the log-book, in different trembling hands. Captain Harris had gone next; and two had been discovered dead.
How long I studied that bit of crumpled paper, with the salt spray still sparkling on it faintly, God alone knows. All at once a peal of nightmare laughter rattled through the cabin. My deliverers started back. The laugh was mine.
CHAPTER VI. THE SOLE SURVIVOR
A few weeks later I landed in England, I, who no longer desired to set foot on any land again.
At nine-and-twenty I was gaunt and gray; my nerves were shattered, my heart was broken; and my face showed it without let or hindrance from the spirit that was broken too. Pride, will, courage, and endurance, all these had expired in my long and lonely battle with the sea. They had kept me alive-for this. And now they left me naked to mine enemies.
For every hand seemed raised against me, though in reality it was the hand of fellowship that the world stretched out, and the other was the reading of a jaundiced eye. I could not help it: there was a poison in my veins that made me all ingratitude and perversity. The world welcomed me back, and I returned the compliment by sulking like the recaptured runaway I was at heart. The world showed a sudden interest in me; so I took no further interest in the world, but, on the contrary, resented its attentions with unreasonable warmth and obduracy; and my would-be friends I regarded as my very worst enemies. The majority, I feel sure, meant but well and kindly by the poor survivor. But the survivor could not forget that his name was still in the newspapers, nor blink the fact that he was an unworthy hero of the passing hour. And he suffered enough from brazenly meddlesome and self-seeking folk, from impudent and inquisitive intruders, to justify some suspicion of old acquaintances suddenly styling themselves old friends, and of distant connections newly and unduly eager to claim relationship. Many I misjudged, and have long known it. On the whole, however, I wonder at that attitude of mine as little as I approve of it.
If I had distinguished myself in any other way, it would have been a different thing. It was the fussy, sentimental, inconsiderate interest in one thrown into purely accidental and necessarily painful prominence—the vulgarization of an unspeakable tragedy—that my soul abhorred. I confess that I regarded it from my own unique and selfish point of view. What was a thrilling matter to the world was a torturing memory to me. The quintessence of the torture was, moreover, my own secret. It was not the loss of the Lady Jermyn that I could not bear to speak about; it was my own loss; but the one involved the other. My loss apart, however, it was plain enough to dwell upon experiences so terrible and yet so recent as those which I had lived to tell. I did what I considered my duty to the public, but I certainly did no more. My reticence was rebuked in the papers that made the most of me, but would fain have made more. And yet I do not think that I was anything but docile with those who had a manifest right to question me; to the owners, and to other interested persons, with whom I was confronted on one pretext or another, I told my tale as fully and as freely as I have told it here, though each telling hurt more than the last. That was necessary and unavoidable; it was the private intrusions which I resented with all the spleen the sea had left me in exchange for the qualities it had taken away.
Relatives I had as few as misanthropist could desire; but from self-congratulation on the fact, on first landing, I soon came to keen regret. They at least would have sheltered me from spies and busybodies; they at least would have secured the peace and privacy of one who was no hero in fact or spirit, whose noblest deed was a piece of self preservation which he wished undone with all his heart.
Self-consciousness no doubt multiplied my flattering assailants. I have said that my nerves were shattered. I may have imagined much and exaggerated the rest. Yet what truth there was in my suspicions you shall duly see. I felt sure that I was followed in the street, and my every movement dogged by those to whom I would not condescend to turn and look. Meanwhile, I had not the courage to go near my club, and the Temple was a place where I was accosted in every court, effusively congratulated on the marvellous preservation of my stale spoilt life, and invited right and left to spin my yarn over a quiet pipe! Well, perhaps such invitations were not so common as they have grown in my memory; nor must you confuse my then feelings on all these matters with those which I entertain as I write. I have grown older, and, I hope, something kindlier and wiser since then. Yet to this day I cannot blame myself for abandoning my chambers and avoiding my club.
For a temporary asylum I pitched upon a small, quiet, empty, private hotel which I knew of in Charterhouse Square. Instantly the room next mine became occupied.
All the first night I imagined I heard voices talking about me in that room next door. It was becoming a disease with me. Either I was being dogged, watched, followed, day and night, indoors and out, or I was the victim of a very ominous hallucination. That night I never closed an eye nor lowered my light. In the morning I took a four-wheel cab and drove straight to Harley Street; and, upon my soul, as I stood on the specialist's door-step, I could have sworn I saw the occupant of the room next mine dash by me in a hansom!
"Ah!" said the specialist; "so you cannot sleep; you hear voices; you fancy you are being followed in the street. You don't think these fancies spring entirely from the imagination? Not entirely—just so. And you keep looking behind you, as though somebody were at your elbow; and you prefer to sit with your back close to the wall. Just so—just so. Distressing symptoms, to be sure, but—but hardly to be wondered at in a man who has come through your nervous strain." A keen professional light glittered in his eyes. "And almost commonplace," he added, smiling, "compared with the hallucinations you must have suffered from on that hen-coop! Ah, my dear sir, the psychological interest of your case is very great!"
"It may be," said I, brusquely. "But I come to you to get that hen-coop out of my head, not to be reminded of it. Everybody asks me about the damned thing, and you follow everybody else. I wish it and I were at the bottom of the sea together!"
This speech had the effect of really interesting the doctor in my present condition, which was indeed one of chronic irritation and extreme excitability, alternating with fits of the very blackest despair. Instead of offending my gentleman I had put him on his mettle, and for half an hour he honored me with the most exhaustive inquisition ever elicited from a medical man. His panacea was somewhat in the nature of an anti-climax, but at least it had the merits of simplicity and of common sense. A change of air—perfect quiet—say a cottage in the country—not too near the sea. And he shook my hand kindly when I left.
"Keep up your heart, my dear sir," said he. "Keep up your courage and your heart."
"My heart!" I cried. "It's at the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean."
He was the first to whom I had said as much. He was a stranger. What did it matter? And, oh, it was so true—so true.
Every day and all day I was thinking of my love; every hour and all hours she was before me with her sunny hair and young, young face. Her wistful eyes were gazing into mine continually. Their wistfulness I had never realized at the time; but now I did; and I saw it for what it seemed always to have been, the soft, sad, yearning look of one fated to die young. So young—so young! And I might live to be an old man, mourning her.
That I should never love again I knew full well. This time there was no mistake. I have implied, I believe, that it was for another woman I fled originally to the diggings. Well, that one was still unmarried, and when the papers were full of me she wrote me a letter which I now believe to have been merely kind. At the time I was all uncharitableness; but words of mine would fail to tell you how cold this letter left me; it was as a candle lighted in the full blaze of the sun.
With all my bitterness, however, you must not suppose that I had quite lost the feelings which had inspired me at sunset on the lonely ocean, while my mind still held good. I had been too near my Maker ever to lose those feelings altogether. They were with me in the better moments of these my worst days. I trusted His wisdom still. There was a reason for everything; there were reasons for all this. I alone had been saved out of all those souls who sailed from Melbourne in the Lady Jermyn. Why should I have been the favored one; I with my broken heart and now lonely life? Some great inscrutable reason there must be; at my worst I did not deny that. But neither did I puzzle my sick brain with the reason. I just waited for it to be revealed to me, if it were God's will ever to reveal it. And that I conceive to be the one spirit in which a man may contemplate, with equal sanity and reverence, the mysteries and the miseries of his life.
CHAPTER VII. I FIND A FRIEND
The night after I consulted the specialist I was quite determined to sleep. I had laid in a bundle of the daily papers. No country cottage was advertised to let but I knew of it by evening, and about all the likely ones I had already written. The scheme occupied my thoughts. Trout-fishing was a desideratum. I would take my rod and plenty of books, would live simply and frugally, and it should make a new man of me by Christmas. It was now October. I went to sleep thinking of autumn tints against an autumn sunset. It must have been very early, certainly not later than ten o'clock; the previous night I had not slept at all.
Now, this private hotel of mine was a very old fashioned house, dark and dingy all day long, with heavy old chandeliers and black old oak, and dead flowers in broken flower-pots surrounding a grimy grass-plot in the rear. On this latter my bedroom window looked; and never am I likely to forget the vile music of the cats throughout my first long wakeful night there. The second night they actually woke me; doubtless they had been busy long enough, but it was all of a sudden that I heard them, and lay listening for more, wide awake in an instant. My window had been very softly opened, and the draught fanned my forehead as I held my breath.
A faint light glimmered through a ground-glass pane over the door; and was dimly reflected by the toilet mirror, in its usual place against the window. This mirror I saw moved, and next moment I had bounded from bed.
The mirror fell with a horrid clatter: the toilet-table followed it with a worse: the thief had gone as he had come ere my toes halted aching amid the debris.
A useless little balcony—stone slab and iron railing—jutted out from my window. I thought I saw a hand on the railing, another on the slab, then both together on the lower level for one instant before they disappeared. There was a dull yet springy thud on the grass below. Then no more noise but the distant thunder of the traffic, and the one that woke me, until the window next mine was thrown up.
"What the devil's up?"
The voice was rich, cheery, light-hearted, agreeable; all that my own was not as I answered "Nothing!" for this was not the first time my next-door neighbor had tried to scrape acquaintance with me.
"But surely, sir, I heard the very dickens of a row?"
"You may have done."
"I was afraid some one had broken into your room!"
"As a matter of fact," said I, put to shame by the undiminished good-humor of my neighbor, "some one did; but he's gone now, so let him be."
"Gone? Not he! He's getting over that wall. After him—after him!" And the head disappeared from the window next mine.
I rushed into the corridor, and was just in time to intercept a singularly handsome young fellow, at whom I had hardly taken the trouble to look until now. He was in full evening dress, and his face was radiant with the spirit of mischief and adventure.
"For God's sake, sir," I whispered, "let this matter rest. I shall have to come forward if you persist, and Heaven knows I have been before the public quite enough!"
His dark eyes questioned me an instant, then fell as though he would not disguise that he recollected and understood. I liked him for his good taste. I liked him for his tacit sympathy, and better still for the amusing disappointment in his gallant, young face.
"I am sorry to have robbed you of a pleasant chase," said I. "At one time I should have been the first to join you. But, to tell you the truth, I've had enough excitement lately to last me for my life."
"I can believe that," he answered, with his fine eyes full upon me. How strangely I had misjudged him! I saw no vulgar curiosity in his flattering gaze, but rather that very sympathy of which I stood in need. I offered him my hand.
"It is very good of you to give in," I said. "No one else has heard a thing, you see. I shall look for another opportunity of thanking you to-morrow."
"No, no!" cried he, "thanks be hanged, but—but, I say, if I promise you not to bore you about things—won't you drink a glass of brandy-and-water in my room before you turn in again?"
Brandy-and-water being the very thing I needed, and this young man pleasing me more and more, I said that I would join him with all my heart, and returned to my room for my dressing-gown and slippers. To find them, however, I had to light my candles, when the first thing I saw was the havoc my marauder had left behind him. The mirror was cracked across; the dressing-table had lost a leg; and both lay flat, with my brushes and shaving-table, and the foolish toilet crockery which no one uses (but I should have to replace) strewn upon the carpet. But one thing I found that had not been there before: under the window lay a formidable sheath-knife without its sheath. I picked it up with something of a thrill, which did not lessen when I felt its edge. The thing was diabolically sharp. I took it with me to show my neighbor, whom I found giving his order to the boots; it seemed that it was barely midnight, and that he had only just come in when the clatter took place in my room.
"Hillo!" he cried, when the man was gone, and I produced my trophy. "Why, what the mischief have you got there?"
"My caller's card," said I. "He left it behind him. Feel the edge."
I have seldom seen a more indignant face than the one which my new acquaintance bent over the weapon, as he held it to the light, and ran his finger along the blade. He could have not frowned more heavily if he had recognized the knife.
"The villains!" he muttered. "The damned villains!"
"Villains?" I queried. "Did you see more than one of them, then?"
"Didn't you?" he asked quickly. "Yes, yes, to be sure! There was at least one other beggar skulking down below." He stood looking at me, the knife in his hand, though mine was held out for it. "Don't you think, Mr. Cole, that it's our duty to hand this over to the police? I—I've heard of other cases about these Inns of Court. There's evidently a gang of them, and this knife might convict the lot; there's no saying; anyway I think the police should have it. If you like I'll take it to Scotland Yard myself, and hand it over without mentioning your name."
"Oh, if you keep my name out of it," said I, "and say nothing about it here in the hotel, you may do what you like, and welcome! It's the proper course, no doubt; only I've had publicity enough, and would sooner have felt that blade in my body than set my name going again in the newspapers."
"I understand," he said, with his well-bred sympathy, which never went a shade too far; and he dropped the weapon into a drawer, as the boots entered with the tray. In a minute he had brewed two steaming jorums of spirits-and-water; as he handed me one, I feared he was going to drink my health, or toast my luck; but no, he was the one man I had met who seemed, as he said, to "understand." Nevertheless, he had his toast.
"Here's confusion to the criminal classes in general," he cried; "but death and damnation to the owners of that knife!"
And we clinked tumblers across the little oval table in the middle of the room. It was more of a sitting-room than mine; a bright fire was burning in the grate, and my companion insisted on my sitting over it in the arm-chair, while for himself he fetched the one from his bedside, and drew up the table so that our glasses should be handy. He then produced a handsome cigar-case admirably stocked, and we smoked and sipped in the cosiest fashion, though without exchanging many words.
You may imagine my pleasure in the society of a youth, equally charming in looks, manners and address, who had not one word to say to me about the Lady Jermyn or my hen-coop. It was unique. Yet such, I suppose, was my native contrariety, that I felt I could have spoken of the catastrophe to this very boy with less reluctance than to any other creature whom I had encountered since my deliverance. He seemed so full of silent sympathy: his consideration for my feelings was so marked and yet so unobtrusive. I have called him a boy. I am apt to write as the old man I have grown, though I do believe I felt older then than now. In any case my young friend was some years my junior. I afterwards found out that he was six-and-twenty.
I have also called him handsome. He was the handsomest man that I have ever met, had the frankest face, the finest eyes, the brightest smile. Yet his bronzed forehead was low, and his mouth rather impudent and bold than truly strong. And there was a touch of foppery about him, in the enormous white tie and the much-cherished whiskers of the fifties, which was only redeemed by that other touch of devilry that he had shown me in the corridor. By the rich brown of his complexion, as well as by a certain sort of swagger in his walk, I should have said that he was a naval officer ashore, had he not told me who he was of his own accord.
"By the way," he said, "I ought to give you my name. It's Rattray, of one of the many Kirby Halls in this country. My one's down in Lancashire."
"I suppose there's no need to tell my name?" said I, less sadly, I daresay, than I had ever yet alluded to the tragedy which I alone survived. It was an unnecessary allusion, too, as a reference to the foregoing conversation will show.
"Well, no!" said he, in his frank fashion; "I can't honestly say there is."
We took a few puffs, he watching the fire, and I his firelit face.
"It must seem strange to you to be sitting with the only man who lived to tell the tale!"
The egotism of this speech was not wholly gratuitous. I thought it did seem strange to him: that a needless constraint was put upon him by excessive consideration for my feelings. I desired to set him at his ease as he had set me at mine. On the contrary, he seemed quite startled by my remark.
"It is strange," he said, with a shudder, followed by the biggest sip of brandy-and-water he had taken yet. "It must have been horrible—horrible!" he added to himself, his dark eyes staring into the fire.
"Ah!" said I, "it was even more horrible than you suppose or can ever imagine."
I was not thinking of myself, nor of my love, nor of any particular incident of the fire that still went on burning in my brain. My tone was doubtless confidential, but I was meditating no special confidence when my companion drew one with his next words. These, however, came after a pause, in which my eyes had fallen from his face, but in which I heard him emptying his glass.
"What do you mean?" he whispered. "That there were other circumstances—things which haven't got into the papers?"
"God knows there were," I answered, my face in my hands; and, my grief brought home to me, there I sat with it in the presence of that stranger, without compunction and without shame.
He sprang up and paced the room. His tact made me realize my weakness, and I was struggling to overcome it when he surprised me by suddenly stopping and laying a rather tremulous hand upon my shoulder.
"You—It wouldn't do you any good to speak of those circumstances, I suppose?" he faltered.
"No: not now: no good at all."
"Forgive me," he said, resuming his walk. "I had no business—I felt so sorry—I cannot tell you how I sympathize! And yet—I wonder if you will always feel so?"
"No saying how I shall feel when I am a man again," said I. "You see what I am at present." And, pulling myself together, I rose to find my new friend quite agitated in his turn.
"I wish we had some more brandy," he sighed. "I'm afraid it's too late to get any now."
"And I'm glad of it," said I. "A man in my state ought not to look at spirits, or he may never look past them again. Thank goodness, there are other medicines. Only this morning I consulted the best man on nerves in London. I wish I'd gone to him long ago."
"Harley Street, was it?"
"Saw you on his doorstep, by Jove!" cried Rattray at once. "I was driving over to Hampstead, and I thought it was you. Well, what's the prescription?"
In my satisfaction at finding that he had not been dogging me intentionally (though I had forgotten the incident till he reminded me of it), I answered his question with unusual fulness.
"I should go abroad," said Rattray. "But then, I always am abroad; it's only the other day I got back from South America, and I shall up anchor again before this filthy English winter sets in."
Was he a sailor after all, or only a well-to-do wanderer on the face of the earth? He now mentioned that he was only in England for a few weeks, to have a look at his estate, and so forth; after which he plunged into more or less enthusiastic advocacy of this or that foreign resort, as opposed to the English cottage upon which I told him I had set my heart.
He was now, however, less spontaneous, I thought, than earlier in the night. His voice had lost its hearty ring, and he seemed preoccupied, as if talking of one matter while he thought upon another. Yet he would not let me go; and presently he confirmed my suspicion, no less than my first impression of his delightful frankness and cordiality, by candidly telling me what was on his mind.
"If you really want a cottage in the country," said he, "and the most absolute peace and quiet to be got in this world, I know of the very thing on my land in Lancashire. It would drive me mad in a week; but if you really care for that sort of thing—"
"An occupied cottage?" I interrupted.
"Yes; a couple rent it from me, very decent people of the name of Braithwaite. The man is out all day, and won't bother you when he's in; he's not like other people, poor chap. But the woman 's all there, and would do her best for you in a humble, simple, wholesome sort of way."