In Search of El Dorado, by Harry Collingwood.
Rather strangely the book starts off with an incident very closely resembling the loss of the "Titanic", which had occurred a few years before the publication of this book. This episode, the sinking due to collision with ice of the "Everest", is well told, and must indeed give a good picture of what had happened with the "Titanic".
As a result of this our two heroes find themselves on an ice floe, from which they are rescued, and become great friends. They decide to go together to South America, to see what adventures befall them. Several interesting episodes are described, but eventually they find themselves outside what appears to be a city of gold, but down in a former crater with no apparent means of access. Eventually they do find the way down, and to their surprise, Earle, the American, who was wearing an amulet he had found earlier in the trip, was treated with great reverence as a God. All this is exceptionally well-told, and you will certainly enjoy the book.
IN SEARCH OF EL DORADO, BY HARRY COLLINGWOOD.
The Everest, newly launched, the biggest and fastest boat in the Trans-Atlantic services, was on her maiden voyage to New York. The fortunes of that voyage concern our story simply from the fact that it brought our two adventurers together and helped to show the manly stuff of which they were made. Thereafter the sea was not for them, but the far-off swamps and forests of the mighty Amazon Valley, where most amazing adventures befel them. On the Everest Dick Cavendish was fifth officer.
The run from Liverpool to Queenstown was made under easy steam in order that the ship might arrive off the Irish port at a reasonable hour in the morning; but no sooner were the Irish passengers and the supplementary mails shipped than the word went quietly round among the officers that the "Old Man" was bent upon breaking the best previous record for the run across the herring pond and setting up a new one unassailable by any other craft than the Everest herself. And certainly when, as the liner passed Daunt Rock lightship shortly after nine o'clock on the Sunday morning following her departure from Liverpool, and the moment was carefully noted by chronometer, the omens were all most favourable for the weather was fine, though cold, with a light northerly wind and smooth water, and with her turbines running at top speed the chief engineer reported that the hands in the stokeholds were keeping a full head of steam without difficulty. At noon the patent log showed that the Everest was within a fraction of eighty miles from the lightship; and Captain Prowse already began to picture himself as holding the blue ribbon of the Atlantic.
And so things continued without a hitch or break of any description until half the journey across the Atlantic had been accomplished; the weather remained fine, with light winds, no sea, and very little swell to speak of, while the ship ran as smoothly and steadily as though she were travelling on land-locked waters instead of in mid-Atlantic.
Meanwhile she kept in almost hourly touch with other ships going east or west, reporting her position and progress and asking from time to time for the latest news; but it was not until Tuesday afternoon, about three o'clock, local time, that she got any intelligence of the slightest moment, this being a message from the homeward bound liner Bolivia, to the following effect—
"Warning! S.S. Bolivia, New York—Liverpool, Latitude 45 degrees, 7 minutes North, Longitude 37 degrees, 57 minutes West. Just cleared large area consisting of detached masses of field ice with several bergs, through which we have been working for the last three hours. Very dangerous. Advise ships approaching it to observe utmost caution, particularly at night time."
This message was duly handed to Captain Prowse in his own cabin by the wireless operator, who waited while the skipper read it, to see whether the latter desired to address any inquiry to the Bolivia. But after cogitating over it for two or three minutes, the skipper crumpled up the paper and thrust it into his pocket, saying—
"All right, 'Sparks', that'll do. And—look here, youngster—just keep this message strictly to yourself, d'ye see? Don't say a word to anybody about it. I'll see that all necessary precautions are taken; but I don't want the news of there being ice ahead to be talked about; it'll only make the passengers unnecessarily nervous and uneasy; and I don't want that. Besides, it will be easy enough to alter the course a few degrees south if it should be found desirable. You understand me?"
"Perfectly, sir," answered 'Sparks,' lingering for a moment at the cabin door. "Anything else, sir?"
"No," answered the skipper, "nothing more at present, thank you. But keep your ears open for any further messages."
The operator saluted and vanished; whereupon the skipper produced the chart of the North Atlantic, by the aid of which he was navigating the ship, spread it open upon the table, and studied it intently. A pencil mark consisting of a number of straight lines—the junction of each of which with the next was indicated by a dot surrounded by a small circle, against which was a note indicating the date, hour and moment of the ship's arrival at each particular spot—showed the track of the ship across the ocean from her point of departure abreast of Daunt Rock, and a thinner, lighter pencil line extending on to New York marked the still untravelled portion of the route. Taking a pencil, parallel ruler and pair of dividers in his hand, Captain Prowse proceeded carefully to jot down the position of the Bolivia, as indicated by her message; having done which he gave vent to a sigh of relief; for he saw that the course which he was pursuing would take the Everest some sixty miles to the north of that point.
"Thank God! that's all right," he murmured. "There's nothing to fear. That patch of drift ice is not in the least likely to extend as far north as our track. Besides, with the precautions that we are observing—taking the sea temperature every half-hour, and so on—and the maintenance of a good look-out, we are perfectly safe. I suppose I ought to tell Brown" (the chief officer) "about this message; but I won't—no; I'll keep it to myself, for the chap's as nervous as a cat, and would want to slow down as soon as the dusk comes. And I don't want that; I mean to make this a record passage, and don't intend to be frightened into losing several precious hours merely because a ship sixty miles to the south'ard of my track reports a little floating ice. No; I'll just issue instructions that everybody is to be on the alert and keep a specially sharp look-out, and let it go at that."
Having come to which conclusion, Captain Prowse left his cabin and joined the officer of the watch on the bridge.
"By Jove! What glorious weather we are having," he remarked genially, as the officer came to his side. "I cannot remember such a spell of it as we have had ever since leaving Queenstown. What's she doing, Mr Dacre?"
"Twenty-six point six, sir, at the last reading of the log, about half an hour ago," answered the second officer; "and she hasn't slackened down any. At this rate we ought to be berthed in New York by noon the day after to-morrow, with a record passage to our credit."
"Ay," agreed the skipper, "that's what I am hoping for in a quiet way. It will be a feather in our caps if we can pull the thing off—and please the owners, too. Have you seen any sign of ice yet?"
"Not yet, sir," answered Dacre, "though I suppose we may expect to see some at almost any moment, now. But the temperature of the water remains quite steady. It is only half a degree colder than it was this time yesterday, and that is no more than one would reasonably expect about here."
"Quite so," assented the skipper. "Well, let the temperature continue to be taken every half-hour regularly, and keep the look-outs on the alert. We don't want any accidents—or even any narrow escapes, on our first trip. The officers of the fleet have a reputation for carefulness, and we must live up to it. Let me know at once if any ice is sighted."
"Certainly, sir," replied the second officer, as the skipper turned away and retired to his cabin.
At half-past nine o'clock that night the ship's band was playing in the grand lounge, and most of the first-class passengers who were not in the smoke-room were promenading or sitting about in that spacious and handsome apartment, listening to the music, or chatting together in couples or little groups. The smoke-room, too, was pretty well occupied, a few of the men reading while the rest were either seated at the tables, playing poker, or standing round watching the play.
At the same hour a little party of the ship's officers who were off duty, of whom Dick Cavendish was one, were gathered in the ward-room, engaged in the conduct of an informal smoking-concert, and Dick was standing at the piano warbling "Dear Heart" to the doctor's accompaniment—it is no longer the fashion for sailors to sing sea-songs—when the proceedings were abruptly interrupted by a jolt—it was scarcely severe enough to merit the term "shock"—instantly followed by a perceptible lifting of the ship's bows and a slight list of her to starboard, while to her smooth, steady, gliding progress succeeded a rapid succession of jerks, accompanied by a sound of rending, distinctly audible in the ward-room in the dead silence that suddenly fell upon the party. Then the bows of the ship were felt to dip and her stern to rise, while her speed slackened so abruptly that those who were standing only retained their footing with difficulty; a final jar, succeeded by a crash, came, and the ship once more settled to her bearings, floating smoothly and tranquilly as before.
By this time the occupants of the ward-room were all upon their feet, staring at one another, speechless, with horrified eyes. But as the stern of the ship settled and she again came to her bearings, Mr Brown, the chief officer, who was one of the party, exclaimed:
"Ice—by the Living Jingo!—and we've hit it! More than that she's torn the bottom off herself, unless I'm very greatly mistaken; and in another minute there'll be the deuce and all to pay—a panic, as likely as not. To your stations, gentlemen, and remember—the first thing to be done is to keep the boat deck clear. Come on!" And he led the way up the companion-ladder to the deck.
As Dick emerged into the open air, the first thing of which he became conscious was a distinctly keener edge of chill in the atmosphere; next, that the ship's engines had stopped; and third, that the second-class passengers were swarming out of their quarters like angry bees, each demanding of the other to be told what had happened. They were evidently heading with one accord for the promenade deck, doubtless en route for the boat deck; and Dick only reached the foot of the ladder in the nick of time to meet the rush of the foremost.
"Hillo!" he cried, good-humouredly, planting himself square in front of the ladder. "Whither away, good people? No, no; that is the first-class quarters; you know that you have no right on the promenade deck. Keep to your own part of the ship, please."
The crowd checked at the cool authoritativeness of Dick's tones; but a big, burly man elbowed his way through the crush until he came face to face with the young officer.
"Out of the way, youngster," he shouted. "Who are you, to talk of 'right' at a time like this? The ship is on the rocks and sinking, and—"
"Oh, my dear good man," interrupted Dick, wearily. "You make me tired. Why do you start talking about things of which you know nothing, and try to frighten your fellow passengers? You are the sort of chap who yells blue murder if the lights in a picture theatre go out before you think they ought, and starts a panic in which a lot of women and children get badly hurt. Rocks! Why, we're hundreds of miles from the nearest land. And as to the ship sinking, don't you know that she's unsinkable—that she can't sink? The fact is that we've hit a bit of ice in the darkness, and all the bumping that you felt was just the ice being broken up by the ship as she ran past it. Now, take my advice, all of you; go back to your cabins and turn in, or some of you will be catching bad colds. Where are the parents of those children in night-dresses? Whoever they are, they ought to be ashamed of themselves for bringing the poor little kiddies into the cold in that rig! Take 'em below and put 'em to bed again, there's good people. And go to bed yourselves; it's the most comfortable place in the ship on a night like this. I wish I had the chance to go there."
Dick's one idea in talking had been to subdue the tendency towards panic which he had observed in the crowd before him, and to a certain extent he had succeeded. That is to say, the parents of the children in nightgowns had sheepishly herded their flock back into the deck-house, while a few of the other passengers had followed them. But the majority still lingered, waiting perhaps to hear further particulars. And these the big, burly man—who, from his somewhat "loud" costume, might be taken for a pugilist or a doubtful frequenter of race courses—seemed determined to have. Dick's sarcasm had produced no more effect upon him than rain does upon a duck, and he still stood staring aggressively at the young officer.
"That's all very well," he declared truculently; "but if there's no danger, what are all them sailors so busy about the boats up there for?"
The boat deck was by this time a scene of feverish but orderly activity, every available seaman being mustered there, busily engaged, under the supervision of the chief and second officers, on the task of stripping the boats of their canvas, casting them loose, hoisting them out of their chocks, and swinging them outboard ready for lowering.
"Why, you chump," answered Dick, "they are doing that for the express purpose of reassuring people like yourself, who always go badly scared if they get half a chance. Besides, it is one of the standing orders of the ship, and gives the men a bit of exercise in handling the boats. They will hang there for a bit, and then they will be swung inboard and stowed again. Now,—please go back to your cabins, all of you, and make yourselves comfortable. Or, if you don't care to do that—if you are determined to hang about out here on deck in the cold, at least go and put some warm clothes on. For I tell you candidly that it may be an hour or more before those boats are swung in and stowed."
"All right!" returned Dick's opponent, "I'll stay where I am until that's done, and chance it. I'd rather have a cold than be drowned in my cabin, like a rat in a trap."
"Very well," retorted Dick. "Do as you please, by all means. It's your look-out, not mine. Only you are setting a very bad example to the others. And by this time to-morrow you will all be sorry that you did not take my advice."
Meanwhile, from where Dick stood, at the foot of the ladder leading to the promenade deck, he could hear the purser up there suavely assuring a crowd of first-class passengers that there was not the slightest occasion for alarm, that the boats were merely being swung out as a precautionary measure always adopted in such cases, and that if they would kindly retire to the dining-saloon they would find a hot supper awaiting them which he had taken it upon himself to order, just to fortify his charges against any possible ill effects from the cold to which they were so foolishly exposing themselves. And while he spoke, the purser was busily but very politely shepherding the promenade deck crowd toward the doorway giving access to the dining-saloon.
But above the suavely jocular accents of the purser's voice Dick's quick ears caught other and more sinister sounds, to wit, the persistent crackling of the ship's wireless installation, and he very shrewdly suspected that that meant something much more serious and important than "Sparks" swapping good-nights with some other operator—that, in short, it meant nothing less than that most urgent of all wireless calls, the S.O.S. of a ship in dire distress summoning other ships to her aid. Further than that, although the work of preparing the boats for lowering was proceeding in a perfectly quiet and orderly manner, Dick was conscious, even above the roar of escaping steam, of a strenuous haste in the movements of the men engaged upon the task, as well as of a certain note of sharpness and urgency in the tones of the officers who were supervising the work, all of which combined to impress upon the young officer the conviction that matters were taking a distinctly serious turn for the Everest.
In the brief interval during which the above impressions were printing themselves upon Dick's consciousness, a few of the people confronting him had turned, and, in a half-hearted, hesitant way, were drifting back toward the entrance of the deck-house, although the greater part of them seemed disposed to follow the burly man's example and remain where they were until authoritatively assured that all was well with the ship. It was during this momentary lull that a brass-buttoned steward came nimbly down the ladder before which Cavendish was standing, and said to him:
"Purser's compliments, sir, and would you be so good as to tell the second-class passengers that, on account of their bein' disturbed by the ship hittin' a lump of ice, and turnin' out in the cold, tea, coffee, and hot soup is bein' served in the dinin'-room to warm 'em up a bit before they goes to their beds."
"Right-o!" answered Dick. "I will inform them at once. Ladies and gentlemen," he continued, "lest you should not all have heard the message which the steward has just delivered, let me repeat it. It is a message from the purser to the effect that since so many of you have unfortunately been scared out of your warm cabins by the collision of the ship with a small piece of ice, tea, coffee, and hot soup are now being served in the dining-room to those who care to have something to warm them before turning in. If you take my advice, you will lose no time in going below to get it, because only a limited quantity will be served, and those who get below first will have the best chance. Good-night, all of you. Turn in as soon as you have had your hot drink, and get a good night's rest."
And therewith the young man turned and with much deliberation ascended the ladder, his intention in so doing being to convey the impression that the scare was over and the entire incident ended.
The ruse was brilliantly successful, for the moment at least, for when, upon reaching the head of the ladder, he turned to see what was happening on the deck which he had just left, he saw that the whole crowd of second-class passengers was in full retreat, with the burly man elbowing his way through it, that he might secure his full share of whatever might happen to be going in the dining-room.
Pausing for a moment to watch the gradual disappearance of the people through the deck-house door, Dick waited until the last of them had vanished, and then darted along the now deserted promenade deck and up the ladder to the boat deck, where he found himself in the midst of a scene of the most strenuous activity; the men still feverishly working at the task of clearing and swinging out the boats, the officers supervising and assisting in the work, as though every second of time were more precious than gold, stewards hurrying up from below with provisions with which to stock the boats, and the captain on the bridge overlooking all, the whole deck brilliantly illuminated by every available electric lamp, while overhead the steam still roared out of the pipes, and the crackle of the wireless obtruded itself insistently through all other sounds.
Cavendish knew that Mr Brown, the chief officer, was up here somewhere, and he presently found him and briefly reported what had happened down on the main deck.
"Good!" returned Brown. "But go back and guard the head of the ladder leading from the main to the promenade deck. We're holed in nearly every compartment, and the leaks are gaining upon us in spite of the steam pumps. The ship's doomed—that's the long and the short of it; nothing can save her; and as soon as all the boats are ready there will be a call for the women and children. Your duty then will be to see that no men from the second-class are allowed to slip past you until all women and children have been safely got off. Likely enough some of the men may try to rush you. Got a revolver?"
"I have a pair down in my cabin, but—"
"Good!" interrupted Brown. "Don't waste time going down to fetch them. Collar a steward and tell him to get them for you. Now, off you go. Those people down below may take the alarm again at any moment. One word more. When all the women and children are up, don't let any men pass you until you get word from me. Now—scoot!"
Dick "scooted," dispatching a steward for his revolvers on the way, not that he had the slightest intention of using them; but he knew how efficacious a revolver—even though empty—is in stopping a rush, and he decided that it would be a good thing to have them. A minute later—his visit to the boat deck having occupied some ten minutes—he reached his post at the head of the ladder which he was to guard—just in time. For as he posted himself, the head of the burly man swung into view, wagging from side to side as its owner climbed the ladder, with quite a little crowd behind him, while others were streaming out on deck.
"What! my friend, you here again?" exclaimed Dick as he planted himself at the head of the ladder, with a hand grasping the rail on either side of him, thus converting himself into a human closed gate. "Have you come to tell me that there were not enough hot drinks to go round and that you didn't get your fair share? No you don't"—as the man strove to dislodge Cavendish from his position—"your place is down there on the main deck, as I've told you before—ah! would you? Then take that, as a little lesson that when you're aboard ship you must behave yourself and obey orders!"
"That" was a blow straight between the eyes, administered to the burly man, who now seemed determined to fight his way up to the boat deck at all costs. The fellow went reeling back under the impact of the blow, and would undoubtedly have fallen some ten feet to the deck below had he not been caught and supported by the people beneath him on the ladder. These instantly raised a loud clamour, in which the words "Shame! shame!" were distinctly audible, while some of the women began to cry and manifest a disposition to become hysterical. Then another big man suddenly started to elbow his way through the crowd now thickly grouped about the foot of the ladder which Dick was guarding, shouting, as he came—
"Here, let me get at him. Officer or no officer, I'll soon shift him!"
"Yes, yes; that's right, governor," shouted others, also pressing forward. "Let's get him out of the way. What right has he got to keep us down here while the ship's sinking? Our lives are just as good as other people's, and we've a right to save 'em if we can."
Dick saw that a crisis was imminent and that unless he acted with decision the people on the deck below would very quickly get out of hand. Luckily for him, the steward whom he had dispatched for his revolvers at this moment appeared, thrust the weapons into his hand, and dashed off again without saying a word. The youngster was reluctant to display the weapons, for he was by no means sure that the sight of them would produce the desired effect. Yet there seemed to be no alternative, for the little band of men below—some eight or ten in number—were evidently determined to force the passage of the ladder. He therefore pointed both weapons straight at the group as he shouted:
"Halt there, you men! If you dare to move another step, I'll shoot. What do you mean by your outrageous conduct, pushing and hustling your way violently through a crowd of helpless women and children in that brutal fashion? You wouldn't do it if any of them belonged to you, and I am surprised that the husbands and fathers put up with it. Call yourselves Englishmen? Pah! I'm ashamed of you. You make me sick!"
Dick's appeal to the husbands and fathers of those whom the gang had been hustling so roughly was a happy inspiration, and produced an immediate effect, the said husbands and fathers at once raising their voices in remonstrance, while the women also joined in, with the result that a heated altercation quickly ensued which threatened to speedily develop into a free fight. But that was only a shade less desirable than the other, wherefore, slipping his revolvers into his pockets, Dick intervened.
"Now then, below there, none of that!" he shouted. "I'll allow no fighting. The first man who strikes a blow shall be clapped in irons. And just listen to me a moment, if you please," he continued, as the faces below turned again toward him. "Will one of you men who seem so extraordinarily anxious to come up here kindly explain why you want to come?"
For a moment there was dead silence among the crowd, then the burly man whom Dick had struck, and who had retired crestfallen to the foot of the ladder, looked up and replied:
"The ship's sinking—you can't deny it—and our lives are worth just as much as other people's. We want to have a fair chance of saving 'em, and—"
"Stop a moment," interrupted Dick, thinking he saw a chance to create a diversion and avert the inevitable rush for a few minutes. "You say that the ship is sinking and that you want to save your lives by taking to the boats. Have you all taken the precaution to put your money and other valuables in your pockets? And have you all seen to it that you are dressed in your warmest clothes? You know," he continued, banteringly, "if you were at this moment called to get into the boats, you would be very sorry when you afterwards remembered that in your hurry you had left all your valuables behind you. And boating in this weather is a most unpleasantly cold business, I assure you."
A rather lengthy silence followed this speech of Dick's. Those whom he had addressed were thinking very seriously about what he had said touching money and valuables. Probably not one of them had dreamed of adopting the precautionary measures suggested, and many of them were painfully conscious at that moment that every penny they possessed was locked up in the trunks in their cabins. Several of them began to move hesitatingly towards the deck-house entrance. Then a man who was leading the way, suddenly halted and shouted—
"Look here, mister. Tell us the plain truth, as man to man. Is this ship going to sink, or isn't she? That's all that we want to know."
The question set Dick's mind working at lightning speed. Should he or should he not deny the dreadful truth? He felt that he could not unreservedly deny it, yet, on the other hand, unreservedly to admit it might precipitate a panic. He quickly decided that the proper thing to do would be to prepare those people for the inevitable, but to do so in such a fashion as to reassure them to the utmost possible extent. Therefore he answered:
"As man to man I tell you that we hope to take this ship safely into New York harbour. But I will not attempt to conceal from you the fact that she has sustained a certain amount of damage from her collision with a mass of ice and she is leaking a bit—stop! Don't run away until I have told you everything," he continued, as he saw the listening crowd below bracing itself for a rush. "As I have said, the ship is leaking a bit, but the steam pumps are at work—listen! you can hear the beat of them— and the water is pouring out of her almost, if not quite, as fast as it is pouring in." (This was very far from being the truth, and Dick knew it, but he considered that the circumstances justified the prevarication). "But it is a rule with this company, as it is with many others, that the moment a ship sustains any damage, however slight, the first step taken is to provide for the safety of passengers, and that is why you see the boats being got ready. If the leak should be found to be gaining on the pumps, ample notice will be given you, and plenty of time will be allowed for transferring everybody to the boats without rush or confusion of any kind. So now you know all that there is to know. If you take my advice you will all go to your cabins, dress yourselves in your warmest clothes, secure money and valuables about your persons, and then lie down and get a comfortable sleep. If it is considered desirable that you should be transferred to the boats you will be told so in good time. And don't hurry. It may be hours yet before you will be summoned to the boats—if indeed you are summoned at all."
Again Dick's eloquence had triumphed, and this time the triumph was distinctly of a more decisive character than on the previous occasion; his candour—so far as it went—had convinced the people whom he addressed that if there was any danger at all it was certainly not imminent; and in a body they turned away, intent upon acting on his advice.
Within a minute of the disappearance of the last of the second-class passengers, a loud hissing, shearing sound rent the air, heard distinctly above the now somewhat moderated roar of the escaping steam, and, leaning far out over the rail of the promenade deck, Dick was just in time to mark the heavenward flight of a rocket—the first visible signal of distress which the Everest had thus far made—and to see it burst, high up, into a shower of brilliant red stars. It was the light shed by these stars as they floated downward that first revealed to the young officer the fact that a thin veil of haze enveloped the ship, through which, scattered here and there, were several small blocks of field ice; while away on the starboard quarter, distant about half a mile, was a much larger mass, standing perhaps two or three feet above the water's surface, which might well be the berg that had done all the mischief. But Dick was horrified, as he stared down into the water, to note how much nearer was the surface than usual, as seen from the level of the promenade deck—quite three feet nearer, he estimated. And the ship had sunk to that extent within little more than half an hour!
The lad glanced eagerly about him. The deck below, set apart for the exclusive use of the second-class passengers, was now tenantless, but the port of every cabin was aglow with light, showing pretty conclusively that the people there were following Dick's advice. The same held good with regard to the cabins on the promenade deck; every window—and many doors as well—revealed the fact that the occupants were busy within; but even while Cavendish looked, a few people emerged from adjacent cabins, all of them warmly clad and evidently prepared as well as they could be for the hardships of exposure in open boats. Also, far away for'ard, Dick could just distinguish that the smoke-room door was open and that men were passing in and out, their movements suggesting uneasiness and expectancy.
Again Dick glanced over the rail. The water was perfectly smooth, unwrinkled by even the faintest zephyr of a breeze, and the great ship lay almost as motionless and steady as though she were in dock. Thank God! when the moment came there ought to be no difficulty in getting the laden boats safely lowered and afloat. At the thought of the boats he glanced upward and saw that the whole of them on the starboard side were swung out and lowered sufficiently to permit of the people stepping easily into them from the deck above. Then he ran across the deck to the port side, and saw that all boats but one on that side were also ready, while the last one was even at that moment being lowered to the same level as the rest.
As Dick walked back to his station at the head of the ladder another rocket went screaming its way aloft into the black sky, and with the bursting of it the lad became conscious of the fact that the wireless was no longer insistently clamouring; there were moments now when it remained silent for quite a minute or more, followed by a few sharp cracklings, and again silence. The Everest had evidently at last got into touch with another ship and was exchanging confidences with her.
Dick began to feel cold up there on the promenade deck, and to promote warmth, proceeded to walk briskly to and fro athwart the broad space of deck abaft the long range of cabins. And as he did so, he caught a momentary view of one of the quartermasters entering the doorway which led toward the main companion-way, and, incidentally, to the library, ladies' boudoir, grand saloon, and dining-hall. The man held a small slip of paper in his hand, and Dick instantly surmised that the slip might be a communication from either the captain or the chief officer to the purser.
The lad paused in his walk, awaiting results. And they were not long in coming, for a few minutes later the quartermaster emerged, quickly followed by the purser, who, taking up a position midway between the smoke-room and the block of cabins abaft it—which space Dick now saw was occupied by several groups of men and women—cleared his voice and then proclaimed in ringing accents:
"Ladies and gentlemen, this paper which I hold in my hand is a message which has just been brought to me from Captain Prowse, and it contains news which I am sure will be very welcome to you all. It is to the effect that our wireless operator has succeeded in getting into touch with the Bolivia and acquainting the captain of that vessel with our somewhat unfortunate plight. The Bolivia, as some of you are doubtless aware, is homeward bound, but upon learning the news of our accident, her captain has unhesitatingly interrupted his voyage and is at this moment heading for our position as rapidly as his powerful engines will drive him. He expects to arrive alongside in about three hours from now; you have therefore the assurance of perfect safety, let what will happen. This is as gratifying news to Captain Prowse as I expect it is to you; for I may now tell you that the Everest is much more seriously damaged than we at first anticipated, and—purely as a measure of precaution, I assure you—the captain, in consultation with his officers, has decided temporarily to transfer all passengers to the boats, thus ensuring their safety, whatever may happen to the ship. And if the worst should come to the worst and the leak continue to gain upon us, the Bolivia will receive you upon her arrival and convey you to New York. It was in anticipation of some such contingency as this that I advised you all, a little while ago, to change into warmer clothing, and I am glad to see that you have taken my advice. A call for you to enter the boats—women and children first—will shortly be made; therefore, if any of you have any valuables in your cabins, let me advise you to secure them at once. Several of you have deposited money and jewels in my charge. I am now about to proceed to my office for the purpose of delivering those deposits to their rightful owners; and I shall be much obliged if you will all kindly bring your deposit notes with you to facilitate the distribution."
And, so saying, the purser, cool and imperturbable as ever, bowed and withdrew, his departure being instantly followed by a hurried rush of the passengers to their cabins.
An interval of some twenty minutes now elapsed, during which nothing particular happened, except that the second-class passengers began again to emerge from their quarters in little groups and congregate about the foot of the ladder, as though holding themselves in readiness to obey an expected call. At regular intervals distress rockets continued to be fired from the upper deck, each discharge being followed by a little movement of restlessness on the part of the rapidly increasing crowd, while Dick noticed that the ship's wireless was again insistently calling. He also noticed that the burly man and a small group of kindred spirits were quietly but unobtrusively edging their way through the gathering crowd towards the foot of the ladder, and he decided to check the movement forthwith. Therefore, raising his arm to attract attention, and then pointing downward at the culprits, he said:
"Now, look here, you men! Stop that at once, if you please. I see your game; but it won't do. You are trying to get in front of all the others, so as to be first in the boats if you are called to take to them. But it won't do, my fine fellows. If it is decided to send away the boats, the women and children will be the first to go; therefore the men will be pleased to fall in in the rear. Let all the children come forward, and their mothers with them—no, no; don't rush and crowd, for there is not the least occasion for hurry; make a lane, there—a good wide lane to the foot of the ladder—do you hear what I say? That's better—open out wider yet. So! Good! Now, you mothers, come to the front with your kiddies, and sit down on deck until further orders. Let the youngsters come up the ladder and sit down on the steps. They may come up as far as the top step, but no farther. That's right. Now, little folks, sit close together and keep each other warm. That's capital. Now you will do very well."
As Dick finished, a quartermaster, accompanied by half-a-dozen seamen, came along the deck, and while the latter ranged themselves immediately behind Cavendish, the quartermaster murmured in the young man's ear:
"They're goin' to begin launchin' the boats, sir, and the chief officer wants you up on the boat deck to help. I'm to stay here with these men, to see that there's no rush. You're to go at once, please, sir."
"Right!" responded Dick, and turned to go. Then a thought suddenly occurred to him, and he faced round to the people on the deck below, now evidently all agog to learn what fresh development was impending.
"Ladies and gentlemen," he said. "A message has just been brought to me that the captain has decided to put you all into the boats, as a measure of safety. But I see that none of you have as yet put on life belts. You will find them in your cabins. Please go there and fetch them, and two of these men will come to you and help you to put them on. There is no hurry, so, when the call comes, please take your time, and let there be no crowding. You will get away much quicker by behaving in a quiet and orderly manner."
Then, with a few words of warning to the quartermaster and the seamen, Dick turned and made a dash for the boat deck.
THE FOUNDERING OF THE "EVEREST."
Upon reaching the ladder leading to the boat deck, which was the uppermost deck of all, he found it packed with first-class passengers, among whom the word had already been passed round, so, rather than incommode them, he sprang up on the rail and swarmed up a stanchion.
Arrived on the boat deck, he found the preparations for lowering the boats complete, and he also found the captain and chief officer preparing to supervise the embarkation. These he at once joined, and upon reporting himself, was immediately stationed at the after end of the deck on the starboard side, to supervise the dispatch of four boats. The deck was now rapidly filling with passengers, who were coming up from below, both fore and aft, men, women and children indiscriminately, despite the efforts of those below to keep them apart. But they were received upon their arrival by a number of quartermasters and seamen, who firmly, but with rough courtsey, herded the men along the middle part of the deck while the women and children were allowed to go to the port and starboard sides of the deck, where the officers received them.
Dick stationed himself abreast the aftermost of his quartette of boats, and as the anxious mothers with their children came crowding up, he quickly passed them through the opening in the rail and into the boat, where the three men in charge of it received them and directed them where to place themselves. So far, there was very little confusion, except that a few women clamoured for their husbands to be allowed to go with them, so causing a certain amount of delay; but on the whole matters were going very well, and within forty minutes the whole of the boats that had been swung out were safely lowered and dispatched, with orders to lie off at least half a mile, and there wait for further orders. These boats took not only all the women and children, but also as many men as room could be found for.
But all told there still remained nearly two thousand men aboard the doomed ship, whose safety depended upon the possibility of launching the collapsible boats and life rafts before the now rapidly sinking liner foundered. And this possibility had become very questionable, for the water had gained so much that the furnace fires had been extinguished and steam was rapidly failing, with the result that the pumps were no longer working at anything like full power. Moreover, although every possible arrangement had been made to facilitate the launching of the collapsible and other craft, much still remained to be done before they would be ready to receive their complement of passengers and be dispatched. Meanwhile the Everest had settled so low in the water that many of those still waiting were beginning to betray much uneasiness, not to say restiveness, at the inevitable delay, this restiveness being most apparent among the steerage passengers and, in a lesser degree, among the second-class, while the first-class passengers, almost to a man, not only displayed the most perfect coolness, but even united with the officers of the ship in their efforts to allay the rapidly growing impatience of the others.
Dick saw that trouble was brewing, and stimulated his gang of workers both by voice and example, with the result that very soon he had a big collapsible boat hooked on to the davit tackles and swung outboard. But she still needed a certain amount of preparation before she would be ready to receive her living cargo, and to complete that preparation Cavendish ordered four of his gang of six men into her. Instantly a crowd of excited foreigners from the steerage, probably mistaking the action for an indication that the boat was ready, made a rush for her and, thrusting Dick and his remaining two assistants aside, hurled themselves frantically into her, shrieking and jabbering like maniacs. The result, of course, was that the boat promptly collapsed, and taking the intruders entirely by surprise, precipitated the greater number of them into the water beneath, while the four seamen in her only escaped a like fate by making a spring for and seizing the tackles and guys.
Dick, who with his two assistants had been knocked down and nearly overboard by the rush, quickly scrambled to his feet and dropped overboard every rope's end he could lay his hands upon, and by this means contrived to rescue some twenty of the now thoroughly sobered and frightened men; but, of course, this involved a most lamentable delay and loss of time; and meanwhile it became apparent to all that the ship was now fast settling in the water. Even worse than that, however, was the effect which the conviction produced upon the ignorant foreigners among the passengers. These were fast developing a tendency to panic, which manifested itself in a determination to assist the seamen; and since their efforts to assist were unaided for the most part by the smallest glimmering of knowledge as to the proper thing to do, they naturally hindered instead of helping, and not only Dick but the other officers as well soon had all their work cut out to keep the zealous but ignorant foreigners in anything like order.
The worst characteristic of panic is that it is so horribly contagious. Let a crowd of people once get the idea into their heads that they are in peril, and they will fight together like wild beasts in their anxiety to escape. And the officers of the Everest knew this; therefore they devoted the whole of their energies to the task of reassuring that great crowd of men who now filled the boat deck of the sinking ship, arguing, pleading, and even threatening, while the Dagos crowded around them ever more menacingly, with eyes ablaze with mingled terror and ferocity, lips contracted into savage snarls, and hands in many cases gripping long, ugly-looking, dagger-like knives.
Then suddenly there came, unceremoniously elbowing his way through the excited crowd, the well-known form of the purser, his face wreathed with smiles, and a paper in his hand.
"Make way, there, make way, good people," he shouted. "I have good news for you. The wireless operators have succeeded in getting into touch with three more ships, and now not only the Bolivia, but also the Cotopaxi, the Platonic, and the Nigerian are hastening to our rescue and will all be alongside us in the course of a few hours. Therefore, cheer up, there is help and room for everybody on the way."
"Hurrah! hurrah! hurrah! Three cheers for the purser and his good news," shouted a man with a strong American accent; and all who understood him heartily took up the cheering; while the foreigners, who had failed to catch the meaning of the purser's remarks, at least understood from the cheering that good news of some sort had come to hand, and their attitude at once became less menacing.
"Good for you, sir," exclaimed Dick to the men who had started the cheering. "Those hurrahs of yours are worth more than diamonds to us just now. Hurry up lads with that boat and let's get her afloat. Are you ready, Simpson? Good! Now then, come along, good people, but don't crowd, there's plenty of time. Jump in, sir—" to the man with the American accent; "you deserve a place, if only in return for those cheers."
"Not I, my son," answered the man addressed—he was only about twenty-eight to thirty years of age. "I have neither wife, child, nor relative of any kind, as far as I know. Let the married folk go first. Now then, you husbands and fathers, step out. Any more for the shore?"
He spoke with a smile on his good-locking face, and that and the little jest of "Any more for the shore?" were as comforting to many a man there as all the assurances of the ship's officers had been; nay, more, for they had been accompanied by a wave of the hand toward the boat and a voluntary stepping aside that seemed to say as plain as words—"Pass along, you who are afraid. I am not, and am entirely willing to wait my turn."
But although the peril of panic was less imminent than it had been, it was by no means banished, and probably none recognised this more clearly than the American, for while the boat just filled was being lowered, he edged up to Dick and murmured:
"Say, young man, unless you are looking for trouble I would advise you to get all those Dagos out of the ship quick. I know their sort, sir, and I can tell by the look in their eyes, that the smallest thing in the way of an extra scare will just send the whole crowd jumping mad. So get rid of them in a hurry. That's my advice."
"And I believe you are right, too," answered Dick. "But I can't act on your advice, all the same. There are others who are entitled to as good a chance as the Dagos, and they must have it. There is yourself, for instance—"
"Nix! I guess not!" interrupted the American. "Of course, I know what you mean," he continued, in a low tone; "the ship can't last much longer, and a good few of us are in for a cold swim; but I guess I'll take my chance with the rest of the bathers."
The launching and the dispatch of the collapsibles was now proceeding with frantic haste, for it was no longer possible to conceal the fact that the ship's minutes were numbered, while there were still over a thousand people aboard. But the discipline was perfect, the work was going forward smoothly and with no more bustle than if the passengers were being landed upon a wharf; and if it had not been for the horribly nervous condition of the foreigners all might have been well. But they were in just that state of "nerves" when, as the American had suggested, the smallest scare would act upon them as a spark upon gunpowder; and the scare presently came, in the form of a small explosion—which might have been nothing more than the accidental discharge of a revolver somewhere down in the depths of the ship. Whatever it may have been, it was enough to turn the scale—to upset the state of delicate, unstable equilibrium prevailing, and after a momentary glance around them, the foreigners, nearly three-hundred in number, set up a yell of terror and hurled themselves in a body upon those who were at work upon the boats.
In a flash, Dick, the American, and half a dozen more were swept out through the temporary gangway by the maddened crowd, and, before they fully realised what was happening, found themselves floundering in the water alongside, while others came hurtling down on all sides. Luckily for himself, Dick went down straight—and consequently somewhat deep, and before his descent was checked his presence of mind returned. He pictured to himself exactly what was happening above him, and struck out powerfully under water, so as to escape the shower of falling bodies when he should reach the surface.
The water was bitterly cold, but Dick kept under as long as he could, swimming straight away from the ship; and when at length he rose he saw with satisfaction that he was some ten yards distant from her, and well clear of the struggling mass of men alongside, who were being added to by dozens, even as he watched.
The next moment another head broke water alongside him, and as it did so a voice which Dick instantly recognised ejaculated, amidst a fusillade of coughs and splutterings—
"B-r-r-ur! It's colder'n charity! Darn those Dagos, anyway! It was cold enough up there on the hurricane deck, but here—ugh!"
"You are right," returned Dick. "It is cold, and no mistake. I hope those fellows didn't hurt you in their mad rush."
"Nary a hurt," replied Dick's companion. "So it's you, young man, is it? Good! Say! although it is so tarnation cold down here, I guess we're better off than the people up there on deck. For now we'll have a chance to get clear of the ship before she sinks, if we hustle a bit. See that star over there? I guess we'd better make a bee line for it and swim for all we're worth; then, if we're lucky we may escape being dragged down in the vortex; and perhaps we may find a boat to hang on to until something comes along and picks us up."
Dick agreeing, the pair struck out strongly in the direction of the star. But, as they swam, their ears were assailed by a veritable pandemonium of sound aboard the sinking steamer—shouts, yells, screams, and a regular fusillade of pistol shots, bearing eloquent evidence of the terrible scenes that were enacting aboard her.
As the two swimmers proceeded the mingled sounds aboard the Everest seemed to swell rather than diminish, to such an extent indeed that presently the American turned to Dick and gasped, through chattering teeth—
"S-s-say! s-s-seems to m-me that there's a r-reg-ular pitched b-a-attle going on aboard there—ugh! G-g-guess w-we're b-b-better off here th-th-than there—eh?"
"R-r-rather!" stammered Dick back, but he was suffering so intensely from the icy nip of the water that he felt no disposition to talk, and simply pushed ahead for all he was worth, hoping that by dint of violent exertion he might be able to conquer the numbing sensation that was gradually clogging his movements.
For another ten minutes the pair pressed forward side by side. Then suddenly Dick's companion ceased his exertions, and, with a groan, turned over on his back. He managed to stammer a question whether there were any boats at hand; and upon Dick replying in the negative the American gasped:
"Then I'm d-d-done. C-cramp all over. C-can't s-swim 'nother s-stroke. G-good-bye!"
"Good-bye be hanged!" shouted Dick, stirred to new life by his companion's extremity. "Just y-you lie as y-you are—I'll l-l-look after you."
And flinging himself on his back, Cavendish gripped the other man firmly by the collar, and, kicking out vigorously, towed him along. Some five minutes later the youngster became conscious of a sudden and very decided fall in the temperature of the water, and looking about in search of the cause, found himself within a few yards of a large cake of field ice. There, at all events, was a refuge of a sort—something that would serve the purpose of a raft, and with a few vigorous strokes he was alongside it. It was a great slab of field ice, its flat upper surface not more than six inches above water; and after a tremendous struggle Dick not only got upon the slab himself but also contrived to drag his companion up also. Their combined weight seemed to have very little effect upon the stability of the mass, merely depressing the adjacent edge perhaps a couple of inches; and, this fact ascertained, Dick lost no time, but set to work upon the body of the insensible American, pounding, rubbing, and rolling it with such vigour that not only did he at length feel the chill departing from his own limbs but also felt his companion stir and heard him groan.
"Feel better?" demanded Dick. Then, without waiting for a reply, he added: "If you can only manage to get to your feet and walk about a bit, we'll soon restore our circulation. Let me give you a lift."
"Wait," gasped the American. "Breast pocket—br-r-randy flask. Take nip and give me one."
The brandy flask was found, and after applying it to the lips of its owner, Dick took a mouthful himself before replacing the top. The effect of the spirit upon their chilled bodies was almost miraculous, a wave of warmth surged through them, and presently the American was on his feet, and, with Dick's arm linked in his, was staggering to and fro upon the surface of the ice. As the stiffness and cramp worked out of their limbs they were able to increase their pace, until within a few minutes they were trotting to and fro across the mass and feeling almost warm once more.
Meanwhile, although the sounds of conflict and confusion aboard the Everest still floated to the pair, horribly suggesting the awful scenes that were being enacted on her deck, the ship herself had settled so deeply in the water that only the lights in the cabins of the promenade deck and the clusters illuminating the boat deck now marked her whereabouts, and it soon became apparent that the end was very near. As a matter of fact it was even nearer than the occupants of the floe imagined, for as with one accord they paused to glance at the ship in response to an exceptionally strident outburst of sound, they beheld the line of lights suddenly incline from the horizontal, saw the slope grow steadily steeper, and then, as the great mass of the vessel's stern hove up, an indistinct blur of deeper blackness on the darkness of the night, the line of lights slid forward and vanished one after another until all had disappeared, while at the same moment a heartrending wail from hundreds of throats pealed out across the water, punctuated by a crackling volley of pistol shots.
"Gone!" ejaculated Dick's companion—and the ejaculation was almost a groan. "The unsinkable Everest, that triumph of human ingenuity which was finally to insure travellers against every peril of the sea, is gone, sent to the bottom by a chunk of ice so small that, we may assume, the look-outs never saw it until it was too late. And with her she has taken, I suppose, the best part of a thousand people—of whom you and I, my friend, might have been two, if those tarnation cowardly Dagos had not knocked us overboard, for which I am obliged to them, although I wasn't by a long chalk, a quarter of an hour ago. Now I guess we're just as well off here as those people are in the boats; better, maybe, for we can at least move about and keep ourselves warm here, whereas— say! What's that? See, over there! Isn't it a rocket?"
As Dick looked in the direction toward which his companion pointed, he caught a momentary glimpse of a sudden faint irradiation in the sky, followed by the appearance of a minute cluster of tiny falling stars.
"Yes," he replied, "that's a rocket all right; and it means that the Bolivia or one of the other ships is coming up, and is firing rockets to let us know that help is at hand. But whatever she is, she is a long way off yet, and probably will not arrive for the next half-hour at least. So let me recommend another sprint or two across the ice just to keep the blood moving in our veins."
"Correct again," returned the American, as they started off at a brisk walk. "But—say!" he continued, turning to Dick and extending his hand, "we've been so darned busy getting ourselves warm that I haven't yet found time to thank you for saving my life. But I'll do it now—"
"Saving your life?" ejaculated Dick. "I don't think I understand."
"Oh yes, I guess you do," answered the American. "Or, if you don't, I calculate I can easily enlighten you. You saved my life, young man, when you took me in tow out there and navigated me to this desirable ice floe, and don't you forget it. You may bet your bottom dollar that I shall not, and there's my hand upon it, stranger. Now, let me introduce myself. I know who you are all right; you're Mr Cavendish, late fifth officer of the unsinkable steamship Everest, very recently gone to the bottom. Isn't that right?"
Dick acknowledged the truth of his companion's statement, whereupon the latter resumed.
"Very good," he said. "Now, I suppose you've never heard of Wilfrid Earle, of New York, the man who undertook to hunt his way from Cairo to the Cape—"
"Oh! but of course I have," interrupted Dick. "I've read about you in the papers—and, come to think of it, I've seen your photograph also in the papers. Somehow your face seemed familiar when I noticed you a while ago on the boat deck—"
"Sure!" cut in the other. "That's me—Wilfrid Earle, the eccentric New Yorker, all right, all right. Only arrived home from Cape Town little more than a fortnight ago, with a whole caravan load of skins, horns, tusks, and so on; and now I guess they're about half a mile down, in the hull of the Everest. Gee! Guess you're thinking me a heartless brute for talking so lightly about the awful thing that's just happened; but, man, I've got to do it—or else go clean crazy with thinking about it. Or, better still, not think about it at all, since thinking about it won't mend matters the least little bit. Say! what are all those little lights dotted about over there?"
"Oh!" answered Dick, "they are the lights of the Everest's boats. Each boat was provided with a lantern, in order that they might keep together, and be the more easily found when the rescuing ships come up."
"Ah!" returned Earle. "A very excellent arrangement. But say! what about us? We have no lantern. How are we going to make our whereabouts known? Those boats are a good mile away, and—"
"I don't think we need worry very greatly about that," answered Dick. "Naturally, the Bolivia—or whatever the coming craft may be—will pick up the people in the boats directly she arrives; but she'll lower her own boats, too, and send them away to search the sea in the immediate neighbourhood for people who may be floating about in lifebuoys or cork jackets. There must be quite a number of them at no great distance from us—though how long they are likely to survive, drifting about in the ice-cold water, I should not like to say. But I think we may take it for granted that, once they have arrived, the rescuing ships will not quit the scene of the disaster until they have made quite sure that they have got all the survivors. They will wait about until daylight comes, without a shadow of doubt."
"Good! it is comforting to hear you say that," returned Earle. "You see, I don't know much about the sea and sailor ways, and it occurred to me that those rescuing ships might take it for granted that when they had recovered the people from the boats, they would have done all that was possible—and quit. Gee! but it's cold here on this ice. Lucky that there's no wind, or we should be frozen stiff in half an hour. We'll have another nip of brandy each; it'll do us both good. Lucky thing, too, that I had the sense to fill the flask and slip it into my pocket when I knew what had happened to the ship. I sort of foresaw some such experience as this, and concluded that a drop of brandy might be a good thing to have about one's person."
They had their nip and felt all the better for it; but it was necessary for them to keep moving briskly in order to combat the numbing chill of their wet clothes, and they resumed their pacing to and fro across their narrow block of ice.
For a time their conversation was of a desultory and fragmentary character, for they were both intently watching the progress of the approaching steamer, which continued to send up rockets until the glow of the flames from her funnels became clearly visible. Then the display of rockets suddenly ceased, no doubt because—as Dick surmised—the lights of the boats had been sighted by the eager look-outs aboard her. Then her mast-head light came into view, followed, a little later, by her port and starboard side lights; and at length the dark, scarcely discernible blotch that represented her hull lengthened out suddenly, revealing a long triple tier of brightly gleaming ports; and a few seconds later the roar of steam escaping as her engines stopped, reached the two watchers on the ice.
"Hurrah!" shouted Dick, "she is among the boats at last and doubtless picking them up. Now we must keep our ears open listening for the sound of oars, or hailing, for I'll bet that the skipper will have had his boats swung out ready for lowering, and their crews standing by, long ago."
But nearly half an hour elapsed before the welcome sound of oars working in rowlocks faintly reached their ears, followed quickly by the shrill note of an officer's whistle.
"At last!" breathed Dick, in tones of profound relief. "Now is our chance, Mr Earle. We will shout together: 'Boat ahoy!' Take the time from me. Now—one, two, three, Boat ahoy-y-oy!"
The long drawn out "ahoy" had scarcely died on their lips before it was answered by an equally long blast from the whistle, to which they responded by repeating the hail at brief intervals, each answering blast of the whistle telling them that the boat was drawing nearer, until at length the faint loom of the boat showed in the darkness, and a lantern was suddenly held high above a man's head. Then they heard a voice exclaim:
"There they are, sir—two of 'em—on that block of ice!" And a minute later they were being carefully helped into the stern sheets of the boat, which was already floating deep with a load of motionless forms enwrapped in cork jackets. Whether they were living or dead it was impossible just then to say.
"Any more on the ice?" demanded the officer in charge of the boat. Then, following Dick's reply in the negative, he continued: "Right! shove off, bow! pull port! Give way all! Now it's us for the ship. Put your backs into it, lads. A minute or two may make all the difference between life and death for some of these poor chaps that we've fished up. Here, have a sip of brandy, you two. You must be frozen pretty nearly stiff."
"No brandy, thanks—unless my friend here—Mr Cavendish, fifth officer of the Everest—would care to have another nip. But we've already had some—filled a flask and slipped it into my pocket when I realised that the ship was going to sink—and I guess it saved our lives."
Upon Dick also declining "another nip" the officer in charge held out his hand.
"Glad to make your acquaintance, Mr Cavendish, and to have picked you up. My name is Urquhart—'chief' of the Bolivia. By the way, since we got your S.O.S. and learned particulars of the smash-up, we've all been wondering how the mischief you managed to pile up your ship on a berg, after our warning of this afternoon. Was it thick at the time, or—how was it?"
"Your warning!" exclaimed Dick. "Did you warn us, then? If so, it is the first that I've heard of it."
"Oh! we warned you all right," answered Urquhart, "and got your acceptance of the message."
"The dickens!" ejaculated Dick. "That's very queer. Nobody said a word to me of any warning having been received. Yet—no, I cannot understand it. Mr Brown, our 'chief,' you know, and some seven or eight more were down in the ward-room when we hit the berg, and he seemed as much astonished as any of us. If he had heard anything about it, I think he would certainly have passed the word round, but—he didn't."
"Ah!" remarked the Bolivia's chief, with deep meaning. "Were you by any chance trying to break the record?"
"Well," answered Dick, "I believe the skipper had some such idea in his mind. You see we've had the most perfect weather all the way; little or no wind, and water like glass; the ship reeling off her twenty-six-and-a-half knots as steadily as clockwork, and everything going beautifully. I certainly did get a hint that Captain Prowse would like to set up a new record—"
"Exactly!" concurred Urquhart, dryly. "That, to my mind, explains everything. Your skipper got our warning—and simply suppressed it. He was out after a new record, and was willing to 'take a chance,' as the Americans say. And here is the result—a brand-new ship gone to the bottom, and, I suppose, hundreds of lives lost. How many did you muster, all told?"
"I couldn't say, exactly," answered Dick, "but probably not far short of three thousand."
"Yes; there you are!" commented Urquhart. "Three thousand; and boats for only about half of 'em. What became of your skipper? Went down with his ship, I expect."
"I'm afraid so," answered Dick. "In fact, I should not be very greatly surprised if it should prove that I am the only surviving officer."
"That so? And how did you manage to escape?" demanded Urquhart.
Whereupon Dick launched forth into the full story of the disaster. But before he had nearly finished, the boat arrived alongside the Bolivia, and her freight, whether living or dead, was quickly passed up on deck to the waiting doctor, who quickly distributed the units here and there about the ship, while the boat departed upon a further quest.
Dick and Earle, being both very little the worse for their adventure, were first taken below and given a hot bath; then they were led to a vacant passenger cabin, packed in hot blankets, and given a certain nauseous draught which quickly threw them into a profuse perspiration and a deep sleep, from which they emerged, some hours later, not a penny the worse for their adventure.
EARLE'S PROPOSITION TO DICK CAVENDISH.
It was the rays of the newly risen sun shining in through the open port that awakened Dick Cavendish on the morning following his great adventure. He was occupying the upper bunk in the cabin, and the first sound to greet his ears was the deep, regular breathing of the still sleeping Earle in the bunk beneath. Dick, being a sailor, awoke with all his senses completely about him; the occurrences of the previous night came back to his memory in a flash, and even before he opened his eyes he was fully aware that he was in the top berth of one of the Bolivia's cabins, and that it was the companion of his adventure who was in the bunk beneath him.
The next thing of which he was aware was the perfect stillness of the ship, the complete absence of that peculiar tremor due to the throb of the engines and the beat of the propellers when a ship is under way; and the thought that the Bolivia was still "standing by" caused him to open his eyes, rise up in his bunk, and peer through the open port at his elbow. The picture which then presented itself to his gaze was that of a brilliant morning, with a sky of turquoise blue faintly streaked here and there with the merest suggestion of a few mares' tails, a sea of sapphire blue wrinkling and sparkling under the softest imaginable breathing of a westerly air of wind, the horizon obscured by a thin veil of haze that seemed to be already melting in the warmth of the sun, a great two-funnelled steamer lying motionless about a mile away, with a film of smoke issuing from her funnels and "feathers" of steam trembling at the top of her waste pipes, a whole flotilla of boats pulling slowly and apparently aimlessly hither and thither, and a few masses of ice of varying dimensions, from small fragments of a square foot in area to a great berg fully sixty feet high, thinly dotting the surface of the sea.
Presently there came to Dick's ear the sound of a quietly spoken order out on deck, followed by a subdued stir, accompanied by certain sounds which the youngster's experience told him was the prelude to the matutinal rite of scrubbing the decks, succeeded a few minutes later by the gush and splash of water and the sound of scrubbing brushes vigorously applied. Then the cabin door opened, and a steward entered bearing on a tray two cups of steaming coffee and a plate of buttered biscuits.
"Mornin', sir—mornin', gen'lemen both," remarked this functionary as a stir in the bottom berth announced that his entry had awakened its occupant. "Hope you've both slep' well and ain't feelin' none the worse for last night's happenin's."
"Good morning, steward," answered Dick. "Thank you. Answering for myself, I slept like a top, and am feeling A1 this morning. I see that we have not moved during the night, and that the boats are still out. What ship is that out there on our port beam?"
"That's the Platonic, sir. Arrived 'bout three hours ago. And the Cotopaxi—belongin' to your own company—and the Nigerian, they're lyin' about half a mile off to starboard of us. They comed up pretty near together, 'bout two hours ago, and all of 'em lowered their boats straight away. Don't know exactly what luck they've had. They've picked up a good many, I b'lieve, but I'm afraid very few of em'll be alive after floatin' about so many hours in the cold. Clothes genle'men? Yes, certainly. They're in the dryin' room. I dessay they're quite dry by this time. I'll fetch 'em for ye in a brace of shakes."
"How are the others getting on, steward?" demanded Earle. "You picked up everybody from the boats, I suppose? What with them and your regular passengers, the ship must be like a rabbit warren!"
"So she is, sir," grinned the steward. "They're scattered about all over her. We make up shake-downs for 'em wherever we could find a blessed inch of space. They're in the smoke-room, the ladies' boodwor, the lib'ry, the drorin'-room, dinin' saloon, the officers' quarters, and—why, some of the men is even down in the stokeholds. Oh yes, we took 'em all aboard, of course. But I expect we shall thin 'em out a good bit presently. Ye see they was all bound for Noo York, and the Platonic and Nigerian are both goin' there, so I expect they'll take the bulk of 'em between 'em. And if there's any as wants to go back home, the Cotopaxi and us'll take 'em. I haven't heard how they're feelin' after their spell in the boats, but I reckon they're all right. That wasn't no very great hardship for 'em, exceptin' for the kiddies. They was a bit frightened, naterally. And now, if you'll excuse me, gen'lemen, I'll go and get your clothes, for there'll be a lot to do presen'ly."
There was. For after the entire area of the surrounding sea had been carefully swept by the boats until it was ascertained that no more living or dead were to be found, there came the task of providing breakfast for everybody, in itself a task of no small magnitude under the circumstances. And while the meal was in progress, the officers of the Bolivia were going round among the rescued people, carefully noting the names of the survivors for transmission to England and America by wireless. Then followed the gruesome task of identifying such of the dead as had been found; after which came the separation of those who wished to go on to New York from those who wished to return to England, this in turn being followed by the trans-shipment of the rescued in accordance with the arrangement come to by a council composed of the captains of the rescuing ships.
As for Dick, it scarcely needed the interview which he had with Captain Wilson, of the Cotopaxi, to decide him to return to England in that ship. It was, indeed, the only thing for him to do; he had no business in New York; while, on the other hand, there would, of course, be a judicial inquiry into the circumstances connected with the loss of the Everest, at which his presence, as the sole surviving officer of the ship, would be imperatively required. He communicated his decision to Earle immediately that the question was raised, and was surprised, and not a little pleased, when the American announced his intention to also return to England.
"You see," the latter explained, "my only, or at least my principal, reason for going to New York fizzled out when the Everest took my collection of hunting trophies with her to the bottom of the Atlantic. If I went on to New York there would be nothing for me to do, while I have a scheme in my head that can be worked out in Europe as well as, or better than, in New York. Besides, to be quite frank with you, Cavendish, I've taken a very strong liking for you altogether, apart from the fact that you saved my life, and I guess I don't want to lose sight of you. And I'll tell you why. If this scheme of mine—which I have had in my mind for a long time—should eventuate, as I guess it will, I shall want you to take a hand in it. You are exactly the sort of young fellow that I have been looking for, and I guess I can make it quite worth your while to chip in with me. But I won't say any more about it just now—there will be plenty of time to talk matters over later on. Now let us go ahead and get aboard the Cotopaxi."
It was well on toward noon of that day before all the arrangements made were completed, and the several ships proceeded towards their respective destinations. But long before that the wireless operators had been busily engaged in transmitting the intelligence of the disaster to the two hemispheres; and by the time that the ships were dipping their ensigns to each other in farewell the newsboys of Europe and America were charging through the streets of hundreds of cities and towns, yelling in a dozen different languages, "Spechul edition! Wreck of the Everest! Fearful loss of life! Full partic'lars and list of the saved! Spechul!"
It was not until the Fastnet lighthouse showed above the horizon on the Cotopaxi's port bow that Earle reverted to the topic of his "scheme," although there had been ample opportunity for him to do so during the eastward run, he having privately so arranged matters with the purser that he and Cavendish were berthed in the same cabin during the voyage. But for reasons best known to himself he had devoted the opportunity thus afforded him to elicit as much as he possibly could of Dick's previous history; and Dick, open and candid as the day, and with nothing to conceal, had told a great deal more than perhaps some people would have considered quite prudent; so that when the Fastnet hove in sight, Earle knew practically all that there was to know about Dick, including even the fact that the latter had a sister, who, Earle gathered, from a number of cursory and incidental remarks, must be a girl very well worth knowing.
On this particular morning, however, when, after breakfast, the pair snugly ensconced themselves in a couple of deck chairs on the boat deck, which just then happened to be clear of other occupants than themselves, Earle suddenly broke ground with:
"Say! Cavendish, have you ever heard of the city of Manoa?"
"The City of Manoa!" repeated Dick. "Is she a steamer, or a sailing ship? I know the City of Paris, of course, and the—"
"No, no," interrupted Earle with a laugh. "Can't you get ships out of your head anyway? I'm not talking now about a ship, but about a genuine sure-'nough city, the Golden City of Manoa, to be precise. Ever heard of it?"
"Can't say I have," returned Dick, "excepting, of course, the fabled city of that name, supposed to be ruled over by a certain El Dorado, who was so enormously rich that he used to gild himself—"
"Exactly," agreed Earle. "That's the guy. And it is his city that I am trying to talk to you about. You—in common with almost everybody else—speak of it as the 'fabled' city, because, although it has been much talked about and eagerly sought, the fact that it was actually found has never been conclusively demonstrated. The story of its existence originated of course with those old Spanish conquistadors who, under that king of freebooters, Pizarro, conquered the Incas, and thereby amassed incalculable wealth. You have, of course, heard the story of his treacherous capture of the Inca Atahualpa, and of how the latter, having noticed the Spaniard's greed of gold, offered to ransom himself by filling with gold to as high as a man could reach, the room in which he was confined. That offer it was that seems to have fully opened the eyes of Pizarro and his followers to the enormous potential wealth of the country; and when, through their treacherous murder of Atahualpa, they had to a considerable extent cut off from themselves the supply of further enormous contributions, they naturally began to hunt about for the source of the wealth that had already fallen into their hands.
"It was through the inquiries thus instituted that the story of El Dorado and his golden city first came to their ears. They were told that far away in the north there lived a people called the Chibchas, a people as civilised as, and far more wealthy than, the Incas. They were given to understand that the Chibcha country abounded not only in gold but also in gems, especially emeralds, and in illustration of the bounteousness of this wealth certain customs of the Chibchas were described. The particular custom which gave rise to the legend of El Dorado was that which was observed on the occasion of the accession of a new monarch to the throne; and it was carried out somewhat after this fashion:—
"The proceedings began with elaborate religious ceremonies, including a long and rigorous fast, which was observed by the entire nation. This period of penance over, the inhabitants proceeded to the shores of Lake Guatabita, where, upon the day arranged for his coronation, the new ruler was brought forth from his place of penance, and, escorted by the priests, was led down through the assembled multitude to the margin of the lake, where the priests first smeared his body from head to foot with a certain sticky kind of earth, powdered him all over with gold dust, and then dressed him in his coronation robes, which were stiff with golden decorations and gems. This done, the new monarch entered a vessel loaded with costly ornaments of gold, emeralds, and other precious stones, where he was received by the four most important caciques, who were also clad in their most gorgeous dress, and the craft was forthwith rowed out toward the middle of the lake. Arrived here, the freight of gold and precious stones was solemnly thrown overboard as an offering to the gods who were supposed to inhabit the depths of the lake, the people ashore meanwhile celebrating the sacrifice by dancing to the accompaniment of musical instruments until the monarch returned to the shore.
"Guatabita was a sacred lake, and was the recognised receptacle for votive offerings of enormous value upon every possible occasion, and it must therefore at this day contain wealth beyond the dreams of avarice, several attempts to secure which have already been made; and it was on the shore of this lake that the golden city of Manoa was at first supposed to be situated.
"Of course, we know now that such was not the case, for the lake has been often visited, and no traces of the city have been found; but Guatabita was the original objective of the seekers of El Dorado.
"When at length it was conclusively demonstrated that Manoa was not situated upon the shore of Lake Guatabita, its existence began to be doubted for a while; but the belief, and the desire to discover it, were revived somewhere about the middle of the 16th century by a circumstantial story related by one Martinez, a lieutenant of Diego de Ordaz, who declared that, having been shipwrecked, he was taken inland to the city—which he called Omoa—and there entertained in regal fashion by El Dorado himself. So circumstantial and full of gorgeous detail was his story, that his chief Ordaz himself undertook the quest; but the search resulted only in disappointment, as did that of many others, including your own Sir Walter Raleigh.
"Now, the mistake made by all those people was, to my mind, that they did not look for Manoa in the right place. Their very eagerness misled them. So hungry were they for wealth that any old story was good enough to start them off upon a wild goose chase. I am not hungry for wealth; I have more of it than, with my moderate desires, I know what to do with. I am not a multi-millionaire, but I have quite enough to enable me to gratify all my cravings, of which the predominant ones are exploration and hunting. I also have a hankering to ferret out secrets; and the secret, which has haunted me for years is that connected with the city of Manoa. Did or did it not exist? That is what I want to find out. For years I have been digging and delving after every scrap of information that I could possibly get track of upon the subject; and you would be surprised if you could see what a mass I have accumulated. But it was not until about a fortnight ago that, in your British Museum, I unearthed a certain manuscript which furnished me with the one definite and decisive clue I wanted. I won't bore you with details, but will just mention that with the help of this clue I have been able to worry out the situation of the much sought city within a hundred miles or so; and I have come to the definite conclusion that it lies within the territory of Peru, on the eastern slope of the Andes. And, having told you that much, I suppose you will not be greatly surprised to learn that I have determined to seek for it; for by so doing I shall be able at one and the same time to gratify my state for exploration and my love of hunting.