[Frontispiece: Hosier tightened a protecting arm around her waist]
THE STOWAWAY GIRL
THE WINGS OF THE MORNING, SON OF THE IMMORTALS, CYNTHIA'S CHAUFFEUR, THE MESSAGE, THE SILENT BARRIER, ETC.
GROSSET & DUNLAP
Copyright, 1909, 1912,
By EDWARD J. CLODE
I. THE "ANDROMEDA" II. WHEREIN THE "ANDROMEDA" BEGINS HER VOYAGE III. WHEREIN THE "ANDROMEDA" NEARS THE END OF HER VOYAGE IV. SHOWING WHAT BECAME OF THE "ANDROMEDA" V. THE REFUGEES VI. BETWEEN THE BRAZILIAN DEVIL AND THE DEEP ATLANTIC VII. CROSS PURPOSES VIII. THE RIGOR OF THE GAME IX. WHEREIN CERTAIN PEOPLE MEET UNEXPECTEDLY X. ON THE HIGH SEAS XI. A LIVELY MORNING IN EXCHANGE BUILDINGS XII. THE LURE OF GOLD XIII. THE NEW ERA XIV. CARMELA XV. SHOWING HOW BRAZIL CHOSE HER PRESIDENT XVI. WHEREIN THE PRESIDENT PRESIDES
Hosier tightened a protective arm around her waist . . . Frontispiece
"Is that the Southern Cross?"
"How did I come here?"
"Well, gimme your 'and on it"
A withering volley crashed through the window
"Marry Mr. Bulmer! That horrid old man! Uncle, what are you saying?"
The girl sprang to her feet as if she were some timid creature of the wild aroused from sylvan broodings by knowledge of imminent danger. In her terror, she upset the three wineglasses that formed part of the display beside each couvert on the luncheon table. One, rose-tinted and ornate, crashed to the floor, and the noise seemed to irritate the owner of Linden House more than his niece's shrill terror.
"No need to bust up our best set of 'ock glasses just because I 'appen to mention owd Dickey Bulmer," he growled.
The color startled so suddenly out of the girl's face began to return. Her eyes lost their dilation of fear. Somehow, the comment on the broken glass seemed to deprive "owd Dickey Bulmer's" personality of its real menace.
"I'm sorry," she said, and stooped to pick up the fragments scattered over the carpet.
"Leave that alone," came the sharp order. "So long as I've the brass to pay for 'em, there's plenty more where that kem from, an' in any case, it's the 'ousemaid's job. Leave it alone, I tell you! An' sit down. It's 'igh time you an' me 'ad a straight talk, an' I can't do wi' folk bouncin' about like an injia-rubber ball when I've got things to say to 'em."
He stretched a fat hand toward a mahogany cigar-box, affected to choose a cigar with deliberative crackling, hacked at the selection with a fruit knife, and dropped the severed end into an unused finger-bowl; then he struck a match, and puffed furiously until a rim of white ash tipped the brown. This achieved, he helped himself to the port. Though he carefully avoided glancing at his companion, he knew quite well that she had drawn a chair to the opposite end of the table, and was looking at him intently; her chin was propped on her clenched hands; the skin on her white forehead was puckered into nervous lines; her lips, pressed close, had lost their Cupid's bow that seemed ever ready to bend into a smile. Meanwhile, the man who had caused these signs of distress gulped down some of the wine, held the glass up to the light as a tribute to the excellence of its contents, darted his tongue several times in and out between his teeth, smacked his lips, replaced the cigar in his mouth, and leaned back in his chair until it creaked.
Iris Yorke was accustomed to this ritual; she gave it the unobservant tolerance good breeding extends to the commonplace. But to-day, for the first time during the two years that had sped so happily since she came back to Linden House from a Brussels pension, she found herself, even in her present trouble, wondering how it was possible that David Verity could be her mother's brother. This coarse-mannered hog of a man, brother to the sweet-voiced, tender-hearted gentlewoman whose gracious wraith was left undimmed in the girl's memory by the lapse of years—it would be unbelievable if it were not true! He was so gross, so tubby, so manifestly over-fed, whereas her mother had ever been elegant and bien soignee. But he had shown kindness to her in his domineering way. He was not quite so illiterate as his accent and his general air of uncouthness seemed to imply. In his speech, the broad vowels of the Lancashire dialect were grafted on to the clipped staccato of a Cockney. He would scoff at anyone who told him that knives and forks had precise uses, or that table-napkins were not meant to be tucked under the chin. In England, especially in the provinces, some men of affairs cultivate these minor defects, deeming them tokens of bluff honesty, the hall-marks of the self-made; and David Verity thought, perhaps, that his pretty, well-spoken niece might be trusted to maintain the social level of his household without any special effort on his part.
Shocked, almost, at the disloyalty of her thoughts, Iris tried to close the rift that had opened so unexpectedly.
"It was stupid of me to take you seriously," she said. "You cannot really mean that Mr. Bulmer wishes to marry me?"
Verity screwed up his features into an amiable grin. He pressed the tips of his fingers together until the joints bent backward. When he spoke, the cigar waggled with each syllable.
"I meant it right enough, my lass," he said.
"But, uncle dear——"
"Stop a bit. Listen to me first, an' say your say when I've finished. Like everybody else, you think I'm a rich man. David Verity, Esquire, ship-owner, of Linden House an' Exchange Buildings—it looks all right, don't it—like one of them furrin apples with rosy peel an' a maggot inside. You're the first I've told about the maggot. Fact is, I'm broke. Ship-ownin' is rotten nowadays, unless you've lots of capital. I've lost mine. Unless I get help, an' a thumpin' big slice of it, my name figures in the Gazette. I want fifty thousand pounds, an' oo's goin' to give it to me? Not the public. They're fed up on shippin'. They're not so silly as they used to be. I put it to owd Dickey yesterday, an' 'e said you couldn't raise money in Liverpool to-day to build a ferry-boat. But 'e said summat else. If you wed 'im, 'e makes you a partner in the firm of Verity, Bulmer an' Co. See? Wot's wrong with that? I've done everything for you up to date; now it's your turn. Simple, isn't it? P'raps I ought to have explained things differently, but it didn't occur to me you'd hobject to bein' the wife of a millionaire, even if 'e is a doddrin' owd idiot to talk of marryin' agin."
With a wail of despair, the girl sank back and covered her face with her hands. Now that she believed the incredible, she could utter no protest. The sacrifice demanded was too great. In that bitter moment she would have welcomed poverty, prayed even for death, as the alternative to marriage with the man to whom she was being sold.
Verity leaned over the table again and finished the glass of port. This time there was no lip-smacking, or other aping of the connoisseur. He was angry, almost alarmed. Resistance, even of this passive sort, raised the savage in him. Hitherto, Iris had been ready to obey his slightest whim.
"There's no use cryin' 'Oh, uncle,' an' kicking up a fuss," he snapped viciously. "Where would you 'ave bin, I'd like to know, if it wasn't for me? In the gutter—that's where your precious fool of a father left your mother an' you. You're the best dressed, an' best lookin', an' best eddicated girl i' Bootle to-day—thanks to me. When your mother kem 'ere ten year ago, an' said her lit'rary gent of a 'usband was dead, neither of you 'ad 'ad a square meal for weeks—remember that, will you? It isn't my fault you've got to marry Bulmer. It's just a bit of infernal bad luck—the same for both of us, if it comes to that. An' why shouldn't you 'ave some of the sours after I've given you all the sweets? You'll 'ave money to burn; I'm not axin' you to give up some nice young feller for 'im. If you play your cards well, you can 'ave all the fun you want——"
The girl staggered to her feet. She could endure the man's coarseness but not his innuendoes.
"I will do what you ask," she murmured, though there was a pitiful quivering at the corners of her mouth that bespoke an agony beyond the relief of tears. "But please don't say any more, and never again allude to my dear father in that way, or I may—I may forget what I owe you."
She was unconscious of the contempt in her eyes, the scornful ring in her voice, and Verity had the good sense to restrain the wrath that bubbled up in him until the door closed, and he was alone. He grabbed the decanter and refilled his glass.
"Nice thing!" he growled. "I offer 'er a fortune an' a bald-'eaded owd devil for a 'usband, 'oo ought to die in a year or two an' leave 'er everything; yet she ain't satisfied. D—n 'er eyes, if I'd keep 'er as scullery-maid she'd 'ave different notions."
With the taste of the wine, however, came the consoling reflection that Iris as a scullery-maid might not tickle the fancy of the dotard who had undertaken to provide fifty thousand pounds for the new partnership. And she had promised—that was everything. His lack of diplomacy was obvious even to himself, but he had won where a man of finer temperament might have failed. Now, he must rush the wedding. Dickey Bulmer's Lancashire canniness might stipulate for cash on delivery as the essence of the marriage contract. Not a penny would the old miser part with until he was sure of the girl.
So David Verity, having much to occupy his mind, lingered over the second glass of port, for this was a Sunday dinner, served at mid-day. At last he closed his eyes for his customary nap; but sleep was not to be wooed just then; instead of dozing, he felt exceedingly wide awake. Indeed, certain disquieting calculations were running through his brain, and he yielded forthwith to their insistence. Taking a small notebook from his pocket, he jotted down an array of figures. He was so absorbed in their analysis that he did not see Iris walk listlessly across the lawn that spread its summer greenery in front of the dining-room windows. And that was an ill thing for David. The sight of the girl at that instant meant a great deal to him.
He did happen to look out, a second too late.
Even then, he might have caught a glimpse of Iris's pink muslin skirt disappearing behind a clump of rhododendrons, were not his shifty eyes screwed up in calculation—or perchance, the gods blinded him in behalf of one who was named after Juno's bright messenger.
"Yes, that's it," he was thinking. "I must wheedle Dickey into the bank to-morrow. A word from 'im, an' they'll all grovel, d—n 'em!"
The door opened.
"Captain Coke to see you, sir," said a servant.
"Send 'im in; bring 'im in 'ere."
The memorandum book disappeared; Verity's hearty greeting was that of a man who had not a care in the world. His visitor's description was writ large on him by the sea. No one could possibly mistake Captain Coke for any other species of captain than that of master mariner. He was built on the lines of a capstan, short and squat and powerful. Though the weather was hot, he wore a suit of thick navy-blue serge that would have served his needs within the Arctic Circle. It clung tightly to his rounded contours; there was a purple line on his red brows that marked the exceeding tightness of the bowler hat he was carrying; and the shining protuberances on his black boots showed that they were tight, too. It was manifestly out of the question that he should be able to walk any distance. Though he had driven in a cab to the shipowner's house, he was already breathless with exertion, and he rolled so heavily in his gait that his shoulders hit both sides of the doorway while entering the room. Yet he was nimble withal, a man capable of swift and sure movement within a limited area, therein resembling a bull, or a hippopotamus.
The hospitable Verity pushed forward the mahogany box and the decanter.
"Glad to see you, Jimmie, my boy. Sit yourself down. 'Ave a cigar an' a glass o' port. I didn't expect you quite so soon, but you're just as welcome now as later."
Captain Coke placed his hat on top of a malacca cane, and balanced both against the back of a chair.
"I'll take a smoke but no wine, thankee, Mr. Verity," said he. "I kem along now' 'coss I want to be aboard afore it's dark. We're moored in an awkward place."
"Poor owd Andromeeda! Just 'er usual luck, eh, Jimmie?"
"Well, she ain't wot you might call one of fortune's fav'rits, but she's afloat, an' that's more'n you can say for a good many daisy-cutters I've known."
"Some ships are worth less afloat than ashore, an' she's one of 'em," he grinned. "You want a match. 'Ere you are!"
Whether Coke was wishful to deny or admit the Andromeda's shortcomings—even the ship herself might have protested against the horror of a long "e" in the penultimate syllable of her name—the other man's rapid proffer of a light stopped him. He puffed away in silence; there was an awkward pause; for once in his career, Verity regretted his cultivated trick of covering up a significant phrase by quickly adding some comment on a totally different subject. But the sailor smoked on, stolidly heedless of a sudden lapse in the conversation, and the shipowner was compelled to start afresh. He was far too shrewd to go straight back to the topic burked by his own error. His sledge-hammer methods might be crude to the verge of brutality where Iris was concerned, but they were capable of nice adjustment in the case of wary old sea-dogs of the Coke type.
"It's stuffy in 'ere with the two of us smokin'—let's stroll into the garden," he said.
Coke was agreeable. He liked gardens; they were a change from the purple sea.
"It's the on'y bit of green stuff you seem to be fond of, Mr. Verity," he went on. "You keep us crool short of vegetables."
David's little eyes twinkled. Here was another opening; it would not be his fault if it led again up a cul-de-sac. He threw wide the window, and they crossed the lawn.
"Vegetables!" he cried. "Wish I could stock you from my place, an' I'd stuff you with 'em. I can grow 'em 'ere for next to nothing, but they cost a heap o' money in furrin ports, an' your crimson wave-catcher doesn't earn money—she eats it."
"Even that's one better'n her skipper, 'oo doesn't do neether," commented Coke gloomily.
His employer seemed to find much humor in the remark.
"Gad, we both look starved!" he guffawed. "To 'ear us, you'd think we was booked for the workhus or till you ran a tape round the contoor, eh?"
But Coke was not to be cheered.
"I can see as far into a stone wall as 'ere a one an' there a one," he said, "an' there's no use blinkin' the fax. The Andromeda was a good ship in 'er day, but that day is gone. You ought to 'ave sold 'er to the Dutchmen five years ago, Mr. Verity. Times were better then, an' now you'd 'ave a fine steel ship instead of a box of scrap iron."
They were passing the rhododendrons, and Verity's quick eyes noted that a summer-house beneath the shade of two venerable elms was unoccupied. The structure consisted of a rustic roof carried on half a dozen uprights; it had a wooden floor, and held a table and some basket chairs. The roof and supports were laden with climbing roses, a Virginian creeper, and a passion flower. The day being Sunday, there were no gardeners in the adjoining shrubbery or rose garden, and anyone seated in the summer-house could see on all sides.
"Drop anchor in 'ere, Coke," said Verity. "It's cool an' breezy, an' we can 'ave a quiet confab without bein' bothered. Now, I reelly sent for you to-day to tell you I mean to better the supplies this trip—Yes, honest Injun!"—for the Andromeda's skipper had clutched the cigar out of his mouth with the expression of a man who vows to heaven that he cannot believe his ears—"I'm goin' to bung in an extry 'undred to-morrow in the way of stores. Funny, isn't it?"
"Funny! It's a meracle!"
Though not altogether gratified by this whole-hearted agreement with his own views, Verity was too anxious to keep his hearer on the present tack to resent any implied slur on his earlier efforts as a caterer.
"It's nothing to wot I'd do if I could afford it," he added graciously. "But, as you said, let's look at the fax. Wot chance 'as an iron ship, built twenty years ago, at a cost of sixteen pound a ton, ag'in a steel ship of to-day, at seven pound a ton, with twiced the cargo space, an' three feet less draught? W'y no earthly. We're dished every way. We cost more to run; we can't jump 'arf the bars; we can't carry 'arf the stuff; we pay double insurance; an' we're axed to find interest on more'n double the capital. As you say, Jimmie, wot bloomin' chanst 'ave we?"
Coke smoked silently; he had said none of these things, but when the shipowner's glance suddenly dwelt on him, he nodded. Silent acquiescence on his part, however, was not what Verity wanted. He, too, knew when to hold his tongue. After a long interval, during which a robin piped a merry roundelay from the depths of a neighboring pink hawthorn, Coke dug out a question.
"Premium gone up, then?" he inquired.
"She's on a twelve-month rate. It runs out in September. If you're lucky, an' fill up with nitrate soon, you may be 'ome again. If not, I'll 'ave to whack up a special quotation. After that, there'll be no insurance. The Andromeeda goes for wot she'll fetch."
Another pause; then Coke broached a new phase.
"Meanin' that I lose the two thousand pounds I put in 'er to get my berth?" he said huskily.
"An' wot about me? I lose eight times as much. Just think of it! Sixteen thousand pounds would give me a fair balance to go on wi' i' these hard times, an' your two thou' would make the skipper's job in my new ship a certainty."
Coke's brick-red face darkened. He breathed hard.
"Wot new ship?" he demanded.
Verity smiled knowingly.
"It's a secret, Jimmie, but I must stretch a point for a pal's sake. Dickey Bulmer's goin' to marry my niece, an' 'e 'as pledged himself to double the capital of the firm. Now I've let the cat out of the bag. I'm sorry, ole man—pon me soul, I am—but w'en Dickey's name crops up on 'Change you know as well as me 'ow many captain's tickets will be backed wi' t' brass."
This time, if so minded, the robin might have trilled his song adagio con sostenuto without fear of interruption by those harsh voices. Neither man spoke during so long a time that the break seemed to impose a test of endurance; in such a crisis, he who has all at stake will yield rather than he who only stakes a part.
"S'pose we talk plainly as man to man?" said Coke thickly, at last.
"I can't talk much plainer," said Verity.
"Yes, you can. Promise me the command of your next ship, an' the Andromeda goes on the rocks this side o' Monte Video."
Verity jumped as though he had been stung by an infuriated wasp.
"Coke, I'm surprised at you," he grunted, not without a sharp glance around to make sure no other was near.
"No, you ain't, not a bit surprised, on'y you don't like to 'ear it in cold English. That's wot you're drivin' at—the insurance."
"Shut up, you ijjit. Never 'eard such d—d rot in all me born days."
"Listen to it now, then. It's good to 'ave the truth tole you some times. Wot are you afraid of? I take all the risk an' precious little of the money. Write me a letter——"
"Write! Me! Coke, you're loony."
"Not me. Wait till I'm through. Write a letter sayin' you're sorry the Andromeda must be laid up this fall, but promisin' me the next vacancy. 'Ow does that 'urt you?"
Verity's cigar had gone out. He relighted it with due deliberation; it could not be denied that his nerve, at least, was superb.
"I'm willin' to do anything in reason," he said slowly. "I don't see where I can lay 'ands on a better man than you, Jimmie, even if you do talk nonsense at times. You know the South American trade, an' you know me. By gad, I'll do that. Anyhow, it's wot you deserve, but none the less, I'm actin' as a reel friend, now ain't I? Many a man would just lay you up alongside the Andromeeda."
"I'll call at your office in the mornin' for the letter," said Coke, whose red face shone like the setting sun seen through a haze.
"Yes, yes. I'll 'ave it ready."
"An' you won't back out of them extry stores? I must sweeten the crew on this run."
"I'll supply the best of stuff—enough to last for the round trip. But don't make any mistake. You must be back afore September 30th. That's the date of the policy. Now let's trot inside, an' my gal—Mrs. Dickey Bulmer that is to be—will give you some tea."
"Tea!" snorted Coke.
"Well, there's whisky an' soda on tap if you prefer it. It is rather 'ot for tea. Whew! you're boilin'? W'y don't you wear looser clo'es? Look at me—cool as a cucumber. By the way, 'oo's the new man you've shipped as second? Watts is the chief, I know, but 'oo is Mr. Philip Hozier?"
"Youngster fillin' in sea-service to get a ticket an' qualify for the Cunard."
"Thoroughly reliable sort of chap, eh?"
It was odd how these men left unsaid the really vital things. Again it was Coke who tried to fill in some part of the blank space.
"Just the right kind of second for the Andromeda's last cruise," he muttered. "Smart as a new pin. You could trust 'im on the bridge of a battleship. Now, Watts is a good man, but a tot of rum makes 'im fair daft."
"Ah!" purred Verity, "you must keep a tight 'and on Watts. I like an appetizer meself w'en I'm off dooty, so to speak, but it's no joke to 'ave a boozer in charge of a fine ship an' vallyble freight. Of course, you're responsible as master, but you can't be on deck mornin', noon, an' night. Choke Watts off the drink, an' you'll 'ave no trouble. So that's settled. My, but you're fair meltin'—wot is it they say—losin' adipose tisher. Well, come along. Let's lubricate."
* * * * * *
The Andromeda sailed on the Tuesday afternoon's tide. She would drop the pilot off Holyhead, and, with fair weather, such as cheered her departure from the Mersey, daybreak on Thursday would find her pounding through the cross seas where St. George's Channel merges into the wide Atlantic. If she followed the beaten track on her long run to the River Plate—as sailors will persist in miscalling that wondrous Rio de la Plata—she might be signaled from Madeira or the Cape Verde Islands. But shipmasters often prefer to set a course clear of the land till they pick up the coast of South America. If she were not spoken by some passing steamer, there was every possibility that the sturdy old vessel would not be heard of again before reaching her destination.
* * * * * *
But David Verity heard of her much sooner, and no thunderbolt that ever rent the heavens could have startled him more than the manner of that hearing.
Resolving to clinch matters with regard to Iris and her elderly suitor, he invited "Owd Dickey" to supper on Sunday evening. The girl endured the man's presence with a placid dignity that amazed her uncle. On the plea of a headache, she retired at an early hour, leaving Bulmer to gloat over his prospective happiness, and primed to the point of dementia.
He was quite willing to accompany Verity to the bank next morning; a pleasant-spoken manager sighed his relief when the visitors were gone, and he was free to look at the item "bills discounted" on Verity's page in the ledger. More than that, a lawyer was instructed to draw up a partnership deed, and the representatives of various ship-building firms were asked to supply estimates for two new vessels.
Altogether Dickey was complaisant, and David enjoyed a busy and successful day. He dined in town, came home at a late hour, and merely grinned when a servant told him that Mr. Bulmer had called twice but Miss Iris happened to be out on both occasions.
Nevertheless, at breakfast on Tuesday, he warned his niece not to keep her admirer dangling at arm's length.
"E's a queer owd codger," explained the philosopher. "Play up to 'im a bit, an' you'll be able to twist 'im round your little finger. I b'lieve he's goin' dotty, an' you can trust me to see that the marriage settlement is O. K."
"Will you be home to dinner?" was her response.
"No. Now that the firm is in smooth water again I must show myself a bit. It's all thanks to you, lass, an' I'll not forget it. Good-by!"
Iris smiled, and Verity was vastly pleased.
"I am sure you will not forget," she said. "Good-by."
"There's no understandin' wimmin," mused David, as his victoria swept through the gates of Linden House. "Sunday afternoon Dickey might ha' bin a dose of rat poison; now she's ready to swaller 'im as if 'e was a chocolate drop."
Again he returned some few minutes after midnight; again the servant announced Mr. Bulmer's visits, three of them; and again Miss Iris had been absent—in fact, she had not yet come home.
"Not 'ome!" cried David furiously. "W'y it's gone twelve. W'ere the—w'ere is she?"
No one knew. She had quitted the house soon after Verity himself, and had not been seen since. Storm and rage as he might, and did, David could not discover his niece's whereabouts. He spent a wearying and tortured night, a harassed and miserable day, devoted to frantic inquiries in every possible direction with interludes of specious lying to the infatuated Bulmer. But enlightment came on Thursday morning. A letter arrived by the first post. It was from Iris.
"MY DEAR UNCLE," she wrote: "Neither you nor Mr. Bulmer should have any objection to my passing the few remaining weeks of my liberty in the manner best pleasing to myself. On Sunday evening, in your presence, Mr. Bulmer urged me to fix an early date for our marriage. Tell him that I shall marry him when the Andromeda returns to England from South America. You will remember that you promised last year to take me to Rio de Janeiro and Buenos Ayres this summer; I have been learning Spanish so as to help our sight-seeing. Unfortunately, business prevents you from keeping that promise, but there is no reason why I should not go. I am on board the Andromeda, and will probably be able to explain matters satisfactorily to Captain Coke. The vessel is due back at the end of September, I believe, so Mr. Bulmer will not have long to wait. It is more than likely that Captain Coke will not know I am aboard until Thursday, and I have arranged with a friend that this letter shall reach you about the same time. Please convey my apologies to Mr. Bulmer, and accept my regret for any anxiety you may have felt owing to my unaccountable absence.
"Your affectionate niece,
David narrowly escaped an apoplectic seizure. When he recovered his senses he looked ten years older. The instinct of self-preservation alone saved him in his frenzy from blurting forth the tidings of the girl's flight. Incoherent with fear and passion, he contrived to give orders for his carriage, and was driven to his office. Thence he dispatched telegrams to every signaling station in England, Ireland, and Spain, at which by the remotest possibility the Andromeda might be intercepted. He cabled to Madeira and Cape Verde, even to Fernando Noronha and Pernambuco; he sent urgent instructions to the pilotage authorities of the Bristol Channel, the southwest ports, and Lisbon; and the text of every message was: "Andromeda must return to Liverpool instantly."
But the wretched man realized that he was doomed. Fate had struck at him mercilessly. He could only wait in dumb despair, and mutter prayers too long forgotten, and concoct bogus letters from a cousin's address in the south of England for the benefit of Dickey Bulmer.
Never was ship more eagerly sought than the Andromeda, yet never was ship more completely engulfed in the mysterious silence of the great sea. The days passed, and the weeks, yet nothing was heard of her. She figured in the "overdue" list at Lloyd's; sharp-eyed underwriters did "specs" in her; woe-begone women began to haunt the Liverpool office for news of husbands and sons; the love-lorn Dickey wore Verity to a shadow of his former self by alternate pleadings and threats; but the Andromeda remained mute, and the fanciful letters from Iris became fewer and more fragmentary as David's imagination failed, and his excuses grew thinner.
And the odd thing was that if David had only known it, he could have saved himself all this heart-burning and misery by looking through the dining-room window on that Sunday afternoon when his prospects seemed to be so rosy. He never thought of that. He cursed every circumstance and person impartially and fluently, but he omitted from the Satanic litany the one girlish prank of tree-climbing that led Iris to spring out of sight amid the sheltering arms of an elm when her uncle and Captain Coke deemed the summer-house a suitable place for "a plain talk as man to man."
So David learnt what it meant to wait, and listen, and start expectantly when postman's knock or telegraph messenger's imperative summons sounded on door of house or office.
But he waited long in vain. The Andromeda, like her namesake of old, might have been chained to a rock on some mythical island guarded by the father of all sea serpents. As for a new Perseus, well—David knew him not.
WHEREIN THE "ANDROMEDA" BEGINS HER VOYAGE
The second officer of the Andromeda was pacing the bridge with the slow alertness of responsibility. He would walk from port to starboard, glance forrard and aft, peer at the wide crescent of the starlit sea, stroll back to port, and again scan ship and horizon. Sometimes he halted in front of the binnacle lamp to make certain that the man at the wheel was keeping the course, South 15 West, set by Captain Coke shortly before midnight. His ears listened mechanically to the steady pulse-beats of the propeller; his eyes swept the vague plain of the ocean for the sparkling white diamond that would betoken a mast-head light; he was watchful and prepared for any unforeseen emergency that might beset the vessel intrusted to his care. But his mind dwelt on something far removed from his duties, though, to be sure, every poet who ever scribbled four lines of verse has found rhyme and reason in comparing women with stars, and ships, and the sea.
If Philip Hozier was no poet, he was a sailor, and sailors are notoriously susceptible to the charms of the softer sex. But the only woman he loved was his mother, the only bride he could look for during many a year was a mermaid, though these sprites of the deep waters seem to be frequenting undiscovered haunts since mariners ceased to woo the wind. For all that, if perforce he was heart-whole, there was no just cause or impediment why he should not admire a pretty girl when he saw one, and an exceedingly pretty girl had honored him with her company during a brief minute of the previous day.
He was superintending the safe disposal of the last batch of cotton goods in the forward hold—and had just found it necessary to explain the correct principles of stowage with sailor-like fluency—when a young lady, accompanied by a dock laborer carrying a leather portmanteau, spoke to him from the quay.
"Is Captain Coke on board?" said she.
"No, madam," said he, lifting his cap with one hand, and restraining the clanking of a steam windlass with the other.
"I am Mr. Verity's niece, and I wish to send this parcel to Monte Video—may I put it in some place where it will be safe?" said she.
Hoping that the rattling winch had drowned his earlier remarks—which were couched in an lingua franca of the high seas—he began to tell her that it would give him the utmost pleasure to take charge of it on her account, but she nodded, bade the porter follow, ran along a somewhat precarious gangway, and was on deck before he could offer any assistance.
"You are Mr. Hozier, I suppose?" said Iris, gazing with frank brown eyes into his frank blue ones. She, of course, was severely self-possessed; he, as is the way of mere man, grew more confused each instant.
"Well, I will just pop the bag into Captain Coke's stateroom, and leave this note with it. I have explained everything fully. I wrote a line in case he might be absent."
All of which was so strictly accurate that it served its purpose admirably, though the said purpose, it is regrettable to state, was the misleading and utter bamboozling of Philip Hozier. Miss Iris Yorke knew quite well that Captain Coke was then closeted with David Verity in Exchange Buildings; she knew, because she had watched him pass through the big swing doors of her uncle's office. She also knew, having made it her business to find out, that in fifteen minutes, or less, the crew would muster in the fo'c'sle for their mid-day meal. Not having heard a word of Hozier's free speech to the gentlemen of various nationalities at the bottom of the hold, she wondered why he was blushing.
"Shall I show you the way?" asked Philip, finding his tongue.
"No, thank you. I have been on board the Andromeda many times. Ah, Peter, I see you. What is it to-day, scouse or lobscouse?"
"Scouse, miss," said the ship's cook, grinning widely at her recollection of the line drawn by both his patrons and himself between ship's biscuit stewed with fresh meat and the same article flavored with salt junk.
Peter's recognition placed Iris's identity beyond doubt. She said nothing more to Hozier, but tripped up the companionway. Soon he saw her paying the man who had carried the portmanteau. She herself seemed to be in no hurry. She walked to the rails beneath the bridge, and found interest in watching the loading operations, which were resumed as soon as the second officer saw that his services were not wanted. Time was pressing, and a good deal yet remained to be done.
Mr. Watts, the chief officer, who was called ashore by urgent business five minutes after the "old man" left the vessel, chose this awkward moment to appear from behind a bonded warehouse. He was walking with unnatural steadiness, so Hozier made some excuse to meet him and whisper that the owner's niece was on board.
"Sun's zhot," remarked Mr. Watts cheerfully.
"Go and lie down for a spell," suggested Hozier, and Mr. Watts thought it was a "shpiffin' idee." When Hozier was free to glance a second time at the cross rail, Iris had vanished. He was annoyed. Evidently she did not wish to encounter any more of the ship's officers that morning.
The hatches were on, and everything was orderly before Coke's squat figure climbed the gangway. Hozier reported the young lady's visit, and the skipper was obviously surprised. As he hoisted himself up the steep ladder to the hurricane deck, the younger man heard him condemning someone under his breath as "a leery old beggar." The phrase was hardly applicable to Iris, but Coke came out of his cabin with an open letter in his hand, and bade a steward stow the portmeanteau in some other more hallowed and less inconvenient place.
And there the incident ended. The Andromeda hauled down the Blue Peter for her long run of over 6,000 miles to Monte Video, and Hozier had routine work in plenty to occupy his mind during the first twenty-four hours at sea without perplexing it with memories of a pretty face. Soon after Holyhead was passed, it is true, a sailor reported to the second officer that he had seen a ghost between decks, in the region of the lazarette. It was then near midnight, a quiet hour on board ship, and Hozier told the man sharply to go to his bunk and endeavor to sleep off the effects of the bad beer imbibed earlier in the day.
Now, on this second night of the voyage, while the ship was plodding steadily southward with that fifteen point inclination to the west that would bring her far into the Atlantic soon after daybreak, Philip remembered Mr. Verity's niece, and felt sorry that when she paid those former visits to the Andromeda, fate had decreed that he should be serving his time on another vessel. For there was an expression in her eyes that haunted him. Though she addressed him with that absence of restraint which is a heaven-sent attribute of every young woman when circumstances compel her to speak to a strange young man—though her tone to the more favored cook was kindly, and even sprightly—though Philip himself was red and inclined to stammer—despite all these hindrances to clear judgment, he felt that she was troubled in spirit. His acquaintance with women was of the slightest, since a youth who is taught his business on the Conway, and means to attach himself to one of the great Trans-Atlantic shipping lines, has no time to spare for dalliance in boudoirs. But it gave him a thrill when he heard that this charming girl knew his name, and it seemed to him, for an instant, that she was looking into his very soul, analyzing him, searching for some sign that he was not as others, which meant that there were some whom she had bitter cause to distrust. Of course, that was mere day-dreaming, a nebulous fantasy brought by her gracious presence into a medley of hurrying windlasses, strenuous orders, and sulky, panting men.
At any rate, she had left a memento of her too brief appearance on board in the shape of the bag. He would contrive to take on his own shoulders its mission in Monte Video; then, on returning to Liverpool, he would have an excuse for calling on her. He did not know her name yet. Possibly, Captain Coke would mention that interesting fact when his temper lost its raw edge. As a last resource, the cook might enlighten him.
It was strange that he should be thinking of Iris—far stranger than he could guess—but his thoughts were sub-conscious, and he was in no wise neglecting the safety of the ship. The night was clear but dark, the stars blinked with the subdued radiance that betokens fine weather, and ever and anon their reflection glimmered from the long slope of a wave like the glint of spangles on a dress. But it was a garment of far-flung amplitude, woven on the shadowy loom of night and the sea, and from such mysterious warp and weft is often produced the sable robe of tragedy and death. It was so now, within an ace. At one instance, the restless plain of the ocean seemed to bear no other argosy than the Andromeda; in the next, Hozier's quick-moving glance had caught the pallid sheen of some small craft's starboard light. No need to tell him what might happen. A sailing vessel, probably a fishing smack, was crossing the steamer's course. He sprang to the telegraph, and signaled "Slow" to the engine-room. Simultaneously he shouted to the steersman to starboard the helm, and the siren trumpeted a single raucous blast into the silence. With the rattle of the chains and steering-rods in the gear-boxes came a yell from the lookout forward:
"Light on the port bow!"
Hozier repeated the hail, but promised the blear-eyed sentinels in the bows of the ship a lively five minutes when the watch was relieved. Slowly the Andromeda swung to the west. Even more slowly, or so it appeared to the anxious man on the bridge, a red eye peeped into being alongside the green one. A blacker smear showed up on the black sea, and a hoarse voice, presumably situated beneath the smear, expressed a desire for information.
"Arr ye all aslape on board that crimson collier?" it asked in a Waterford brogue.
"Got the hooker's wheel tied, I suppose?" retorted Hozier, for the now visible schooner had not attempted to change her course by half a point. She was now bowling along with every stitch set before a five-knot breeze from the east; the tilt of her sails was such that she practically presented only the outline of her spars when first sighted from the steamer; and her side lights probably had tallow candles in them.
"Bedad, it's aisier in moind we'd be if you were tied to it," shouted the voice, and Hozier felt, like many another Saxon, that an Irishman's last word is often the best one.
The engines resumed their cadence, and the Andromeda crept round again to South 15 West. She was back on her proper line when a heavy step sounded on the iron rungs of the bridge ladder.
"Wot's up?" demanded Coke, who was fully dressed, though Hozier thought he had retired two hours earlier. "Oh, the beer is frothin' up to their eyes, is it?" went on the skipper, after listening to a brief summary of events. "I thought, mebbe, the wheel had jammed. But those lazy swabs want talkin' to. I'll just give 'em a bit of me mind," and he went forward.
Hozier heard him reading the Riot Act to the shell-backs who were supposed to keep a sharp lookout ahead. But the captain did not monopolize the conversation. His deep notes rumbled only at intervals. The men had something to say. He returned to the bridge.
"One of them scallywags sez 'e 'as seen a ghost," he announced, with the calm air of a man who states that the moon will rise during the next hour.
"I wish he could see less remarkable things, such as schooners, sir," said Hozier.
"But 'e swears 'e sawr it twiced."
"Oh, is he the man who reported a ghost outside the lazarette last night?"
"I s'pose so. Did 'e tell you about it? That's where she walks."
"That's his yarn—a female ghost, a black 'un, black clo'es anyhow. He's a dashed fool, but he's no boozer, though his mate's tongue is a bit thick yet. I'll take the forenoon watch, an' you might overhaul the ship for stowaways after breakfast. Never heard of one on this journey—I've routed out as many as twenty at a time w'en I was runnin' between Wellington an' Sydney—but you never can tell, so 'ave a squint round."
"Yes, sir," said Hozier, and that is how it fell to his lot to discover Iris Yorke, looking very white and miserable, when the hatch of the lazarette was broken open at half-past eight o'clock on Thursday morning!
A tramp steamer is not a complex organism. She is made up of holds, bunkers, boilers and engines, with scanty accommodation for officers and crew grouped round the funnel or stuck in the bows. When the boats were stripped of their tarpaulins, and a few lockers and store-rooms examined, the only available hiding-places were the shaft tunnel, the holds, and the lazarette, a small space between decks, situated directly above the propeller, where a reserve supply of provisions is generally carried.
But the door of the lazarette was locked, and the key missing, though it ought to be hanging with others, all duly labeled, on a hook in the steward's cabin. A duplicate set of keys in the captain's possession was far from complete. As the steward was certain he had fastened the lazarette himself early on Tuesday morning, there was nothing for it but to force the lock.
Even that would not have been necessary had the carpenter slackened his efforts after the first assault. Iris cried loudly enough that she would open the door, but the noise of the shaft and the flapping of the screw drowned her voice, and she was compelled to stand clear when the stout planking began to yield.
It was dark in there, and Hozier was undeniably startled by the spectacle of a slim figure, wrapped in a long ulster, standing among the cases and packages. "Now, out you come!" he cried, with a gruffness that was intended only to cover his own amazement; but Iris, despite the horrors of sea-sickness and confinement in the dark, was not minded to suffer what she considered to be impertinence on the part of a second officer.
"I am Miss Yorke," she said, coming forward into the half light of the lower deck. "Any explanation of my presence here will be given to the captain, and to no other person."
That innocent word "person" is capable of many meanings. Hozier felt that its application to himself was distinctly unfavorable. And Iris was quite dignified and self-possessed. She had given a few deft touches to her hair. Her hat was set at the right angle. Her dark gray coat and brown boots looked neat and serviceable.
"Of course I did not know to whom I was speaking," he managed to say, for he now recognized the "ghost," and was more surprised than he had ever been in his life before.
"That is matterless," said Iris frigidly. "Where is Captain Coke?"
"On the bridge," said Philip.
"I will go to him. Please don't come with me. I tried to tell you that I would unlock the door, but you refused to listen. Will you let me pass?"
He obeyed in silence.
"Well, s'help me!" muttered a sailor, "talk about suffrigettes! Wot price 'er?"
Iris hurried to the deck. The light seemed to dazzle her, and her steps were so uncertain that Hozier sprang forward and caught her arm.
"Won't you sit down a moment, Miss Yorke?" he said. "If you searched the whole ship, you could not have chosen a worse place to travel in than the lazarette."
"I was driven out twice at night by the rats," she gasped, though she strove desperately to regain control of her trembling limbs.
"Too bad!" he whispered. "But it was your own fault. Why did you do it? At any rate, wait here a few minutes before you meet the captain."
"I am not afraid of meeting him. Why should I be? He knows me."
"I meant only that you are hardly able to walk, but I seem to say the wrong thing every time. There is nothing really to worry about. We are not far from Queenstown. We can put you ashore there by losing half a day."
The girl had been ill, wracked in body and distraught in mind, with the added horror of knowing that rats were scampering over the deck close to her in the noisy darkness, but she summoned a half laugh at his words.
"You are still saying the wrong thing, Mr. Hozier," she murmured. "The Andromeda will not put into Queenstown. From this hour I become a passenger, not a stowaway. My uncle knows now that I am here. Thank you, you need not hold me any longer. I have quite recovered. Captain Coke is on the bridge, you said? I can find my way; this ship is no stranger to me."
And away she went, justifying her statements by tripping rapidly forward. The mere sight of her created boundless excitement among such members of the crew as were on deck, but the shock administered to Mr. Watts was of that intense variety often described as electric. In the matter of disposing of large quantities of ardent spirits he was a seasoned vessel, and, as a general rule, the first day at sea sufficed to clear his brain from the fumes of the last orgy on shore. But, to be effective, the cure must not be too drastic. This morning, after leaving the bridge, he had fortified his system with a liberal allowance of rum and milk. Breakfast ended, he took another dose of the same mixture as a "steadier," and he was just leaving the messroom when he set eyes on Iris. Of course, he refused to believe his eyes. Had they not deceived him many times?
"Ha!" said he, "a bit liverish," and he pressed a rough hand firmly downward from forehead to cheek-bones. When he looked again, the girl was much nearer.
"Lord luv' a duck, this time I've got 'em for sure!" he groaned.
His lower jaw dropped, he stared unblinkingly, and purple veins bulged crookedly on his seamed forehead. He was bereft of the power of movement. He stood stock-still, blocking the narrow gangway.
"Good morning, Mr. Watts. You remember me, don't you?" said Iris, showing by her manner that she wished to pass him.
A slight roll of the ship assisted in the disintegration of Watts. He collapsed sideways into the cook's galley, the door of which was hospitably open. Somewhat frightened by the wildness of his looks, Iris ran on, and dashed at the foot of the companion rather breathlessly. The keen air was already tingeing her cheeks with color. When she reached the bridge, where Captain Coke was propped against the chart-house, with a thick, black cigar sticking in his mouth and apparently trying to touch his nose, she had lost a good deal of the pallor and woe-begone semblance that had demoralized Hozier.
Coke heard the rapid, light footsteps, and turned his head. At all times slow of thought and slower of speech, he was galvanized into a sudden rigidity that differed only in degree from the symptoms displayed by his chief officer. Certainly he could not have been more stupefied had he seen the ghost reported overnight.
"They told me I should find you here, Captain," said she. "I must apologize for thrusting my company on you for a long voyage, but—circumstances—were—too much for me—and——"
Face to face with the commander of the ship, and startled anew by his expression of blank incredulity, the glib flow of words conned so often during the steadfast but dreadful hours spent in the lazarette failed her.
"You know me," she faltered. "I am Iris Yorke."
Not a syllable came from the irate and astonished man gazing at her with such a bovine stolidity. His shoulders had not abated a fraction of their stubborn thrust against the frame of the chart-house. His hands were immovable in the pockets of his reefer coat. The cigar still stuck out between his lips like a miniature jib-boom. Had he wished to terrify her by a hostile reception, he could not have succeeded more completely, though, to be just, he meant nothing of the sort; his wits being jumbled into chaos by the apparition of the last person then alive whom he expected or desired to see on board the Andromeda.
But Iris could not interpret his mood, and she strove vainly to conquer the fear welling up in her breast because of the grim anger that seemed to blaze at her from every line of Coke's brick-red countenance. In the struggle to pour forth the excuses and protestations that sounded so plausible in her own ears, while secured from observation behind the locked door of her retreat, she blundered unhappily on to the very topic that she had resolved to keep secret.
"Why are you so unwilling to acknowledge me?" she cried, with a nervous indignation that lent a tremor to her voice. "You have met me often enough. You saw me on Sunday at my uncle's house?"
"Did I?" said Coke, speaking at last, but really as much at a loss for something to say as the girl herself. He had recognized her instantly, just as he would recognize the moon if the luminary fell from the sky, and with as little comprehension of the cause of its falling.
Of course, she took the question as a forerunner of blank denial. This was not to be borne. She fired into a direct attack.
"If your memory is hazy concerning the events of Sunday afternoon, it may be helpful if I recall the conversation between my uncle and you in the summer-house," she snapped.
Some of the glow fled from Coke's face. He straightened himself and glanced at the sailor inside the wheel-house, whose attention was given instantly to the fact that the vessel's head had fallen away a full point or more from South 15 West owing to the easterly set of a strong tide. Vessels' heads are apt to turn when steersmen do not attend to their business.
"Wot's that you're sayin'?" demanded Coke, coming nearer, and looking her straight in the eyes.
"I heard every word of that interesting talk," she continued valiantly, though she was sensible of a numbness that seemed to envelop her in an ice-cold mist. "I know what you arranged to do—so I have promised—to marry Mr. Bulmer—when the Andromeda—comes back——"
A light broke on Coke's intelligence that irradiated his prominent eyes. His heavy lips relaxed into a cunning grin, and he flicked the ash off the end of the cigar with a confidential nod.
"Oh, is that it?" he said. "Artful old dog, Verity! But why in—why didn't 'e tell me you was comin' aboard this trip? We 'aven't the right fixin's for a lady, so you must put up with the best we can do for you, Miss Yorke. Nat'rally, we're tickled to death to 'ave your company, an' if on'y that blessed uncle of your's 'ad told me wot to expect, I'd 'ave made things ship-shape at Liverpool. But, my god-father, wot sort of ijjit axed you to stow yourself away in the lazareet? Steady now; you ain't a-goin' to faint, are you?"
Coke's amiability came too late. His squat figure and red face suddenly loomed into a gigantic indistinctness in the girl's eyes. She would have fallen to the deck had not the captain's strong hands clutched her by the shoulders.
"Hi! Below there!" he yelled. "Tumble up, some of you!"
Hozier was the first to gain the bridge. He had followed the progress of events with sufficient accuracy to realize that Miss Iris Yorke had met with a distinct rebuff by the skipper, and, judging from his own experience of her physical weakness when she emerged into daylight, he was not surprised to hear that she had fainted.
"'Ere, take 'old," gurgled Coke, who had nearly swallowed the cigar in his surprise at Iris's unforeseen collapse. "This kind of thing is more in your line than mine, young feller. Just lay 'er out in the saloon, an' ax Watts to 'elp. His missus goes orf regular w'en they bring 'im 'ome paralytic."
Philip took the girl into his arms. To carry her safely down the steep stairway he was compelled to place her head on his left shoulder and clasp her tightly round the waist with his left arm. Some loosened strands of her hair touched his face; he could feel the laboring of her breast, the wild beating of her heart, and he was exceeding wroth with that unknown man or woman who had driven this insensible girl to such straits that she was ready to dare the discomforts and deprivations of a voyage as a stowaway, rather than be persecuted further.
Iris was laid on a couch in the messroom, and the steward summoned Mr. Watts. The chief officer came, looking sheepish. It was manifestly a great relief when he found that the "ghost" was unconscious.
"Oh, that's nothing," he cried, in response to his junior's eager demand for information as to the treatment best fitted for such emergencies. "They all drop in a heap like that w'en they're worried. Fust you takes orf their gloves an' boots, then you undoes their stays an' rips open their dresses at the necks. One of you rubs their 'ands an' another their feet, an' you dabs cold water on their foreheads, an' burn brown paper under their noses. In between whiles you give 'em a drink, stiff as you can make it. It's dead easy. Them stays are a bit troublesome if they run to size, but she's thin enough as it is. Anyhow, I can show you a fine trick for that. Just turn her over till I cast a lashin' loose with my knife."
Watts was elbowed aside so unceremoniously that his temper gave way. Hozier lifted Iris's head gently and unfastened the neck-hooks of her blouse. He began to chafe her cold hands tenderly, and pressed back the hair from her damp forehead. The "chief," not flattered by his own reflections, thought fit to sneer at these half measures.
"She's on'y a woman like the rest of 'em," he growled, "even if she is the owner's niece, an' a good-lookin' gal at that. I s'pose now you think——"
"I think she will want some fresh air soon, so you had better clear out," said Philip.
His words were quiet, but he flashed a warning glance at the other man that sufficed. Watts retired, muttering sarcasms under his breath.
Iris revived, to find Philip supporting her with a degree of skill that was remarkable in one who had enjoyed so little experience in those matters. She heard his voice, coming, as it seemed, rapidly nearer, urging her to sip something very fiery and spirituous. Instantly she protested.
"What are you giving me?" she sobbed. "What has happened?"
Then the whole of her world opened up before her. Her hands flew to her throat, her hair. She flushed into vivid life as the marble Galatea incardinated under Pygmalion's kiss.
"Did I faint?" she asked confusedly.
"Yes, but you are all right now. You did not fall. Captain Coke caught you and handed you over to me. I wish you would drink the remainder of this brandy, and rest for a little while."
Iris pushed away the glass and sat up.
"You carried me?" she said.
"Well, I couldn't do anything else."
"I suppose you don't realize what it means to a woman to feel that she has been out of her senses under such conditions?"
"No, but in your case it only meant that you sighed deeply a few times and tried to bite my fingers when I wished to open your mouth."
"What for? Why did you want to open my mouth?"
"To give you a drink—you needed a stimulant."
By this time a few dexterous twists and turns had restrained those wandering tresses within bounds. She held a hair-pin between her lips, and a woman can always say exactly what she means when a hairpin prevents discursiveness.
"I am all right now," she announced. "Will you please leave me, and tell the steward to bring me a cup of tea? If there is a cabin at liberty, he might put that portmanteau in it which I brought on board at Liverpool."
Hozier fulfilled her requests, and rejoined Coke on the bridge.
"Miss Yorke is quite well again, sir," he reported. "She wants a cabin—to change her clothes, I imagine. That bag you saw——"
"Pretty foxy, wasn't it?" broke in Coke, with a glee that was puzzling to his hearer.
"The whole affair seems to have been carefully planned," agreed Philip. "But, as I was saying, she asked for the use of a cabin, so I told the steward to give her mine until we put into Queenstown."
Coke, who had lighted another black and stumpy cigar, removed it in order to speak with due emphasis.
"Put into h—l!" he said.
"But surely you will not take this young lady to the River Plate?" cried the astounded second officer.
"She knew where she was bound w'en she kem aboard the Andromeda," said the skipper, frowning now like a man who argues with himself. "There's her portmanter to prove it, with a label, an' all, in her own 'and-writin'. It's some game played on me by 'er an' 'er uncle. Any'ow, the fust time she sees land again it'll be the lovely 'arbor of Pernambuco—an' that's straight. 'Ere she is, an' 'ere she'll stop, an' the best thing you can do is spread the notion among the crew that she's runnin' away to avoid marryin' a man she doesn't like. That sounds reasonable, an' it 'appens to be true. Verity an' me talked it over last Sunday, p.m."
"To avoid a marriage?" repeated Hozier, who discovered a bluff honesty, not to say candor, in the statement, not perceptible hitherto in his commander's utterances.
"Yes, that's it," said Coke, waving the cigar across an arc of the horizon as he warmed to the subject. "But look 'ere, me boy, this gal sails under my flag. I'm, wot d'ye call it, in locomotive parentibus, or something of the sort, while she's on the ship's books. You keep your mouth shut, an' wink the other eye, an' leave it to me to give you the chanst of your life—eh, wot?"
Philip Hozier did not strive to extract the precise meaning of the skipper's words. The process would have been difficult, since Coke himself could not have supplied any reasonable analysis. Somehow, to the commander's thinking, the presence of the girl seemed to make easier the casting away of the ship—exactly how, or what bearing her strangely-begun voyage might have on subsequent events, he was not yet in a position to say. But when the second officer left him, and he was steeped once more in the fresh breeze and the sunshine, with his shoulders braced against the chart-house, he looked at a smoke trail on the horizon far away to the west.
"Queenstown!" he chuckled. "Not this journey—not if my name's Jimmie Coke, the man 'oo is stannin' on all that is left of 'is 'ard-earned savin's. No, sir, I've got me orders an' I've got me letter, an' the pore old Andromeda gets ripped to pieces in the Recife, or I'll know the reason why. Wot a card to play at the inquiry! Owner's niece on board—bound to South America for the good of 'er health. 'Oo even 'eard of a man sendin' 'is pretty niece on a ship 'e meant to throw away? It's Providential, that's wot it is, reel Providential! I do believe ole Verity 'ad a 'and in it."
Which shows that Captain Coke confused Providence with David Verity, and goes far to prove how ill-fitted he was to theorize on the ways of Providence.
WHEREIN THE "ANDROMEDA" NEARS THE END OF HER VOYAGE
"Five bells, miss! It'll soon be daylight. If you wants to see the Cross, now's your time!"
Iris had been called from dreamless sleep by a thundering rat-tat on her cabin door. In reply to her half-awaked cry of "All right," the hoarse voice of a sailor told her that the Southern Cross had just risen above the horizon. She had a drowsy recollection of someone saying that the famous constellation would make its appearance at seven bells, not at five, and the difference of an hour, when the time happens to be 2:30 instead of 8:30 a.m. is a matter of some importance. But, perhaps that was a mistake; at any rate, here was the messenger, and she resolutely screwed her knuckles into her eyes and began to dress. In a few minutes she was on deck. A long coat, a Tam o' Shanter, and a pair of list slippers will go far in the way of costume at night in the tropics, and the Andromeda's seventeenth day at sea had brought the equator very near. At dinner on the previous evening—in honor of the owner's niece fashionable hours were observed for meals—Mr. Watts mentioned, by chance, that the Cross had been very distinct during the middle watch, or, in other words, between midnight and 4 a.m. Iris at once expressed a wish to see it, and Captain Coke offered a suggestion.
"Mr. Hozier takes the middle watch to-night," said he. "We can ax 'im to send a man to pound on your door as soon as it rises. Then you must run up to the bridge, an' 'e'll tell you all about it."
If Iris was conscious of a slight feeling of surprise, she did not show it. Hitherto, the burly skipper of the Andromeda had made it so clearly understood that none of the ship's company save himself was to enjoy the society of Miss Iris Yorke, that she had exchanged very few words with the one man whose manners and education obviously entitled him to meet her on an equal plane. Even at meals, he was often absent, for the captain and chief officer of a tramp steamer are not altruists where eating is concerned. She often visited the bridge, her favorite perch being the shady side of the wheel-house, but talking to the officer of the watch was strictly forbidden. In everything appertaining to the vessel's navigation the discipline of a man-of-war was observed on board the Andromeda. So Coke's complacency came now quite unexpectedly, but Iris was learning to school her tongue.
"Thank you very much," she said. "When shall I see him?"
"Oh, you needn't bother. I'll tell 'im meself."
She was somewhat disappointed at this. Hozier would be free for an hour before he turned in, and they might have enjoyed a nice chat while he smoked on the poop. In her heart of hearts, she was beginning to acknowledge that a voyage through summer seas on a cargo vessel, with no other society than that of unimaginative sailormen, savored of tedium, indeed, almost of deadly monotony. Her rare meetings with Hozier marked bright spots in a dull round of hours. During their small intercourse she had discovered that he was well informed. They had hit upon a few kindred tastes in books and music; they even differed sharply in their appreciation of favorite authors, and what could be more conducive to complete understanding than the attack and defense of the shrine of some tin god of literature?
While, therefore, it was strange that Captain Coke should actually propose a visit to the bridge at an unusual time—at a time, too, when Hozier would be on duty—it struck her as far more curious that he should endeavor to prevent an earlier meeting. But she had never lost her intuitive fear of Coke. His many faults certainly did not include a weak will. He meant what he said—also a good deal that he left unsaid—and his word was law to everyone on board the Andromeda. So Iris contented herself with meek agreement.
"I shall be delighted to come at any time. I have often read about the Southern Cross, yet three short weeks ago I little thought——"
"You reely didn't think about it at all," broke in Coke. "If you 'ad, you'd 'ave known you couldn't cross the line without seein' it."
Here was another perplexing element in the skipper's conduct. That Iris was a stowaway was forgotten. She was treated with the attention and ceremony due to the owner's niece. Coke never lost an opportunity of dinning into the ears of Watts, or Hozier, or the steward, or any members of the crew who were listening, that Miss Yorke's presence in their midst was a preordained circumstance, a thing fully discussed and agreed on as between her uncle and himself, but carried out in an irregular manner, owing to some girlish freak on her part. The portmanteau, with its change of raiment, brought convincing testimony, and Iris's own words when discovered in the lazaretto supplied further proof, if that were needed. Her name figured in the ship's papers, and the time of her appearance on board was recorded in the log. Coke might be a man of one idea, but he held to it as though it were written in the Admiralty Sailing Directions; not his would be the fault if David Verity failed to appreciate the logic of his reasoning long before an official investigation became inevitable.
A keen, invigorating breeze swept the last mirage of sleep from the girl's brain as she flitted silently along the deck. A wondrous galaxy of stars blazed in the heavens. In that pellucid air the sky was a vivid ultramarine. The ship's track was marked by a trail of phosphorescent fire. Each revolution of the propeller drew from the ocean treasure-house opulent globes of golden light that danced and sparkled in the tumbling waters. It was a night that pulsated with the romance and abandon of the south, a night when the heart might throb with unutterable longings, and the blood tingle in the veins under the stress of an emotion at once passionate and mystic.
Iris, spurred on by no stronger impulse than that of the sight-seer, though not wholly unaware of an element of adventurous shyness in her expectation of a tete-a-tete with a good-looking young man of her own status, climbed to the bridge so speedily and noiselessly that Hozier did not know of her presence until he heard her dismayed cry:
"Is that the Southern Cross?"
He turned quickly.
"You, Miss Yorke?" he exclaimed, and not even her wonder at the insignificance of the stellar display of which she had heard so much could cloak the fact that Hozier was unprepared for her appearance.
"Of course, it is I—who else?" she asked. "Did not Captain Coke tell you to expect me?"
"How odd! That is what he arranged. A man came and rapped at my door."
"Pardon me one moment."
He leaned over the bridge and hailed the watch. The same hoarse voice that had roused Iris answered his questions, and, in the faint light that came from the binnacle, she caught a flicker of amusement on his face.
"Our excellent skipper's intentions have been defeated," he said. "He told one of the men to call him at seven bells, but not to wake you until the Cross was visible. His orders have been obeyed quite literally. He will be summoned in another hour, and you have been dragged from bed to gaze at the False Cross, which every foremast hand persists in regarding as the real article. The true Cross, of which Alpha Crucis is the Southern Pole star, comes up over the horizon an hour after the false one."
"But Captain Coke said he would see you and warn you of my visit."
"I can only assure you that he did not. Perhaps he thought it unnecessary—meaning to be on deck himself."
"Must I wait here a whole hour, then?"
Hozier laughed. It was amusing to find how Coke's marked effort to keep the girl and him apart had been defeated by a sailor's blunder.
"I hope the waiting will not weary you," he said. "It is a beautiful night. You will not catch cold if you are well wrapped up, and, no matter what you may think of the real Cross when you see it, you will never have a better chance of star-gazing. Look at Sirius up there, brighter than the moon; and Orion, too, incomparably grander than any star in southern latitudes. Our dear old Bear of the north ranks far beyond the Southern Cross in magnificence; but mist and smoke and dust contrive to rob our home atmosphere of the clearness which adds such luster to the firmament nearer the equator."
Under other circumstances, Iris would have reveled in just such an opportunity of acquiring knowledge easily. Astronomy, despite its limitations, is one of the exact sciences; it has the charm of wonderland; it makes to awe-stricken humanity the mysterious appeal of the infinite; but to-night, when the heart fluttered, and the soul pined for sympathy, she was in a mood to regard with indifference the instant extinction of the Milky Way.
"I am glad of the accident that brought me on deck somewhat earlier than was necessary," she said. "You and I have not said much to each other since you routed me out of the lazaretto, Mr. Hozier."
"Our friends at table are somewhat—difficult. If only you knew how I regretted——"
"Oh, what of that? When I became a stowaway I fully expected to be treated as one. I suppose, though, that you have often asked yourself why I was guilty of such a mad trick?"
"Not exactly mad, Miss Yorke, but needless, since Captain Coke partly expected to have your company."
"That is absurd. He had not the remotest notion——"
"Forgive me, but there you are wrong. He says that your uncle and he discussed the matter on the Sunday before we left Liverpool. His theory is rather borne out by the present state of the ship's larder. I assure you that few tramp steamers spread a table like the Andromeda's mess during this voyage."
Iris laughed, with a spontaneous merriment that was rather astonishing in her own ears.
"Being the owner's niece, I am well catered for?" she cried.
"Something of the sort. It is only natural."
"But I think I have read in the newspapers that when some unhappy creature is condemned to death by the law, he is supplied with luxuries that would certainly be denied to any ordinary criminal?"
"Such doubtful clemency can hardly apply to you, Miss Yorke."
"It might apply to the ship, or to that human part of her that thinks, and remembers, and is capable of—of giving evidence."
She paused, fearing lest, perhaps, she might have spoken too plainly. Coke's counter-stroke in alluding to her dread of the proposed marriage was hidden from her ken; Hozier, of course, was thinking of nothing else. For the moment, then, they were at cross purposes.
"Things are not so bad as that," he said gently. "I hope I am not trespassing on forbidden ground, but it is only fair to tell you that the skipper was quite explicit, up to a point. He said you were being forced into some matrimonial arrangement that was distasteful——"
"And to escape from an undesirable suitor I ran away?"
"Well, the story sounded all right."
"Hid myself on my uncle's ship when I wished to avoid marrying the man of his choice?"
Hozier was not neglecting his work, but he did then take his eyes off the starlit sea for a few amazed seconds. There was no mistaking the scornful ring in the girl's words. He could see the deep color that flooded her cheeks; the glance that met his sparkled with an intensity of feeling that thrilled while it perplexed.
"Please pardon me if the question hurts, but if that is not your motive, and there never was any real notion of your coming with us on the this trip, why are you here?" he said.
"Because I am a foolish girl, I suppose; because I thought that my presence might interpose a serious obstacle between a criminal and the crime he had planned to commit. If one wants to avoid hateful people a change of climate is a most effectual means, and I had not the money for ordinary travel. Believe me, Mr. Hozier, I am not on board the Andromeda without good reason. I have often wished to have a talk with you. I think you are a man who would not betray a confidence. If you agree to help me, something may yet be done. At first, I was sure that Captain Coke would abandon his wicked project as soon as he discovered that I knew what was in his mind. But now, I am beginning to doubt. Each day brings us nearer South America, and—and——"
She was breathless with excitement. She drew nearer to the silent, and impassive man at her side; dropping her voice almost to a whisper, she caught his arm with an appealing hand.
"I am afraid that my presence will offer no hindrance to his scheme," she murmured. "I am terrified to say such a thing, but I am certain, quite certain, that the ship will be lost within the next few days."
Hozier, though incredulous, could not but realize that the girl was saying that which she honestly thought to be true.
"Lost! Do you mean that, she will be purposely thrown away?" he asked, and his own voice was not wholly under control, for he was called on to repress a sudden temptation to kiss away the tears that glistened in her brown eyes.
"Yes, that is what he said—on the rocks, this side of Monte Video."
"To whom did he say it?"
"Oh, Mr. Hozier, do not ask that, but believe me and help me."
"I do not know. I am half distracted with thinking. What can we do? Captain Coke simply swept aside my first attempt to speak plainly to him. But, make no mistake—he knows that I heard his very words, and there is something in his manner, a curious sort of quiet confidence, that frightens me."
After that, neither spoke during many minutes. The Andromeda jogged along steadily south by west, and the threshing of the propeller beat time to the placid hum of her engines. The sturdy old ship could seemingly go on in that humdrum way forever, forging ahead through the living waters, marking her track with a golden furrow.
"That is a very serious thing you have told me, Miss Yorke," muttered Hozier at last, not without a backward glance at the sailor in the wheel-house to assure himself that the man could not, by any chance, overhear their conversation.
"But it is true—dreadfully true," said Iris, clasping her hands together and resting them on the high railing of the bridge.
"It is all the more serious inasmuch as we are helpless," he went on. "Don't you see how impossible it is even to hint at it in any discussion with the man principally concerned? I want to say this, though—you are in no danger. There is no ship so safe as one that is picked out for wilful destruction. Men will not sacrifice their own lives even to make good an insurance policy, and I suppose that is what is intended. So you can sleep sound o' nights—at any rate until we near the coast of Brazil. I can only promise you if any watchfulness on my part can stop this piece of villainy—— Hello, there! What's up? Why is the ship falling away from her course?"
The sudden change in his voice startled the girl so greatly that she uttered a slight shriek. It took her an appreciable time to understand that he was speaking to the man at the wheel. But the sailor knew what he meant.
"Something's gone wrong with the wheel, sir," he bawled. "I wasn't certain at first, so I tried to put her over a bit to s'uth'ard. Then she jammed for sure."
Hozier leaped to the telegraph and signaled "slow" to the engine-room. Already the golden pathway behind the Andromeda had changed from a wavering yet generally straight line to a well-defined curve. There was a hiss and snort of escaping steam as the sailor inside the chart-house endeavored to force the machinery into action.
"Steady there!" bellowed Hozier. "Wait until we have examined the gear-boxes. There may be a kink in a chain."
A loud order brought the watch scurrying along the deck. Some of the men ran to examine the bearings of the huge fan-shaped casting that governed the movements of the rudder, while others began to tap the wooden shields which protected the steering rods and chains. In the midst of the hammering and excitement, Captain Coke swung himself up to the bridge.
"Well, I'm blowed! You here?" he said, looking at Iris. "Wot is it now?" he asked, turning sharply to Hozier. "Wheel stuck again?"
"Yes, sir. Has it happened before?"
"Well—er—not this trip. But it 'as 'appened. Just for a minnit I was mixin' it up with the night you nearly ran down that bloomin' hooker off the Irish coast. Ah, there she goes! Everything O.K. now. W'en daylight comes we'll overhaul the fixin's. Nice thing if the wheel jammed just as we was crossin' the Recife!"
Hozier tried to ascertain from the watch if they had found the cause of the disturbance, but the men could only guess that a chance blow with an adze had straightened a kink in one of the casings. Coke treated the incident with nonchalance.
"Thought you was to be called w'en the Cross hove in sight, Miss Yorke?" he said abruptly.
"I am sorry to have to inform you that some people on board cannot distinguish between falsity and truth," she answered. "But please don't be angry with any of the men on my account. Mr. Hozier tells me they often confuse the False Cross with the real one, and the mistake has been enjoyable. Now I know all about it—what were those stars you were telling me the names of, Mr. Hozier?"
Philip took the cue she offered.
"Sirius, and Orion, and Ursa Major. I shall write the names and particulars for you after breakfast," he said with a smile.
"Reg'lar 'umbug the Southern Cross," grunted Coke; "it ain't a patch on the Bear."
"Mr. Hozier said something like that," put in Iris mischievously.
"Did 'e? Well 'e's right for once. But don't you go an' take as Gospel most things 'e says. Every shipmaster knows that the second officer simply can't speak the truth. It ain't natural. W'y, it 'ud bust a steam pipe if 'e tole you wot 'e really thought of the ole man."
Coke grinned at his own pleasantry. To one of his hearers, at least, it seemed to be passing strange that he was so ready to forget such a vital defect in the steering gear as had manifested its existence a few minutes earlier.
At any rate, he remained on the bridge until long after Iris had seen and admired the cluster of stars which oldtime navigators used to regard with awe. When shafts of white light began to taper, pennon-like, in the eastern sky, the girl went back to her cabin. Contrary to Hozier's expectation, Coke did not attempt to draw from him any account of their conversation prior to the inexplicable mishap to the wheel. He examined a couple of charts, made a slight alteration in the course, and at four o'clock took charge of the bridge.
"Just 'ave a look round now while things is quiet," he said, nodding to Hozier confidentially. "I'll tell you wot I fancy: a rat dragged a bit of bone into a gear-box. If the plankin' is badly worn anywhere, get the carpenter to see to it. I do 'ate to 'ave a feelin' that the wheel can let you down. S'pose we was makin' Bahia on the homeward run, an' that 'appened! It 'ud be the end of the pore ole ship; an' oo'd credit it? Not a soul. They'd all say 'Jimmie threw 'er away!' Oh, I know 'em, the swine—never a good word for a man while 'e keeps straight, but tar an' feathers the minnit 'e 'as a misforchun!"
Hozier found a gnawed piece of ham-bone lying in the exact position anticipated by Coke. An elderly salt who had served with the P. & O. recalled a similar incident as having occurred on board an Indian mail steamer while passing through the Straits of Bab-el-Mandeb. He drew a lurid picture of the captain's dash across the forms of lady passengers sleeping inside a curtained space on deck, and his location of the area of disturbance with an ax just in time to prevent a disaster.
The carpenter busied himself with sawing and hammering during the whole of the next two days, for the Andromeda revealed many gaps in her woodwork, but the escapade of an errant ham-bone was utterly eclipsed by a new sensation. At daybreak one morning every drop of water in the vessel's tanks suddenly assumed a rich, blood-red tint. This unnerving discovery was made by the cook, who was horrified to see a ruby stream pouring into the earliest kettle. Thinking that an iron pipe had become oxidized with startling rapidity, he tried another tap. Finally, there could be no blinking the fact that, by some uncanny means, the whole of the fresh water on board had acquired the color if not the taste of a thin Burgundy.
Coke was summoned hastily. Noblesse oblige; being captain, he valiantly essayed the task of sampling this strange beverage.
"It ain't p'ison," he announced, gazing suspiciously at the little group of anxious-faced men who awaited his verdict. "It sartinly ain't p'ison, but it's wuss nor any teetotal brew I've tackled in all me born days. 'Ere, Watts, you know the tang of every kind o' likker—'ave a sup?"
"Not me!" said Watts. "I don't like the look of it. First time I've ever seen red ink on tap. For the rest of this trip I stick to bottled beer, or somethink with a label."
"It smells like an infusion of permanganate of potash," volunteered Hozier.
"Does it?" growled Coke, who seemed to be greatly annoyed. "Wot a pity it ain't an infusion of whisky an' potash!" and he glared vindictively at Watts. "Some ijjit 'as bin playin' a trick on us, that's wot it is—some blank soaker 'oo don't give a hooraw in Hades for tea an' corfee an' cocoa, but wants a tonic. Stooard!"
"Yes, sir," said the messroom attendant.
"Portion out all the soda water in the lockers, an' whack it on the table every meal till it gives out. See that nobody puts away more'n 'is proper allowance, too. I'm not goin' to cry hush-baby w'en the Andromeda gets this sort of kid's dodge worked off on 'er."
"If you're alloodin' to me," put in the incensed "chief," whose temper rose on this direct provocation, "I want to tell you now——"
"Does the cap fit?" sneered Coke.
"No, it doesn't. I never 'eard of that kind of potash in me life. D'ye take me for a—chemist's shop?"
"Never 'eard of it!" cried the incensed skipper, who had obviously made up his mind as to the person responsible for the outrage. "There's 'arf a dozen cases of it in the after hold—or there was, w'en we put the hatches on."
"Even if some of the cases were broken, sir, the contents could not reach the tanks," said Hozier, who fancied that Coke's attack on the bibulous Watts was wholly unwarranted. But the commander's wrath could not be appeased.
"Get this stuff pumped out, an' 'ave the tanks scoured. We'll put into Fernando Noronha, an' refill there. It's on'y a day lost, an' I guess the other liquor on board 'll last till we make the island. Sink me, if this ain't the queerest run this crimson ship 'as ever 'ad. I'll be glad w'en it's ended."
Coke lurched away in the direction of the chart-room. Hozier found him there later, poring over a chart of Fernando Noronha. Iris, on hearing the steward's version of the affair, came to the bridge for further enlightenment, but Coke merely told her that the island was a Lloyd's signal station, so she could cable to her uncle.
"Can I go ashore?" she asked.
"I dunno. We'll see. It's a convict settlement for the Brazils, an' they're mighty partic'lar about lettin' people land, but they'll 'ardly object to a nice young lady like you 'avin' a peep at 'em."
As his tone was unusually gruff, not to say jeering, she resolved to find an opportunity of seeking Hozier's advice on the cablegram problem. But the portent of the blood-red water was not to be disregarded. Never was Delphic oracle better served by nature. The Andromeda began to roll ominously; masses of black cloud climbed over the southwest horizon; at midday the ship was driving through a heavy sea. As the day wore, the weather became even more threatening. A sky and ocean that had striven during three weeks to produce in splendid rivalry blends of sapphire blue and emerald green and tenderest pink, were now draped in a shroud of gray mist. With increasing frequency and venom, vaulting seas curled over the bows, and sent stinging showers of spray against the canvas shield of the bridge. Instead of the natty white drill uniform and canvas shoes of the tropics, the ship's officers donned oilskins, sou'westers, and sea-boots. Torrents swept the decks, and an occasional giant among waves smote the hull with a thunderous blow under which every rivet rattled and every plank creaked. Despite these drawbacks, the Andromeda wormed her way south. She behaved like the stanch old sea-prowler that she was, and labored complainingly but with stubborn zeal in the teeth of a stiff gale.
Iris, of course, thought that she was experiencing the storm of a century. Badly scared at first, she regained some stock of courage when Hozier came twice to her cabin, pounded on the door, and shouted to her such news as he thought would take her mind off the outer furies! The first time he announced that they were just "crossing the line," and the girl smiled at the thought that Neptune's chosen lair was uncommonly like the English Channel at its worst. On the second occasion her visitor brought the cheering news that they would be under the lee of Fernando Noronha early next morning. She had sufficient sea lore to understand that this implied shelter from wind and wave, but Hozier omitted to tell her that the only practicable roadstead in the island, being on the weather side, would be rendered unsafe by the present adverse combination of the elements. In fact, Coke had already called both Watts and Hozier into council, and they had agreed with him that the wiser plan would be to bear in towards the island from the east, and anchor in smooth water as close to South Point as the lead would permit.
As for Iris's wild foreboding that the ship was intended to be lost, Philip did not give it other than a passing thought. Coke was navigating the Andromeda with exceeding care and no little skill. He was a first-rate practical sailor, and it was an education to the younger man to watch his handling of the vessel throughout the worst part of the blow. About midnight the weather moderated. It improved steadily until a troubled dawn heralded some fitful gleams of the sun. By that time the magnificent Peak of Fernando Noronha was plainly visible. Coke came to the bridge and set a new course, almost due west. The sun struggled with increasing success against the cloud battalions, and patches of blue appeared in sky and sea. Soon it was possible to distinguish the full extent of the coast line. Houses appeared, and trees, and green oases of cultivation, but these were mere spots of color amid the arid blackness of a land of bleak rock and stone-strewed hills.
There was a strong current setting from the southeast, and the dying gale left its aftermath in a long swell, but the Andromeda rolled on with ever-increasing comfort. Even Iris was tempted forth by the continued sunshine.