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WEST WIND DRIFT
By George Barr McCutcheon
WEST WIND DRIFT
On a bright, still morning in October, the Doraine sailed from a South American port and turned her glistening nose to the northeast. All told, there were some seven hundred and fifty souls on board; and there were stores that filled her holds from end to end,--grain, foodstuffs, metals, chemicals, rubber and certain sinister things of war. Her passenger list contained the names of men who had achieved distinction in world affairs,--in finance, in business, in diplomacy, in war, besides that less subtle pursuit, adventure: men from both hemispheres, from all continents. It was a cosmopolitan company that sailed out to sea that placid day, bound for a port six thousand miles away.
Her departure, heavy-laden, from this South American port was properly recorded in the then secret annals of a great nation; the world at large, however, was none the wiser. For those were the days when sly undersea monsters of German descent were prowling about the oceans, taking toll of humanity and breeding the curse that was to abide with their progenitors forever.
Down through the estuary and into the spreading bay slid the big steamer; abreast the curving coast-line she drove her way for leagues and leagues, and then swept boldly into the vast Atlantic desert.
Four hundred years ago and more, Amerigo Vespucci had sailed this unknown southern sea in his doughty caravel; he had wallowed and rocked for months over a course that the Doraine was asked to cover in the wink of an eye by comparison. Up from the south he had come in an age when the seas he sailed were no less strange than the land he touched from time to time; the blue waste of sky and sea as boundless then as now; the west wind drift as sure and unfailing; the waves as savage or as mild; the star by which he laid his course as far away and immutable,--but he came in 1501 and his ship was alone in the trackless ocean.
The mighty Doraine was not alone; she sailed a sea whose every foot was charted, whose every depth was sounded. She sailed in an age of Titans, while the caravel was a frolicksome pygmy, dancing to the music of a thousand winds, buffeted today, becalmed tomorrow, but always a snail on the face of the waters. Four hundred years ago Vespucci and his men were lost in the wilderness of waves. Out of touch with the world were they for months,--aye, even years,--and no man knew whither they sailed nor whence they came, for those were the days when the seven seas kept their secrets better than they keep them now.
Into the path traversed by the lowly caravel steamed the towering Doraine, pointing her gleaming nose to the north and east.
She was never seen again.
Out from the lairs of the great American navy sped the swiftest hounds of the ocean. They swept the face of the waters with a thousand sleepless eyes; they called with the strange, mysterious voice that carries a thousand miles; they raked the sea as with a fine-tooth comb; they searched the coast of a continent; they penetrated its rivers, circled its islands, scanned its rocks and reefs,--and asked a single question that had but one reply from every ship that sailed the southern sea.
For months ships of all nations searched for the missing steamer. Not so much as the smallest piece of wreckage rewarded the ceaseless quest. The great vessel, with all its precious cargo, had slipped into its niche among the profoundest mysteries of the sea. Came the day, therefore, when the Secretary of the Navy wrote down against her name the ugly sentence: "Lost with all on board."
Maritime courts issued their decrees; legatees parcelled estates, great and small; insurance companies paid in hard cash for the lives that were lost, and went blandly about their business; more than one widow reconsidered her thoughts of self-denial; and ships again sailed the course of Amerigo Vespucci without a thought of the Doraine.
For months the newspapers in many lands speculated on the fate of the missing liner. That a great ship could disappear from the face of the waters in these supreme days of navigation without leaving so much as a trace behind was inconceivable. At first there were tales of the dastardly U-boats; then came the sinister reports of treachery on board resulting in the ship being taken over by German plotters, with the prediction that she would emerge from oblivion as a well-armed "raider" cruising in the North Atlantic; then the generally accepted theory that she had been swiftlv, suddenly rent asunder by a mighty explosion in her hold. All opinions, all theories, all conjectures, however, revolved about a single fear;--that she was the victim of a German plot. But in the course of events there came a day when the German Navy, ever boastful of its ignoble deeds, issued the positive and no doubt sincere declaration that it had no record of the sinking of the Doraine. The fate of the ship was as much of a mystery to the German admiralty as it was to the rest of the puzzled world.
And so it was that the Doraine, laden with nearly a thousand souls, sailed out into the broad Atlantic and was never heard from again.
The Captain of the liner was an old man. He had sailed the seas for two-score years, at least half of them as master. At the outbreak of the Great War he was given command of the Doraine, relieving a younger man for more drastic duty in the North Sea. He was an Englishman, and his name, Weatherby Trigger, may be quite readily located on the list of retired naval officers in the British Admiralty offices if one cares to go to the trouble to look it up.
After two years the Doraine, with certain other vessels involved in a well-known and somewhat thoroughly debated transaction, became to all intents and purposes the property of the United States of America; she flew the American flag, carried an American guncrew and American papers, and, with some difficulty, an English master. The Captain was making his last voyage as master of the ship. An American captain was to succeed him as soon as the Doraine reached its destination in the United States. Captain Trigger, a little past seventy, had sailed for nearly two years under the Amercan flag at a time when all Englishmen were looking askance at it and wondering if it was ever to take its proper place among the righteous banners of the world. It had taken its place among them, and the "old man" was happy.
His crew of one hundred and fifty was what might be aptly described as international. The few Englishmen he had on board were noticeably unfit for active duty in the war zone. There was a small contingent of Americans, a great many Portuguese, some Spaniards, Norwegians, and a more or less polyglot remainder without national classification.
His First Officer was a Scotch-American, the Second an Irish-American, the Chief Engineer a plain unhyphenated American from Baltimore, Maryland. The purser, Mr. Codge, was still an Englishman, although he had lived in the United States since he was two years old,--a matter of forty-seven years and three months, if we are to believe Mr. Codge, who seemed rather proud of the fact that his father had neglected to forswear allegiance to Queen Victoria, leaving it to his son to follow his example in the case of King Edward the Seventh and of King George the Fifth.
There were eighty-one first-cabin passengers, one hundred and nineteen in the second cabin,--for the two had not been consolidated on the Doraine as was the case with the harried trans-Atlantic liners,--and approximately three hundred and fifty in the steerage. The first and second cabin lists represented many races, South Americans predominating.
The great republics in the lower half of the hemisphere were cut off almost entirely from the Old World so far as general travel was concerned. The people of Argentine, Brazil and Chili turned their eyes from the east and looked to the north, where lay the hitherto ignored and sometime hated continent whose middle usurped the word American. A sea voyage in these parlous days meant but one thing to the people of South America: a visit to an unsentimental land whose traditions, if any were cherished at all, went back no farther than yesterday and were to be succeeded by fresh ones tomorrow. At least, such was the belief of the Latin who still dozed superciliously in the glory of his long-dead ancestors. Not having Paris, or London, or Madrid, or Rome as the Mecca of his dreams, his pilgrimage now carried him to the infidel realities of the North,--to Washington, New York, New Orleans, Newport and Atlantic City! He had the money for travel, so why stay at home? He had the money to waste, so why not dissipate? He had the thirst for sin, so why famish?
There were lovely women on board, and children with and without the golden spoon; there were men whose names were known on both sides of the Atlantic and whose reputations for integrity, sagacity, intellect, and,--it must be confessed,--corruptness, (with the author's apology for the inclusion); doughty but dogmatic university men who had penetrated the wildernesses as naturalists, entomologists, mineralogists, archaeologists, explorers; sportsmen who had forsaken the lion, rhinoceros, hartebeest and elephant of Africa for the jaguar, cougar, armadillo and anteater of South America; soldiers
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