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- West Wind Drift - 5/60 -
were good men there as well,--good, strong, righteous men. They were the leaven that made the whole thing palatable. Without them I could have had no authority. But I dare say I am boring you. The present situation is the one we're interested in, not the lordly past of your humble and, I trust, obedient servant."
His smile was most engaging, but back of it the two seamen read strength, decision, integrity. The gay, bantering, whilom attitude of this unusual young man was not assumed. It was not a pose. He was not a dare-devil, nor was he a care-free, unstable youth who had matured abruptly in the exercise of power. On the contrary, he was,--and Captain Trigger knew it,--the personification of confidence, an optimist to whom victory and defeat are equally unavoidable and therefore to be reckoned as one in the vast scheme of human endeavour; a fighter who merely rests on his arms but never lays them down; a spirit that absorbs the bitters and the sweets of life with equal relish.
Captain Trigger was not slow in making up his mind. This clean-minded, clean-bodied American with the confident though respectful smile, was a chap after his own heart.
"I hardly know what to do with you, Percival," he said, a scowl of genuine perplexity in his eyes. "You are not an ordinary transgressor. You are a gentleman. You have exercised an authority perhaps somewhat similar to my own,--possibly in some respects your position up there was even more autocratic, if I may use the term. I am not unconscious of all this, and yet I have no choice other than that designated by law. The regulations are unalterable. It is a matter of morale, pure and simple. We are compelled to treat all stowaways alike. Of course, I shall not subject you to the ordinary--shall we say methods of--"
"Pardon me, Captain," broke in the young man, his smile no longer in evidence; "I am asking no favours. I expect to be treated as an ordinary stowaway. Set me to work at anything you like and I will make as good a job of it as possible."
"I was about to suggest that you serve as a sort of assistant to Mr. Codge, the purser. I've no doubt he could find something for you to do and--"
"If that is your way of punishing me, Captain Trigger, of course there is nothing for me to do but to submit."
"Eh? I am sure you will not find Mr. Codge a hard taskmaster. He is quite a good-natured man."
"Extremely kind and considerate," hastily added Mr. Mott, reassuringly.
"But I don't want to loaf my passage home," protested Percival. "I want to be sentenced to the hardest sort of labour, if you don't mind. I don't want to owe this steamship company a penny when I step ashore. It is your duty, sir, as master of this ship, to put me on the meanest job you've got."
"My word!" exclaimed Captain Trigger.
"I'm blessed!" said Mr. Mott.
"Up where I've been running things and cock-walking like a foreman in a shirt-waist factory, I made the rules and I enforced them. I want to say to you that no favours were shown. If the Prince of Wales had drifted in there, dead broke, and asked for something to eat, he would have got it, but you bet your life he'd have had to work for it. A tramp's a tramp, no matter how much purple he's been used to, and you can say the same for a stowaway. What's the matter with me taking the place of one of those deck-hands, or whatever you call 'em, you lost last night?"
"Swabbers, maybe you call 'em. Men that mop up the decks after everybody else has turned in."
"What are you talking about?" demanded the Captain, sitting up very straight. Percival stared at him in astonishment.
"I thought you knew about it, of course. Good Lord, sir, don't you know that a couple of your men jumped overboard last night,--or early this morning, rather? Just as the ship was rounding that big headland--"
"Good God, man, are you in earnest?" cried Mr. Mott, starting toward the door.
"I certainly am. I took them for deserters, of course,--not suicides, because they didn't forget to put on life preservers before they jumped. I haven't a doubt they were picked up, so there's no use worrying. A minute or two after they went over,--from the bottom deck or whatever you call it,--I heard a motor boat popping away like a gatling-gun not far,--"
But he was alone. Captain Trigger had dashed out of the cabin in the wake of the First Officer.
Algernon Adonis Percival stared blankly at the open door.
"Good Lord, why all this excitement over a couple of bums?" he said, addressing space. "If they were working for me, I'd thank the Lord to be rid of 'em so cheaply. They--Hello!"
The Second Officer popped into the room.
"Come along with me," he snapped. "Lively, now. Just where and when did you see a couple of men go overboard? Quietly, now. We don't want to alarm the passengers."
Within five minutes after Percival's disturbing report, the officers of the Doraine, with set faces, were employed in a swift but silent investigation. Before many more minutes had passed, at least a portion of the stowaway's story had been verified. Two men were found to be missing, although, strange to say, they had not been missed up to the time that noses were counted. They were down on the ship's roster as Norwegians, New York registry, and had come down with the Doraine on her trip from the north.
Percival repeated his story, but had little to add in the way of detail. He had stolen on deck some time after midnight for a breath of air, risking detection, and from the shelter of a secluded corner well aft had heard the two men swabbing the deck below. Suddenly they ceased work, and he prepared to creep back to a place of safety, concluding that they were on their way to the upper deck.
He went to the rail to listen. The two men were almost directly below him, and he could see the upper portions of their figures as they leaned far out over the rail, apparently looking into the swirling waters below. Quite distinctly he heard one of them say, in English: "We got to do it now or never." The other mumbled something he could not distinguish. He was only mildly interested, not anticipating what was to follow. For a few seconds he heard them scrambling and puffing and then he saw them quite plainly on the rail, their figures bulky with what he identified as life buoys, a faint light from somewhere falling directly upon the grayish-white objects in which they were swathed.
One of them uttered the word "Now!" and to his amazement they shot out, as one man, into the black-ness below. There was a single splash. For a moment or two he stood spell-bound. Then he heard some one running along the deck below. Convinced that the incident had been witnessed by others, he darted into the companion-way and made his way back to the stateroom of the sick passenger. Through the lightless porthole he listened for the terrifying shout, "Man overboard!" It did not come, but his ear caught the staccato beat of a motor near by, striking up abruptly out of the swish of rushing waters. In his ignorance, he decided that it was a boat from the ship going to the rescue of the daring deserters, and calmly waited for the engines of the mighty Doraine to cease their rhythmic pulsing. He fell asleep.
When he awoke, he concluded that he had dreamed the whole thing. This conclusion was justified when he asked his wretched "bunkie" if he had observed him leaving the room during the night. The answer was a mournful negative, followed by the sufferer's more or less positive declaration that he was staring wide awake the whole damned night long.
Percival, unconvinced, boldly made his way to the lower deck and discovered that two life buoys were missing from their supports, a circumstance that put an end to the hope that he had dreamed it all. His own affairs however now loomed large, taking precedence over the plight of the men who had deliberately abandoned the ship. In any case, the ship's officers had done everything that could be done in the matter. He was genuinely astonished to learn that the act of the two men was unknown to the Captain.
A hurried conference of the ship's officers and the commander of the gun-crew resulted in a single but definite conclusion. The desperate, even suicidal manner in which the men left the ship signified but one thing: the absolute necessity of flight before an even more sinister peril confronted them. Not a man on board doubted for an instant that they had taken their chance in the waters as a part of a preconceived plan, and they had taken it with all the devilish hardihood of fanatics.
The presence of the motor craft, so far out from port, lurking with silent engine in the path of the steamship, could have but one significance. It represented one of the carefully thought-out details in a stupendous, far-reaching plot.
If there were signals between the motor boat and the two men aboard the steamship, they were not observed by the lookouts. In all probability no signals were given. The little craft was to be at a certain place at a certain hour,--and she was there! The men who jumped knew that she would be there. A black, tiny speck on the broad expanse of water, sheltered by a night of almost stygian darkness, she lay outside the narrow radius to which visual observation was confined, patiently waiting for the Doraine to pass a designated point. There was to be no miscalculation on the part of either the boat or the men who went over the side of the big steamship into the seething waters.
The closest inquiry among the members of the crew failed to reveal any one who had witnessed the leap of the men. Percival was positive, however, that some one ran along the lower deck, but whether toward or away from the spot where the men went over he had no means of knowing. He offered the suggestion that there were three persons actually involved, and that one of them, more than likely the victim of a coin-flipping decision, had remained on board to complete the work the trio had been chosen to perform, even though death was to
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