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- West Wind Drift - 6/60 -
be his lot.
The Second Officer had been regarding Percival with ever-growing suspicion.
"Is there anything to prove, young man, that you are not the one who stayed behind to complete the job?" he demanded at last.
"Nothing," said Percival promptly, and somewhat scathingly, "nothing at all, except the trifling fact that I am here talking it over with you gentlemen instead of attending to my business, as any honest conspirator should be doing. You may be quite sure of one thing: if there is a man on board this ship whose business it is to finish the job, he isn't idle. He's getting on with the job at this minute, gentlemen. If you'll take my advice you will institute two investigations. First, search the ship from stem to stern, from keel to bridge, for bombs or infernal machines. Second, ask your rich passengers if they have lost anything in the shape of pearls, diamonds, coin of the realm, or anything else worth jumping into the ocean for."
Captain Trigger looked at him over the top of his eye-glasses.
"You are not in Copperhead Camp at present, Mr. Percival," he said stiffly.
The young man flushed. "I beg your pardon, Captain Trigger," he said simply.
"All you have to do," said the Second Officer, fixing him with an inimical eye, "is to answer questions and not to tell us how to run this ship."
Percival did his best to hold back the retort, but, failing, released it with considerable sharpness:
"Well, if I was running this ship I'd head her for shore pretty damned quick."
The American in command of the gun-crew was the only one who smiled, and he did it openly. Captain Trigger's face darkened redly.
"Take this man in charge, Mr. Shannon. He wants work. Give it him. Under guard."
"Am I suspected, Captain Trigger, of being in league--"
"Every man, every woman on board this ship is suspected," said the Captain with decision. "Every one, sir, from myself down. The rest of us grasp that fact, even if you do not."
And so it was that while Algernon Adonis Percival, under the watchful eye of a burly seaman, fell to work scraping the scuppers on the boat deck, the stern business of searching the ship went forward with a thoroughness that left no room for doubt as to the fears and apprehensions of the men who had her in charge. Despite the fact that intensive, anxious hours of delving revealed no hidden, sinister agent of destruction, there was no relaxation on the part of the officers and crew. One by one the passengers were examined; their rooms and their luggage were systematically overhauled. No one resented these drastic operations, for by midday the whole ship's company knew what had transpired during the night. Eagerly they answered the questions, cheerfully they submitted to the examination of their effects, and then fell silent and subdued, oppressed by the suspense that hung over the ship like a cloud. Crew and passengers alike underwent the most rigid questioning, the high and the low, the rich and the poor, the young and the old.
Early that morning, in fact some time prior to the time that Percival told his story, the wireless operator reported that his transmitter was out of order. While he was satisfied that the apparatus had not been tampered with, he was plainly affected by the rather grim coincidence. He was an old and trusted man in the service, competent, efficient and loyal.
His assistant, the night operator, however, had made less than half a dozen voyages on the Doraine. He was an Englishman, a cripple; twice he had been rescued after vessels on which he sailed were sent to the bottom by German submarines. His credentials were flawless. He was on duty during the night just past, and had picked up several indistinct, incomplete radio messages. There was nothing wrong with the receiving or transmitting apparatus when he went off duty at six in the morning, and as his superior came on at the same hour,--they exchanged greetings at the door of the wireless house,--it was absolutely impossible for any one to have entered the well-guarded room without attracting attention. Cruise, the chief radio-man, had his assistant routed out of bed and together they worked like beavers over the disabled mechanism.
Hour after hour, the nervous, uneasy passengers paced the decks. Few remained indoors, and few possessed the calmness to loll in deck-chairs.
Percival toiled cheerfully, but with eye and ear alert for the first inkling of definite peril. With commendable thoughtfulness, he had shed the clean white shirt and collar so generously supplied by his fellow townsman, and had donned a commodious sea-jacket.
He could not help observing the dark, suspicious glances cast upon him by the deck-walkers, nor were his ears proof against audible comments. Mothers nudged their children and said, in slightly lowered but distinctly impressive tones:
"That's the man. He's a stowaway."
"See, Wilfred,--see the man? No, no! The one with the mop, dear. Don't go near him."
"What a dreadful looking creature he is."
"The Captain captured him this morning away down in the bottom of the ship. He was stealing a ride."
"Poor fellow! He doesn't look like a bad man, does he?"
And so on and so forth, as the day went along.
Masculine strollers had very decided opinions about him. Mr. Landover, the banker, stopped to discuss the toiling menial with Mr. Nicklestick, Mr. Block and Mr. Fitts.
"He ought to be in irons," said Mr. Landover, glowering at Percival. "That's what I told the Captain a little while ago. He's a bad egg, that fellow is. I'm a pretty good judge of men, gentlemen, and I don't often make mistakes. That fellow is a fugitive from justice, if he isn't something worse. Observe the cut of his mouth--ah! see that? What did I tell you? Did you ever see a more evil grin?"
"Take it from me," said Mr. Nicklestick, "that guy knows a good deal more about what is going on aboard this ship than he lets on. He ain't as simple as he looks. I told Captain Trigger just now that he ought to give him a dose of the third degree. That's the way to get to the bottom of this business. String him up by the thumbs till he squeals. What say, Mr. Fitts?"
Mr. Fitts, the architect, was a mild man.
"He strikes me as a rather honest looking sort of chap," he said, and was promptly glared at by his companions. "Of course," he hastened to add, "I am not saying that he is all right. He may be as crooked as the deuce. I'm only saying he's got a rather pleasing sort of face."
"The most innocent, open-faced young fellow we ever had in the bank," said Mr. Landover, "turned out to be the damnedest rascal I've ever encountered."
"How did you happen to have him in the bank if you are such a good judge of men?" inquired Mr. Fitts, utterly without malice.
Mr. Landover reddened. "My dear sir, I do not come in contact with every employe of the bank. You forget that it is quite an immense institution."
"It sure is," said Mr. Nicklestick. "I'm thinking of transferring our account to your bank, Mr. Landover. We've been banking with--"
"I vas telling my vife at lunch," broke in Mr. Block, twitching his Hebraic nose emphatically,--"not that we could eat any lunch, by gracious, no!--I vas telling her I bet my boots dere ain't enough life-boats to get as much as half of us off safe in case something happens. I counted up all the life-boats I could see, and ven I estimate the number of peoples on board, w'y, by gracious, the loss of life vould be frightful, gentlemen. The only chance we would haf would be for approxi-madely fifty percent of the peoples on board to be killed outright by the explosion."
"I hear there is a detective from Chicago on board, with a prisoner," ventured Mr. Fitts. "Why doesn't the Captain ask him to have a look at this stowaway fellow?"
"What would be the good of that?" demanded Mr. Landover. "I never saw a detective in my life that knew what to do in an emergency. Soon as you get one of them where he can't telephone in to headquarters for instructions he's as helpless as a baby. Don't talk to me about detectives. Why, this fellow would simply laugh in his face."
"Just, as he is laughing in yours at this moment, Mr. Landover," pursued Mr. Fitts pleasantly.
"The damned rascal," said Mr. Landover, and stalked away.
"There goes one of the biggest figures in the United States," said Mr. Nicklestick, looking after the banker. His remark was addressed to Mr. Fitts. "I wish I had his brains."
"Dey vouldn't do you any good, Nicklestick," said Mr. Block, "unless you had his money too also."
"If I had his brains," said Mr. Nicklestick, "he wouldn't have his money, so what's the difference?"
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