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- THE CRUSADE OF THE EXCELSIOR - 6/44 -
Without exchanging another word with his escort, Senor Perkins followed him to the main hatch, where they descended and groped their way through the half obscurity of the lower deck. Here they passed one or two shadows, that, recognizing the Senor, seemed to draw aside in a half awed, half suppressed shyness, as of caged animals in the presence of their trainer. At the fore-hatch they again descended, passing a figure that appeared to be keeping watch at the foot of the ladder, and almost instantly came upon a group lit up by the glare of a bull's-eye lantern. It was composed of the first and second mate, a vicious-looking Peruvian sailor with a bandaged head, and, to the Senor's astonishment, the missing passenger Hurlstone, seated on the deck, heavily ironed.
"Tell him what you know, Pedro," said the first mate to the Peruvian sailor curtly.
"It was just daybreak, Patrono, before we put about," began the man in Spanish, "that I thought I saw some one gliding along towards the fore-hatch; but I lost sight of him. After we had tumbled up to go on the other tack, I heard a noise in the fore-hold. I went down and found HIM," pointing to Hurlstone, "hiding there. He had some provisions stowed away beside him, and that package. I grabbed him, Patrono. He broke away and struck me here"--he pointed to his still wet bandage--"and would have got out overboard through the port, but the second mate heard the row and came down just in time to stop him."
"When was this?" asked Senor Perkins.
"Guardia di Diana."
"You were chattering, you fellows."
"Quien sabe?" said the Peruvian, lifting his shoulders.
"How does he explain himself?"
"He refuses to speak."
"Take off his irons," said Senor Perkins, in English.
"But"--expostulated the first mate, with a warning gesture.
"I said--take off his irons," repeated Senor Perkins in a dry and unfamiliar voice.
The two mates released the shackles. The prisoner raised his eyes to Senor Perkins. He was a slightly built man of about thirty, fair-haired and hollow-cheeked. His short upper lip was lifted over his teeth, as if from hurried or labored breathing; but his features were regular and determined, and his large blue eyes shone with a strange abstraction of courage and fatuity.
"That will do," continued the Senor, in the same tone. "Now leave him with me."
The two mates looked at each other, and hesitated; but at a glance from Perkins, turned, and ascended the ladder again. The Peruvian alone remained.
"Go!" said the Senor sharply.
The man cast a vindictive look at the prisoner and retreated sullenly.
"Did HE tell you," said the prisoner, looking after the sailor grimly, "that I tried to bribe him to let me go, but that I couldn't reach his figure? He wanted too much. He thought I had some stolen money or valuables here," he added, with a bitter laugh, pointing to the package that lay beside him.
"And you hadn't?" said Perkins shortly.
"I believe you. And now, my young friend," said Perkins, with a singular return of his beaming gentleness, "since those two efficient and competent officers and this energetic but discourteous seaman are gone, would you mind telling me WHAT you were hiding for?"
The prisoner raised his eyes on his questioner. For the last three weeks he had lived in the small community of which the Senor was a prominent member, but he scarcely recognized him now.
"What if I refuse?" he said.
The Senor shrugged his shoulders.
"Those two excellent men would feel it their duty to bring the Peruvian to the captain, and I should be called to interpret to him."
"And I should throw myself overboard the first chance I got. I would have done so ten minutes ago, but the mate stopped me."
His eye glistened with the same fatuous determination he had shown at first. There was no doubt he would do as he said.
"I believe you would," said the Senor benevolently; "but I see no present necessity for that, nor for any trouble whatever, if you will kindly tell me WHAT I am to say."
The young man's eyes fell.
"I DID try to conceal myself in the hold," he said bluntly. "I intended to remain there hidden while the ship was at Mazatlan. I did not know until now that the vessel had changed her course."
"And how did you believe your absence would be accounted for?" asked the Senor blandly.
"I thought it would be supposed that I had fallen overboard before we entered Mazatlan."
"So that anybody seeking you there would not find you, and you would be believed to be dead?"
"Yes." He raised his eyes quickly to Senor Perkins again. "I am neither a thief nor a murderer," he said almost savagely, "but I do not choose to be recognized by any one who knows me on this side of the grave."
Senor Perkins' eyes sought his, and for an instant seemed to burn through the singular, fatuous mist that veiled them.
"My friend," he said cheerfully, after a moment's pause, "you have just had a providential escape. I repeat it--a most providential escape. Indeed, if I were inclined to prophesy, I would say you were a man reserved for some special good fortune."
The prisoner stared at him with angry amazement.
"You are a confirmed somnambulist. Excuse me," continued the Senor, with a soft, deprecating gesture; "you are, of course, unaware of it--most victims of that singular complaint are, or at least fail to recognize the extent of their aberration. In your case it has only been indicated by a profound melancholy and natural shunning of society. In a paroxysm of your disorder, you rise in the night, fully dress yourself, and glide as unconsciously along the deck in pursuance of some vague fancy. You pass the honest but energetic sailor who has just left us, who thinks you are a phantom, and fails to give the alarm; you are precipitated by a lurch of the ship through an open hatchway: the shock renders you insensible until you are discovered and restored."
"And who will believe this pretty story?" said the young man scornfully.
"The honest sailor who picked you up, who has related it in his own picturesque tongue to ME, who will in turn interpret it to the captain and the other passengers," replied Senor Perkins blandly.
"And what of the two mates who were here?" said the prisoner hesitatingly.
"They are two competent officers, who are quite content to carry out the orders of their superiors, and who understand their duty too well to interfere with the reports of their subordinates, on which these orders are based. Mr. Brooks, the first officer, though fairly intelligent and a good reader of history, is only imperfectly acquainted with the languages, and Mr. M'Carthy's knowledge of Spanish is confined to a few objurgations which generally preclude extended conversation."
"And who are you," said Hurlstone, more calmly, "who are willing to do this for a stranger?"
"A friend--equally of yours, the captain's, and the other passengers'," replied Senor Perkins pleasantly. "A man who believes you, my dear sir, and, even if he did not, sees no reason to interrupt the harmony that has obtained in our little community during our delightful passage. Were any scandal to occur, were you to carry out your idea of throwing yourself overboard, it would, to say nothing of my personal regret, produce a discord for which there is no necessity, and from which no personal good can be derived. Here at least your secret is secure, for even I do not ask what it is; we meet here on an equality, based on our own conduct and courtesy to each other, limited by no antecedent prejudice, and restrained by no thought of the future. In a little while we shall be separated--why should it not be as friends? Why should we not look back upon our little world of this ship as a happy one?"
Hurlstone gazed at the speaker with a troubled air. It was once more the quaint benevolent figure whom he had vaguely noted among the other passengers, and as vaguely despised. He hesitated a moment, and then, half timidly, half reservedly, extended his hand.
"I thank you," he said, "at least for not asking my secret. Perhaps, if it was only"--
"Your own--you might tell it," interrupted the Senor, gayly. "I understand. I see you recognize my principle. There is no necessity of your putting yourself to that pain, or another to that risk. And now, my young friend, time presses. I must say a word to our friends above, who are waiting, and I shall see that you are
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