The Mysterious Cargo
"Wake up, Cole! The ship's on fire!"
It was young Ready's hollow voice, as cool, however, as though he were telling me I was late for breakfast. I started up and sought him wildly in the darkness.
"You're joking," was my first thought and utterance; for now he was lighting my candle, and blowing out the match with a care that seemed in itself a contradiction.
"I wish I were," he answered. "Listen to that!"
He pointed to my cabin ceiling; it quivered and creaked; and all at once I was as a deaf man healed.
One gets inured to noise at sea, but to this day it passes me how even I could have slept an instant in the abnormal din which I now heard raging above my head. Sea-boots stamped; bare feet pattered; men bawled; women shrieked; shouts of terror drowned the roar of command.
"Have we long to last?" I asked, as I leaped for my clothes.
"Long enough for you to dress comfortably. Steady, old man! It's only just been discovered; they may get it under. The panic's the worst part at present, and we're out of that."
But was Eva Denison? Breathlessly I put the question; his answer was reassuring. Miss Denison was with her step-father on the poop. "And both of 'em as cool as cucumbers," added Ready.
They could not have been cooler than this young man, with death at the bottom of his bright and sunken eyes. He was of the type which is all muscle and no constitution; athletes one year, dead men the next; but until this moment the athlete had been to me a mere and incredible tradition. In the afternoon I had seen his lean knees totter under the captain's fire. Now, at midnight - the exact time by my watch - it was as if his shrunken limbs had expanded in his clothes; he seemed hardly to know his own flushed face, as he caught sight of it in my mirror.
"By Jove!" said he, "this has put me in a fine old fever; but I don't know when I felt in better fettle. If only they get it under! I've not looked like this all the voyage."
And he admired himself while I dressed in hot haste: a fine young fellow; not at all the natural egotist, but cast for death by the doctors, and keenly incredulous in his bag of skin. It revived one's confidence to hear him talk. But he forgot himself in an instant, and gave me a lead through the saloon with a boyish eagerness that made me actually suspicious as I ran. We were nearing the Line. I recalled the excesses of my last crossing, and I prepared for some vast hoax at the last moment. It was only when we plunged upon the crowded quarter-deck, and my own eyes read lust of life and dread of death in the starting eyes of others, that such lust and such dread consumed me in my turn, so that my veins seemed filled with fire and ice.
To be fair to those others, I think that the first wild panic was subsiding even then; at least there was a lull, and even a reaction in the right direction on the part of the males in the second class and steerage. A huge Irishman at their head, they were passing buckets towards the after-hold; the press of people hid the hatchway from us until we gained the poop; but we heard the buckets spitting and a hose-pipe hissing into the flames below; and we saw the column of white vapor rising steadily from their midst.
At the break of the poop stood Captain Harris, his legs planted wide apart, very vigorous, very decisive, very profane. And I must confess that the shocking oaths which had brought us round the Horn inspired a kind of confidence in me now. Besides, even from the poop I could see no flames. But the night was as beautiful as it had been an hour or two back; the stars as brilliant, the breeze even more balmy, the sea even more calm; and we were hove-to already, against the worst.
In this hour of peril the poop was very properly invaded by all classes of passengers, in all manner of incongruous apparel, in all stages of fear, rage, grief and hysteria; as we made our way among this motley nightmare throng, I took Ready by the arm.
"The skipper's a brute," said I, "but he's the right brute in the right place to-night, Ready !"
"I hope he may be," was the reply. "But we were off our course this afternoon; and we were off it again during the concert, as sure as we're not on it now."
His tone made me draw him to the rail.
"But how do you know? You didn't have another look, did you?"
"Lots of looks-at the stars. He couldn't keep me from consulting them; and I'm just as certain of it as I'm certain that we've a cargo aboard which we're none of us supposed to know anything about."
The latter piece of gossip was, indeed, all over the ship; but this allusion to it struck me as foolishly irrelevant and frivolous. As to the other matter, I suggested that the officers would have had more to say about it than Ready, if there had been anything in it.
"Officers be damned!" cried our consumptive, with a sound man's vigor. "They're ordinary seamen dressed up; I don't believe they've a second mate's certificate between them, and they're frightened out of their souls."
"Well, anyhow, the skipper isn't that."
"No; he's drunk; he can shout straight, but you should hear him try to speak."
I made my way aft without rejoinder. "Invalid's pessimism," was my private comment. And yet the sick man was whole for the time being; the virile spirit was once more master of the recreant members; and it was with illogical relief that I found those I sought standing almost unconcernedly beside the binnacle.
My little friend was, indeed, pale enough, and her eyes great with dismay; but she stood splendidly calm, in her travelling cloak and bonnet, and with all my soul I hailed the hardihood with which I had rightly credited my love. Yes! I loved her then. It had come home to me at last, and I no longer denied it in my heart. In my innocence and my joy I rather blessed the fire for showing me her true self and my own; and there I stood, loving her openly with my eyes (not to lose another instant), and bursting to tell her so with my lips.
But there also stood Senhor Santos, almost precisely as I had seen him last, cigarette, tie-pin, and all. He wore an overcoat, however, and leaned upon a massive ebony cane, while he carried his daughter's guitar in its case, exactly as though they were waiting for a train. Moreover, I thought that for the first time he was regarding me with no very favoring glance.
"You don't think it serious?" I asked him abruptly, my heart still bounding with the most incongruous joy.
He gave me his ambiguous shrug; and then, "A fire at sea is surely sirrious," said he.
"Where did it break out ?"
"No one knows; it may have come of your concert."
"But they are getting the better of it?"
"They are working wonders so far, senhor."
"You see, Miss Denison," I continued ecstatically, "our rough old diamond of a skipper is the right man in the right place after all. A tight man in a tight place, eh?" and I laughed like an idiot in their calm grave faces.
"Senhor Cole is right," said Santos, "although his 'ilarity sims a leetle out of place. But you must never spik against Captain 'Arrees again, menma."
"I never will," the poor child said; yet I saw her wince whenever the captain raised that hoarse voice of his in more and more blasphemous exhortation; and I began to fear with Ready that the man was drunk.
My eyes were still upon my darling, devouring her, revelling in her, when suddenly I saw her hand twitch within her step-father's arm. It was an answering start to one on his part. The cigarette was snatched from his lips. There was a commotion forward, and a cry came aft, from mouth to mouth:
"The flames! The flames !"
I turned, and caught their reflection on the white column of smoke and steam. I ran forward, and saw them curling and leaping in the hell-mouth of the hold.
The quarter-deck now staged a lurid scene: that blazing trap-door in its midst; and each man there a naked demon madly working to save his roasting skin. Abaft the mainmast the deck-pump was being ceaselessly worked by relays of the passengers; dry blankets were passed forward, soaking blankets were passed aft, and flung flat into the furnace one after another. These did more good than the pure water: the pillar of smoke became blacker, denser: we were at a crisis; a sudden hush denoted it; even our hoarse skipper stood dumb.
I had rushed down into the waist of the ship - blushing for my delay - and already I was tossing blankets with the rest. Looking up in an enforced pause, I saw Santos whispering in the skipper's ear, with the expression of a sphinx but no lack of foreign gesticulation - behind them a fringe of terror-stricken faces, parted at that instant by two more figures, as wild and strange as any in that wild, strange scene. One was our luckless lucky digger, the other a gigantic Zambesi nigger, who for days had been told off to watch him; this was the servant (or rather the slave) of Senhor Santos.
The digger planted himself before the captain. His face was reddened by a fire as consuming as that within the bowels of our gallant ship. He had a huge, unwieldy bundle under either arm.
"Plain question - plain answer," we heard him stutter. "Is there any *** chance of saving this *** ship?"
His adjectives were too foul for print; they were given with such a special effort at distinctness, however, that I was smiling one instant, and giving thanks the next that Eva Denison had not come forward with her guardian. Meanwhile the skipper had exchanged a glance with Senhor Santos, and I think we all felt that he was going to tell us the truth.
He told it in two words - "Very little."
Then the first individual tragedy was enacted before every eye. With a yell the drunken maniac rushed to the rail. The nigger was at his heels - he was too late. Uttering another and more piercing shriek, the madman was overboard at a bound; one of his bundles preceded him; the other dropped like a cannon-ball on the deck.
The nigger caught it up and carried it forward to the captain.
Harris held up his hand. We were still before we had fairly found our tongues. His words did run together a little, but he was not drunk.
"Men and women," said he, "what I told that poor devil is Gospel truth; but I didn't tell him we'd no chance of saving our lives, did I? Not me, because we have! Keep your heads and listen to me. There's two good boats on the davits amidships; the chief will take one, the second officer the other; and there ain't no reason why every blessed one of you shouldn't sleep in Ascension to-morrow night. As for me, let me see every soul off of my ship and perhaps I may follow; but by the God that made you, look alive! Mr. Arnott - Mr. McClellan - man them boats and lower away. You can't get quit o' the ship too soon, an' I don't mind tellin' you why. I'll tell you the worst, an' then you'll know. There's been a lot o' gossip goin', gossip about my cargo. I give out as I'd none but ship's stores and ballast, an' I give out a lie. I don't mind tellin' you now. I give out a cussed lie, but I give it out for the good o' the ship! What was the use o' frightenin' folks? But where's the sense in keepin' it back now? We have a bit of a cargo," shouted Harris; "and it's gunpowder - every damned ton of it!"
The effect of this announcement may be imagined; my hand has not the cunning to reproduce it on paper; and if it had, it would shrink from the task. Mild men became brutes, brutal men, devils, women - God help them! - shrieking beldams for the most part. Never shall I forget them with their streaming hair, their screaming open mouths, and the cruel ascending fire glinting on their starting eyeballs!
Pell-mell they tumbled down the poop-ladders; pell-mell they raced amidships past that yawning open furnace; the pitch was boiling through the seams of the crackling deck; they slipped and fell upon it, one over another, and the wonder is that none plunged headlong into the flames. A handful remained on the poop, cowering and undone with terror. Upon these turned Captain Harris, as Ready and I, stemming the torrent of maddened humanity, regained the poop ourselves.
"For'ard with ye!" yelled the skipper. "The powder's underneath you in the lazarette!"
They were gone like hunted sheep. And now abaft the flaming hatchway there were only we four surviving saloon passengers, the captain, his steward, the Zambesi negro, and the quarter-master at the wheel. The steward and the black I observed putting stores aboard the captain's gig as it overhung the water from the stern davits.
"Now, gentlemen," said Harris to the two of us, "I must trouble you to step forward with the rest. Senhor Santos insists on taking his chance along with the young lady in my gig. I've told him the risk, but he insists, and the gig'll hold no more."
"But she must have a crew, and I can row. For God's sake take me, captain!" cried I; for Eva Denison sat weeping in her deck chair, and my heart bled faint at the thought of leaving her, I who loved her so, and might die without ever telling her my love! Harris, however, stood firm.
"There's that quartermaster and my steward, and Jose the nigger," said he. "That's quite enough, Mr. Cole, for I ain't above an oar myself; but, by God, I'm skipper o' this here ship, and I'll skip her as long as I remain aboard!"
I saw his hand go to his belt; I saw the pistols stuck there for mutineers. I looked at Santos. He answered me with his neutral shrug, and, by my soul, he struck a match and lit a cigarette in that hour of life and death! Then last I looked at Ready; and he leant invertebrate over the rail, gasping pitiably from his exertions in regaining the poop, a dying man once more. I pointed out his piteous state.
"At least," I whispered, "you won't refuse to take him?"
"Will there be anything to take?" said the captain brutally.
Santos advanced leisurely, and puffed his cigarette over the poor wasted and exhausted frame.
"It is for you to decide, captain," said he cynically; "but this one will make no deeference. Yes, I would take him. It will not be far," he added, in a tone that was not the less detestable for being lowered.
"Take them both!" moaned little Eva, putting in her first and last sweet word.
"Then we all drown, Evasinha," said her stepfather. "It is impossible."
"We're too many for her as it is," said the captain. "So for'ard with ye, Mr. Cole, before it's too late."
But my darling's brave word for me had fired my blood, and I turned with equal resolution on Harris and on the Portuguese. "I will go like a lamb," said I, "if you will first give me five minutes' conversation with Miss Denison. Otherwise I do not go; and as for the gig, you may take me or leave me, as you choose."
"What have you to say to her?" asked Santos, coming up to me, and again lowering his voice.
I lowered mine still more. "That I love her!" I answered in a soft ecstasy. "That she may remember how I loved her, if I die!"
His shoulders shrugged a cynical acquiescence.
"By all mins, senhor; there is no harm in that."
I was at her side before another word could pass his withered lips.
"Miss Denison, will you grant me five minutes', conversation? It may be the last that we shall ever have together!"
Uncovering her face, she looked at me with a strange terror in her great eyes; then with a questioning light that was yet more strange, for in it there was a wistfulness I could not comprehend. She suffered me to take her hand, however, and to lead her unresisting to the weather rail.
"What is it you have to say?" she asked me in her turn. "What is it that you - think?"
Her voice fell as though she must have the truth.
"That we have all a very good chance," said I heartily.
"Is that all ?" cried Eva, and my heart sank at her eager manner.
She seemed at once disappointed and relieved. Could it be possible she dreaded a declaration which she had foreseen all along? My evil first experience rose up to warn me. No, I would not speak now; it was no time. If she loved me, it might make her love me less; better to trust to God to spare us both.
"Yes, it is all," I said doggedly.
She drew a little nearer, hesitating. It was as though her disappointment had gained on her relief.
"Do you know what I thought you were going to say?"
"Dare I tell you?"
"You can trust me."
Her pale lips parted. Her great eyes shone. Another instant, and she had told me that which I would have given all but life itself to know. But in that tick of time a quick step came behind me, and the light went out of the sweet face upturned to mine.
"I cannot! I must not! Here is - that man!"
Senhor Santos was all smiles and rings of pale-blue smoke.
"You will be cut off, friend Cole," said he. "The fire is spreading."
"Let it spread!" I cried, gazing my very soul into the young girl's eyes. "We have not finished our conversation.
"We have!" said she, with sudden decision. "Go - go - for my sake - for your own sake - go at once!"
She gave me her hand. I merely clasped it. And so I left her at the rail-ah, heaven! how often we had argued on that very spot! So I left her, with the greatest effort of all my life (but one); and yet in passing, full as my heart was of love and self, I could not but lay a hand on poor Ready's shoulders.
"God bless you, old boy!" I said to him.
He turned a white face that gave me half an instant's pause.
"It's all over with me this time," he said. "But, I say, I was right about the cargo?"
And I heard a chuckle as I reached the ladder; but Ready was no longer in my mind; even Eva was driven out of it, as I stood aghast on the top-most rung.Next