The Great Secret/Chapter 10

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CHAPTER X.

THE WRECK.

The Rochhampton was rushing south at her fastest rate, and already the Anarchists had ransacked the ship for warmer clothing, for they had left the mild latitudes and were well within the influence of the Antarctic currents, where the still distant ice and snow fields could be smelt. Ten days had passed since they had captured the vessel, and the weather had been uniformly fine during that period. Two days more and they would be safe at anchorage in their new settlement, Comprado Island; this Captain Anatole had assured them in his easy and confident manner.

"The day after to-morrow, just about breakfast, comrades, we shall behold the lofty ranges and wide fjords of our future island—a place like Norway, picturesque and grand, where coal is plentiful, and, as the learned doctor will tell you, which offers every facility to investigation. It is not quite so genial a climate as I should like, but it has the advantage of being safe and out of the way."

"Yes," replied the doctor, in a musing voice. "It has the advantage of being the oldest portion now above water of the globe—the site of the most ancient of races, the almost mythical Atalanta—where men lived as we intend to do, whom the orthodox theorists term the Satanic races."

"I like the title satanic race," broke in the flippant Baroness von Hilda.

"Let us excavate the remains of that race and found ourselves upon them."

"You have done so already, my dear baroness. The satanic races were supposed to be angels who refused to abide in Paradise, and chose Lemuria instead. The captain is leading us to Lemuria, and we are carrying our angels with us, so that we shall be sure to provide the race you desire, with your aid."

"You are always charming, doctor," returned the baroness shortly, turning from him.

She was thirty-five already, and had not yet presented the baron with an heir.

They were at present dining in the second saloon, and had lit a fire in the grate to keep them warm, for the cold ice breath of that mysterious southern ocean chilled the air so that few could remain on the upper deck for longer than some moments at a time. The days also were growing shorter, and the nights longer and more desolate.

"It was snowing to-night when I came off the bridge," observed Captain Anatole, "and seems likely to be a heavy night."

"I trust that it does not snow perpetually in this land we are going to," remarked the Countess de Bergamont, " for that would be a land of desolation indeed."

"No," replied the doctor. "The summers there are simply delicious; but it is winter now, therefore we must expect rough and cold weather."

"How it is already piling outside the portholes," continued the countess.

Yes, the flakes were coming down heavily and driving about wildly, for the wind had risen during the afternoon. The ship also was pitching a little on those long, wide Antarctic rollers, pitching more than she had done in the tempestuous Bay of Biscay, for the southern ocean rollers sweep higher and wider apart than any other waves.

But even the most delicate amongst those adventurers were not much inconvenienced by this motion. They had now their sea-legs, therefore eat their dinner calmly as if they had been in a hotel.

The engines were working in good order, and the fuel still plentiful, while as for provisions they were not likely to run short for the next twelve months, so that, having everything to comfort them, they were fairly content and happy.

The Princess Sebastopol was a tall, flaxen-haired, white-skinned, blue-eyed Muscovite. She had been sent with her husband to Siberia for Nihilism, but they had made their escape. She was thirty years younger than the prince, who, being a very commonplace old man, who seldom opened his mouth or put himself forward, it is not worth while describing. His one passion was well founded jealousy of his young wife, who was a cold-blooded and shameless coquette, yet he had the discretion to keep his passion and misery to himself.

The Countess de Bergamont had modelled herself for years after the style of the fashionable demi-monde of Paris. Her hair was golden, her eyebrows pencilled, her cheeks rouged and powdered, still she looked well, and conducted herself as her models do. She had been in several prisons, as also had her husband, and not always for political reasons. The count was a thin, little, bald-headed man, with sharp features, well known about the gambling resorts. He was not at all jealous, for he had trained this woman to be what she was.

These three ladies were what might be termed the leaders of this Anarchical society, and the doctor might well feel satisfied with his female comrades, for there was not a good woman amongst them. It was a ship of abandoned and degraded souls, at unity only in their hatred of humanity outside their own ring, having one virtue only: that of fidelity to themselves, or rather to their cause.

They were murderers and murderesses, as well as profligates and obscene animals, yet none had as yet betrayed a brother or a sister. Fear made them faithful in that respect, for they were spies on each other, using their amours and their friendships for the purpose of probing their secrets; therefore they played at love and friendship, while their every movement was a sham. They were hopeless cynics, who had used up the emotions of life long ago, and could no longer enjoy any pleasure really.

They laughed, however, loudly, and made dubious remarks that were even understood by the youngest, enjoying the forced hilarity of pandemonium, while the doctor and the other chiefs sat listening to them gravely as they smoked their cigarettes; and while they cracked their nuts and drank their wine the storm increased outside, and the watchers on the bridge and at the wheel became like snow statues with that whirling and heavy drift.

Nothing could be seen in front of them with that dense falling shroud; the decks, rails, yards and shrouds were already thickly coated with snow. The sky was filled with the falling flakes. The wind howled dismally amongst the rigging and cut their faces like knives, so keen and raw it was, while the rollers broke against their bows with thundering crashes that swallowed up all other sounds. Still the captain was easy in his mind as he sat below, drank his wine, and puffed his cigarette, for, according to his reckoning, they were two days from their destination, and ploughing an open sea.

All at once their doom came upon them, almost with the suddenness of the explosion that had given them the ship. The engines going full speed, the diners below laughing or listening to the dubious jokes. The women playing the wantons, the men feigning to be charmed with those stale old tricks, the men on the bridge and at the wheel wishing their watch was over, and the crowd of refugees hiding below. It came with a smash, as when two steam-engines meet, and the noble Rockhampton was a total wreck in a second of time, while the people were scattered in all directions.

Down in the engine-rooms, three of the men acting as engineers were pitched headlong amongst the machinery and broken in pieces, their bones crushed, and their flesh torn out of all semblance of humanity before they had time to realise that the vessel had struck. Below, in the stoking hells, the 'seedy' boys were being roasted to death. The men on the bridge and at the wheel were chucked, like bits of wood, over the side and into the boiling wash.

They had been making twenty knots an hour when tilted against those adamantine rocks, and still the engines were going, with no one to stop or turn them, urging the poor ship onwards where there was no way except destruction. Still the snow fell thickly and hid the death-dealing cliffs, while the winds shrieked, and the great Antarctic waves rose and rolled over the decks that Biscay waves could not wet.

In the second cabin the cushions and carpets saved the lives of many, yet all, when not killed outright, were bruised and battered with the concussion.

And while they lay stunned or dazed, a loud explosion roused up those who could be roused.

"Good God, my nitro-glycerine!" cried the doctor appalled, as he staggered to his feet, the blood streaming from a gash in his cheek-bone.

But it was not his chemicals that had exploded, it was the heated boilers that had burst with the rush of cold water upon them, and now the engines were indeed stopped, and for ever. In spite of her modern improvements and separate air divisions, the Rockhampton was settling down to her last berth, and filling rapidly. They had reached Comprado Island two days before the calculations of the confident Anatole.

It was well that the boilers had burst and the engines ceased working when they did, otherwise not one plate would have been left riveted to another in a few more seconds of time, nor one body left complete enough to contain a soul. Each time the great waves receded from those snow-curtained cliffs, they dragged the struggling wreck back a few fathoms, in spite of her powerful screw urging her to the rocks, and when they once again added their own mighty force and rush to her speed the concussions were fearful and death-dealing, not the best tempered steel or iron plates could stand against the united efforts of waves, winds and steam.

Well also for those still left alive, to whom a few moments of time were of more value than tons of gold, that the doctor's nitro-glycerine and other chemical explosives were securely packed, and with extra precautions against heat and concussion, otherwise with the vessel the Anarchists would have been sent in detached pieces to the top of those lofty cliffs, at the bottom of which they were being butted to death.

It was a fit and terrible retribution for the sanguinary crimes which they had committed under the sacred names of Liberty and Equality, a rapid and fearful termination to their adventure.

The engines had stopped now, so that the giant breakers had the victim all in their own grasp, and ruthlessly they played their game with this new toy, this noble creation of art and science. Backward they sucked her as they broke, and fled themselves before the shock of those bulwarks of ages. Forwards they dashed her like a stone from a catapult, rushing with her and over her with savage roaring, like merry white witches in their demoniac joy over the work of destruction.

She was no longer a stately object as she was tossed to and fro with gaping sides and twisted plates. Her bows had shrivelled up at the first touch, and now her air compartments were being broken one after the other. Her masts were quickly shaken out of her, and now helped the cruel waves in the fell work—a helpless and shapeless mass of still floating iron this noble Rockhampton would have appeared, had those heavenly flakes not mercifully covered her from all eyes.

Captain Anatole sprang to his feet almost as soon as the doctor, while some of the others began to recover their senses. The princess, the baroness and the countess were up first, with all their wits sharpened by the imminent danger, for although they were luxurious wantons in the hours of rest and peace, they were tigresses in battle and resolute in moments of peril.

"On deck all who can come, and at once," shouted the captain, in a voice of thunder, as he sprang to the companion, and led the way, the others following as best they could.

It was not easy work to move at all as one wished on this heaving, rocking and tossing hulk, with the white curd dashing over them and lifting them from their feet, yet Captain Anatole was a prompt man, even if a foolishly confident one. With frantic haste, and unaided, he seized up a coil of rope, and fastening one end to the stump of the only funnel left, he unwound the coil, and rolled the other end round his body.

"What are you going to do, comrade?" shouted the doctor in his ear.

"Do my best to reach the shore, or perish in the attempt. Hold on by the rope, and if I succeed, you shall soon know, then come on as best you can. If I fail, then farewell—I have done my best to repair my error."

"Good!" answered the doctor, and as he spoke Anatole was gone, into that vague, snowy and spurning darkness.

Twice the hulk dashed forward and drew back after a concussion that seemed annihilation; then, as she paused for the third heavy and what seemed likely to be the last charge, the doctor felt the rope become taut, Anatole had succeeded.

"Come along, all who can hold on," cried the doctor, as he went first, hand over hand along the line, careless as to who followed him so long as he escaped himself.

It was no time to faint or play the dainty coquette, and these women knew it, each had their own part to do unaided, or succumb, for the bond of comradeship ended with the beginning of that rope. The doctor had vanished, so also the Princess Sebastopol, who was a strong woman with a tenacious grasp; therefore the others, who could, dashed themselves madly after her and the doctor.

The wreck was being urged again towards the shore, so that the rope slackened and the clingers were submerged, those washed away who lost their presence of mind, still some clung wisely to their only refuge and went on, hand over hand, even although choking with the brine and boil of surf, amongst which they were flung like bits of matchwood.

Anatole had shown wisdom in the direction he had taken, for the rope went slantways from the point towards which the wreck was driven, so that those who clung fast were not crushed between it and the rocks.

She had struck again and was once more drawn back by the waves—a black mass not a third of her original size, yet floating still, thereby showing how wonderfully well she had been joined and proved before beginning this fatal voyage.

And as she drew back with a shiver that made the rope tingle within the despairing hands, it once again became taut, jerking the half-drowned wretches clean into space, for the captain had fastened his end at a height.

Only five survivors were left on that straining rope, as it jerked them out of the surf, the weaker ones having succumbed to the cold and fury of the sea, and these survivors held on more by instinct and desperation than consciousness, for they were dazed and almost senseless with the battering and submerging, while nothing could be heard except that thundering, and shrieking as of some mighty waterfall, and nothing seen through that blinding snowfall.

But they had reached the rocks, for they could feel the broken and rugged surface against their benumbed limbs as they struggled, one after the other, to the ledge whereon Captain Anatole lay bruised and half dead, yet he had achieved his purpose, and proved himself a brave and energetic man, even if he had failed as a mariner.

One by one they crawled over the ledge like half-drowned flies until they reached his side, where they lay down hopeless, helpless, and chilled to the marrow.