The Great Secret/Chapter 21

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When a man has done another a very great favour he naturally gets to like him, and reposes confidence in him. He is apt to make him free of his house and secrets, and treat him as if there had been a long-standing friendship between them. He considers that, if safe anywhere, he must be safe with the man he has befriended.

Whether the confidence so naturally reposed is justified by results is a doubtful question which has often been replied to in the negative. It all depends upon the nature of the man befriended. To bestow a benefit denotes a generous nature; to receive a benefit means nothing. The recipient may be a mean and malignant recipient of grace, without a spark of grace himself, or he may have nobility enough to feel, in its great and sacred meaning, the obligation.

Dr Fernandez and his three companions had received the greatest favour that human beings can receive from their fellows, and which ought to have rendered them staunch and loyal, even in spite of their faithless and bitter creed; and their honest, if rough, benefactors felt towards them all the warmth, generosity and friendship, which was the natural reflection of their own charity and pity.

But Dr Fernandez and his evil comrades belonged to a school of genuine haters, but very faithless and treacherous livers.

They received the favour with feigned gratitude, and paid for their passage and board with protestations and amiability, all the while despising these rough fellows and coveting the possession of their property.

They had plotted and discussed the matter in the cavern before going on board, and now only waited a fair opportunity of putting their wicked plots into execution, for they intended nothing less than a repetition of their game on board the Rockhampton. They meant to get the George Washington into their own hands and put the unsuspecting crew to death. Like the pirates of old they believed, in the safety to themselves, of dead men.

True, they were sixteen men to two men and two women; the Anarchists also had none of their favourite compounds handy, which would have made their task easy even against these long odds.

But the doctor was a first-class chemist, and the captain carried a well-stocked medicine chest, so that what could not be done without dynamite might be accomplished by poison.

The sealers had a long voyage before them before they could discharge cargo, a great portion of the South Pacific Ocean to sail over before reaching Cape Horn and the Atlantic. Four long months lay between them and New York city even if the winds were favourable, longer if they chanced to have bad weather.

They had, however, provisions enough to carry them all the way, with a good condensing machine on board, so that they had no intention of calling at any intermediate port; however, their forced guests declared themselves perfectly content with the arrangement. New York would suit them as well as any other port, for from there they could get across to England and the Continent. The doctor stated that he had friends in New York who would supply them with the needful funds, and the captain was quite satisfied with this statement.

They had a jovial enough time on board, as the ladies helped to vary the monotony. They had transferred their attentions from Dennis at his and the doctor's special commands, which fell in with their own fickle inclinations, to the mates and seamen. The captain having a wife at home to whom he had been attached for over a quarter of a century they left alone.

Captain Abraham Wheeler was a hardy old sea-dog of nearly sixty years of age, grizzled and stalwart; he was well accustomed to the ice-floes both of the north and south polar regions; a Yankee who liked to make good bargains, and was reckoned to be rather hard, as well as dogged and strict in his ideas of discipline at sea, but hearty in his notions of hospitality, and guileless as a child, despite his affectation of Yankee cuteness.

His mates and crew were all picked men with whom he had sailed many a voyage, and therefore he had cause to trust them. Besides this they all had an interest in the present venture and vessel, taking shares in the profits instead of wages.

It was a kind of commonwealth concern, which might well have appealed to the socialistic principles of these Anarchists; that is, if any community outside their own could have appealed to them. These sailors were democratic to the back-bone, and none of them had pretentions of belonging to the doomed class of capitalists, since they worked for their own hands and divided fairly what profits they made out of their trade. They were democrats and socialists, but they believed in a deity, and repudiated murder and sneaking acts of violence; therefore they were as much enemies to these Anarchists as if they had been wealthy capitalists or bloated aristocrats. They liked work also, which was the abhorrence of the others.

Father Abraham, as his crew called him, was hospitable, confiding, and free with his guests, but when once his anchor was weighed and his sails spread, he limited them in their sphere of action and put them strictly on the liberties of passengers. He was the ship's master, purser, and doctor as well, kept his medicine chest under lock and key in his own cabin, and would allow no interference in any of these departments, which he regarded as his own.

"I guess you air a smart medical professor on dry land," he said, when the doctor offered his services, "but I know the constitutions of my men and what they want when they are afloat."

"But surely you will not object to me looking after my own friends, captain?"

"Not at all, doctor. When you want any drugs, tell me what they are, and the quantity required, and I'll sarve you out the dose. I was in a drug store myself once upon a time, in my young days, before I took to the sea, so I calculate that I do know a fair amount about drugs and measurements. You write out the prescription and I'll sarve out."

"Damnation!" said Dr Fernandez to his comrades.

"He knows a great deal too much about medicines for me to take what I require while he is awake, yet he has got what is needed in that chest, so we must get his keys when he is asleep some time."

There was no hurry yet, for they did not intend seizing the ship until they had passed the equator, then they could run her into one of the foreign states and get her repainted and refitted. Better a wooden schooner than nothing at all to ship their stuff about.

The two ladies, acting on their instructions, made themselves interesting and sweet to all on board, from the apprentice boy to the first mate. These Americans were puritanical and modest men, therefore these experienced coquettes found their task easy if a little wearisome, for to look pleasant and gracious and to keep in hand a dozen simple men with sentimental and platonic blandishments was child's play to those old stagers in the trade of love.

Each man thought himself the favourite of the syren he himself inclined towards; it was only her amiability that made her so gracious to the others. Hadn't they found opportunities to cast into each of those easily deluded eyes, with a shy tenderness and modest candour, shafts that rankled in the susceptible hearts. Oh, the truthful candour, the modesty, the shy tenderness of the expert, who has long ago forgotten what these sensations mean. They can beat Nature hollow. Innocence betrays itself sometimes, calculating vice, never.

They had weeks of rough and stormy seas, of which these soft witches made capital with the softer-hearted but robust men, when it seemed but manly and right to place an arm round the delicate waist to prevent the owner stumbling and falling, when it could not look intentional if she leaned heavily against the pea-jacket or rough home-spun jersey. They were such delicate and refined creatures, and seemingly so unconscious of the heart thuds which the contact of their soft bodies caused during these chance encounters.

The conspirators could speak in Italian, which none of the Americans understood, and discuss matters even at the dinner table in the cabin, for Dennis had mastered enough to be able to follow their meaning, although he could not speak it well, therefore he listened to his instructions stolidly, as he ate heavily of the George Washington provisions, while the others discussed murder and black treachery with smiling lips and gently-sounding words. It is a sweet language, the Italian.

They were, however, too polite and wary to indulge too often in these conversations. There was no necessity, for the time was not yet ripe, and they could see that their host looked awkward while this talk was going on. The doctor sometimes had occasion to warn one of the two women to be careful or more general with her attentions, since they were women, and even the falsest are apt to have preferences. He kept his keen black eyes on the watch to see that nothing like preference should occur. When the time arrived, the ones who should chance to be on the watch should have the preference, but not until then.

They had not much comfort on board until the vessel had rounded Cape Horn; then, as they altered their course to northwards, every day made a change, the seas grew quieter, and the deck more solid under the feet, for the trade winds were strong and steadfast.

By and by these also fell off and grew uncertain as they sailed into the doldrums, and from there into the latitude of deadly calms and fiery sunbeams, when the ship lies rocking on a still blue mirror, and the pitch boils out from the seams, and sailors whistle for the wind that is so tardy in the coming. The hour for action was approaching,

"They say that petticoats are unlucky on board a ship, but I guess that you have brought us luck, ladies," said the gallant old tar, as they began to move after only ten days of stagnation. "I have lain dead still on these waters for four and five weeks at a spell before we could get a puff like this is."

Unfortunate skipper, to congratulate these she-demons who may have brought the evil wind which meant death to him and his honest crew.

In his jubilation at this good luck, he called for an extra supply of rum and insisted on having a steaming bowl of punch. How much Dr Fernandez wished that he could have had possession of the laudanum then to add an extra flavour to that potent punch bowl; however, as it stood, it was not a bad friend to him that punch, for it is potent and insidious when properly brewed, as Father Abraham could brew it.

As the captain made it, it was a glorious compound—a bottle of rum, a bottle of brandy, a bottle of the finest champagne, two glasses of cura9oa, a pint of sherry, with sugar, lemon and nutmeg, and not too much hot water. It tasted delicious and mild, yet the doctor warned Dennis and the ladies in Italian to feign the drinking of that delectable and innocent-looking compound.

He had tested the effects of curaçoa and champagne combined, with the other friendly spirits added. Laudanum seemed to be a weak superfluity. The game would be in his own hands if Dennis could keep from that fatal draught.

Yet it required the deadliest sign of the order to stop that worthy as he snuffed in the rare perfume and raised the glass to his lips. As it happened, his eyes caught those of his superior at the right moment, and, with a heavy sigh, he emptied his glass secretly at his side, and waited with cheeks a shade paler. To have disobeyed that sign meant death.

Bat the captain, who was free from duty that night, and the second mate quaffed deeply, while the ladies sipped like artful canaries. The doctor didn't fear much from them. They were fairly seasoned casks; besides, they did not require to be too sober on this night, for the first mate and the third were to be the favoured swains, and they must be made amorous and docile.

"Qui va la!" he said quietly to them, and these fair dames understood. It was the word of the sentinel; they were to be on the alert and on guard.

"There is too much for us here in this bowl, captain. Send for the officers on deck to share with us," whispered the princess into the captain's ear.

"I guess they will enjoy a liquor," answered the captain a little thickly, for he had quaffed deeply, "and there won't be much to watch this night, I calculate, with this catspaw of a wind."

"Let us take up the grog for the men on watch," replied both ladies, laughing gaily, and the honest but half-drunk skipper gave his assent.

Then the two fair dames, filling out a large bumper each, left the cabin and went up to the poop, where the mates were promenading. These worthy mariners welcomed the sympathetic angels, and, quaffing the bowls, sat down to enjoy an hour of true love in a quiet corner.

The ship was set full sail, with sky-scrapers and outstanding sails. The wiud was fitful and light; there was no danger of a squall. All they could expect this night was an odd puff now and again to speed them on their way. The watch was merely a sham, for they might as well have been sleeping.

A sultry tropic night, with a sky thickly studded with glowing stars, and an ocean calm and mysterious. A night for love. The mates fixed upon their tender companions, with heads swimming from the punch, and made them comfortable; then, flinging themselves at their feet, they began to talk nonsense and lose their heads, while the watch drowsily lay about the hot decks and loafed.