The Great Secret/Chapter 22

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Captain Abraham Wheeler and his mate had both good heads for carrying liquor, therefore what might have knocked down ordinary men merely made them slightly muddled and sleepy, with the desire to turn in a little sooner than usual.

The doctor and Dennis, feigning to share the festive bowl, lured them to empty it, and when that was done were not a little surprised, as well as disappointed, to observe how steadily both these hardy mariners were able to walk when they rose from the table and proposed a promenade on deck before retiring. They agreed, however, eagerly, for the little cabin was stuffy and close, and they wanted to see the effect of the fresh night air on that punch.

The officers on the watch, from their dark corners, saw the skipper and his friends emerge from the companion and were instantly upon their feet. Leaving their inamoratas still sitting waiting on their return, they came forward and saluted the old man and made their report of the ship's progress. She was now going by fits and starts at the rate of five knots an hour, while the breeze was gradually growing more steady although still falling away at times, but it was coming from the right quarter—the south—and would soon waft them into the regular Atlantic trades.

Four bells had just struck, and the watch had altered the yards by a point so as to capture what wind there was, and they were now once more taking their ease on the main-deck, masticating their quids of tobacco and telling yarns, or listening to the plantation airs which the 'prentice boy was playing on a concertina, an instrument which, if acceptable at any time, is acceptable on the ocean and in the tropics.

A still and warm yet grateful night, tempting one to lie on the sun-heated boards on which the pitch from the seams still felt sticky and soft. The dew was falling heavily and saturating the canvas and ropes, the stars were moist-looking and dazzling overhead, while round the hull the parted waters burned blue. Just such a night when life at sea is really a pleasure and a reposeful dream.

The wind was very fitful; now it would come along soft yet strong, and bulge out the sails for a few moments, sending the ship along rapidly, then it would fall behind, leaving the sails empty and flapping dolorously against the masts.

"This will go on all night," said the captain, a little thickly, as he passed his hand over his eyes and looked round him, "but I reckon that to-morrow night we shall be able to forge ahead."

"Whereabouts are we now, captain?" inquired the doctor.

"Just outside the River Amazon," replied the captain, and then he added,—"This fresh air on the top of that grog has made me ready for my bunk, so I guess I'll turn in. Good-night to ye, gentlemen."

"Good-night! we will not be long in following your example," said the doctor, as he watched the burly skipper stagger along the poop and help himself down the companion-ladder with both hands on the rails.

"He must sleep sound and quickly after that, Dennis. Be ready to follow me down presently," whispered the doctor to his fell comrade.

"I am ready," replied Dennis, "but I must have a proper drunk after the job is done to make up for my abstinence to-night. By Jehosophat, but the fumes of that punch bowl were enough to make a Mohammedan forego paradise."

"You may have what you like afterwards," answered the doctor.

They watched the second mate, who was farther gone than the captain, swing about for two or three turns of the poop and then pitch himself heavily on the top of the skylight which was covered with tarpaulin. In another moment he was sound asleep, as they could hear by his nasal accompaniment.

One seaman stood at the wheel, impassive and intent only on his duty, the compass box, over which an oil lamp swung; he was safe there for the next hour. The two mates, after a few remarks about the weather, had returned to their pleasant occupation with the traitress syrens. They would not interfere or come below until their watch was up, so that the ruffians had two clear hours before them.

"Come," whispered the doctor, and at the word he turned to go down to the cabin with Dennis at his heels.

They passed the open doors of the berths which they and the mates occupied, and then through the small saloon—a cosy enough cabin, with swinging oil lamp, cushioned lockers at the sides, one centre table, and at the end a couple of panel mirrors at the side of the stove.

Outside the cabin a small passage led to the main deck, the outer doors of which were closed. On one side lay the pantry and on the other the captain's cabin, the most commodious room on the ship.

The door was a little ajar, held in its place by a hook, and as it was lighted with an oil lamp they could see the window over which the curtains were carefully drawn, with the white painted chest of drawers and dressing table. On the top of the drawers were spread out for constant reference the charts and log-book with sextant and other instruments. The medicine chest stood at the side of the washstand, and could also be seen through that narrow slit.

Standing deadly still, and listening intently, they could hear that the captain was already asleep, the heavy and dreamless sleep of the inebriated, for they could hear an occasional snort and snore breaking upon the deep breathing.

"You know what to do, Dennis?"

"Yes; stand over the skipper with my knife at his throat. If he wakes, I'll slit it promptly, never fear," replied Dennis softly.

"Don't do it unless he does wake, though."

"I'll take good care of that."

"Then not a word while we are inside."

With a light hand the doctor unhooked the door, Dennis having already drawn and unclasped his large pocket-knife, and together they slipped noiselessly inside, fastening the door, as it had been, behind them.

They captain lay on his back, in his under-shirt and drawers only, with his grizzled beard in the air and his windpipe exposed to full view.

He was an orderly man even in his cups, and habit made him easy to wake up when disturbed, but these two assassins were adepts at not disturbing people; they had left their shoes in the cabin, and made no noise as they moved about like phantoms.

A bunch of keys was hanging on the wainscotting over the captain's head, and the clothes he had taken off were neatly folded on the sea-chest at the side of his bunk, an open Bible lay beside them, from which he had read his nightly chapter.

The lips of the atheistic doctor curled as he took in these details. Perhaps the angels were watching over the drunken slumbers of this honest seaman, yet it was doubtful if they would be powerful enough to save that sun-tanned neck from the knife of Dennis, supposing he woke before they were gone.

Dennis took up his post quietly and grimly, his sharp and large clasp knife about the eighth of an inch from the bare throat under him, and his evil eyes fixed on the closed lids of the sleeper, while the doctor lifted the bunch of keys gently from the nail, and, going over to the medicine chest, selected the proper key, which he had observed before, and fitted it in.

The lock did not yield quite noiselessly, and at the rasping sound the captain stirred in his sleep, then the knife went very close to the skin, almost grazing it, as Dennis prepared for action.

Both murderers waited breathlessly while the old captain flung out his brawny arms and seemed about to wake, then he settled down once again to placid slumber, and the doctor proceeded to work.

He carefully examined the medicine bottles, holding up the labels to the light until he had found what he wanted, then taking out the required quantities, which he carefully weighed in the scales and methodically packed up in separate papers, he replaced the bottles exactly as they were before, relocked the chest and hung up the keys without any jingling, then with a slight touch on the arm of Dennis he stole to the door, unhooked it, and held it open for his companion to pass through, and rehooked it as noiselessly. They had succeeded without having to use the knife.

"I shall put this in the coffee to-morrow morning, therefore advise our lady friends to stick to claret at breakfast. We shall have a ship of corpses to heave overboard to-morrow night; of course, you are certain about your skill in steering the vessel into port?"

"Yes," replied Dennis. "I know where we are now, and can reach the shore without much trouble. We can easily ship a crew from Paramaribo, and sail from there over to Cadiz, where we will be able to do some business."

"Right. Now you can go to sleep, comrade, while I go on deck and relieve the ladies. I shall not turn in to-night, as I must watch my opportunity with the morning coffee. They must have their dose early, if I can possibly manage to divert the cook."

The doctor had not been more than half an hour absent from the deck, for when he once more appeared one of the sailors was striking five bells.

The night was early yet, only half-past ten o'clock, yet no sooner did the ladies see the doctor as he passed under the bell lantern and hear him humming, in his baritone voice, "The Marseillaise," than they began to consider the advisability of retiring to their mutual cabin, and therefore bidding their amorous swains a whispered and tender good night, they emerged from their sheltered corners, and approached the doctor arm in arm like the loving sisters that they were.

"Drink no coffee to-morrow," murmured the doctor in Italian, as he wished them both a good night.

He resumed his promenade after they had retired, and watched the sea and sky with interest. He was not at all inclined for bed, he told the mates, but would keep them company till their watch was up. So they walked about together, he asking, with all a landsman's curiosity, about the ship, with the latitude and longitude, questions which they cheerfully answered, for a sailor is never chary with his information.

So the next hour and a half passed, and eight bells sounded, when the watch was changed, and the second mate was roused up and took the charge of the ship without disturbing the captain.

Through the night the doctor remained awake, mostly walking slowly to and fro, but sometimes leaning over the taffrail and watching the phosphorescent waters as they scattered their pale flashes against the sides of the hull. He had arranged his different powders together, and was waiting, like the angel of death, on the hour.

Seven bells were struck; it was now half-past three o'clock; in another half-hour the watch would again be changed and coffee served out to all hands. The cook made an extra supply at five o'clock for the passengers. Remarking that he felt chilly to the second mate, he strolled over to the caboose, where the African cook was dozing before the galley stove, and went inside to warm himself and see how the coffee was getting along.

The cook welcomed him with a friendly grin, and poured out a pannikin of the fragrant decoction; he had only a short time before roasted and ground the beans, so that it was not properly boiled yet, but the doctor said he was grateful for the early cup, and offered to look after the boiler, if Sambo cared to have a nap. He would wake him up in good time.

Sambo wanted a nap badly, for he only got his sleep by odd snatches, so, thanking the doctor for his kindness, he at once rolled himself up like a dog and passed straightway into dreamland.

An instant of time did the accursed deed, only the lifting up of the lid and dropping the powders in. The rest of the half-hour the doctor spent watching, mixing and clearing the decoction. As eight bells once more struck he roused up the negro and went out again on deck.

He was restless, however, and stayed close to the caboose, watching the half-roused men, and those already eager to turn in, cluster together round the doorway and drink their coffee. He saw the second mate take his share with the men, and then, after they were all served, the cook poured out three more pannikins, and placing them with some biscuit on a tray, he marched off to the cabin to wake the captain and first and third mates, for this was his duty each morning.

The doctor followed the negro and saw him open the captain's door, then he heard the usual questions of the captain about the weather as he quaffed off his morning draught thirstily. He saw the mates also come from their cabin with their steaming pannikins in their hands, drinking as they stumbled on with sleep-filled eyes.

"Hallo! doctor, not in bed yet?"

"Not yet, my friends, but I think about going now. It is a lovely morning."

"Yes, we'll have a fair run up till noon, I guess," said the first mate.

"And after that?"

"Oh, a dead calm, till after noon again, but we'll pick up again to-night, and be well over all our troubles by that time."

"I hope so, I am sure," replied the docter.

"You may bet on it, if you like, doctor."

"No, thank you, it is foolish to bet against a certainty; and since you say so, then it will be so," said the doctor, with a gentle laugh.

"He is a good coon that foreign doctor, but he has an uncommonly nasty way of grinning," remarked the the third mate to the first as they went on deck, emptying the dregs of their pannikins overboard as they passed along.

"Yas, I calculate he has, Shem, but the ladies make up for their men, don't they?"

"You bet, boss."

"Breakfast is served at nine o'clock," murmured the doctor as he looked after the mates. "That is five hours from now. They will be dead in four hours, so that we shall have to make breakfast for ourselves. I shall have three hours sleep, and then wake up Dennis and the ladies to help with the ship. Yes, I can sleep now."