The Great Secret/Chapter 24

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CHAPTER XXIV.

THE DEAD CALM.

The dastard crime was consummated which, had they committed no other in their evil lives, must have rendered them accursed and outlawed from every consideration human and natural. They had crept in the most deadly and infamous fashion that black murder can creep, and done their benefactors to death at one fell stroke.

Dr Fernandez slept calmly while his deadly dose seized upon the vitals of those brave and generous men who dropped down one after the other, and expired amidst terrible pangs of agony. The man at the wheel fell against the spokes, and clutching them in his last throes, still held on to them with death's vice-like grip; the captain before his charts; the officers on their side of the poop; the watch above, as they were cleaning down the decks; and the watch below, with their rumpled bedclothes between their clenched teeth, now lay doubled and livid in their bunks; the black cook in his galley, and the handsome young apprentice boy, who had played the concertina the night before. Not a man or boy who had taken the coffee had escaped the deadly fate prepared for them by this remorseless and cold-blooded monster.

"Get up, Dennis, for the ship is ours, and we must not lose any time in working her. Call the two women, for they must help also."

It was nine o'clock, and the doctor had been for a walk round. He was a little more ghastly than usual, for even an Anarchist can hardly face such treacherous and ice-cold murder without blanching a little. He was in a brutal mood, for he had quaffed off a tumbler of brandy as if it had been water as he passed the pantry, where the spirits were kept, and felt impatient at the slowness of his comrade in dressing.

"Hurry up, damn it, man, or the devil only knows where the ship may get to while you moon there. Get up to the wheel without more delay than you can help, and I will rouse the women myself."

He strode out of the cabin which he and Dennis shared, and, dashing open the door of the one occupied by the two guilty traitoresses, seized them rudely by their naked arms and shook them roughly.

"Get up—get up—you are wanted on deck!" he shouted in their startled ears, as they both sprang up and looked at his bloodshot eyes in amazement and considerable terror.

"What is it, doctor?"

"The ship is ours, and the men who were embracing those pretty carcases are now dead meat. Come and help to clear the deck," he cried savagely and sardonically, as he left them shuddering at the coarseness of his words; he had forgotten his usual veneer of politeness on this morning.

When he reached the poop he saw Dennis in his shirt and trousers, with bare feet, trying to unclasp the dead man's hands from the wheel. It took them both some minutes to do this, during the process of which Dennis had to use his clasp knife and hack off the fingers at the middle joints; then they managed to tear the corpse away and pitch it behind them over the stern, after which Dennis took possession of the wheel and examined the compass.

"She has not fallen off much, doctor, but we shall have to alter her course before long and get in some of those sails. You have made a clean sweep as usual, I see."

He was looking along the decks as he spoke, a growing horror in his eyes at the ghastly sights before him, and a secret fear for this remarkably clever man, who, with his damnable skill, could sweep off humanity in such a wholesale fashion.

The doctor did not answer; he was looking over the ocean with a sombre glare, and biting his nails abstractedly.

"I expect I shall have to take in those sheets myself," continued Dennis, "and that will be slow and heavy work; fortunately the wind is light as yet, and will fall off about noon. You will be able to manage the wheel while I do this, for we must be prepared for any kind of weather in these seas."

"Yes," replied the doctor, "I can manage the wheel, or we can lash it up and I can help with the ropes."

"These corpses must be got out of the way first, for they won't last long this weather."

"No, not with what they have taken; they will decompose more rapidly than ordinary dead men."

They were a gloomy as well as a short-handed and insufficient crew on board the George Washington on that day, after they had removed the gruesome evidences of their crime, and a deadly stillness and foreboding of evil settled upon them with the calm, such as they had not felt on board the Rockhampton when similarly occupied, nor on the island. These last murders seemed to weigh upon even their hardened minds with a peculiarly heavy and chilly horror, so that they shivered and felt cold, even amidst that tropical sun-glare. Possibly the doctor was no worse a demon than he had been before, yet now his last crime assumed colossal proportions, which filled the two women, and even Dennis, with fear.

They smiled upon him faintly and flattered him hypocritically, yet they avoided his eyes and went about their work with feverish energy, as if to banish thought. The doctor also wore a gloomy brow, although he did not express his dissatisfaction.

"I wish we had Anatole and Eugene with us," said the baroness, as both women stood beside the gigantic Dennis during one of their rests, while the doctor paced gloomily to and fro.

"So do I," answered Dennis, "for single-handed I don't know how I am to get these sails reefed before night, but with Anatole I would feel more at ease. God help us, if one of those tropic squalls comes along."

"A pity you did not think of that before," said the women, who, although they had acted their parts as decoys, were ready to make reflections after the deed was accomplished.

The mid-day sun shone upon them with terrific force, and blistered the bare feet of Dennis as he vainly tried to And a shadow on the hot planks, while aloft the painted and varnished yards felt as if they were boiling. The sails also gave out an intolerable dry heat as he drew them up by painful efforts, expending all his vast strength and sapping the vitality out of him.

Not a cloud broke the monotony of that blue sky, which appeared to be doubled and deepened in the heaving ocean, along which rolled slow swells that lifted the baking hull up and down or from side to side with a weary and sickening motion. Not a breath of air came to cool this rarefied atmosphere amid which they all gasped.

They had taken a little claret and the uncooled water with a few biscuits, for none could eat much in this burning stagnation, therefore they felt faint as well as dejected.

So the afternoon wore away slowly, and the sun went over the oily sea like a blood-coloured ball, but the expected wind did not come; indeed, when night fell and the new moon hung for a while like a golden sickle and then also disappeared, leaving the stars glowing fiercely above that green space, the sultry heat still continued, lapping them in wearied lassitude.

They filled and lighted the lamps early, and went together from one part of the ship to the other, feeling as if it was a haunted vessel. While the women went to the caboose to cook supper, Dennis, and even the doctor, hung about the doorway and watched them silently. The wheel was firmly lashed up, and did not require looking after with this calm. None of them cared to be left alone in the dark, but glanced often over their shoulders as if expecting to see something.

By and by, when supper was ready, they all helped to carry the dishes to the lighted cabin, keeping close together while they did so. A hasty supper it was of tinned soup, followed by salted beef and potatoes, with biscuit and cheese, washed down with claret and water.

There were plenty of other provisions on board, but no one cared to go in search of them, not on this day at anyrate, and the cooks were not at all inspired. They sat down as near to each other as possible, and forced themselves to eat the food, but the meal was not enlivened by any conversation; indeed, the captain's and mates' places, which they avoided, seemed as if occupied by unseen watchers, who looked with stern and reproachful eyes upon them while they eat.

The doctor, however, at the close of this silent repast, went into the pantry, and returned with two bottles of brandy, which he opened and placed before them without a word. All helped themselves from these bottles, pouring out the contents into tumblers instead of glasses and emptying them quickly. Then they lit the captain's cigars, the women as well as the men, as there were no cigarettes, and proceeded to the poop to smoke them.

As they emerged from the companion way, Dennis, who was first, started violently, fell back a step with a cry of horror, then, recovering himself quickly, he laughed feebly as he exclaimed,—

"Cuss me if I didn't fancy I saw the fellow whose fingers I cut off still hanging on to the wheel."

"Don't, Dennis," cried both women, with violent shivers, for instinctively they had both glanced towards that part of the bulwarks where they had sat the night before with the first and third mates, and they also seemed to see the poor, foolish fellows waiting for them there.

It was a dreadful experience during the dark watches of that night to these criminals, unbelieving and hardened although they were, for not one of them would own to the superstitious terrors which had hold of them, and yet all felt the eerie sensation and horrifying delusions, the actual perpetrator perhaps least of all; yet even he had a strange foreboding and almost regret upon him, and he had to admit to himself that it was an unholy act which even the Red Cause could hardly justify.

With a fair breeze these morbid feelings might not have been experienced, for distance, like time, blunts terror; but here they were stationary, almost on the spot where their victims had been cast into the sea, and they could not get away from the vicinity.

They lay on deck all through the night, trying to fix their eyes on the stars, and keep from looking round them at the shadows of the decks, sleeping only by short snatches, to start up with fear and trembling—that is, the two women felt all this horror. The doctor lay brooding and planning what he would do when once more on dry land. Like Napoleon, his star did not shine brightly at sea, and he hated it during this forced inactivity. If he saw the ghosts as the others did, he put it down to scientific reasons, and refused to believe in the psychological, yet for all that he hovered near his companions.

Dennis was brooding also, and not happily. He could navigate a ship fairly well, as far as steering her went and setting sails, but this was his first experience as responsible commander, and he felt frightened in case he might make the same deplorable mistake as poor Anatole had done. His former experience also told him that these were treacherous waters they were amongst, and that if a cyclone did come, or even a very ordinary squall, that they would all be in very great danger, with those unmanageable sails spread out.

He would liked to have reefed her entirely, but such a move was impossible as they wanted to get on. He had bared her as closely as he dared do already, so that they would not go fast even if the fair breeze did come, but in a storm they carried by far too much.

Dennis MacBride had his own kind of courage. He had been composed and cool enough when standing over the sleeping captain, with his knife ready for emergencies. He would have taken up his post in the gallery of a theatre or church with his explosive bomb in his hand, and risked his life with the others who were round him, and, by reason of his great strength and savage blood, rather courted a street row, and gloried in a fight.

But he was not a daring seaman, and would as likely as not lose his presence of mind if called to face a sudden conflict with the elements, while this cold poisoning appalled him not a little, although, like the women, he had aided in the preliminaries.

He had left these men robust and healthy, and, being of their own craft, with a certain feeling of comradeship, he had found them blue, livid and contorted corpses. If he had been awake and seen their death struggles he might have become used to the alteration, but, as it chanced, it was all too sudden and silent a change for even his iron nerves. The throwing of a bomb and the scattering of limbs fired his blood, for it looked like war. The stabbing of a traitor also was legitimate enough, for it was vengeance; but what class could this atrocity come under? He had not objected to it before it was done, but now that he had seen it, it frightened him, as did the doctor.

A large shower of falling meteors roused him from one of his short snatches of sleep, and for a long moment illumined the whole ocean, sky and ship. While this preternatural glare lasted, he seemed to see the bodies of the murdered men clinging to the taffrail and watching with livid faces and staring eyes their murderers, and these apparitions made him morbid and low-spirited, for it seemed the sign of coming disaster.

Another day and night came without bringing the slightest puff of wind to them, while the sails hung limply against the masts.

The third day was the same, only closer and more depressing than before. The sun burned like a yellow flame above them, while the horizon was completely lost in the heat-haze, the sun going down redder and more angry-looking than ever.

Would it never come, that eagerly-desired gentle breeze? Were they doomed for their hellish ingratitude to lie there on that oily-looking ocean for ever, and rot like those dead men so close to them?

They all hung over the taffrail and watched that lurid sun set with the horror growing greater in their hearts, the sense of impending disaster heavy upon them. They could hardly breathe, for the space around them felt like a heated vacuum, while that crimson sun glared out from the now empurpled haze and spread a broad strip, like a river of gore along the ocean, from the sky to their blistered hull.

Suddenly the princess screamed shrilly, and pointed with one lean finger to the blood-red trail of lustre, while she covered her eyes with her other hand:—

"See!—oh, see!—the dead men!"