The Great Secret/Chapter 25

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"Don't be a fool, Katrina," shouted the doctor furiously, as he rushed at her, seized her arm and shook her violently.

"It is nothing, I tell you."

But the woman chattered with her teeth, as he shook her, in almost imbecile terror, while she still cried brokenly,—

"Look!—look for yourself! They are coming, swathed in blood, to avenge themselves upon us."

They were all looking at the approaching train of horrors now, with the exception of the princess, who had fallen upon the deck in a fit, the pinky froth gathering upon her blue lips, which she gnawed with her strong white teeth as she lay writhing and unheeded by the others.

Upon the trail of light a number of objects floated, with distended and bulging bodies; they were too far off yet to distinguish for certainty what they were, yet the guilty minds of those watchers supplied the information.

"Dolphins at play," cried the doctor hoarsely; "that is all."

They seemed to be dancing as merrily upon that red track as if they were dolphins gambolling and coming nearer as the sun went lower down and the lustre grew fainter; it was only a half disc now which hovered amongst the fumes above the ocean.

"That's no dolphins' fins, but the decomposed carcases of dead men, swollen up to three times their bulk, and light as balloons with the gases inside," cried the stolid Dennis.

"By God! there is the captain with his grey hair and beard, with the first mate alongside of him, in front of the others."

"Oh, horrible—horrible!" cried the baroness, sinking down beside her friend and covering her eyes.

"What is there horrible about the sight of a few dead bodies floating on the water?" snarled the doctor viciously, as he kept his red glare upon those swollen figures. "You have looked on many a dead man since you saw your father guillotined."

He seemed to be driven mad with rage, however, for the froth gathered also about his lips as he peered over the ship's side and looked upon his victims.

All at once Dennis sprang up with a fearful oath.

"Cuss me, what am I thinking of, to stand here watching these dummies, when we should be working. Do you not see the furrow in their wake urging them onward. There's a squall coming, with eagle speed, too, this way."

He sprang as he spoke to the wheel and, slashing at the rope which held it in its place, released it, then taking the spokes in his strong grasp he gave a turn to the helm and sent the vessel a point round.

"Rouse up these women, doctor," he shouted from his post; yet even as he did so the rest of his warning or order was lost in the wind-howl that burst upon them like the shriek of an enraged tigress, and in another instant they were buried under the white foam and spray of that swiftly-rushing wave.

"There goes the mizzen-mast," groaned Dennis, as he held on to the wheel with a giant's strength, straining his muscles as he turned it round against the rush, and shaking his head to get rid of the salt water that was now rolling from him. "I thought it must go if we had a sudden squall like this."

The descending sun gave one last wave of red light before she sank under the waves, and lighted up that confusion of cordage, sails, masts and yards, as they broke away and with a thunderous crash sank over the side.

"They ought to be hacked away, but who's to do it?" again asked Dennis helplessly, as he stuck to the wheel. "Where are they now, the doctor and the women?"

He peered through the gathering darkness for his companions, even while he did his best to steer. The waters about the ship were a furious mass of white and whirling curd, amongst which the vessel was labouring heavily, hampered with all that clinging mass of wreckage. He could not see his friends; they had been washed off the poop, either overboard or on to the main deck, and he could not leave his post to ascertain; the ship and his friends must now take their chance.

It was a hurricane without a cloud to denote its coming. The darkness swooped down swiftly and the stars shone with quivering radiance, yet still that tempest increased with resistless fury, and the boiling waves broke over the stern and swamped the decks, while Dennis hung on to his wheel.

Could he have cleared that mizzen-mast all might have gone well with them, for she was a staunch, well-tried craft; but no ship, however strongly built by man, could endure for long the tugging, straining and ram-like butting of that mizzen wreckage dragging her back, driving great holes in her planks, with those mountains of fluid pouring over her.

Dennis felt it was a hopeless case after the first stroke; he could only wait and see the end.

About ten o'clock, as nearly as he could judge of the flight of time, the second mast went, and helped onward the work of destruction; they were driving on with all that mass of wreckage hampering them, but the waves were driving faster. He could do no more good with the wheel now for that dismantled hulk, he must look out for himself and try, if possible, to lighten her, so that she might float till daylight.

Leaving the wheel to chance, all drenched as he was and choking with each fresh wave that rushed over him, he made his way from the poop to the main-deck, and, crawling over the wreckage, he reached the carpenter's room, where, after a weary search in the dark, he found at last an axe. Feeling the edge, and finding it sharp, he returned and began his heavy and uncertain task.

He had no dread of ghosts or dead men now in his work, although the night was dark and the overflow blinding. No man of robust nature could feel alone amongst these raging elements that brought out his fighting qualities. He was battling for life now with a robust enemy that did not give his muscles time to relax, or his mind leisure to reflect, therefore he was once more the savage and wild boar Dennis.

He did Trojan work that night in the dark, hacking at the ropes and cordage in his way. He had no fear of falling beams or spars from above, for they were all overboard, and a grim joy possessed him as he cut strand after strand, while he went along first the one side and then the other feeling the hull lighten as the wreckage tore away.

He was bleeding and bruised by many a rebounding rope that whipped him across the face or chest as he released them so suddenly and sent them flying over the seething waters, but he did not feel this at the time, any more than a fighter feels the strokes when his blood is up. He was a powerful and brutal man fighting against Fate, and so far he conquered.

He felt that the hulk was at liberty with his last cut, for she raised herself out of the waves, held yet on her course by the flying canvas at her bows; these, like flags, streamed in front, yet helped to give her speed.

Then he went back to the wheel and remained there, sturdily turning the helm as best he could to avoid the heaviest onslaught from behind.

Slowly the hours of darkness passed, and still the vessel floated and drove on, although Dennis could feel that her hours were numbered, for she began to labour once more, and from her sludging motions he knew that her holds were filling up.

At last the welcome dawn broke, and the storm was almost past, but the George Washington was sinking slowly but surely—already the waves were nearly level with her main deck.

At this moment he felt lonely and wanted the company of his comrades. He could see by the rapidly gathering light that the captain's gig still hung by its davits, and that would do for him and his comrades if he could find them, therefore he began his search.

Seizing his axe in his hand, he left the now useless wheel for the last time and went down to the main deck and looked about him anxiously.

Objects could be seen fairly distinctly, and every moment they were growing plainer as the light rapidly strengthened. There was only a mild breeze blowing now, and the waves were rolling along merrily, while the hulk was almost still with her weight of water—another warm day was coming on and a placid sea.

Against the bulwarks he saw the princess jammed between it and a heavy water-cask that had broken loose from its lashings and rolled upon her. She was dead enough he could see. No man, far less a frail woman, could have lived with that weight crushing upon them, therefore he passed by her body with one look at her bruised face and flaxen tresses which floated loosely over the wet deck. She was a crafty Russian and a wanton, yet she had been good and tender with him on the island; but she was dead now, therefore beyond a man's regard, at least such a man as he was.

His next discovery was the doctor lying near the empty hen-coop, to which he was still clutching with tenacious fingers. Dennis placed his hand over the prostrate man's heart, and rejoiced to find that it still pulsated; he rejoiced at this for he no longer felt alone.

As he rose and looked round, daylight now fell upon him with the sun rising from the east, he made another discovery which made his heart for a moment stand still. Two putrid and bulging corpses lay near the aft mast-stump, the captain and the first mate, and between them the form of the baroness.

It took a full minute before Dennis could summon up courage enough to approach these evil-smelling corpses and lift the baroness up from between them; but at last he did so with bated breath and closed eyes, rejoiced to find her still warm.

Laying her down beside the captain, he rushed aft to the pantry and returned with a brandy bottle which, after opening and swigging a good mouthful himself, he poured into their parted lips.

The woman returned to consciousness first, and as she sat up and looked about her dazed, Dennis attended to the doctor, who soon came to his senses.

"We must leave this ship at once or we shall be sucked down with her, for she is rapidly settling. Rouse up, doctor. Rouse up, Delphine, and bear a hand."

Dennis spoke roughly, and it had the proper effect, for both quickly rose to their feet.

"What are we to do?"

"We must first get some provisions and load the gig, and then get off as soon as we can. Let us see what we can secure in the cabin."

He hurried them past those accusing corpses and into the pantry and cabin where, walking with their feet in water, they secured what they could carry and made for the gig.

Not a moment too quickly, as Dennis knew from the ominous steadiness of the decks she was preparing for her final plunge.

To get into the gig and lower her, then cut her moorings and push off with the oars was the work of a very few minutes. Then Dennis took the oars and bent to them with all his strength while the doctor and the baroness sat overwhelmed and dazed with their misery.

As Dennis pulled away he looked at the fated craft as she slowly settled down to her last repose. The sea was now quiet enough and the sky above pearly and pure. They had not much provisions, but that did not occupy his mind now; he only thought to get as far away as possible from that doomed vessel, and therefore pulled lustily.

The George Washington was settling down steadily, for her holds were now filled with water, and her rails were nearly level with the sea. A few moments she seemed to pause, as if considering how best to make her exit, and then, with a report like a cannon, her decks burst open with the imprisoned air, while objects flew up into the clear space.

The end came almost at once. With a sudden bound she seemed to lift herself clear up out of the water, and next, like a graceful duck diving, she plunged, bow-first, down out of sight, leaving a wild whirlpool behind her.

"There goes the last of that craft," said Dennis sentimentally, resting on his oars.

"It seems, doctor, as if the Cause isn't fated to keep a ship of their own unless they purchase her in a legitimate fashion."

The doctor bit his lips but said nothing, while Dennis continued,—

"First the Rockhampton went to smash, and next the George Washington. If we get out of this present scrape, I vote that we keep good faith with our rescuers until we reach dry land. Anarchy isn't a paying game on the high seas."

As he spoke several articles floated up, and, amongst others, the two corpses of the captain and mate. They came up close to them with a rebound which threw them more than half out of the water, so that they could be plainly seen by those in the boat.

"Cuss me, if we are not going to be haunted by these murdered coons," cried Dennis in a tone of profound disgust, as he once more bent to his oars and pulled lustily away from the gruesome spectres