The Great Secret/Chapter 30

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CHAPTER XXX.

DOCTOR FERNANDEZ PAYS ONE DEBT.

The body of the baroness lasted these two wretched cannibals for six days, and then, desperate as they were, they were forced to cast the putrid remnants out to that patient hanger-on, the shark.

After this, it became a game of wild beast watchfulness. They had tasted human flesh and grown to like the flavour, therefore they were no longer human, they were crafty beasts of prey, looking out for their chance.

They knew each other's ghoulish intentions, for they read from their own feelings, to watch as long as possible and keep awake, for the one who fell first asleep was now the doomed man.

They could not risk a struggle for the mastery now in that leaky boat, in case it capsized or went down and left them both to the tender mercies of that vicious enemy so close and motionless, as he too waited and watched; the deed must be done by treachery, and as suddenly and quietly as possible.

So they sat opposite to each other and stared at the glittering ocean or glaring skies for two more days and nights, with bloodshot eyes and smarting lids, on which sleep pressed heavily, with throats once more dry as baked clay and tongues shrunken and hard—both horrible spectacles, with their skins drawn and of a greenish blackness, all inhuman.

Treachery and murder filled both hearts, and kept them from looking directly at one another, yet they were watching who should drop first for all that. They could not converse, for they had lost their voice, and only a hoarse and unintelligible rattle was produced when they made the attempt.

The want of sleep was making rapid havoc with their bodies and minds, occasionally an imbecile grin contorted their shrunken jaws as for an instant they forgot where they were, then they picked themselves together with a superhuman effort, and became all the more alert.

To grow delirious would be almost as bad as to fall asleep. Dennis grinned the oftenest on the second day's vigil; his body was stronger, and therefore made more savage demands for sustenance, while the doctor had been trained to do with little sleep and long intervals between. His mind also was the most crafty and self-controlled.

On the afternoon of the second day a subtle thought entered his brain. The two rum bottles still remained untouched at the bottom of the boat amongst the water that covered it. He would open one of these, and pretend to drink, knowing that Dennis must follow his example; and surely that, with the awful heat, would send him off.

Quietly, therefore, he reached down his hand and seized one of the bottles, his every action watched by his companion

Pulling out his pocket-knife (he had wanted an excuse to get out and open that knife), with the careful method in which he did everything, he passed the blade round the neck, and then, gently tapping it, was able to wrench out the cork with the thick rim, then he silently held the open bottle to Dennis.

Dennis looked at it with wolfish longing for a moment, yet had the strength left to refuse the offer by a shake of his head. Then the doctor, pouring some on his hand, laved his brow and throat and wrists with the fluid, and, half-turning aside, held the bottle to his blackened lips and feigned to drink, all the while letting the contents run down his beard.

He longed, as he knew Dennis was doing, to let it run down his throat, yet he had sufficient strength of will to resist this deadly desire, his object being to tempt his comrade past all human endurance, and his ruse was successful, for at last, with a howl, awful to listen to, Dennis snatched the half-emptied bottle from his mouth, and put it to his own lips, doing exactly what the doctor had not done, drinking furiously.

It gurgled down his baked throat like nectar, for it was old and mellowed stuff, and slaked for a moment the intolerable thirst, while it seemed to invigorate his system, and he had relinquished for the time his purpose, forgotten it, in fact, nor till the bottle was drained did he take it from his lips, and then with a cry more human, he flung the empty bottle at the two black fins.

An instant and the water was convulsed as the monster turned and made a lightning-like snap at the bottle, while both men laughed feebly as they heard the crash of breaking glass, then Dennis croaked huskily and drowsily,—

"A good idea that of yours, doctor, the rum; let us open the other bottle."

He reached down to lift it, but in the doing so, stumbled, and, falling against the doctor's knees, was almost instantly asleep.

The superior intellect had conquered the untrained mind; he also felt refreshed somewhat with the spirit, as he had used it in that outward application, and got ready to finish his work.

The head of Dennis rested against his knees, face downwards, and the stertorous breathing of the sleeper rattled like stones being shaken in a calabash. It was necessary that he should be laid flat and turned about before the cannibal could accomplish his purpose, therefore gently, as only a woman and a doctor could act, he shifted his unconscious companion to the desired position, and then knelt down beside him to consider how it was to be done with safety to himself.

How dreadful that face looked as it lay with its purple flush, black lips and grinning teeth. The doctor knew that Dennis would not sleep long, also that when he woke, if he ever did, that he would be a mindless and ferocious maniac. It must be done at once, he had waited long enough. In another moment he too would be asleep.

He had nothing heavy enough to stun that thick skull, nor the strength left to do it; only one thing remained, to get Dennis's large clasp knife and cut his throat with one swift stroke.

It seemed a pity to do this, for there would be a great waste; no matter, he would get some before it was quite drained away.

He paused to consider no more, but, drawing the knife from the sleeper's pocket, he opened it swiftly, and making the deep and wide cut, buried his face within the bloody gash, like a savage wolf, and drank greedily while he clasped the quivering body in his arms.

********

Vengeance and destruction are fixed laws of Nature, and until the earth is swept clear of tyrants, with their accumulations of wrong scattered, the oppressed cry out for blood.

"Ours is a noble Cause, for we are the retributive ministers of countless hordes of martyrs. I have gained nothing personal by my efforts. My father and mother fell willing victims to the Cause for which they educated me from my birth. What money I have made has been spent upon it. The fortune of the woman whom I married for that alone, was flung into the general coffers. She also became a victim, for I spared her no more than I did others, than I have done myself.

"I slew my comrades, it is true, but only because I thought my own life of more value to the Cause than theirs, not that I wished life for itself.

"I am no traitor; put me in the van where death is, so that I may do my share, and die like a true brother and a man, as Samson did when he avenged himself on the Philistines."

Dr Fernandez lay in the open boat, raving mad. He imagined that he was pleading for his character before his own comrades, and that he had been accused.

"Who are these who charge me? Anatole who lost the most valuable prize that I ever won for the Cause? Eugene who broke her oath and left us for Anatole. The baron, the count, the prince—what a crowd of false witnesses to accuse me, when it should be Anatole, the weak and boasting traitor.

"The baroness and Dennis, the brute. Ha! ha! they should be both dead enough now, comrades, yet they stand there grinning and say I did it for selfish motives, and I give them both the lie direct. Send for my wife, the poor victim whose fortune I first gave up. She was not one of us, and yet did so much to help us. She can vouch for my honesty and good faith to my oath, even if she cannot say much for my affection and consideration for her. Send for Adela. Where is she, since the others are here?"

"She also is here to help you still in all she can, although she never was your wife."

"Would that she had never been my wife, for her own sake and mine also at this bitter hour," muttered the dying man huskily. "I did her the greatest wrong that man can do to woman, yet it was for the Cause—the Cause only that I did that wrong."

"I forgive you for what you have done to me."

"Then all the rest counts as nothing to me."

The shark still waited at his post, waited for that last man, and the little boat, gaping now at every seam, was more than half-filled with water, for there was no one now to bail out. The dying man had slid from his seat, and now reclined with his head against it and his attenuated and shrunken body submerged. He seemed to have shrank to two-thirds of his former size, so that the shark would not get much of a feast for all his patience after the boat sank, yet he knew, with that unfailing instinct, as he watched the gunwale come down nearer to the surface of the water, that the long-deferred moment was approaching, and he drew closer, with his small attendant, the mackerel-like pilot-fish.

He could not see his coming victim, neither could he see those who were attending the last moments. Adela and her husband, Philip, supporting the head of the incarnate demon who had robbed her of her earth happiness as well as her earth fortune, with the other accusing victims who, drawn to him, crowded round him with stern or mocking eyes.

"How delicious that glass of water tasted which you gave me just now—yes, I was very thirsty, Adela; I have suffered much from thirst lately, and hunger also, but I am no longer hungry nor thirsty, yet I could take a few more grapes—ah, that was good of you to bring me your pardon and those delicacies. Now that you are looking after me, I shall be able to sleep without any fear."

His heavy eyelids closed as he murmured these last words, while, after a rattle or two in his throat, his panting breath ceased and his lower jaw fell.

"Come, Philip, my love, help me with this miserable man."

Then, as the boat went down with its light load, and the shark darted after it to the dark depths, Philip and Adela, holding the shivering and terrified spirit between them, swept away, followed by that vast crowd of accusers.