The Great Secret/Chapter 4

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Life went on in a very methodical way on board, and the passengers were being fed up and cared for as if they had been prize cattle intended for the colonial markets. Early coffee, the bath, breakfast, a forenoon of basking on deck, varied with a few games, tiffin, followed by an afternoon of the same sort, with tea, then an aldermanic feast which occupied two hours, and then soft gaspings, until the food was digested enough to permit them to sleep or think over how far they had committed themselves.

Philip Mortlake attached himself in a quiet way to Mrs Austin. He had discovered that her Christian name was Adela, which he liked, for she appeared like a princess to him, if a wearied one. In his present condition, only the company of a woman could console and harmonise with him. A woman had wronged and outraged him, breaking to pieces all that he revered in life, and the cure and rebuilding must come from a woman. Perhaps Adela felt the same. Through life we are like magnetic atoms, attracted or repelled by different influences. The stormy winds of destiny drive us along separately until we touch our attractions, and then we must cling and move along together. They sat near each other, or walked calmly side by side, giving no confidences and asking none, conversing on indifferent or commonplace topics, or gazing silently on the passing effects of sky and ocean, yet he felt more tranquil and she looked happier. They had become friends without words, and the others left them to themselves.

He had spoken to her about the subject which filled all minds, and she received his communication quietly. It might be true, or it might not. They had no means of proving, for the second-cabin passengers seldom saw the saloon class, and then, only at a distance. They both watched the sallow or swarthy-visaged suspected ones as they smoked their cigarettes on their appointed promenade.

"What do you think they want, Mr Mortlake?" she inquired calmly.

"It is difficult to say," he replied. "To terrorise Europe has been their principal aim, and yet to wipe a ship like this out of existence could hardly effect their purpose, for the world would never learn our fate; therefore the sacrifice of their own lives would be labour lost."

"Perhaps they require the ship."

"That is more likely to be their intention, if they have any at all; and in that case I suppose they could set us ashore somewhere, if we yielded quietly."

"Is the captain likely to yield?"

"Decidedly not, if I am any judge of faces; he is a true British bull dog."

"And you?"

"I would side with the captain, of course," Philip replied, meeting her quick upward glance, and wondering why she had looked at him.

"For my own part," she continued, "I do not feel much concern about this so-called plot, whether we are blown up or landed on a desert island. In the first place there will be an end, in the other only a continuation."

She did not add—"of misery"; but her companion comprehended her meaning. For a moment or two both looked towards the horizon, for it was not yet quite dark, and then Philip said with a slight laugh,—

"It ought to mean something for most people; I suppose it does to nearly all who are here at present, to judge from the general air of disquiet which pervades."

"Does it mean much to you at present?"

It was too dark now to see her face, but he answered her promptly.

"Frankly, Mrs Austin, I do not think it does;—of course, not knowing how fate may come, or when, I can sympathise with the poor Csar of Russia."

"It must be awkward to be a Csar nowadays," she said lightly.

"I would not take the post even although I could."

"Nor do I fancy any man in his senses would," she replied. "The honour, if it is an honour, is not worth the anxiety and peril."

It was half-past eight now, and the bell had just been struck. Above them the sky was studded with stars and planets, all glowing with tropical brightness, the electric lights shone through the music-room windows, where one lady was playing to another's singing. It was a Jewess who was entertaining the company with her voice, which was a rich contralto, and the song was one of the latest and most sentimental. On the decks the groups had gathered and arranged themselves for the usual flirtations, and beyond, on the second-class deck, scattered groups could be seen.

Over the ship's side the phosphorescent flashes burnt like blue flames, away over the lea the ocean spread blackly towards the dusky green horizon, whilst the soft night air whispered amongst the shrouds.

All at once, as if the sounding of the bell had been a signal, that vibration of the vessel, with the muffled thudding of the pistons, stopped suddenly, and the Rockhampton came to a standstill, while what had been a wind before fell away to a dead calm, and as this stillness came upon them they saw the electric globes suddenly grow dim and disappear; they were in darkness, save for the oil lamp that swung above the bell.

"It has come," said Adela Austin, as instinctively she clutched hold of Philip's arm, while at the same moment shrieks rose from the clock and music-room.

"Come down to the saloon, Mrs Austin, I can guide you safely there; it may only be a temporary stoppage of the machinery, and the stewards will get us lights."

"Yes, that may be so," she replied gently. "You will stay beside me, Mr Mortlake."

"Yes," he answered briefly, and together they groped their way towards where they had so lately dined, amid a rush of the excited passengers.

It was eerie to stand in the darkness amongst that shrieking and unknown mass of humanity until the lights came, with the awful uncertainty of what was to happen next, yet Philip could not feel any trembling of the arm that now held his, and he was too content with the proximity to have space for fear. Another moment and the explosion might come, yet they were together, and that seemed enough for him now or hereafter.

Yet it took some resolution to keep cool in the midst of that wild stampede and confusion of sounds, for the terror that had possessed them, and which they had tried to conceal, now tore away all the barriers and sophistries of civilisation. Men cursed and howled as they scrambled about over the swooning bodies in their way, and roared for light; women whimpered, shrieked madly, or tumbled down in dead faints. Philip felt, as he harkened to the babel round him, that his species were not elevating likenesses of the Creator.

By and by lights could be seen coming along the passages, borne by the miserable and quaking stewards, then the tumult subsided sufficiently for the captain's voice to be heard giving his orders, and next moment he could be seen standing with his second officer, Mr Butcher, in the companion way.

"Keep cool, ladies and gentlemen," the commander shouted in a cheery voice. "There is not the slightest danger—not the slightest danger, I can assure you."

"Why, then, have the lights gone out and the engines stopped?" inquired some of the male passengers, while the ladies began to pull themselves together.

"We shall find that out presently. I have sent for the chief engineer, who will, no doubt, explain the mishap to your complete satisfaction."

The captain and the mate sat down at one of the tables where the few lamps and candles were placed, and the former began conversing in his customary tones to those who were nearest to him. He betrayed no anxiety nor haste as time passed on, and, the engineer remained still absent.

"I expect he is busy getting things to rights," remarked the captain easily, as he gave an order to Mr Butcher, who rose and went on deck.

The passengers were now beginning to find seats for themselves, encouraged by the easy demeanour of the captain, who appeared to be quite content to sit and wait, although each moment of delay meant wasted gold to his owners. He was saying,—

"Five years ago we had a similar stoppage about this very part of the voyage, on the first long trip of the Empire, which delayed us five hours, yet we were able to make it up before reaching King George's Sound. It was nothing but the extra caution of the engineer on that occasion, as new machinery has to be humoured as well as new wives."

As he made this small joke, seeing that peace and order had been restored, the captain rose with a general smile around the company, and left the saloon.

With the half-dozen oil lanterns which the stewards had placed at equal distances from each other on the tables, the effect was gloomy in the extreme in that richly-decorated saloon, where huge masses of shadow lay along the sides and corners. The passengers also, though tranquillised considerably, had by no means got over their vague fears, and now appeared disposed to venture on the deck. They gathered round the tables, and ordered drinks, which the stewards, also very silent, placed before them, trying to get up a kind of Dutch courage.

Philip Mortlake led Mrs Austin to one of the side couches, and sat down beside her. As he looked at her face, he saw that the weariness seemed to have left it. There appeared a flush on her cheeks, and her eyes were brighter; altogether she looked as if ten years had rolled away, at which he wondered.

"The captain is a brave man," she murmured to her companion in tones meant only for his ears.

"Do you think, then, that there is more in this than he has explained?"

"I know it," she replied; "and so does he and his officers; see what the stewards are bringing in."

He looked round him, and noticed that the stewards were carrying in, besides more lights, a number of packages from the pantry, which they placed in out-of-the-way corners as quietly as they could, cases of wines and spirits, also hampers of provisions and dishes. They were in full force, a few waiting at the tables, and the rest coming and going constantly.

On deck he could hear a trampling and hauling about of heavy articles, as if the seamen were working hard. This could be the more easily heard as the ship lay so still, and silence reigned at the fore part of her. He missed, also, the half-dozen of dark-complexioned gentlemen who had been located before this in the saloon end. He wanted no more proofs to convince him that the ship had been captured, and that the captain was making his preparations for an attack or a siege.

He remembered her words, "It has come," and turned his gaze once more upon her keenly—who was she, and how could she grasp this situation so quickly and without trembling?

Yes, Mr Mortlake, I have made my choice to die with you, if it must be so, rather than live any longer with murderers," she said gently, in answer to his look.

"Then you knew of this before?"

"I suspected it," she replied; and then, after a pause, she continued in a whisper,—"Listen to me quietly for a few moments while I explain to you my position. I think I owe you that, for your kindness to me, for when people are as close to death as we are at present, reserve is out of the question."

He thrilled as he felt her warm breath on his ear; he did not know whether with a dawning passion or with sudden fear, yet outwardly he remained calm, and only nodded his head to signify that he was listening.

"My maiden name was Austin, my married name Fernandez. Dr Fernandez is my husband, whom, doubtless, you have heard about."

He started as he heard this dreaded name of the notorious Anarchist inventor of infernal machines. Who had not heard about the hellish actions of this man?

"Yes," she continued bitterly, "my husband bears a well-known name, and when I tell you that he is on board this ship with a picked band of Anarchists, also that he was one of the saloon passengers, you will perhaps understand why I could not speak before."

"Yes, I suppose so," he said softly. "Which of the passengers was the doctor? for I saw no one speak to you during the voyage."

"The tall, thin man, whom they call Mr Faria, is my husband. He has left us, you see, and joined his companions. He has watched me closely during the voyage, but has now left me at last at liberty."

"What a terrible fate to be linked to such a demon."

"Yes, it has been a terrible fate since I found him out; so terrible that the prospect of death seems pleasant compared to it. I have been watched and carried about with him and his companions for the past six years, forced to see the most atrocious crimes perpetrated and unable to utter a word of warning. That is my secret, Mr Mortlake."

"But could you not have given me a hint before we reached Malta or Ceylon "

"I have given you as many as I dared. Did I not advise you to see more of Ceylon while we were there."

"I could not leave you," blurted out poor Philip impulsively.

"I knew that, my friend, and so did my husband. Ah! it is useless for two people placed as we now are to play the hypocrite. I saw that you were nearly as world-weary as I am, and my heart went out to you in sympathy when I first met you, although I could not show it, for, as I have told you, I was very closely watched and environed; besides, a plainer warning would have only hastened on your doom, for my husband allows no one whom he suspects, to escape. At Gibraltar, Malta, Port Said, Suez and Colombo they were prepared to blow up the ship at a moment."

Philip was thrilling still, but no longer with fear. The woman's soft whispering had entered his soul and filled it with a glow of ecstasy such as he had not felt since he was a boy. Death seemed to be nothing now while that ardour of life pulsed through him, and she sat so quietly, prepared to share that fate beside him. It was not a question of love as men and women regard that passion. There was no desire for the body in his heart. A clearer flame burned now within him. It seemed as if their spirits had already leapt together and joined in an inseparable embrace. They were about to pass from this life which both had found so empty of pleasure and enter the other, like twin souls. He clasped the slender hand that lay supinely on her knee within his with a nervous grasp, and looked into her shining eyes with eyes as bright.