The Great Secret/Chapter 5

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In this way they sat together in silence for a time, listening to the sounds overhead, watching the movements of the stewards and the passengers, who, seeing that no immediate catastrophe had taken place, were recovering their spirits. The ladies were partaking of tea, coffee or wine, the gentlemen of Scotch whisky or brandy with soda. The unusual scare had made them all fly to extra indulgence on this night, and until the cause of the stoppage was explained no one cared to face the darkness of the deck. They were able to laugh now at the absurd idea of being frightened over this very natural accident, yet for the present they preferred company.

Philip saw that the stewards and Dr Valentine Chiver were so far in the secret, for they moved about pallid-faced and with staring eyes, walking gingerly, and casting down the dark gangway terrified glances; while he, the poor, little, fat Lothario, sat limp and grey in his seat, the picture of misery. He was drinking whisky as if it had been water, with his beady orbs glaring wildly. No one spoke to him, or else a second panic must have set in; also, fortunately for their peace of mind, few looked at him, while as for him his powers of speech were frozen. He could only swallow the fiery liquid before him.

"Do you know what they intend to do? Mrs—let me call you Adela now."

"Yes, Philip, I prefer my Christian name from you now," she replied quietly, permitting him to hold her hand.

"They will try to take the ship without injuring her in any way, if they can, for they mean to make use of her in some way as a cargo, transport and war ship. The doctor has made his plans, and fixed upon an island out of the line of traffic, where he can found a colony of Anarchists and manufacture his explosives. But one thing make sure of, from my experience of him and his companions, they will not spare the life of a man or woman who is not of their diabolical society. They will kill us whether we resist or yield."

"Then we will fight—but you, Adela, will your husband not make an effort to save your life?"

"No; he himself sentenced me to death before I left England. I was the means of preventing an outrage there, and did it with my eyes open to the consequences; but I was weary of my life and wished it ended. He hates and dreads me now, I think, as bitterly as I do him."

"How do you think they will slay us?"

"Ah! my husband is a master at ingenious methods of settling this problem. He may poison the atmosphere and suffocate us, or he may, if hurried, shatter us with explosives. We shall soon know. now, for here comes the captain."

Philip pondered for a moment while Captain Nelson entered, followed by his officers and five seamen laden with arms, which they put without ceremony down upon the table—the time for further concealment had gone past.

Philip thought, should he warn these people, or rather announce to them that they were doomed, or would it not be more merciful to leave them as they were, as the Creator leaves his creatures uncertain and ignorant. The plan of the Creator seemed the best, therefore he remained by the side of his friend and watched what was going on.

"Shut and barricade these doors," said the captain in a steady voice, as if the order had been an ordinary one; then, while the stewards obeyed him, and the passengers looked up startled, he continued,—"Ladies and gentlemen, the accident is a little more serious than we at first supposed, and will probably delay us a little longer; in fact, we had better remain here until daylight, when we can better see how to mend matters."

"Oh, captain, is the ship a wreck Is she going to sink? What is it?" shrieked out a chorus of voices, when the captain held up his hands for silence.

"There is no danger to the ship at present. Everything about her is taut and in good order, only that she has changed hands and is for the present in the possession of a horde of pirates."

Another confusion of tongues rose at this point, which the captain allowed patiently to subside before he continued.

"Of course, it is ridiculous for any except madmen to entertain the thought that they can keep possession of a ship like this for longer than a few hours. At the present they have the advantage of the darkness, and as it is my duty not to risk any damage to the vessel and passengers under my care, I think it best to submit to the delay for a few hours, for that will be all, let me assure you, that can possibly happen to us. I have taken all precautions. On deck the guns are in order and the ammunition ready, to send those who will not submit to kingdom come. Here are weapons enough for the gentlemen who like, to arm themselves to the teeth—rifles, revolvers, cutlasses, dirks—although we sha'n't want to use them, I can assure you, on the word of an old naval man!"

"Have you made any advance towards the—the pirates?" asked one gentleman gifted with more self-command than the others, who looked as if a single man with a revolver could have mastered them easily.

"Yes, I have sent three messengers to them to ask what they mean?"

"And what answer have they given?"

"None as yet; indeed neither of my messengers have come back, nor have the engineers turned up to explain, and I don't wish to weaken our force by sending any more. Our policy is to wait, and enjoy ourselves as best we may."

"How can we enjoy ourselves with a set of explosive Anarchists on board?" cried out the passengers in tones of the extremest anguish.

"Oh! Anarchists think as much of their own carcases as we do about ours, and no explosion can take place on board without equal risks to both parties."

"Oh, but you know, captain, that Anarchists enjoy dying if they can kill others!" cried out one young lady.

"Not they—besides, we are not blown up yet, nor likely to be!" replied the captain stoutly. "Keep yourselves cool, that is all."

Good advice this, that, like heaps of other advice, was extremely difficult to take.

The ladies took straightway to the couches, there to whimper and moan out their fears, while the men tried to comfort them as well as they could, oscillating between the spirits and the sofas.

Thus the first hour passed, while the captain sat steadily at the table, where the weapons were placed, and waited.

Adela Austin or Fernandez expressed herself as tired, and therefore stretched herself out on the couch, while Philip wrapped her well up about the limbs, for although the night was a warm one, a sudden exclusiveness made him cover her feet.

She now permitted him to do as he pleased with her. He was her last friend, both waiting by the brink of the dark river, both waiting the shock which would sever the links that the world had forged about them. She knew that he had been a married man—men, as well as women, carry that sign about them. She did not know the story of his misery as he did hers; she would learn it when they had crossed over the river. He was not the sort of man to attract women who indulged in romantic dreams. He was old and passé; but sorrow and disappointment had rendered her short-sighted to the physical, and she felt contented that he cared enough for her company not to regret dying with her. It made death pleasanter to contemplate with him beside her. It was not so lonely as going out alone, or with a crowd of frivolous and stranger spirits.

"Do you wish to sleep, Adela?" asked Philip, as he wrapped her round.

"No, Philip, we shall have time enough for that presently. Hold my hand, if you like to do so; I like it so."

He half sat, half lay on the ground at her side, with his head on the cushions upon which she reclined, and still held her hand, no one heeding them.

She was thinking,—"I wonder where spirits go to after they are liberated from the body. Those that have friends and homes ought to go back. I have no friends and no home, therefore I shall have to find a place for myself." She was not feeling lonely with that firm hand holding hers. If she had been going to live on this earth, she might have felt it wrong to cling to that hand, but when one is about to die it is different. Her husband had cast her off, and death was about to give her back her liberty. How blessed an assurance that was of Christ's, that there would be no marriages in the land she was about to enter—friendships, perhaps, and freedom.

He was thinking also, with that slender hand in his. As people are said to see a panorama of their past lives rise up before them at the hour of death, he saw his unroll. The love of his boyhood flashed out. How he had loved that wife of his! Never had he been false to her, although her savage jealousy had deemed him so. She had been his idol, his goddess of clay. Then the bitterness of the years passed, when, out of despair, he bore the blame, and allowed her to defame him. She was praying, possibly, at that moment—thinking how good she was, how worthy of heaven in discarding him, for, to her ailing imagination, he would always appear a monster of evil. His love lay buried long ago. She had heaped upon it a mountain of ashes and ignominy. Living, he would be nothing to her; dead, he would himself feel free.

The little hand in his was that of a tired-out child, towards whom he had to act the elder brother's part. They would both go through the river together—where?

Portions of the Beatus Vir came into his mind now, and it comforted him:—

"Acceptable is the man who is merciful and lendeth; he shall order his works with judgment, for he shall not be moved for ever.

"The just man shall be in everlasting remembrance; he shall not be afraid of evil report.

"He hath dispersed abroad, he hath given to the poor, his justice endureth for ever and ever."

Yes, he had done his best to be merciful and just, and he had dispersed abroad, and now he did not mind evil reports, for he would soon be past all that, and with her whom death had made his friend for ever and ever. It was not hard to die when he had renounced the events of his life; not hard even if he had gone alone—a boon to go with such a friend.

He had seen a man once killed suddenly in the full flush of health and joy. This young man had been laughing and jesting with a girl when the stroke fell which killed him. His laughing face was turned towards her as he fell and rolled over, a corpse with the smile still on his lips. That young man had found it easy to go. Perhaps his experience would be a similar one.

He glanced towards the captain and the men who stood around him. They did not know the remorseless fiends who had captured the Rockhampton or they might not have waited so calmly on their coming.

"Philip, my friend," murmured the soft voice at his ear. Yes," replied Philip.

"Are you going to fight when they come?"

"Of course. I could not do less, as an Englishman."

"Ah, then, we shall be parted at the last."

She sighed gently as she spoke, a sigh that filled him with delight.

"Only for a moment, Adela, and then I shall take hold of your hand again."

"Are you sure of this, Philip? What if it be annihilation?"

"Comfort yourself, my child, we will meet again," he said, as he clasped her hand with his one hand, while he smoothed her hair with the other, and she appeared to be content.

Another half-hour passed with that deep silence all round them. The port-holes were open, and the soft sighing of the night breeze came through them. A gentle swell was on the sea, which lifted the inactive ship up and down softly and soothingly.

Just then a knock came to the locked saloon door, and the captain, seizing up a revolver, went towards it and opened it, admitting one person only, one of the foreign saloon passengers—a yellow-faced squat man. He was well-dressed, and yet like a workman, with a most sinister cast of face, yet bold enough, as he entered and looked about him.

"Good-night, capitan. Why locked doors to your passengers?"

"Your friends ought to know that," replied the captain sternly. "Do you come from them?"

"Yus; since you put it in that nice way, capitan. I am the ambassador; depending upon your honour as a gentleman."

"Oh, we won't harm you. What do they want?"

"Not much; only the ship, which the cause has need of," replied the ambassador, with a grin.

"Oh, indeed, the request is a modest one, as far as your usual demands; yet, what if I refuse?"

"We shall kill you within an hour's time, capitan, and then the ship will be ours."

"Not if we know it. Go back to your friends, Mr Gascoyne, and tell them I am in no great hurry between this and daybreak. Yet, if they put off until that hour their submission, I'll treat them as pirates, and shoot them down to a man."

"I shall give your message', capitan, only I think you are not wise; but I say nothing. You are well armed here, I see."

He lifted a long dagger from the table as he spoke, and felt its point with his thumb as he looked about him curiously.

"Yes; we are able to defend ourselves," replied the captain. "I am sorry to see you in this position, Mr Gascoyne."

"So am I, capitan, and sincerely wish it could be avoided. I shall do my best to make my friends listen to reason, I assure you."

He bowed, and turned to go, still holding the dagger in his hand. As he passed by where Philip and Adela were, he said,—

"Madam! would you not like to come on deck?"

"No!" replied Adela shortly, as she turned her face from him with aversion.

"As you please. Ah, sir," he said, bending over Philip, "I wish you could persuade the brave capitan to yield to destiny; the ship is ours, and we have better weapons than this at our command."

As he spoke he touched Philip in the side with the sharp-pointed dagger. It was a light pressure, yet he felt it pricking his skin, just over the heart, through his thin flannel shirt.

"A prog with this just there, and you'd be done for; yet, bah! that would only be one, whereas with our weapons—poof! and the lot goes."

"That is sharp enough for me," replied Philip, with a slight laugh, feeling how helpless his present position was, while a nightmare-like chill went over him and dewed his back with ice-drops, for he thought for a moment that the man had been ordered to slay him; then the other also laughed and withdrew the blade.

"Au revoir! I shall come again presently," said the man, as he drew himself up and went out, the captain locking the door behind him.

"Who is he?" whispered Philip.

"My husband's confidant and friend. I thought he was going to stab you," answered Adela.

"So did I," replied Philip faintly, as he took out his handkerchief and wiped his damp brow.

It was becoming demoralising as well as maddening, this dallying with doom. Philip felt after that last experience that he must do something to assert his manhood and keep himself from becoming a coward.

"Adela, I can stand no more of this. I must ask the captain to begin the war; forgive me if I leave you."

"As you like, Philip; it cannot be long either way," replied Adela, as she released his hand and folded her own over her bosom.

"Captain Nelson," he cried, as he rose up with a leap and went to the table, "you don't know the men we have to deal with, that you wait here and allow them to mature their devilish plans. Let us make a rush at them instead."

He took up two revolvers as he spoke, and a cutlass, while the captain eyed him steadily.

"Yes; perhaps you are right, Mr Mortlake. I am also getting a bit tired of the waiting game. Say, gentlemen, who volunteers for the charge?"

A couple of the passengers seized upon arms with the three officers and the old captain, and then with one accord they rushed to the locked door.

"We'll interview them now," cried the captain, as he unlocked the door and flung it open.

Philip was one step behind the captain as they made a plunge into the gloom of the gangway. He saw the captain take three steps, and then stop.

At the same instant a bright blaze like lightning flashed before his eyes, and then all became blank to him.