The Great Secret/Chapter 6

From Wikisource
Jump to navigation Jump to search

CHAPTER VI.

IN THE HOLD.

Phillip Mortlake raised himself from the floor on which he had been dashed down by the explosion, and looked about him for a moment stupidly.

He had fallen on a body from which the head had been torn and the limbs disjointed, while the clothes which had covered it were in tatters.

The saloon was in a state of wreckage, still filled with the smoke of the explosion, and all about him lay the dismembered bodies of the passengers. How he had escaped whole, for he felt no wounds about him, he could not tell.

His first thought on recovering consciousness was about Adela; had she escaped as he had done, or been mutilated like the others?

He ran over to the couch where she had been lying, and was overjoyed to find her rising to her feet with a dazed look in her eyes; she had evidently been thrown from the couch some distance away, for she rose from a mound of dead—a fearful mound of battered humanity, male and female, all mingled together. Fortunately for her she had been flung upon a woman's body, singularly like her own figure, whom he could not recognise, so fearfully was the face torn, yet it was costumed similarly to what Adela had been; but he thought nothing of that as he rushed forward- and clasped her in his arms with gratitude at her escape. She was his sole living charge, now that the others were slain.

He felt no wrong at embracing this wronged woman, now that the dastardly outrage had been perpetrated upon them. Her husband had given her over to death, and if she had escaped that was not his fault; she had taken the risk and passed through the punishment to which she had been condemned. She was no longer the property of Dr Fernandez the Anarchist. She was a virginal woman once more, and at liberty to bestow herself as she pleased.

The criminal who has served his sentence can no longer be regarded as a criminal, for he has paid his debt. The slave who yields up his life for his master has surely done with slavery. Sin brought death into the world, therefore, when the sinner dies, he has paid his debt of sin.

Philip Mortlake had these thoughts as he clasped Adela in his arms, as a brother might a sister. He was overjoyed to see her rise from the terrible shock unwounded, as he was, while all the others seemed to have been torn to pieces.

She looked wan and feeble at first. He felt himself in the same condition, but as the moments passed, the blood began to course once more through his veins as it had not done for many years. She also began to get more colour in her cheeks than she had before, and look younger. The shock must have stirred up their frozen blood and made it flow again with the freedom of youth.

What a wreck and shamble this handsomely-furnished room now was. The iron pillars were twisted in all directions, portions of the ceiling and floor gaped open and revealed a chasm of beams and ribs beneath, black spaces that yawned under their feet, yet invited them to conceal themselves from the remorseless devils in human shape who would soon be after them.

He had no more recollection of the explosion than the memory of that vivid flash of light that had blinded him for an instant only. It could not have been longer, for the vapours still hung about the saloon, although there were gaps enough for them to escape quickly.

All round them lay bleeding and unrecognisable corpses, so that they shrank with horror as they stood together and looked round.

"We must conceal ourselves, Adela, and at once," he said, "for the assassins will be here presently to finish up their fell work."

"Yes, Philip, my friend; strange as it may seem, I no longer desire to die," said Adela, as she clung to him. "A moment since it seems I was lying on yonder couch wishing for and waiting for death. I saw you pass the door, then the intense light burst out and blinded me, although I felt no pain, and then I looked up to see you standing beside me. Do you know, you appear to be years younger than when you left me? Why, your hair looks brown, instead of the grizzled grey it was a moment' ago."

"So do you, Adela. It is because we know each other now and are liberated from the past."

"That must be it," she replied, and then added,—"Let us hide, my friend, for I hear footsteps coming along the passage, and if we are discovered we shall be murdered."

"Don't leave me behind. Take me with you, for I am half dead with horror and drenched to the skin with ice-cold water."

The faint voice was unmistakably that of Dr Valentine Chiver, and as they looked quickly round they saw him shivering, limp and colourless, with staring eyes, and hair and clothes dripping wet.

"Where have you come from in that state?" inquired Philip.

"I don't know. I cannot remember," said the poor fellow. "I was sitting at the table when it came, and when I woke up I saw the others rush away; but I had no place to go to, therefore I came to you."

"What others?" asked Philip astonished.

"The captain, the passengers," replied the doctor in a dull voice.

"But they have all been killed. Look at their bodies."

"I don't know who these bodies belong to; but they have hidden themselves, for I saw them rush away."

"Then let us follow their example if we mean to live, for the enemy is coming I can hear."

Saying which Philip took the hand of Adela, and followed by the miserable little wet and shivering ship doctor, crawled along a great iron beam that passed directly under their feet, where the torn-up floor left an open gap. A faint glimmering of red light came through the bars and beams from what appeared to be the distant engine-rooms, so that they could see to make their way a [sic]

They crawled on all-fours until they reached a portion where they were securely hidden by the deck that had not been damaged, and here they waited for the course of events.

They had not long to wait. Presently they heard voices above them, and trampling of feet.

"I don't expect that any mortal in the saloon has escaped my sudden-death explosive," said a voice above.

"That is my husband," whispered Adela to Philip.

"Was," answered Philip. "He can be no longer husband of yours."

"It is pretty effective this invention of yours, doctor," said another voice.

"Yes," replied the first voice. "I had no desire to inflict more pain then was needful for our purpose. Adela was a traitress, although she was only one of us through the link of matrimony, and therefore could not be judged with the same severity as we condemn traitors who give their bond, yet she had to die, therefore, for her sake, I rendered the fumes perfectly painless. The poor people here have gone without the slightest knowledge of how things went. It was a rapid passage and an easy one," said Doctor Fernandez quietly. "The forces of Nature were quenched instanter, and the spirits were freed without a single pang. No one could possibly have escaped."

"Are you certain of this, doctor?" asked the other voice.

"Certain, my friend. The fumes are so volatile that they spread instantly, the moment the bomb has exploded, and evaporate as quickly, after they have done their work. I have allowed thirty minutes to elapse before I brought you here. Ten minutes would have been sufficient, yet I did not wish to endanger the valuable lives of my confreres, therefore I have made you pause before advancing for thirty minutes exactly."

"Then you think no one has escaped," inquired the voice.

"Certainly not," said the doctor. "Here lies my poor wife, who would take sides against me. She is not much mutilated, poor thing. To-morrow we will bury the dead."

"He thinks I am slain," whispered Adela. "He has seen a body like mine. I saw one also that was like me as I rose. It is as well that he should think me dead."

Her voice trembled slightly as she whispered this to her friend. It is not nice to think that the best thing to happen to ourselves is death. People often say that they wish they were dead, yet few of them desire it in reality.

Again the voice of Dr Fernandez fell upon their ears.

"You are satisfied, comrades, with the work which has been accomplished, I trust. Not one of us has suffered by a single scratch. Not one of those whom we must consider enemies have escaped. We are masters of the position, owners of this mighty ship, which, I suppose, had better be set agoing again in our direction."

"We are satisfied with your work, doctor, and could not wish a better leader."

"No, comrades, I have no knowledge of the sea. Captain Anatole must take the command."

"I am willing," said a deep voice; "and now go to choose my officers and men."

"When will we be ready to start?"

"Within half an hour we shall be on our way. My comrades are good sailors and good engineers. I suppose you will keep to the second saloon for the rest of the voyage, since this is so much damaged."

"Yes; we can get this damage put to rights over there when we arrive."

Philip and his companions heard the miscreants walk off towards the other parts of the vessel, while they still remained crouched upon the iron beam, with the darkness round them only dimly penetrated by that distant glimmering of crimson light. ` "It is growing brighter; it comes from below us," said Adela.

"We cannot remain long here. Surely the ship cannot be on fire."

"No," replied Philip.

"It is the engine fires, which they are stocking far below us. We are in a portion of the hold where possibly those others who have escaped are also concealed. Let us stay where we are for a little longer, until the ship gets up steam, then we shall be able to find shelter in some of the aft cabins."

"But they will search these cabins first."

"Yes; that is probably what they are doing at present, and after they make an examination we shall be most likely left alone."

"How cold and damp it is down here," moaned poor Chiver, as he shuddered violently on his perch. "It seems as if the blood was dropping upon me like ice drops from the bodies who lie above. Oh, this is dreadful!"

"Don't speak in that way, Dr Chiver, you frighten me," and Adela crept nearer to Philip, who clasped her closely to him as he turned roughly on the miserable little medicus.

"Don't be a fool, Chiver. We have escaped the greatest danger; keep quiet now and you'll be all right. We shall be able to find food enough, and after this night shelter also, if we don't lose our presence of mind. You have heard that they intend taking the vessel somewhere, so that there will be lots of chances for us to get ashore once we are there."

A long silence ensued after this, during which he held Adela, while the doctor sat beside them. For lack of a better occupation they watched that lurid reflection, now growing brighter as the furnace doors were opened, and then becoming dim again when the fires were stocked and the doors shut. A little longer and once more the old vibration began to pulsate through them, and the Rockhampton had started again upon her interrupted voyage, to where—it was impossible to calculate.

Philip hoped that they would go for some mainland; they were not far from Africa. There were also islands to the south that they might make. It was all the wildest of speculation where they might be going, as the capture of the ship was the most improbable and unprecedented of actions. Whatever course they took, they would have to sail rapidly and out of the way of ordinary traffic in the meantime, whatever else they meant to do with their huge capture in the future.

"Yes, they must take us to some deserted portion of the coast, or to some island out of the way, which possibly they have decided upon beforehand; therefore, if we keep out of their sight, we may soon be in a position to make our escape."

As he was saying this softly, he could feel that the engines were in full action, while from the upper decks came the sounds of work. She was increasing her speed with every moment that passed, and the captors evidently knew what they were about.

Two hours passed without the silence being further broken by the three hidden ones. Adela sat so quietly against the arm of Philip that he thought she must have fallen asleep, and he therefore did not move, for fear of disturbing her. Indeed, now that the vessel was steaming on in her usual manner, he felt almost inclined to fall asleep, only for the memory of the horrors which lay over their heads, with the darkness and danger of their present position.

It was not cold, yet cooler than it had been in the saloon. The air was filled too with the musty and varied odours of a ship's hold—new paint, engine-oil, and the other fumes which mingled, yet retained each their own peculiarity. The saloon above was dark now also, since the assassins had gone away—dark, still horribly suggestive of what it contained. It was not easy to fall asleep with this knowledge and that uncertainty.

"Are you asleep, my friend?" he asked softly, to which she answered, with her lips at his ear,—

"Hush! No, I am listening. Do you hear the noises around and below us, as of things moving cautiously?"

"It is the ship rats; there are always these vermin, even in a new ship," he answered soothingly. "But they are well fed, and will not hurt us."

"Ah! but hearken to the sounds above us—and see the lights coming this way! They have begun the search!"

"Yes," muttered Philip, in a low voice. "We must keep silent and lie close."

As he said this, a ship lamp was thrust down the opening of the torn-up deck, and a villainous face shone out above it, peering in their direction.