The Great Secret/Chapter 7

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CHAPTER VII.

A GATHERING IN THE DARK.

As yet they had the advantage, for a number of cross iron bars flung a patchwork of shadow upon them where they sat, so that they could see without being seen, but for how long it was impossible to say.

Philip looked about him anxiously to find out where he was, and observed that the hold occupied the entire length of the saloon, and was fairly well and compactly packed, with luggage and freight. A few feet only separated them from the storage, therefore they were in no danger of hurting themselves by a fall.

"No one there, I think, Pedro?" asked a voice.

"I think not, but we may as well go and examine,"—saying which the man with the lamp leapt down upon a sea-chest, and was quickly followed by another, both armed with cutlasses and revolvers.

"Courage, dear Adela; I shall kill these two if they see us," whispered Philip between his teeth, while he felt for the weapons he had armed himself with at the first. He still had the pistols in his sash.

The two men stood for a moment swinging the lamp about, and throwing its rays in different directions, yet, where they were now, the shadow of the beam itself covered those upon it.

"Dr Fernandez was right, Pedro; there is not a living enemy left on board. Let us return and finish our examination above."

Had they eyes in their heads, Philip thought, as he peered from his shelter. There, in the shadow of some bales, he saw the captain and his two mates, George Cox and Digby Butcher, both glaring with white and revengeful looks on these searchers as they retreated before them.

Other faces and forms were there, all seeking the shadows, yet whom Philip, from his elevated position, saw plainly enough, feeling pleased to think they were not quite alone, yet dreading that they might be discovered.

But no, the men looked round them seemingly keenly enough without seeing anything, and then they drew themselves through the hole, and slowly disappeared down the gangway, leaving the company once more in the hold.

"More have escaped beside ourselves, Adela. Let us join them and consult as to what is to be done."

"I am frightened of them, Philip," whispered Adela, with a strong shudder and a convulsive clutch at his arm.

"Why? They are like ourselves, and friends," said Philip, astonished.

"I don't know; but I saw faces down there when the lantern shone, which I saw lying dead upstairs."

"Nonsense! You only fancied so. They are all our friends, and will help us—come!"

She made no more objections, but permitted him to lift her down to the boxes after he had reached them himself. He had forgotten little Doctor Chiver, but that gentleman scrambled down after them, and stood beside them, grumbling to himself that he would certainly have rheumatics with all this wet upon him.

Scarcely had the party of three landed upon their feet, when a hand grasped the arm of Philip, and a voice breathed in bis ear—the voice of the captain,—

"Hush! or they will hear us. Who are you?"

"Philip Mortlake."

"And your companions?"

"Mrs Fer—I mean Austin, and the ship's doctor, Valentine Chiver."

"Well," answered the captain, "I am happy that you have escaped with life. There are about a dozen of us down here. Are you wounded?"

"Not at all. I feel stiff and unstrung in the nerves, though."

"So do we all; and no wonder, for it must have been a terrible smash up. Do you think it safe yet to venture about?"

"Yes; I was about to propose that to you. Captain Nelson; they must have finished the search amongst the cabin by this time."

"The villains have set the ship going again. I wonder what they have done with Mr Gray, the chief engineer."

"I am here, captain," answered the voice of Mr Gray. "I was knocked down while on duty, but quickly recovered my senses and rushed to warn you, but before I could reach you the explosion had taken place, therefore I hid myself as you have done."

"Mr Butcher, will you go up and see if the coast is clear, then we can all perhaps find more comfortable quarters for the night?"

"Yes, sir."

"I suppose we shall have to lie low for a while, until we can find out what are their forces and how we can circumvent them."

Their eyes, now well accustomed to the darkness, which was only rendered very slightly less intense by the distant reflections which stole through the bars, could distinguish the different figures as they crept cautiously up and stood together. As they considered it wisdom to remain quiet until Mr Butcher's return, they waited silently and with apprehension for a time until they heard his voice from above.

"You may come up," he said at last. "They are all in the other portions of the ship, and we have the saloon and aft cabins to ourselves and the killed."

One by one they crept up, horror being upon them all—a horror which demoralised them and sapped their courage as they touched with their feet or hands, when they stumbled, the stiffening bodies which lay so thickly between them and the aft doors of the saloon.

The electric wires from the steward's pantry had been broken or disturbed by the explosion, and only one dim lantern, evidently overlooked, still stood on the end table, but outside, on the gangway, the lamps were again glowing, which gave them all the light they required to grope along.

With the horror of the dead mingled the fear of the ruthless and seemingly all-powerful living upon them, they kept well within the shadows, avoiding both that dim lantern on the table, the light which streamed along the gangways, and the bodies amongst their feet. One after the other they crept along, looking fearfully behind them as they went, each suffering the terror of a nightmare.

Yet no one came to disturb them; possibly even Anarchists dislike the proximity and sight of their victims after the deed is done. The gangways were clear as far as they could see. None of the usual bustle of stewards or cooks disturbed them. It was a lighted death-ship, yet going along at full speed, with the engines alone seemingly alive.

The captain led the way in deep silence, nor did he speak until he had reached one of the state cabins, the door of which stood open, and into which he entered, the others following softly.

"You had better keep together, and rest here until I find out what is going on aboard," he said.

"Let me accompany you, captain," said Philip.

"Very well. Mr Butcher, come with us, while Mr Cox mounts guard here."

An intense weariness and utter lassitude had now fallen upon the passengers, so that with one accord they laid themselves anywhere—on the couches and the floor. They could not see each other, but that was no matter, since they were so close that they could feel the contact of their bodies, and that was, to an extent, some consolation in their misery.

Adela closed her eyes as Philip left her, and almost immediately lost all consciousness of her peril and surroundings; the others also began to breathe regularly around her.

"Gentlemen," said the captain, when the three had reached the companion steps, "remember that for the present we must control ourselves, and only watch. We must not be discovered. You will obey me in all things."

"Yes, we will obey you, sir."

"Good. Now follow me, and with great care."

It was now about the darkest hour of the night, that hour before the grey of dawn steals up from the east and dims the stars. As yet they were lustrous and bright in all their Oriental splendour, with the spaces between like ebony.

What a beautiful world it was, Philip thought, as he stepped on deck and felt the soft yet cool air fan his cheeks. He had been so 'near losing it. He had been so indifferent to it before—before that explosion had changed his feelings and made him so near to leaving it. Now it was his for a little longer.

The steamer rushed along like a thing of life, the wind sang through the cordage, the stars flashed above, while on the waters the phosphorescence burned and sparkled as the screw churned them up and left a glittering furrow behind.

Where they stood the deck was empty—not quite, for the body of the quartermaster lay upon his face, and as they moved along towards the bridge they saw several other corpses stretched stark and still. They had been taken by surprise and cut down as suddenly as the passengers' had been below. Death had gleaned a rich harvest here.

On the bridge a man stood with his back to them. They could just make out the figure and no more. In the bridge-house a light was burning where the charts were, and they could make out other forms.

It was a risk to go on the bridge, where they could easily be seen by anyone on the foredeck, therefore they resisted the temptation and passed along on the darkest side, crouching down as they passed the lighted windows of the second-class smoking room. The windows being open, they could hear, from the voices, that it was occupied.

In this careful way they went from end to end of the ship, and then returned to where the voices and dense fumes of tobacco smoke showed that the assassins were congregated. They had the deck seemingly to themselves at this hour.

It was an easy matter to get upon the taffrail and, by crouching amongst the shrouds, be able to look through one of the open windows into the interior, and although it was not very dignified for the captain and second officer to do this on board their own ship, yet needs must when necessity compels, therefore, with one impulse, they climbed up, and keeping themselves well within the shadow, they gazed across the deck and into the apartment.

A dense blue film of smoke at first met their eyes and half-obscured the people who were inside; but as they peered they at length distinguished the forms and faces dimly, as through a gauze curtain. The smoke-room was crowded with excited smokers, languid players of cards and dominoes, or Anarchists who had fallen asleep.

They were listening, those who played, to the talking of the chiefs, therefore their playing proceeded but indifferently, but all who were not asleep smoked diligently and helped to densify the haze.

Dr Andrew Fernandez had the head of the table, and he was speaking impressively and seriously, punctuating his words with much gesticulation, as is the manner with the best bred foreigners.

He had a finely-shaped face, as both the captain and Philip had remarked before, when he appeared to be only a private gentleman. A quiet and impassive face, pale and elongated, with keen, black eyes, dark, closely-cropped hair, and Vandyke beard, which gave him rather the melancholy appearance of some portraits of Charles I. of England. He was tall and slenderly built, with slightly-stooping shoulders, a man of studious habits, whom at first sight impressed a spectator as a kindly-disposed yet rather critical and refined nature. Philip, as he looked at him, no longer wondered that he had been able to win the first love of such a woman as Adela Austin.

On the other side of Fernandez, and facing the watchers, were three men who impressed Philip differently. One was a large-made, shambling-looking man with fiery blue eyes almost hidden, under white eyelashes, and heavy eyebrows of the same pale hue. His skin was freckled, his features lumpy, his hair red, and his great hands knuckly and seamed. He looked, what he undoubtedly was, a coarse and brutal ruffian. As they afterwards came to know, his name was Dennis MacBride, an Americanised Irishman.

The second from him was an old man, with long, silvery hair and full beard, which gave him a most benevolent appearance. His features were Jewish, the skin olive-tinted, yet waxy in their pallor, as one who had long existed, shut out from the light of day, as, indeed, he had, for he was an escaped prisoner from Siberia, by name Alexis Simonoff.

The third man was insignificant as to size, and swarthy almost to blackness, with features pinched and mean-looking, also deeply pitted with small-pox marks, large, famished-looking and wild, black eyes, and thin, straggly hair that appeared stuck on his face and head in detached patches. This was Pedro Yitroff, a man with a nature like a venomous snake, active and energetic in the cause, yet attached to no man. He had the face and the spirit of a devil.

The others were too smoke-enveloped to describe in detail, but they were orderly in their demeanour, and all well dressed. They listened attentively to what the doctor was saying, and bent their heads in token of their approval—that is, those who were awake; those who were asleep lay as calmly with their heads on their hands as if no such crime as wholesale murder had been upon their minds.

"Come, we have seen enough for one night. I have a plan made up to take them by surprise after the night comes again," whispered Captain Nelson. "Come, or we shall be discovered, for daylight will be upon us presently."

As they crept along the deck they could see the first signs of that rapid dawn which comes so swiftly in the tropics. The distant horizon was already separate from the sky like two shades of darkness, the one still inky, the other deeply grey, in a few more moments objects would be seen plainly.

Wearily—Philip had never felt so weary in his life before—they crawled down the steps, and, seeking the cabin, flung themselves beside the others, after fastening the door, and were instantly all asleep.

Then the dawn crept in through the porthole, but without revealing those pale shadows that lay side by side on the cabin floor.