The Mystery (Adams and White)/Part 2/Chapter 3
THE TWELVE REPEATING RIFLES
After my watch below the next morning I met Percy Darrow. In many ways he is, or was, the most extraordinary of my many acquaintances. During that first half hour's chat with him I changed my mind at least a dozen times. One moment I thought him clever, the next an utter ass; now I found him frank, open, a good companion, eager to please,—and then a droop of his blond eyelashes, a lazy, impertinent drawl of his voice, a hint of half-bored condescension in his manner, convinced me that he was shy and affected. In a breath I appraised him as intellectual, a fool, a shallow mind, a deep schemer, an idler, and an enthusiast. One result of his spasmodic confidences was to throw a doubt upon their accuracy. This might be what he desired; or with equal probability it might be the chance reflection of a childish and aimless amiability.
He was tall and slender and pale, languid of movement, languid of eye, languid of speech. His eyes drooped, half-closed beneath blond brows; a long wiry hand lazily twisted a rather affected blond moustache, his voice drawled his speech in a manner either insufferably condescending and impertinent, or ineffably tired,—who could tell which?
I found him leaning against the taffrail, his languid graceful figure supported by his elbows, his chin propped against his hand. As I approached the binnacle, he raised his eyes and motioned me to him. The insolence of it was so superb that for a moment I was angry enough to ignore him. Then I reflected that I was here, not to stand on my personal dignity, but to get information. I joined him.
"You are the mate?" he drawled.
"Since I am on the quarter-deck," I snapped back at him.
He eyed me thoughtfully, while he rolled with one hand a corn-husk Mexican cigarette.
"Do you know where you are going?" he inquired at length.
"Depends on the moral character of my future actions," I rejoined tartly.
He allowed a smile to break and fade, then lighted his cigarette.
"The first mate seems to have a remarkable command of language," said he.
I did not reply.
"Well, to tell you the truth I don't know where we are going," he continued. "Thought you might be able to inform me. Where did this ship and its precious gang of cutthroats come from, anyway?"
"Oh, meaning you too, for all I know," he shrugged wearily. Suddenly he turned to me and laid his hand on my shoulder with one of those sudden bursts of confidence I came later to recognise and look for, but in which I could never quite believe—nor disbelieve.
"I am eaten with curiosity," he stated in the least curious voice in the world. "I suppose you know who his is?"
"Dr. Schermerhorn, do you mean?"
"Yes. Well, I've been with him ten years. I am his right-hand man. All his business I transact down to the last penny. I even order his meals. His discoveries have taken shape in my hands. Suddenly he gets a freak. He will go on a voyage. Where? I shall know in good time. For how long? I shall know in good time. For what purpose? Same answer. What accommodations shall I engage? I experience the worst shock of my life;—he will engage them himself. What scientific apparatus? Shock number two;—he will attend to that. Is there anything I can do? What do you suppose he says?"
"How should I know?" I asked.
"You should know in the course of intelligent conversation with me," he drawled. "Well, he, good old staid Schermie with the vertebrated thoughts gets kittenish. He says to me, 'Joost imachin, Percy, you are all-alone-on-a-desert-island placed; and that you will sit on those sands and wish within yourself all you would buy to be comfortable. Go out and buy me those things—in abundance.' Those were my directions."
"What does he pay you?" he asked.
"Enough," I replied.
"More than enough, by a good deal, I'll bet," he rejoined. "The old fool! He ought to have left it to me. What is this craft? Have you ever sailed on her before?"
"Have any of the crew?"
I replied that I believed all of them were Selover's men. He threw the cigarette butt into the sea and turned back.
"Well, I wish you joy of your double wages," he mocked.
So he knew that, after all! How much more of his ignorance was pretended I had no means of guessing. His eye gleamed sarcastically as he sauntered toward the companion-way. Handy Solomon was at the wheel, steering easily with one foot and an elbow. His steel hook lay fully exposed, glittering in the sunlight. Darrow glanced at it curiously, and at the man's headgear.
"Well, my genial pirate," he drawled, "if you had a line to fit that hook, you'd be equipped for fishing." The man's teeth bared like an animal's, but Darrow went on easily as though unconscious of giving offence. "If I were you, I'd have it arranged so the hook would turn backward as well as forward. It would be handier for some things,—fighting, for instance."
He passed on down the companion. Handy Solomon glared after him, then down at his hook. He bent his arm this way and that, drawing the hook toward him softly, as a cat does her claws. His eyes cleared and a look of admiration crept into them.
"By God, he's right!" he muttered, and after a moment; "I've wore that ten year and never thought of it. The little son of a gun!"
He remained staring for a moment at the hook. Then he looked up and caught my eye. His own turned quizzical. He shifted his quid and began to hum:
"The bos'n laid aloft, aloft laid he,
Blow high, blow low! What care we?
'There's a ship upon the wind'ard, a wreck upon the lee,'
Down on the coast of the high Barbare-e-e."
We had entered the trades and were making good time. I was content to stay on deck, even in my watch below. The wind was strong, the waves dashing, the sky very blue. From under our forefoot the flying fish sped, the monsters pursued them. A tingle of spray was in the air. It was all very pleasant. The red handkerchief around Solomon's head made a pretty spot of colour against the blue of the sky and the darker blue of the sea. Silhouetted over the flaw-less white of the deck house was the sullen, polished profile of the Nigger. Beneath me the ship swerved and leaped, yielded and recovered. I breathed deep, and saw cutlasses in harmless shadows. It was two years ago. I was young—then——
At the mess hour I stood in doubt. However, I was informed by the captain's falsetto that I was to eat in the cabin. As the only other officer, I ate alone, after the others had finished, helping myself from the dishes left on the table. It was a handsome cabin, well kept, with white woodwork spotlessly clean, leather cushions—much better than one would expect. I afterwards found that the neatness of this cabin and of the three staterooms was maintained by the Nigger—at peril of his neck. A rack held a dozen rifles, five revolvers, and,—at last—my cutlasses. I examined the lot with interest. They were modern weapons,—the new high power 30-40 box-magazine rifle, shooting government ammunition,—and had been used. The revolvers were of course the old 45 Colt's. This was an extraordinary armament for a peaceable schooner of one hundred and fifty tons burden.
The rest of the cabin's fittings were not remarkable. By the configuration of the ship I guessed that two of the staterooms must be rather large. I could make out voices within.
On deck I talked with Captain Selover.
"She's a snug craft," I approached him.
"You have armed her well."
He muttered something of pirates and the China seas.
"You have arms enough to give your crew about two magazine rifles apiece—unless you filled all your berths forward!"
Captain Selover looked me direct in the eye.
"Talk straight, Mr. Eagen," said he.
"What is this ship, and where is she bound?" I asked, with equal simplicity.
"As for the ship," he replied at length, "I don't mind saying. You're my first officer, and on you I depend if it comes to—well, the small arms below. If the ship's a little under the shade, why, so are you. She's by way of being called a manner of hard names by some people. I do not see it myself. It is a matter of conscience. If you would ask some interested, they would call her a smuggler, a thief, a wrecker, and all the other evil titles in the catalogue. She has taken in Chinks by way of Santa Cruz Island—if that is smuggling. The country is free, and a Chink is a man. Besides, it paid ten dollars a head for the landing. She has carried in a cargo or so of junk; it was lying on the beach where a fool master had piled it, and I took what I found. I couldn't keep track of the underwriters' intentions."
"But the room forward——?" I broke in.
"Well, you see, last season we were pearl fishing."
"But you needed only your diver and your crew," I objected.
"There was the matter of a Japanese gunboat or so," he explained.
"Poaching!" I cried.
"So some call it. The shells are there. The islands are not inhabited. I do not see how men claim property beyond the tide water. I have heard it argued——"
"Hold on!" I cried. "There was a trouble last year in the Ishigaki Jima Islands where a poacher beat off the Oyama. It was a desperate fight."
Captain Selover's eye lit up.
"I've commanded a black brigantine, name of The Petrel," he admitted simply. "She was a brigantine aloft, but alow she had much the same lines as the Laughing Lass." He whirled on his heel to roll to one of the covered yacht's cannon. "Looks like a harmless little toy to burn black powder, don't she?" he remarked. He stripped off the tarpaulin and the false brass muzzle to display as pretty a little Maxim as you would care to see. "Now you know all about it," he said.
"Look here, Captain Selover," I demanded, "don't you know that I could blow your whole shooting-match higher than Gilderoy's kite. How do you know I won't do it when I get back? How do you know I won't inform the doctor at once what kind of an outfit he has tied to?"
He planted far apart his thick legs in their soiled blue trousers, pushed back his greasy linen boating hat and stared at me with some amusement.
"How do you know I won't blow on Lieutenant or Ensign Ralph Slade, U.S.N., when I get back?" he demanded. I blessed that illusion, anyway. "Besides, I know my man. You won't do anything of the sort." He walked to the rail and spat carefully over the side.
"As for the doctor," he went on, "he knows all about it. He told me all about myself, and everything I had ever done from the time I'd licked Buck Jones until last season's little diversion. Then he told me that was why he wanted me to ship for this cruise." The captain eyed me quizzically.
I threw out my hands in a comic gesture of surrender.
"Well, where are we bound, anyway?"
The dirty, unkempt, dishevelled figure stiffened.
"Mr. Eagen," its falsetto shrilled, "you are mate of this vessel. Your duty is to see that my orders as to sailing are carried out. Beyond that you do not go. As to navigation, and latitude and longitude and where the hell we are, that is outside your line of duty. As to where we are bound, you are getting double wages not to get too damn curious. Remember to earn your wages, Mr. Eagen!"
He turned away to the binnacle. In spite of his personal filth, in spite of the lawless, almost piratical, character of the man, in that moment I could not but admire him. If Percy Darrow was ignorant of the purposes of this expedition, how much more so Captain Selover. Yet he accepted his trust blindly, and as far as I could then see, intended to fulfil it faithfully. I liked him none the worse for snubbing me. It indicated a streak in his moral nature akin to and quite as curious as his excessive neatness regarding his immediate surroundings.