Dan quickly dragged the prostrate man into a clump of mesquite. His first impulse had been to turn him over to the soldiers. But the defiant, if faint murmurs of the patriot, "Long live San Blanco; death to Rodriguez!" bringing back to him his emotions of the morning, caused him to decide differently. He seized the man by the collar.
"Stand up," he said, "you are not hurt; only a bit winded. I guess Rodriguez has had enough heads without yours. You thought you were acting for your country's good; I guess you were, from all I hear."
The man had been looking at the speaker wonderingly, not understanding a word. Dan turned to him impatiently.
"Get out!" he said. He pushed the man, searching his brain for the Spanish equivalent. "What the mischief—oh," he glared at the trembling prisoner. "Vayase Vd! Largo de aqui!"
The poor wretch needed no more. With a quick, smiling gleam of white teeth he bowed, and the next instant was loping through the garden. Dan sauntered slowly toward the hotel. Soldiers acting upon information given by Miss Howland were beating the grounds, and there was much shouting and occasionally a pistol shot.
But the hotel was deserted of the brilliant guests who had filled it but a quarter of an hour before. The spell of darkness lay upon the banquet hall. A few men and women were loitering in the court, awaiting developments. Oddington was there, and another man of the party, but the rest, including the Howlands, had evidently gone to their rooms.
"Miss Howland told us you made rather an interesting tackle, Merrithew," said Oddington as Dan nodded to him. "I am sorry I missed it. Where is your prisoner?"
Dan smiled. "The tackle was so artistic," he said, "that I jarred most of my senses out of me. He got away. Here's his gun," and Dan held up an old-fashioned carbine.
Oddington glanced at the weapon.
"Howland will be sorry you let your man escape, if only because he prevented the carefully prepared speech he had been laboring over. It was pretty nervy of you, although Howland tells me they are all the time potting at Rodriguez and missing him. Still, I should think they would give you the Order of San Blanco."
"I think I can struggle along without it," said Dan. "Good-night."
He turned toward the harbor and the Tampico. The moon had now broken from the clouds which had partially hidden it all evening, and the hotel grounds and the slope leading to the water front were bathed in light. Dan's mood was rather bitter. They might have waited for him, he thought. At least, Miss Howland and her father might have, in view of what had happened. But still, why should they? The old feeling of aloofness filled him, and all the self-assurance which had characterized his attitude with Miss Howland a half-hour before vanished. He was angry with himself for having dared to maintain such an attitude.
He turned to look at the hotel and bowed gravely.
"It seems that one Daniel Merrithew has been forgetting he is a mere steamship captain. He will remember it in future—at all times."
And then he walked slowly to his ship.
THE WRAITH IN THE MOONLIGHT
Twenty-four hours later the Tampico was at sea. The itinerary proposed by Mr. Howland had been altered for the reason that cable despatches from New York had contained financial tidings that made it incumbent upon him to return to the United States without more delay than was necessary; and Ralph Oddington's firm had been retained by a corporation seeking protection against assaults of the Attorney-General's office, and he was wanted in the city at his "earliest convenience," which he had interpreted as meaning "right away."
And so there was to be no stopping at various ports, but a quick run to the States. Mr. Howland imparted this information to Dan as the two sat at table in the saloon over cigars and coffee the evening after the departure from San Blanco. The other members of the party had gone on deck.
"They can do their sightseeing at Galveston and Savannah, where you can call for your cotton and naval stores as usual." As Dan raised his eyebrows, Mr. Howland shook his head emphatically. "Can't help it," he said. "You see by this despatch," pointing to a pile of papers on the table, "that the Tybee's out of commission for a month; and business is business, party or no party. And now, Merrithew," stuffing the papers into his pocket as though all matters concerning them were finally settled, "I want to ask you about something else. Of course you're in this Central American service here and will be for a time. I've been thinking what you said about the fighting the other morning." He lit a cigar and pushed his case toward Dan. "I gathered you did not exactly approve of it. Didn't you?"
"Mr. Howland," replied Dan, "it was not the fighting that bothered me, it was the idea I had landed guns which your men were using to shoot down other men like sheep. It was a new sensation, and it got into me, I'll say that. Still it was none of my business; I was carrying out your instructions. I am sorry I was so unwise as to give you the impression I did."
"Not at all." Mr. Howland gazed at his cigar a moment, flicking the ashes off with his little finger. "Is that why you let the assassin go?"
Dan rose to the situation without hesitating.
"Mr. Howland, you were fishing when you asked that question. You don't have to do that. I did let that chap go. I believed he had attempted a good job. I saved Rodriguez's worthless life and took a risk in doing it. I would not have done so, but I thought the man was aiming at you; but since I did, the only reward I was entitled to, or wanted, was to do as I pleased with the man."
"Undoubtedly," said Mr. Howland. "Of course it occurred to you that Rodriguez's life, however worthless you hold it in other ways, might be extremely valuable to the San Blanco Trading and Investment Company, which is myself?"
"Yes, I did think of that," replied Dan, "although I am employed by the Coastwise Company, I know you practically own both. I realize, too, your kindness to me in the past; but I did look on the fellow as a man honestly trying to serve his country; and when it came to deliver him up to be hanged—why I simply could not do it." Dan rose slowly. "I showed myself ungrateful to your interests. As I say, I appreciate what you have done. I am going to show that I do by asking you to consider my resignation in your hands to act upon as soon—whenever you please."
"Sit down, Captain Merrithew," said Mr. Howland, as though he had not heard the last words. "In the first place, you recognize that where there is no law and order legitimate business cannot be carried on. Where a country is governed in a haphazard manner, while it may be easy to secure contracts, it is impossible to collect on them. Business interests having connections with such countries find conditions intolerable, and where we can we rectify them. If you have studied San Blancan affairs you know that under Rodriguez (who, despite his cruelty, is honest) business here, whether controlled by myself or any one else, may for the first time in history be conducted on an honest and reliable basis. That is all I ask or have asked. I have no benefit of discriminating duties. I am largely interested in the business affairs of this country; but I obtained those interests fairly, and it is my duty to myself and my daughter and my business associates to maintain and develop them.
"I talk to you this way, Merrithew, because I have felt you were going wrong, and I wanted to set you right. I'll say frankly I know I'll not lose anything in so doing. I owe you a great deal. I am glad I do; for I like your sort. I wish I had a boy growing up as you have grown. You have a future before you—if you will only watch that damned hot head of yours."
Much that Mr. Howland had said in regard to the disinterested nature of his business activities was true; some things involved tactical evasion. In expressing his attitude toward Dan he was sincere. The Captain did not attempt to analyze. He was completely won, just as Mr. Howland wanted him to be. As he essayed to speak, Mr. Howland placed his hand on Dan's shoulder.
"Now, not a word, Merrithew. We'll forget it all and start fresh."
In the days of the voyage that followed, while it might not have been said that Virginia Howland snubbed Dan, neither could it have been said she was not at pains to see that she was never alone with him.
In fact, the attitude of either in relation to the other might in no way have been termed receptive. So far as Dan was concerned, he felt that, whether unwisely or not, he had made quite clear to her the terms upon which their friendship could continue; she had expressed her views no less clearly. The stand of both was irrevocable.
The second day out, feeling it to be his duty, he made tentative advances which, if not directly declined, at least left him the impression he had been gently and skilfully rebuffed. Since then he had been careful not to place himself again in a similar position.
At the table she would address him in the line of general conversation, and was at pains to greet him cordially whenever they met about the ship. But otherwise she left no doubt as to her wishes concerning him. Once she came into the saloon for breakfast before the rest of the party had taken their places. Dan was in his accustomed seat at the head of the table; he arose and wished her good-morning. She replied faintly, and then she sat toying idly with her rusk, her eyes for the most part fastened upon Dan, who had resumed his breakfast as though oblivious of her presence. She seemed trying to make up her mind to speak; but she failed. When Dan arose, bowed slightly, and left the saloon, she was still sitting silent with her breakfast untasted.
At Galveston Oddington left for New York by train, but Mr. Howland, receiving more assuring despatches, decided to remain with the party. They crammed cotton into the Tampico's holds, and later at Savannah they put pine-tar and pitch and other naval supplies aboard; thereby increasing Dan's responsibilities a hundredfold. But business was business, as Mr. Howland had said; and Dan had but to accept his worries and keep them from the party, which had fared well at the hands of friends in the two ports.
The Tampico left Savannah one afternoon about an hour after a trim Savannah liner had dropped down the river. At dinner that night the merriment was supreme, for in four days the Tampico would be in New York, and the Howlands' guests had had about all the excitement and salt air they wanted. The air was soft; there was brilliant starlight.
Dan had spent most of the evening on the bridge, Mr. Howland having requested him to make up the coast well out to sea in order to give the party a "final soaking" of real ocean air. He had not complied absolutely. Still, the Tampico was a good ninety miles off shore, well outside the track of south-bound vessels.
Shortly after nine o'clock he left the bridge and walked along the deck. The party was breaking up. Miss Howland had sauntered away from the group, and was leaning over the rail with her chin resting on her hands.
"Good-evening, Miss Howland," said Dan, pausing.
Virginia looked up quickly, and then resumed her former position.
"I don't know whether I ought to be nice to you or not, Captain Merrithew," she said.
Something in her voice gave Dan encouragement to make his reply.
"Won't you please try to be? In less than four days now you will be ashore—and then you'll probably never have any more opportunities."
The girl settled her chin more deeply into her palms.
"But you have not been nice. You have been horrid, ever since we left San Blanco."
Here was a phase of feminine character which Dan, not knowing, had not reckoned upon. However, he instinctively said the tactful thing.
"I—I am sorry. I thought I was pleasing you."
The girl slowly dragged her chin sidewise along her palms until she faced the Captain.
"Oh, you did! Has your experience with women taught you that is the best way to please them?"
Dan, now completely at sea, simply regarded her in silence. Virginia, inwardly triumphant, smiled.
"Now what can you do in four days to atone?"
"I might jump overboard."
"That would be romantic, but hardly—"
As the girl was speaking she turned her eyes to the water rushing past the hull, just as a dull, wallowing shape flashed by the bow, assuming form right under her eyes—a dark, soughing, coughing derelict, moving in the waves spinelessly, like a serpent; black, slimy, repulsive, with broken, hemp-littered masts and rusty chains clanking over the bow.
"Oh!" Virginia jumped back with a startled cry and looked fearfully at her companion. He was smiling, and intuitively she recognized that it was not a smile of amusement, but of sympathy, reassurance.
"Oh, wasn't it horrid!"
"Yes, it was not a pretty sight," replied Dan. "Derelicts never are. There are lots of them around here; they travel in currents, sometimes in short orbits, sometimes hundreds of miles in a straight line."
The terror had not left her eyes, and she glanced astern to where the ugly shape was burying itself in the gloom. She was an impressionable girl, and that loathsome object, rising as it were out of the bottom of the deep, clanking, sighing, brought to her an epitome of all the fear and mystery of the great, dark, silent waste. And she looked at the Captain with new interest. Here was one of the men who brave these things, who brave great big problems, who face the unknown and a future as full of mystery, as fraught with evil possibilities as when the first mariner put out to the Beyond in a boat hollowed from a tree. In a flash that derelict taught her to read Dan better; gave her a better insight into the look that she sometimes caught in his steely, inscrutable eyes, and the grave lines in his sun-bronzed face. And in the light of this knowledge her soul went out to this man, this type of man, so strange, so utterly foreign to a girl brought up in an environment where such types do not exist.
She held out her hand.
"I am going to my stateroom now, Captain. Good-night. We are going to be better friends, aren't we?"
"Thank you," said Dan; and he watched her tall, white form as it disappeared down the deck. He gazed moodily out at the dark horizon. Friends! He searched himself thoroughly, and he could not deny the truth as formulated in his mind. Friends! How hollow the word sounded! He knew how hollow it would seem all through his life.
Better it should be nothing. Yes, far better, instinct told him that. Miss Howland had come into his existence, radiant, pure, beautiful, and so utterly feminine; as a meteor flashing across the night pauses for a brief instant in the sky before shivering to nothingness. This simile occurred to Dan, who, though no poet, was at least a sailor and as such a student of the heavenly bodies. Yes, a meteor which had illumined his life.
He had never permitted himself to think in this way before. It is doubtful if before to-night he could have felt as he now did. It had all come over him suddenly with a rush. When he talked with her at the hotel in San Blanco he was filled with thoughts of his future, and assumed as granted his footing upon her plane. How absurd, how ridiculous this seemed now!
Why, why was it, he asked himself, that society or convention or whatever it was had drawn the grim chevaux de frise between those who had accomplished, or whose forebears had accomplished for them, and those who were yet to accomplish; with hosts eager to applaud the achievements of finality, but who had no adequate encouragement for those who had yet to achieve their mission, who fought their battles in the dark and won them in the glorious light, or losing, sank back into that oblivion out of which they had striven to emerge?
If fate had been different—yet if fate had been different he would never have seen her, perhaps. Yes, he should be satisfied; he had seen his star. And when it faded, as fade it must, in the vastness of the dark—why, what then? Well, at least he had seen his star; even this much is denied many. So, he would live it out and be thankful he had been permitted to feel the great thrill—to know that at least he had the heart for the greatest passion the world knows. Poor consolation, he told himself with a grim smile. And yet he who hitches his chariot to a star might well be content with less.
THE BURNING OF THE "TAMPICO"
Just an hour later the Tampico lay burning at a point in the Atlantic where if the white lights of Cape Fear and Cape Lookout had converged ninety-two miles farther out to sea they would have rested full on the reeking hull.
Dan had been fearful of the results of Mr. Howland's policy in loading the Tampico with inflammable cargo. He had been reared with the fear of fire in his heart. From one of his voyages his grandfather, Daniel Merrithew, had never returned. A charred name board had told the grim tale, and so Dan had gone out into the world with a long, red, flaming line across his fate, as in knightly days a man might have included the bar sinister or some other portentous device among his symbols of heraldry.
Pacing the forward deck with his pipe, thinking deeply of his talk with Virginia, Dan had seen pitch bubbling out of the deck seams and spilling into rich black pools. And thus the fire was discovered—some fifteen minutes too late, however, to effect the rescue of several of the crew, who shrieked and pounded at the bulkhead door, warped and welded tight by the heat; shrieked and pounded, until the throttling smoke bade them hold their peace.
First, Dan had the vessel swung about with her stern to the wind, the fire being forward; and the crew had piled up on deck and rushed without confusion or undue noise to their various stations. Some unscrewed deck valves over the burning hold, fastening thereto the ends of seven-inch rubber hose; while below, the engine-room staff, with soldierly precision, attached the other ends to the boilers and stood like statues until a signal gong sounded through the black depth. Whereupon they handled certain valves, and with a hissing scream great volumes of hot vapor poured into the blazing compartment. On deck other seamen dragged lengths of hose forward, forced the nozzles through narrow deck-vents, and held them there while the force pump sent up thousands of gallons of brine.
Dan, ubiquitous, cheerful, commanding, lending a hand to one set of men, directing another, came upon a station two short of its quota.
"Where are Phillips and Fagan?" asked Dan, sharply.
"They bunked in the steerage," replied a sailor, choking in the smoke weltering up through the hose vent.
The young Captain's breath caught; but there was no time for sentiment. He inspected the vessel, bow and stern, marshalled the members of the Howland party into the saloon and bade them stay there until otherwise ordered, and then went up to his men and fought with them. An hour passed, and twenty more minutes. The lurid tinge to the smoke, bellying up through the deck-vents, gave sharp hint of the undiminished fury of the flames raging below.
"It's like pouring in oil," muttered Dan to himself; and then he added aloud, "Keep right to it, men, you're holding it," and thus saying he left them and ran aft to where the second mate and the reserve section of eight men were growling impatiently.
"Take up your hose, men, and come with me down into hold No. 2. The fire's going to clean out No. 1 to the skin, sure. We'll have to keep it from breaking through to the other holds. Come on! Hurry!"
Without a word the men picked up the three lengths of emergency hose and followed their Captain. As Dan ran along the deck, leading the way to the hatch, he heard his name called, and looking up quickly, saw Mr. Howland and Virginia approaching. The girl's hair was flying loose and she had a long blue coat thrown over her shoulders. The deck was filled with heavy smoke.
"Captain," said the shipping magnate, "how are we now?"
Dan paused just an instant.
"Fighting hard," he replied, and then he added quickly, "Mr. Howland, we need men. Two of the crew are gone. Ask some of the men of your party, please, to go forward and report to Mr. Jackson. And you, Miss Howland, go into the saloon right away—and stay there. Tell the others that if they appear on deck before I give the word I shall have them locked in."
The girl obeyed silently, but Mr. Howland paused irresolutely a second, in which time Dan had turned and was hastening after his men.
"I will do as you say," Mr. Howland called after the retreating form of the Captain, "but I want to talk to you first."
"All right, sir, come on then. You'll have to talk to me down in the hold, I'm afraid."
The second mate and his men had in the meantime pried the battens from the hatch and thrown it open. The hold was about half full of cotton bales, railroad ties, oakum, resin, and the like, and they descended to them by means of a scaling ladder, clambering thence toward the forward bulkhead. One of the men had a lantern which cast a pallid glow about the immediate vicinity, bringing into vague relief the well-ordered masses of cargo, and ending suddenly against a hard wall of dark as palpable as a barrier of stone. The air was heavy with musty sweetness and with yellow smoke which streaked lazily past the lantern globe—and with silence, save for the dull roar in the adjoining hold.
"Make a stand right here," and Dan's voice sounded hollow through the gloom. "Stand right here. You've got water in your hose; I want that bulkhead kept soaked. Let her go."
As the streams of water plunged against the steel wall Dan turned to his employer.
"You wanted to speak to me, Mr. Howland?"
"Yes, I want to compliment you on your discipline and—and what is the exact situation?"
"Not so good; but a working chance. It will be a short and sharp go; for the hold's lined with tar and sugar reek—otherwise the cotton might go for days. It won't in that hold, though. The fight'll be right here. If it breaks through into this we've got to run; if not, it will burn out where it is."
"What are the chances that it won't?"
"Why, you know more about the structural strength of this boat than I do. To be honest, I never liked your bulkheads, else I would have opened a stop-cock and flooded the hold long ago. Still, what water would burst through, fire might not."
Horace Howland, who had paid his own price for the Tampico, and who by the same token had his own opinion of her, said nothing.
"I have arranged about the boats," resumed Dan. "If the worst comes, my men know what to do and they are the men to do it. It's not too rough to launch safely. Now, Mr. Howland, I've wasted too much time talking. Don't forget to send two men to Mr. Jackson," and he sprang up the ladder and hurried forward.
The feet of the men at work over the burning hold were blistering. Dan yanked out an inch hose and set a cabin boy to sluicing the deck where they stood, sending up dense clouds of enveloping steam. A broad tongue of blue flame curled out of the port hawse-hole, licked along the half-protruding anchor, rose above the rail, and then burst into a puff of red fire which floated away in the wind. A cargo port door warped in the heat, buckled outward, tearing plates and rivets with a rasping screech, and dropped hissing into the black waters; and the wind, blowing from astern, was sucked into the opening, fanning the flames to screaming ferocity.
The tale was plain for every one, and Dan read it to the last word. Water would be of more service elsewhere, that was certain. So he withdrew the four crews from their hose vents, ordered two of them to take their lines into the second hold, and set the others flooding the deck. He shifted two of his seven-inch steam lines to the midship plugs, and then followed the hose men, who had joined their comrades in the darkness of the second hold. Streams of water were hissing against the steel barrier and flying back at the faces of the nozzle men in hot spray.
"There's a bulge in the centre," reported the second officer.
"Yes," said Dan, who seized a lantern and held it above his head, pointing out new objective marks for the water. The smoke had grown thicker. One man gagged at a nozzle; but drinking from the pipe the air which the water brought, he lowered his head and fought on.
They fought as men should fight, in the pungent half-gloom, colliding or falling prone as the vessel pitched, eyes fixed straight ahead, following the powerful silver lines of water which ribbed the dark and splashed against the steaming steel; white-yellow smoke spirals writhed about their heads like some grotesque saraband; coatless, shirtless, their streaked, sweating bodies gleamed dull and ghastly.
One of them straightened from the nozzle and glared at his side partner; and Dan, whose eyes were everywhere, saw him and moved close to him, where his fist could do best work if necessary. Any sign of mutiny now called for decided measures.
"Say, Mike," said the man in a rich brogue, "give us a hunk o' yer 'bacca—this makes the mout' dry"; and Dan chuckled his admiration for the fighting spirit of the Irish.
Once a tiny lance of flame leaped out through some hidden crevice—leaped far out at the men as a rifle spits its deadly fire, and then, curling about a sugar sack like a serpent's tongue, withdrew so suddenly, so silently, that it seemed to those who saw it as something which had flashed through their imaginations. A stream of water sought the outlet and the flame came no more then.
Suddenly a cry came from one of the men, and all eyes turned to a point in the bulkhead where a hectic flush glowed like a death's head. Four streams struck it simultaneously. It went out, but reappeared in another place. The water quenched this also, but it came back again and widened, and the plunging water was dried to mist at the instant of contact. The glow grew brighter, then dim, and then brighter, rising and falling as life pulses in a fevered body. A flood of smoke choked in from a viewless breach. Two of the men cried out, gurgled, fell on their faces, and turned over on their backs, struggling; then they lay still. Dan carried them to the deck, and returned with a sailor. The two had just gained the sugar sacks when the centre bulkhead quivered. A cross section collapsed into a V. A score of rivet holes yawned wide and red-hot bolts fell on the sacks and set them on fire. A line of plating, separating from its fellows, sagged open in a red grin and gave view of the raging hell within.
"Now, into it, boys!" yelled Dan, and the men, bowing their heads, advanced five feet, directing the streams into the fiery pit. For a minute the flames were driven back by the concentrated rush of water; two minutes, and then a gush of fire flared through the break. It broke as a stream hit it, but its ghost, in the guise of hot gases, choked the men.
A great roar of flame almost enveloped them, and the heat crisped their hair and seared their bodies, and they dropped their hose and raced for the ladder.
"Go on, men!" shouted Dan as they struggled out of the hold. "You've done all I can ask. Hurry! Get out!" and they got out and then turned to batten the hatch cover down. But the rush of fire was too swift to be denied. A thick-bodied pillar choked through the opening and spouted to the top of the funnel—great gouts of the devouring element pulsed softly, but with lightning swiftness, down the deck, and shrivelled a life raft. Long tongues and jets of fire were bursting everywhere out of the forward deck.
It had come at last, just as Dan had seen it coming all through the night—all through the years. His voice roared from the bridge:
"To the boats—every man to his station!"
The command was taken up and carried along, and noiseless shapes limned briefly in the fire glow, scuttled quickly to their appointed places. Mr. Howland and his party stumbled out of the saloon with blanched faces and parted lips, but quietly.
"Women to the rail!" The cry echoed out over the sea,—over the sea, which has heard these chivalrous words so often.
"Women first—women to the rail!" Dan's cry was taken up by the officers. Silent figures in trailing garments moved as they were bid.
From the port quarter a gruff voice sounded.
"Ready, men—ease away." Came the creak of tackle, the thud of iron upon steel—then a silence—then a rattle of oars in thole-pins—then a clear hail from the darkness: "All's well, Captain Merrithew!"
Another boat clattered down the steel sides and cleared safely, and still another. The last boat was filling with the last of the crew.
"Everybody accounted for?" Dan's shout as he rushed down from the curling bridge brought Mr. Howland up with a sudden fear. He had taken his daughter to the starboard boat only to find it full, and had sent her across to the third boat, while he superintended the adjustment of a wedged block. This done, he had hurried to the starboard, only to find the third boat overboard and well away. He had assumed that she was all right. But a cold rush of doubt assailed him.
"Virginia, Virginia—are you all right?" he called in tones of agony.
"I saw her at the third boat," said the first officer. "You must look alive, Mr. Howland—we'll have to lower directly the Captain comes. The deck's going now."
The ship-owner heard these words with a sigh of relief and stepped into the boat without further ado.
"Every one accounted for?" repeated Dan as he dashed along deck to the boat.
Something, a faint suggestion of sound rather than sound itself caused him to pause. He heard nothing more, though he listened for a full minute. Instinctively he turned to a stateroom in the midship deck-house.
"Captain Merrithew—are—you—coming?" The first officer's voice arose in impatient cadence.
"Yes—hold there a minute!" replied Dan, twisting the knob of the door. It was locked. He ran back a few paces and sprang at it with his shoulder. It trembled and gave. He rushed again and the door crashed inward. The room was filling with smoke.
And on the bunk sat Virginia, her hands on her knees, her head hanging low and swaying dazedly from side to side. She was on the verge of collapse; but she looked up and smiled faintly as Dan burst in. Then her head fell again.
"I knew you would come," she muttered.
Without a word Dan seized her by the arm and led her swiftly to the shattered door. As they reached the threshold there came a dull boom from below—the vessel shivered. A sheet of flame swept the entire forward deck, and Dan looked out into a red, pulsing wall.
In terror the men in the fourth and last boat, the fire licking their faces, let go the falls, and the little craft struck the water with a crash, but on an even keel.
Knowing he could not reach the boat even were it still on the davits, Dan left the stateroom and half led, half carried the girl toward the stern.
The forward deck was now a seething inferno. The foremast, a pillar of thin name, flickered like a pennon of gold until it broke in the middle and sent up a shower of sparks. The shrouds and ratlines which went with it had barred the black heavens with ruddy lines. From all the openings dull red clouds rolled and bellied skyward, cloud upon cloud; the funnel spouted like a blast furnace.
But the vessel slowly, but very surely, was falling off the wind; it would soon blow astern. The shelter of the after deck-house would serve for a while, perhaps until some vessel, attracted by the terrible light, would bring them succor. Dan placed the girl behind this steel structure and then, running to the taffrail, leaned far out and called to the boats. But the roar of the flames drowned his cries, and the boats, which had moved out to windward, could not see him. Foot by foot crept the fire; but the stiff wind which finally came over the stern did its work well, and the red avalanche began to slant toward the bow. This meant respite. But he knew that at the very best it could be only a respite, and short at that.
Again and again and again he called for the boats, until his voice grew husky and faint. Then, hopeless of aid from his men, he returned to the girl. She was exactly where he had left her, slightly crouching as though to shut from her eyes the fearful red light.
The wind rush had revived her smoke-dimmed senses. When she was approaching the star-board boat to which her father had directed her she had lost her head, as persons will do in time of fire, and had wandered mechanically, unconsciously, to her cabin and locked herself in. But she was not frightened now. There was that in Dan which she trusted. She looked at him strangely and smiled. She caressed him with her eyes, trusting in, hanging upon, the strength of a man who possessed in divine measure all of man's strength.
A half-hour they crouched together, until the steel walls of their shelter burned to the touch, until the flames licked up over the forward end, ran over the roof, and looked down upon them. But still they remained as they were, while the Tampico circled again and brought the wind in their faces, which they drank greedily.
There came a time when the fire hissed constantly on the deck-house—when, indeed, flames plunged around it and touched the two figures. Swiftly Dan reached out his arm and encircled the waist of his companion and drew her to the taffrail.
Four feet below the gilded name on the stern was a six-inch ledge. He lifted the girl as he would a child and placed her on this ledge, bidding her hold to the rail. Then he passed a section of small chain about a stanchion, allowing the end to hang over. If the rail became too hot for their hands they could hold by the chain.
As Dan joined Virginia on the ledge the vessel slued around, bringing the wind full over the bow. With a roaring shout of exultation the fire bridged the last gap, bursting clear over the stern. It bit at their hands; they withdrew them, supporting themselves by the swinging chain.
The girl moaned. Nearer drew the hot breath. She felt Dan's arm tighten about her waist. It was like a curved bar of steel. Looking down, she saw the water racing below—she saw a wave leap up—she felt it touch her foot with its feathery head, gently, beneficently, and yet traitorously; for how quickly would it quench the lives that it seemed to tempt from the flames!
"Put your face tight against my chest—put your hands over your nose and mouth—quick!"
She obeyed upon the word and a thrill, not of pain, shot to Dan's brain. He could feel her, soft and trembling, against him, and her warm hair brushed his cheek. With an effort he choked back the flooding emotion. Was it fair, was it right to her—now? But his arm unconsciously tightened about her.
The red glow shone through the girl's closed eyelids—a great heat scorched the back of her neck, and she felt a quiver in the body shielding her; but the grip of the arm remained. There came a blast of God's merciful salt cold air, and she opened her eyes. He was looking down at her—and he saw what he saw. For they were two souls hanging together on the verge of eternity—alone; two souls with death all about fusing them until they were as one. She looked at him long.
"Are you hurt?" she asked. The words sounded thick.
"No—a little. It got my neck and ears. The ship was yawing, though, and that saved us. It was like snapping your hand through a gas flame."
"I'm afraid," said the girl with a sob catching her voice.
"No—don't be afraid! I'll save you—some way."
She opened her eyes and looked in his face again.
"My nobleman! my—"
"Don't!" cried Dan, interrupting her. "You don't know what you are saying. It's so different now." He well knew that impulses which might move a woman in the arms of a man, no matter who, battling for her life, might be for the moment only and lead to nothing but regret and alarm afterwards. How could it be otherwise with Virginia Howland? The girl, as though she had not heard him, as though she had forgotten the emotions which had swayed her, closed her eyes wearily and turned her face away.
The ship was yawing again. Tongues of flame reached hungrily for them, licking above Dan's red-gold hair and his back, but never touching the girl. Then the swing of the vessel and the wind again; then the fire and the torturing heat. Once Dan saw his grandfather's vessel burning as he had often pictured it in boyhood, and he trembled horribly for a second, but only for a second; then he became rigid and smiled at the apparition. The girl had evidently fainted; she hung a dead weight upon his arm. Again the wind drove the flames far out over the stern.
There came a time when the fight for life was waged mechanically, when all sense of thought vanished, and the carrying on of the struggle came down to mere animal instinct. At such times a brave man need not be ashamed to die—the time has long elapsed when cravens perish. But the very brave, the physically as well as mentally brave, fight on to the end, instinctively. And so Dan fought. He knew that Virginia Howland hung on his arm—but the fire had gone from his ken; he was fighting something, that was all he knew, or cared, since it was for her. Once the red sheet enveloped them for a flashing second, but the merciful wind came to save. It could not last long, though. Dan's arm weakened about the limp form of the girl. He closed his eyes and ground his teeth and brought new force to the encircling arm. He glared down at the mass of soft hair scattering over his breast; he thought of that beautiful life and quite impersonally asked himself if all this beauty must die. Where would all the beauty of the world be then? This question ran deliriously through his mind. Eh! where would it all be? If they died together, would they wake together? And the flames came again.
But as they swooped down with redoubled fury he saw almost subconsciously a great tangled litter of wreckage passing beneath him. He uttered a little cry, and with the girl still in his arm he dropped from the ledge. With a sigh of relief he felt the cooling, revivifying water, and the sharp, cold taste of brine in his mouth was like the touch of a new life.
Instinctively he had put his free arm around a section of cargo boom, with a grating caught in the twisted gear. Upon this he pushed and lifted the half-unconscious girl. Then he clambered astride the boom. Thus they drifted, while Dan, his mind slowly clearing, struggled pitifully for full possession of his faculties. He had a dull sense of pain, but the one dominant idea was the girl. Leaning slightly over, he twisted his hand in the folds of her dress lest she slip into the waters. The stars were paling; on the horizon were the first vague hints of dawn. He gazed at the faint gray curtain with interest. It was a dawn he had not expected to see, he told himself.
Then, as he looked, a shape arose before his eye out of the gloom. Dan watched it with dumb fascination. Suddenly a realizing sense of the nature of the apparition shot through his mind. A vessel—God! Dan's voice raised in a long, hoarse cry for assistance. But there was no answer. Yet the craft was bearing toward them, not a hundred yards away, silently as a ship of the dead. Dan cried again, rising on his rolling perch. But the hail died on his lips. He could see now. It was a ship of the dead. It was the derelict they had viewed from the fancied security of the Tampico's deck, a few short hours before. An imprecation trembled upon Dan's lips. For the last half-hour Virginia, who had crawled to a kneeling posture, had been watching Dan with unlighted eyes. Now as he turned to her and pointed at the slowly advancing vessel, she nodded slowly, as though comprehending his meaning, and stretched out her arms to him.
Softly, quietly the bow of the hulk slid up and nuzzled gently among the wreckage. Quickly Dan secured the litter to the bow by twisting a length of wire cable through the rusty green fore-chains of the derelict. Then gaining a footing in the mess of gear, he assisted the girl to her feet on the tottering grating, and placed her hand on the chains.
"Hold here tight," he said. She nodded, and Dan looked about for the easiest way to the deck. It was not difficult to find. The end of the jib-boom had dropped into the water, making an easy incline, and the foremast had also fallen over the bow and was directly alongside. Both were covered with sections of canvas and a maze of gear and rigging.
Dan clambered up, and then, lying flat across the bowsprit and the mast, he put his arms under the girl's shoulders and literally pulled her to his side. Hand in hand they slowly worked their way up among the wreckage to the deck.
And there with the dawn beginning to glow rosily far on the eastern rim of the slaty waste the girl sighed and sank to her knees; and Dan, his head reeling with sleep and exhaustion, sank also. When the darkness had all gone and the sun had cleared the horizon, the first level rays flooded the sullen deck of a gray-green hulk, sodden, desolate, and fell upon the faces of a man and woman sleeping, her head resting on his shoulder, strands of her dark hair lying across his face.
ALONE IN THE MIDDLE OF NOWHERE
As the sun rose higher still they slept. The genial rays flowed over them, drying their wet, clinging garments, filling their stiffened frames with languorous warmth.
Finally the girl sighed and smiled. Half waking now, she thought she was at home in her own bed. The sunlight always awakened her there. She wondered if it was time for her maid to enter. She hoped not; it was so comfortable, and she was, oh, so sleepy! She turned on her side. Then suddenly she started. Certainly she was lying on nothing that would remotely suggest a bed. Sleepily she tried to open her eyes, but the long lashes were glued together by the heavy salt water.
Arousing still further, she rubbed them open. And then as a heaving, littered deck, with patches of blue sea showing through the shattered rail bore upon her vision, a realizing sense of the situation and the tragic events leading to it came to her.
For a moment she lay still, shuddering. Her head still rested upon Dan's arm. She knew it, but she was afraid to arise. Somehow that arm seemed the only thing which assured her she was in a living world. Even in the brilliant morning sunlight the vessel, soughing, creaking, groaning, as it moved slouchily over the waters impressed her as the shape of terror. From the deck little mist spirals arose like spirits of the men who had deserted the ship. And hovering all about was the gray, sordid reek of desolation, eerie, awe-inspiring.
And yet the Captain must not find her thus. Slowly she withdrew her head. She hated to awaken him. Yet she felt she must hear his voice, for the all-pervading loneliness was unbearable. She sat up and shook him gently by the shoulder. It was as though she had applied an electric shock. With a muffled exclamation he lifted himself by his elbow, and the next instant he was on his feet.
"Miss Howland!" he exclaimed. The sound of his voice echoed hollow along the deck, but it was the most joyous sound Virginia had ever heard. Leaning down, he assisted her to her feet. Their eyes met, and they gazed at each other, wondering, uncertain. Alone of all the world, these two, in the midst of a vast, lonely domain where hidden terrors lurk, where elements unharness their might and work their harm unchecked, where wind and wave whisper of murderous deeds, where the rime of dead ages is still fresh. It was all too big for minds to encompass, for their senses to grasp.
A great sob shook the girl.
"Will—will you please go away—a moment? I think I am going to cry," she stammered. She turned from him hurriedly and walked toward the rail. She tottered as though about to fall. Dan sprang to her side and placed his hand lightly on her arm. The touch seemed to strengthen her. With a convulsive effort she gained control of herself, and as Dan's hand dropped to his side she looked at him with a quivering smile.
"I am going to be brave. I am not going to cry. Captain, tell me, is my father safe, and my aunt—and the rest?"
"There is not the slightest question about that," replied Dan. "They got overboard smartly. The lifeboats were steel, well manned and supplied with provisions for a week. If they weren't picked up last night by some steamship attracted by the fire, they will be within a short time." The girl regarded him closely, as though trying to determine whether he was speaking from conviction or merely to dissipate her fears. Interpreting her expression, Dan shook his head impatiently.
"I am sincere, Miss Howland. I have no more doubt of the safety of your father and the others than I have that I am alive. The sea has been comparatively smooth, the weather clear. Our situation is the one to bother about."
"But some steamship will surely see us."
"I hope so, but remember we are on a derelict. Where we are, or where we are going heaven only knows. Sometimes—there is no sense in trying to avoid the truth—derelicts go for weeks and even months without being sighted. Still, I don't think we shall. At night we'll have our distress lights. We shall come out all right. In the meantime we may not even have to be uncomfortable. Usually when men desert these schooners they go in a hurry, leaving almost everything behind. I am going to investigate affairs. Will you come? You may never have another opportunity of this sort."
Dan's voice, at first grave, had gradually assumed a lighter tone, and at the humorous allusion in the last sentence she smiled. Virginia was a sensible girl, but it must be confessed that her position alone with a man on a derelict in the middle of nowhere would have dazed a woman who held even broader views of the ordinary conventions than she did.
As for the Captain, he evidently intended to accept the inevitable in a matter-of-fact, common-sense way. There was nothing for her but to do likewise. That he would be tactful and considerate in every way she knew. And he would save her too, in the end. Something seemed to tell her that. She smiled at him bravely.
"I think it will be fun, Captain! Lead on."
Their course aft was attended with difficulty. All along the deck was a thick mass of wreckage, broken casks, boxes, sections of spars, tattered canvas, and enough wire rope and other gear, it seemed, to encircle the world. Amidships the hull sagged so that the deck was not three feet above the water.
Ascending the slight incline, Dan led the way to the entrance to the after cabin, containing four rooms—two on either side of a corridor. The cabins were just below the level of the deck but were not flooded.
"Now," said Dan with his hand on the knob of the door at his right, "we will pay the Captain a visit."
The bunk was mussed as though the skipper had left it hastily, but otherwise the apartment was in good order. There was a little oaken desk containing a dictionary, several books on navigation, and writing appurtenances. In the middle, on a piece of blotting-paper, was an overturned inkstand with a pen still in it. Along the top were several photographs of home scenes, probably New England, and a picture of a rather comely young woman.
"And here's a woman's hat," cried Virginia, picking from a corner a rather garishly trimmed creation.
Dan paused and looked at it.
"That's good," he said. "His wife was evidently aboard." He opened a door leading into the next cabin. "This was her room undoubtedly," he said.
The girl peered in with a delighted expression.
"Why, of course." Her eyes took a quick inventory. An ornate if cheap dressing-table! Four waists on coat hangers! Four skirts, beautifully hung! And what a litter of brushes and things on the floor! She turned to Dan, who had not entered, but was standing in the doorway, smiling. "It must have been perfectly maddening for the good lady of the ship to leave all this behind." She walked to the dressing-table and peered into the mirror. It must be said she saw a girl whom under other circumstances she would hardly have recognized. Her heavy hair was dishevelled. Her long, blue broadcloth ulster was stained with salt water and altogether out of shape. A great black smudge ran along her cheek, and on her chin was a deep red scratch.
She looked at Dan from out the mirror, blushing.
"I am afraid I should compare rather unfavorably with the Captain's lady. I think, first of all, I shall sit right down and do my hair. But no—of course not now." She opened her eyes wide.
"Oh, yes, you can," laughed Dan. "I am going to leave you now and look about the ship."
"Oh, no, you're not," exclaimed the girl; "you're not to leave me alone on this horrid ship just yet. The hair can wait. I'll go with you. If everything is as nice as this cabin I shall feel quite at home."
The cabin opposite the Captain's had been the mate's, and behind it was the mess cabin. Here the greater part of crockery and glass was shattered on the floor. An overturned bird-cage with a dead canary in it lay under the table.
"Well," said Dan, "we ought to be comfortable. Now, Miss Howland, I think you ought to go to your cabin and get off those damp skirts. I have got to take a look at the cargo, see what plans I can make to render us something else than a log on the sea, and nose about in the galley." He started. "By George! I had forgotten about food. That's rather important." He hastily left the cabin and started down the corridor, with the girl's warning not to be long following him.
First he stopped in the carpenter's room and secured the very thing he was looking for,—an axe. With this he broke down the door of the storeroom, which, as he had expected, was locked. There were a barrel of flour, tins of beef and of soups and vegetables, condensed milk, and a number of preserve jars filled with coffee.
Taking one of the jars in which he saw the coffee was ground he poured out a cupful and drew some water from a cask. Then going into the galley, he dug up a coffee-pot from the mass of cooking utensils which covered the floor, and proceeded to light a fire in the range. It was soon roaring, and Dan had just mixed the coffee and water when Virginia appeared at the door.
For an instant Dan hardly recognized the girl in her trim blue skirt, white sailor waist, open at the throat, and a red leather belt with a great brass buckle.
"You have done well," he said at length. "I had no idea you would be so fortunate."
"Yes, everything fits pretty well," laughed the girl, "except that the skirt is a trifle short, but of course that doesn't matter here. That's not the point, though." She gazed at him sternly. "Who gave you permission to come in here and cook?"
As Dan looked at her in amazement she continued:
"Now see here, Captain Merrithew, we might just as well face our situation. This is no time for observance of the minor conventions or gallantry. We are shipwrecked. We are nothing more nor less than two human beings cast away on a derelict. You are to regard me, not as Virginia Howland, helpless, dependent, to be waited upon and watched over, but as you would Ralph Oddington or any one else were he in my place—as an assistant in the common cause of safety. I am going to help you in every way I can, and I am going to begin by establishing myself as cook of this party from now on. Please don't imagine I can't cook. I attended a French culinary school for two seasons. And now—" she stepped into the galley and seized Dan by the sleeve, drawing him gently toward the door—"won't you please go so that I shall have elbow room—this is such a tiny box of a place. Please!"
Dan hesitated no longer. Seizing his axe he left the galley and went forward. The mainmast had snapped about six feet below the truck; of the other two masts nothing was left but the stumps. He chopped away the wreckage hanging over the bow, including the bowsprit and foretopmast, and had made good progress in clearing away the forward deck when Virginia, standing in the doorway of the after cabin, called him.
"Breakfast, Captain," she cried. "Breakfast is served."
The girl was laughing excitedly as she led the way to the dining-cabin and seated herself in front of a great, steaming nickel coffee-pot. Blushing radiantly she pointed to the other chair.
"Sit down, Captain Merrithew." But Dan protested.
"Now, really, Miss Howland," he laughed, "I can just as—"
"Captain," interrupted Virginia, sharply, "don't be a goose. There—" She began to pour the coffee. "It isn't really much of a breakfast," she added; "I shall do much better for luncheon. But, as it is—" she inclined her head with mock unction as she handed him his cup.
Dan never forgot that breakfast. It was one of those events which linger in memory, every detail indelibly stamped, long after more important pictures of the past have lost even a semblance of outline.
Sunlight flowed in through the portholes and rested on the red tablecloth and the glittering steel cutlery. For a centrepiece she had a half shattered clay flower-pot containing a geranium plant which she had picked up from the deck outside the woman's cabin. It was droopy and generally woebegone, but it served its purpose. In front of Dan was a heaping dish of toast artistically browned, and a generous glass jar of marmalade.
And opposite, smiling at him, talking to him as though they had breakfasted together for a number of years, was the most radiant girl he had ever looked upon. The simple costume was wonderfully effective. The white, full throat and the curves of the neck running to the shoulders were revealed by the low rolling collar, and the hair coiled low shone with lustrous sheen.
Despite Dan's fears as to the manner in which their tenancy of the derelict might terminate, he abandoned himself to the sheer charm of it all. When he finally arose, ending a light, laughing conversation, the girl regarded him seriously.
"Now, Captain," she said, "I want to ask you something, and you must tell me truthfully. You have examined this vessel, and you have doubtless some idea as to what we are to do. Tell me the exact situation."
Dan looked her straight in the eye a moment, and the girl returned his gaze unflinchingly.
"I am perfectly honest," she said; "I want you to be."
"Well," said Dan, "first of all I'll tell you what I am going to try to do: I am going to try to sail this derelict into some port. There is enough of the mainmast standing to allow some sort of a sail, and we can't be so terribly far from land. Besides, this hold is filled with logwood and mahogany. Now this is a valuable cargo, worth at least fifty thousand dollars. The vessel herself isn't worth a great deal, but still something. Here is the point: if we take this vessel into port alone we can claim fifty per cent salvage, and we'll get it, too. That means that we shall net, through our little experience, some twenty-five thousand dollars between us."
Virginia stepped toward him with a delighted exclamation. Dan raised his hand admonishingly.
"But," he continued, "we must first get the vessel into port. Several things may prevent this. The chief preventive will be a storm. If God gives us good weather for three or four days that is all I ask. If He doesn't, then we—"
"Go on," said the girl.
"Then we must simply pray for small favors."
Virginia nodded gravely.
"I understand," she said. "I trust you, Captain." She looked at him fixedly. "Can you imagine how much I trust you? I shall be strong and brave and do exactly as you tell me." She started forward suddenly. "What have you under your coat sleeves? Are your arms bandaged?" she cried. "And your neck, too?"
"It's nothing," he said. "My hands and arms and the back of my neck were pretty well scorched. I dug some picric acid out of the Captain's medicine chest and tied myself up a bit. I am all right now. The pain has all disappeared."
The girl flushed.
"And you didn't ask me to help you?"
"There was absolutely no need. Honestly, if I had needed to bother you I should not have hesitated. The flames did not touch me, you know, just their hot breath; the bandages do not amount to anything."
"Well," replied Virginia, shaking her head, "I don't like it one bit. If I can do anything to repay you, however slightly, for all you have done for me, please give me the opportunity."
"I shall remember that," said Dan.
NIGHT ON THE DERELICT
When the sun that evening sank like a red ball behind the purple horizon, Dan laid aside various implements and went aft with the realization of a day well spent. He had cleared the deck. Using the mainboom and a goodly section of the tattered canvas he had improvised a capacious leg-of-mutton sail which flapped idly in the almost motionless air.
He found Virginia seated in a camp lounging-chair, with a paper-covered novel lying open face downward in her lap, gazing thoughtfully at the dusk which seemed rolling toward them over the sea like a fog.
"It was a beautiful sunset," she said; "but now it has gone, the ocean seems to have such a cruel, cold look. And there are whispering voices on the water."
She shivered slightly and looked at him half humorously.
"I know," said Dan. "But the stars will be out to-night, and, later, the moon."
"It will be dreary at best," replied Virginia. "I think it would be nice if there weren't going to be any night until we—until we—" she paused. "Oh, Captain, you think we—" She stopped short and frowned. "There," she said reproachfully, "I told you I was going to be brave. I'm succeeding admirably!"
"You are succeeding admirably," said Dan. "Yes, I think we are going to get out of this. Of course we are. In the meantime, pending dinner, or supper, rather, I am going into my cabin to see if I can't confiscate some of the Captain's clothes. I feel as if I had been in these for years. And—" he hesitated.
"And what?" she asked.
"And if the Captain has left a razor, I am going to shave."
"Are you really?" laughed the girl. "And while you are about it, won't you please telephone for my hairdresser?"
With the dark came a light breeze—and the stars, which Dan hailed with delight as giving him something to go by. The breeze came over the starboard beam, the sail filling nicely, and Dan, taking a stand by the wheel, directed the derelict toward land. He had lighted the red starboard lamp—the port lamp was missing—and hung a lantern at the head of the foremast. Virginia sat beside him.
For an hour Dan had been absorbed in the business of manoeuvring his sodden charge. Waterlogged as she was it was no easy matter to swing her out of the current and head her upon a course. But at last he had succeeded. Having but one sail it could not have been better placed than amidships. Placed in the mainmast it was easier to maintain steerage way and at the same time it served to push the derelict forward. Turning to the girl, he laughed triumphantly; and she, who had begun to be almost jealous of the derelict, inasmuch as it had taken so much of his attention, smiled politely, if faintly.
"And now," said Dan, sitting beside her, with his hands on the lower spokes of the battered wheel, "we are homeward bound. The stars have told me a great deal. See them all. Over there are Regulus and his sickle, and in the northwest you see Queen Vega. There is Ursa Major up there, nearly overhead. There's the Little Bear north of it; and still north is the good old North Star. We are going straight for land, Miss Howland."
"You are awfully clever, Captain Merrithew."
Dan looked at her quickly. She was smiling mockingly.
"Yes," she continued, as though communing with herself, "I really believe he would rather talk about his old stars than bother coming down to the level of a girl who is dying to bring him to earth. I cannot imagine a more disagreeable man to be shipwrecked with."
"Nor I a more agreeable—" He checked himself. "I am entirely at your service, Miss Howland," he added; "which is to say, I have alighted."
She did not answer at once. Instead she leaned forward with her hands supporting her chin, her elbows in her lap, gazing solemnly at the western stars.
"It is nearly eight o'clock, isn't it?" she asked, without moving her head.
"Yes," replied Dan, "about that. Why?"
"Just now in New York," said Virginia in her low, full tones, "they have finished dining on Broadway. All the lights are, oh, so bright! and women in the most gorgeous spring gowns and men in evening dress are pouring out of the Astor, the Waldorf, the Knickerbocker,—every place,—and stepping into red and green taxi-cabs, or strolling leisurely to see the latest play. And on Fifth Avenue, in the club opposite our house, the same five stout men are just about to occupy the same five stout chairs in the big windows. I have watched them for years, and—" The girl paused. "Our house! Do you suppose my father is there now?" She closed her eyes. "I can almost see him. Of course he is mourning me for lost; and Aunt Helen is trying to comfort him and other persons. But there, I must not think of that, must I?" She turned to Dan and smiled bravely.
"No, you must not," he said gravely. "He is a man; he will bear his grief like a man. And when you return—"
"When I return?" interpolated the girl, quickly. "Have you thought about that, Daniel Merrithew?"
"Not a great deal, except to resolve that if I ever get ashore I shall never again go to sea as a sailor."
"Oh, I don't mean that," said Virginia. "Ever since the night when you were shielding me from the fire—"
Dan raised his hand.
"Anything you said that night, Miss Howland, need cause you no regret, no misgiving. As well judge the words, the actions, of a man who knows he has but an hour to live."
Virginia looked at him puzzled. She started to speak, but closed her lips tight upon the words. She was vividly flushed.
"Did I say anything so terrible then?" she asked at length. "I am sure I can remember nothing I regret. Of course I don't remember much; I suppose I was awfully flighty, then. But you were fine and brave and noble; and, whatever I said, I stand pat, as father says," the girl laughed. "This is such a conventional age that when a knight of modern times revives the daring and chivalry of older ages, we women have no adequate way in which to requite it, you know."
"You must not think about it at all," replied Dan.
"And why not? That night I hung at the mercy of your strength and endurance to pain, when you could easily have saved yourself by letting me go. Ah, don't deny it," as Dan made a gesture. "I know! My life was in your keeping, to save it or let it go, as you willed. Daniel Merrithew, do you ever feel that now you have the right to be interested in that life that you alone saved?"
"What do you mean?" Dan was looking at her curiously.
The girl laughed excitedly.
"Oh, I don't know exactly what I do mean—except, except that I have simply felt, well, as though I have no right to be altogether my own selfish self—in the way I used to be, I mean; that I have no longer an absolute right—— Oh, how can I explain it clearly? Let us say that I have a conviction that any serious change I might wish to make in my life should not be done without—well, not consent, exactly, but good wishes—no, I mean consent. There, that may be putting it clumsily, but don't you understand?"
Dan flushed. "I have saved lives before," he said; "and twice men have saved my life, and I never felt,—felt the way you say toward my rescuers."
"But that is different; it is impossible to compare man's attitude toward man as you would a woman's."
"Yes, that's so."
"Then you, too, have felt as I feel?"
"No, I never thought of it in that way."
She was silent a moment, but she regarded him searchingly. His face was upturned, gazing at the flapping sail on the mainmast. She caught the strong, classic profile in the starlight, and over her flooded the deep sense of her utter dependence upon him, upon his skill, his strength, his resource, and the deeper sense of her implicit trust in him as the embodiment of all these qualities.
She yearned now to express to him her emotions; she almost felt she must. And yet she hardly knew how. She had tried to do so, but how inadequate her words had seemed! Bearing in upon her mood, Dan's cool, even voice sounded miles away.
"Miss Howland, had you thought—"
She interrupted him.
"See here, Daniel Merrithew, I said before that ceremony had no part on this boat. Hereafter, if you won't call me by my first name you must address me by my last. It must be either one or the other."
Dan made no comment. He hesitated just a moment, then he said:
"I was going to ask you, Virginia, if you had thought of going to your cabin yet."
She smiled and blushed.
"I—I wanted to speak to you about that," she said, speaking rapidly. "I saw you this evening taking things from the Captain's room into the mate's cabin. Now, if you have any idea that I am going to sleep on this horrid, grisly boat, so far away from you, you are mistaken. You must sleep in the Captain's room—and the door leading into mine must be ajar, too. Oh, I am terribly unmaidenly! I cannot help it; I shall be horribly forlorn and frightened, and shall hear all sorts of sounds; I can hear them now, and so can you—"
"But," interrupted Dan, "I cannot go to sleep, Miss—Virginia. This boat must be sailed to land. There is a breeze. She cannot be left alone; she would go a hundred miles out of her course; and, besides, we might meet a vessel."
For a moment the girl gazed at him uncomprehendingly.
"Do you mean to say you are going to stay up all night and sail? But you have not had a wink of sleep and I shall certainly not go into that—" she suddenly arose. "How stupid of me! Of course both of us must stand watch in turn. While you are steering I shall sleep at the wheel. While I am steering you shall sleep there. How simple! Then we need not be alone at all. Here, I'll hold the wheel first and you go to sleep. I shall wake you at midnight, perhaps before if I get frightened. Then I shall be asleep through those creepy morning hours."
Dan demurred vigorously, but she was steadfast. So he went to the after cabin and brought out several blankets and a pillow, which she arranged deftly.
As he prepared to lie down, he looked at the girl.
"See that star up there?" he said. "Well, just keep the vessel going the way she is, with that star over your shoulder. Don't let it get anywhere else. If it does, wake me quickly. If you become afraid, or see anything, let me know at once."
"Yes," said the girl, "I understand. Good-night, Daniel."
In a few minutes Dan was fast asleep. Through the night sailed the girl, alone, sore afraid, but comforted with the assurance that a touch of her hand would bring to her the powerful man who slept at her feet.
Straight she stood at the wheel, and tall, like some figure of a goddess of antiquity. The moon rose, and its light glorified her. It fell upon the shattered deck, defining every dreary detail. The waves rose and fell with the lilt of music. The tinkling breeze was cool and fresh and invigorating. Fear vanished from her. She felt herself a part of the elements, a part of the night, the lone representative of life and consciousness, and God amid the waste of primeval desolation.
So she sailed, exalted, ennobled, until long after midnight. When her thoughts turned to the man sleeping at her feet, she leaned down, gazing long and earnestly upon his face. Then, as he stirred, she let her hand rest on his forehead a moment.
"It is time to awaken, Daniel," she said.
He was upon his feet in an instant. There was a strange expression upon his face.
"I was far away from here," he said. "I was dreaming, the bulliest sort of a dream."
"Dreaming? And what about, pray?"
"You were! Tell me the dream."
"They say dreams that are told never come true," replied Dan, slowly.
Their eyes met. Both were smiling. Then her eyes fell; but she still smiled.
"Then," she said, "I guess you had better not tell me—unless—"
"Unless?" asked Dan, as she paused.
Slowly she arranged the blankets, while Dan waited for the completion of the sentence. Then she lay down.
"Good-night," she said.
When she awoke, the sun was rising high. The breeze had died away. The wheel was deserted. She looked down the stretch of deck, but Dan was nowhere to be seen. With a fluttering heart she arose and shook out her skirts, hardly daring to peer into the cabin for fear her dreadful intimations might prove true.
He was not in the cabin. She called his name in a low voice, but only the hollow echo resounded from the corridor. In agonized suspense now she ran out on the deck.
"Dan!" she called with all the power of her lungs, not expecting that he would hear her now. "Dan Merrithew, have you left me?"
There came an answering hail, and looking toward the bow she saw Dan clambering out of the forward hatch. His shoes and trousers were dripping wet. As he ran to her she waited, weeping. He caught her hands and held them.
"Oh, Dan, Dan!" she cried, "you frightened me so! I thought you had gone. I thought you were dead. You are not going to leave me again, are you?"
"Never," said Dan.
Then both started as though the underlying significance of the question and answer had suddenly dawned upon them. Gently she withdrew her hands, which Dan did not seek to retain. In conversational tone, he said:
"I am awfully sorry, Virginia. While you were sleeping, the wind fell, an hour or two after dawn, and the blue of the water struck me. I found the Captain's thermometer and lowered it overboard. My best hopes were realized. We are in the Gulf Stream, Virginia, and moving northward at about four miles an hour. We are all right now if all goes well."
"But why were you hiding?" asked the girl.
"I wasn't. I wanted to see if the water had hurt the logwood, so as to impair its value, and to learn the condition of the hull. You know the cargo is all that is keeping us afloat. Everything is pretty soggy down there, but we'll hold together, I guess; and I don't believe the logwood will suffer a bit. Of course the mahogany is all right. We're lucky. One schooner in a million has mahogany these days."
She had been gazing at him almost vacantly while he was talking. Now she smiled beautifully.
"Oh, I am so glad to see you again," she said. "It seems almost as if you had been away a thousand years."
"That," said Dan, "almost pays me for frightening you. Are you ready for breakfast? I knocked it together a while ago."
"For which you shall be punished—when we get ashore."
DAN AND VIRGINIA
After breakfast they drew chairs to the wheel and sat out on deck. It was a wonderful May morning. Thin clouds hung in the blue, like little yachts; and the cool, balmy air and the sparkling sunlight brought the clear, steady call of work to be done, of life to be lived beautifully and nobly, and strong things to overcome, or to accomplish—the call of youth.
And they heard the call, these two, and responded to it with the joyousness of youth, wherein a phrase is a lifetime, and a word, volumes. They talked of themselves, regarding each other wonderingly as hidden depths of character were revealed, or a word, or a sentence, or a sympathetic silence threw light upon a new element of personality.
He spoke of the Fledgling. He used to see her through a golden haze. She was his first command. Yet each day came the old question, What next? And the answer. Why, everything. A future—bigger things and better, broader work, not on the sea at the last. No; landward, somewhere, anywhere. But onward, onward!
"Something is linked with every one's destiny, Virginia. Fate fires no salutes; every shot is solid and aimed at something. And the thing that is hit you have to step over and go on; if you stop to look at it and think over it and try to look for something else for Fate to knock down for you, something easier to step over and get away from, you find, perhaps, years later, that just there you missed your chance."
She regarded him with kindling eyes.
"And so that has been your philosophy."
"For want of a better, yes."
"I think it is a splendid one, and it has stood its highest test—it has served you well. Do you know, the first time I had any idea you were interested in the higher things was that day we were in your cabin on the Tampico. Do you remember my looking at your books and exclaiming over the selection? I don't know, but somehow the Bible impressed me most."
"I had a pretty good English foundation at Exeter," replied Dan, "and I kept it up after I left there. That Bible—I think I did grow and broaden after leaving school, but I never grew beyond Psalms and St. Paul; which proves that a little knowledge is not dangerous."
The girl smiled.
"Most men would be ashamed to say that," she said. "Most of the men I have known," she added.
"I never would have said it to any one but you." He said this with quiet conviction, and the girl inclined her head slightly.
"I thank you. . . . Do you remember that night at the dinner when I told you that if our friendship was to continue it was to be one of limitations? How long ago that seems now—and how absurd!"
"Does it seem absurd?"
"Doesn't it?" She laughed. "It seems to me you were inclined to regard it so that night."
"Much to your indignation."
"Is it so? If you had asked me, I might have admitted that the fact I ever could be indignant with you was the principal reason why that night of the dinner seemed so long ago." She hastened to qualify. "For, you see, I count you now among my very closest friends."
"That is saying a great deal," smiled Dan. "When we get ashore and you are comfortably installed as queen of your father's drawing-room and Dan Merrithew is—"
An exclamation from the girl interrupted him.
"Dan Merrithew, don't you dare!"
"And Dan Merrithew is just a—" She had risen, and before he could complete the sentence her hands were pressed tightly over his mouth.
"Will you be good?" she cried. She released her hands and regarded him with mock severity.
"But—" laughed Dan.
Again the hands flew to his face.
"I will," said Dan.
"And you'll promise not to say or think such nonsense again?"
"I promise," said Dan.
And then for a while both fell silent, thinking of the future which lay before them. The girl smiled as her day-dreams opened and expanded. Dan frowned, and the fingers of his well-shaped hands locked and unlocked across his knees.
Suddenly Virginia sprang to her feet with an exclamation.
"Oh, I forgot," she said, and ran, laughing, to the galley, whence she returned with a large plate of fudge. At Dan's look of surprise she tossed her head in mock disdain of what he might say or think.
"I unearthed two great cakes of chocolate last night," she said, "and as I was simply dying for some candy I made fudge while preparing breakfast. I had to use condensed milk, watered; and as there was no marble slab I had to stir it in the pan. I don't know how good it is; it's awfully grainy"; and thus, rattling on, she took a square of the confection and placed it gingerly between her lips.
"Why, it's not so bad," she said. "Here! Open your mouth and shut your eyes!" Which Dan did, declaring that he had never eaten anything half so delicious.
"Really!" she exclaimed, with falling inflection. "Then I must say I feel sorry for you. . . . Now, why have you that little amused twinkle in your eyes? I used to see it sometimes at the table on the Tampico when Reggie was boasting, and—and sometimes when I was trying to be very brilliant. Do you know, sometimes I felt like boxing your ears, you seemed so superior."
"It was not superiority in your case," laughed Dan, "it was appreciation."
"Thank you," said Virginia; "and now?"
"Oh," smiled Dan, "the thought of fudge on a derelict was and is responsible for this twinkle."
"I don't care," she frowned. "It is the person that rises superior to conditions who triumphs in this world. Anyway, you seem to be disposing of your share, despite your notions of incongruity."
"Have you thought," said Dan, "that it might pay to be very economical with your chocolate? If we stay here two or three months and all our food runs out we can live on ever so little chocolate each day."
"Two or three months!" echoed Virginia. "Now, you are tactful, aren't you? And just as I was sitting here chattering away, with no thought that we were not on a yacht ready to turn home the minute I wished to!"
"If we were on a yacht, how soon would you—wish to?" he said.
The girl met his eyes undauntedly.
"If I answered you in one way I should not be at all polite," she said; "and if in another, I should not be—be—"
"Honest?" suggested Dan.
"That would depend upon what I said," she answered with a non-committal shrug. "Now I am going. I've a lot to do in my cabin, and a luncheon menu to make out. Au revoir!" She paused at the entrance to the cabins, smiled brightly at Dan, and then disappeared.
Long he sat, gazing out over the serene waters, filled with a great inward thrill. The wonder of all the fast-crowding events of the past fortnight was asserting itself potently in his mind, and it was difficult to realize he was not now living some wild, improbable dream. But, after all, he found the sense of responsibility dominant. To his care was committed a beautiful life,—a life that must be saved, cherished, and ultimately restored to its proper environment. Of late, it seemed, an evil star had pursued him; everything he had commanded or had anything to do with had either sunk or burned—an extraordinary train of misfortune not lacking in the lives of many able masters of craft. What next? He passed over that thought with a frown. He was living in a beautiful present; the future would be met as the past had been, bravely and with no cry for quarter.
The present! He was immediately to learn how dearly he prized it; for as he gazed seaward, the smoke of a steamship, below the horizon, appeared. He sprang to his feet and watched it eagerly; and yet when that faint column grew more dim and finally faded, he sat back constrained to confess that he was almost glad the course of the steamship was as it was. He fought against it, thinking of the girl in the cabin and her interests. And yet—and yet? He shrugged his shoulders and walked toward the door, lured by the song which he remembered so clearly.
"If I had you! If I had you! You!"
"Will I do?" he laughed, peering in at her open door.
"For the present, yes," she bowed, "because I want you to admire. See, I have been decorating my room with unbleached muslin. Aren't those curtains dear? And those silesia bunk tapestries, aren't they fascinating?"
"They are, indeed. How much would you charge to beautify my cabin?"
"You had better ask how much you owe me," she said. Then, "You haven't looked in your cabin! And after all my labor, too!"
With an exclamation Dan darted across the corridor and beheld, with kindling eyes, many evidences of that feminine touch without which hardened bachelors may fancy their quarters complete. She had followed him to the door and was gazing over his shoulder. Something caught in Dan's throat. Always a man's man, as the saying is, the full force of the realization of his strange situation seemed rushing from the interior of that cabin to overpower him. A girl, a beautiful girl, one whom he had looked upon as he had looked upon the beautiful unattainable things of this life, planning and executing for his pleasure, and blushing joyously to find that which she had done for him pleasing in his sight, left him bereft of words.
He turned to her and strove to speak, and then suddenly he faced about and walked hurriedly to the deck. She came up behind him and placed her hand upon his shoulder and smiled, understanding. His eyes met hers, and then, with an involuntary movement, his arm was about her waist. For a full minute they stood thus, neither moving, she regarding him with wondering eyes, but still smiling slightly.
Suddenly he started; his arm swiftly dropped, and he glanced with a jerk of his head towards the sail.
"Are we getting out of our course?" she asked.
"I was," he said, scowling, "but I won't again. Can you forgive one who is no better than a—than a blamed pirate?"
"I can forgive you everything but calling yourself names," she said gently.
Before another hour had passed, clouds began to rise from out the sea. There came a fitful breeze, with a little hum to it. To the southeast-ward the horizon assumed a grayish-white tinge.
Dan watched it anxiously, and the girl followed his gaze and then glanced at him inquiringly.
"It's going to cloud over," he said. "There may be some deviltry before we make shore."
He moistened his fingers, moving them to and fro in the air.
"It isn't a storm," he said; "it is fog."
"Fog!" The girl was trembling. "What does that mean?"
"It means that for a while old ocean is going to destroy all our pretty scenery, and that it is going to be cold and nasty and disagreeable."
Already, in fact, the ocean had lost its color. Heavy blue-white clouds with shredded, filmy foundations, which seemed almost to sweep the waters, moved swiftly to the westward, while in the background the wall of mist advanced silently to encompass them. They could feel its breath, heavy, clammy, chilling.
Presently a mass of vapor, like a detached squadron of cavalry, swept about the derelict and then moved on, leaving little shredded patches hanging about the foremast.
Quite unknown to the girl, Dan, the preceding day, had constructed a raft, which he regarded as being quite as safe for ocean travelling, if not quite so comfortable, as the derelict. He had lashed supplies, a small cask of water, and the like thereon, and now, with the fog-pall gathering about, he went amidships, examined it carefully, and made sure that nothing would prevent a hasty launching in event of disaster.
When he returned the murk had closed in thickly. It was as though the vessel were immured from the world. Virginia was standing at the wheel, and with the pall throwing the derelict into more sombre relief, Dan caught more strongly than ever the utter contrast which her presence brought to this abandoned hulk. Whenever she had walked along the deck it had seemed a profanation to him that the uneven planking should know her tread; that she should be on the derelict at all was, he felt, a working of Fate against everything that was beautiful and graceful.
Now, as she stood there in the pallid gloom, she suggested some tall, beautiful genius, presiding over the wrack of elemental things, facing a more glorious future.
"How shut in everything seems!" she said, as Dan took the wheel from her hands. He had a long fog-horn which he blew at intervals.
"We haven't seen a speck of a ship," he explained, "but now the fog is about us there's liable to be a fleet of them in our vicinity at any time. At least that has been my experience with fogs. It would not be much fun to be rammed, although in our present condition I fancy it would hurt the other vessel more than it would this."
Hour after hour they went on blindly, silently, save at such times as Dan's raucous horn blasts went tearing through the fog. The wind had died away. Sometimes the forward part of the vessel was hidden from their view. Frequently it seemed distorted; strange phantom shapes filled the deck, and the soughing of the yielding hull brought strange, uncanny sounds to their ears.
Dan was seated on the deck, his eyes peering about on all sides, trying to pierce the veil, every nerve taut, every sense alert. The girl crept close beside him, so that she touched him, and there she remained, while all the terrors of the ghostly ship arose to confront her. The weed-hung, slimy rails and wave-bitten deck stretched away in ever-fading perspective to the foremast where everything ended in an amorphous blur.
There came a time when the two felt almost a part of the deep—two mortals admitted into all the hidden evils that lurk thereon. Their lot to witness the inception of mighty tempests; to hear great gray waves boast of the harm they had done and the winds to plan their rending deeds. Perhaps they themselves would be called to the work, to deal to some proud vessel the death blow as so many derelicts have done.
Once far off there sounded a series of whistle blasts, hoarse, tremulous notes of warning and inquiry. But as the two listened with straining ears the sounds became more dim. Finally they ceased altogether.
The girl eventually lost all sense of acute feeling. She sat dumb, her undeviating eyes fastened upon Dan's face, as though in him she found all that was tangible or normal or real. Her hand was resting on his shoulder now, clutching it tight; but if he knew it was there, he made no sign.
At length, toward evening, as though in a dream, Dan's voice bore upon her ears. For a moment she gazed at him dully, and then she comprehended his words.
"It is beginning to rain, Virginia. The fog will go away now."
"Oh, good!" she exclaimed.
"The wind is freshening, too," he added, "and it doesn't feel very good. I think we're going to have a blow for a change."
It seemed so. Already the mists were beginning to scuttle away before the increasing wind-rush which moaned with evil breath.
"Will you hold the wheel for a moment, please," said Dan.
As she placed her hands on the spokes he went forward and lowered the sail. There were two lines of reef points in the section of canvas and Dan took in both. When he hoisted it again there was just a patch of three-cornered sail.
Within half an hour it was raining hard. The wind was increasing slowly but surely, and the sea was rising. Dan asked the girl to go into the cabin and to remain there either until the storm was over, or he summoned her. She obeyed him partially. She went into the cabin, but returned quickly with two slickers.
"Do you suppose," she cried, "I am going to let you be alone now? I am going to help you, and, if it must be, to die with you. I am not a bit afraid any more."
Dan placed his hand on her arm.
"Get down here, then, under the lee of this cabin. We are not going to die. At least not yet a while."
So the storm came. With his patch of sail Dan had headed the craft up into the wind; and thus, with the boat already beginning to rise and fall, with the broad bow groaning, and oozing ends of planking, and dirty water, and the deck, contracting and expanding like the belly of a stricken whale, he settled down to the long fight.
The fog had all departed now. North, east, south, and west, nothing but the gray of onrushing waves and a shrouded sky as implacable as the morning of doom. Darkness was falling swiftly. Soon the terrible night began.
Not that it was the worst storm in which Dan had ever been, but certainly he had never faced North Atlantic tumult under such a disadvantage, under conditions so desperately precarious. The bow rose but heavily to the seas, and never topped them. The water rushing over, poured down the deck in mill-races, filling it to the rails, occasionally springing up over the poop and the top of the after cabin, lashing the faces of the two crouching at the wheel behind it.
"It's a sou'easter, I'm almost certain," roared Dan in the girl's ear. "It will work up to a climax gradually, and then gradually go down, at this season of the year. Don't be afraid of the water. We can't sink, I believe; the only danger is that we might break up—and we won't do that."
But despite the optimism of his words, Dan was not altogether certain that the wallowing wreck would hold together. There was nothing to do but wait and see. The situation he grasped in all its grievous details. He had never been so happy, so utterly at peace as aboard this derelict. No gilded barge of antiquity had ever been so glorious, so golden as this mangled wraith of the seas in the sunlit hours of the immediate past. Her voice, her laughter, had filled them with music, her presence with all the poetry and romance of the world, and the light in her eyes shining for him alone had filled him with a great tenderness.
Now, the night, the storm, danger—death, perhaps. He shut his jaws and drove the flooding thoughts from his mind. Anger,—the anger of bereavement,—filled him, and he glared into the tempest and twisted the wheel as though combating a sentient adversary.
An hour passed, Cimmerian blackness had fallen. The waves came savagely, ill-defined masses let loose from a viewless limbo to work their harm. Sometimes they caught the dull gray flash of breaking waters, but more often everything was hidden. The roar of the wind and wave was incessant.
Dan's efforts to keep the derelict's head to the seas had failed. The hulk had slued around and was driving before the tempest, whither he did not know. Groaning, crashing, crackling, the hulk lumbered on. Once a wave leaped over the stern, stunning them with its thunderous impact, dragging at them powerfully, as though to draw them back into the sea whence it came.