"You knew I wouldn't find it, then!... Didn't you?"
"I may have suspected you wouldn't."
Now he was sure that she had been searching for the gladstone bag. That, evidently, was the bone of contention. Calendar had sent his daughter for it, Mrs. Hallam her son; Dorothy had been successful ... But, on the other hand, Calendar and Mrs. Hallam were unquestionably allies. Why, then—?
"Where is it, Mr. Kirkwood?"
"Madam, have you the right to know?"
Through another lengthening pause, while they faced each other, he marked again the curious contraction of her under lip.
"I have the right," she declared steadily. "Where is it?"
"How can I be sure?"
"Then you don't know—!"
"Indeed," he interrupted, "I would be glad to feel that I ought to tell you what I know."
"What you know!"
The exclamation, low-spoken, more an echo of her thoughts than intended for Kirkwood, was accompanied by a little shake of the woman's head, mute evidence to the fact that she was bewildered by his finesse. And this delighted the young man beyond measure, making him feel himself master of a difficult situation. Mysteries had been woven before his eyes so persistently, of late, that it was a real pleasure to be able to do a little mystifying on his own account. By adopting this reticent and non-committal attitude, he was forcing the hand of a woman old enough to be his mother and most evidently a past-mistress in the art of misleading. All of which seemed very fascinating to the amateur in adventure.
The woman would have led again, but young Hallam cut in, none too courteously.
"I say, Mamma, it's no good standing here, palaverin' like a lot of flats. Besides, I'm awf'ly knocked up. Let's get home and have it out there."
Instantly his mother softened. "My poor boy!... Of course we'll go."
Without further demur she swept past and down the stairway before them—slowly, for their progress was of necessity slow, and the light most needed. Once they were in the main hall, however, she extinguished the candle, placed it on a side table, and passed out through the door.
It had been left open, as before; and Kirkwood was not at all surprised to see a man waiting on the threshold,—the versatile Eccles, if he erred not. He had little chance to identify him, as it happened, for at a word from Mrs. Hallam the man bowed and, following her across the sidewalk, opened the door of a four-wheeler which, with lamps alight and liveried driver on the box, had been waiting at the carriage-block.
As they passed out, Kirkwood shut the door; and at the same moment the little party was brought up standing by a gruff and authoritative summons.
"Just a minute, please, you there!"
"Aha!" said Kirkwood to himself. "I thought so." And he halted, in unfeigned respect for the burly and impressive figure, garbed in blue and brass, helmeted and truncheoned, bull's-eye shining on breast like the Law's unblinking and sleepless eye, barring the way to the carriage.
Mrs. Hallam showed less deference for the obstructionist. The assumed hauteur and impatience of her pose was artfully reflected in her voice as she rounded upon the bobby, with an indignant demand: "What is the meaning of this, officer?"
"Precisely what I wants to know, ma'am," returned the man, unyielding beneath his respectful attitude. "I'm obliged to ask you to tell me what you were doing in that 'ouse.... And what's the matter with this 'ere gentleman?" he added, with a dubious stare at young Hallam's bandaged head and rumpled clothing.
"Perhaps you don't understand," admitted Mrs. Hallam sweetly. "Of course—I see—it's perfectly natural. The house has been shut up for some time and—"
"Thank you, ma'am; that's just it. There was something wrong going on early in the evening, and I was told to keep an eye on the premises. It's duty, ma'am; I've got my report to make."
"The house," said Mrs. Hallam, with the long-suffering patience of one elucidating a perfectly plain proposition to a being of a lower order of intelligence, "is the property of my son, Arthur Frederick Burgoyne Hallam, of Cornwall. This is—"
"Beg pardon, ma'am, but I was told Colonel George Burgoyne, of Cornwall—"
"Colonel Burgoyne died some time ago. My son is his heir. This is my son. He came to the house this evening to get some property he desired, and—it seems—tripped on the stairs and fell unconscious. I became worried about him and drove over, accompanied by my friend, Mr. Kirkwood."
The policeman looked his troubled state of mind, and wagged a doubtful head over the case. There was his duty, and there was, opposed to it, the fact that all three were garbed in the livery of the well-to-do.
At length, turning to the driver, he demanded, received, and noted in his memorandum-book, the license number of the equipage.
"It's a very unusual case, ma'am," he apologized; "I hopes you won't 'old it against me. I'm only trying to do my duty—"
"And safeguard our property. You are perfectly justified, officer."
"Thank you, ma'am. And would you mind giving me your cards, please, all of you?"
"Certainly not." Without hesitation the woman took a little hand-bag from the seat of the carriage and produced a card; her son likewise found his case and handed the officer an oblong slip.
"I've no cards with me," the American told the policeman; "my name, however, is Philip Kirkwood, and I'm staying at the Pless."
"Very good, sir; thank you." The man penciled the information in his little book. "Thank you, ma'am, and Mr. Hallam, sir. Sorry to have detained you. Good morning."
Kirkwood helped young Hallam into the carriage, gave Mrs. Hallam his hand, and followed her. The man Eccles shut the door, mounting the box beside the driver. Immediately they were in motion.
The American got a final glimpse of the bobby, standing in front of Number 9, Frognall Street, and watching them with an air of profound uncertainty. He had Kirkwood's sympathy, therein; but he had little time to feel with him, for Mrs. Hallam turned upon him very suddenly.
"Mr. Kirkwood, will you be good enough to tell me who and what you are?"
The young man smiled his homely, candid smile. "I'll be only too glad, Mrs. Hallam, when I feel sure you'll do as much for yourself."
She gave him no answer; it, was as if she were choosing words. Kirkwood braced himself to meet the storm; but none ensued. There was rather a lull, which strung itself out indefinitely, to the monotonous music of hoofs and rubber tires.
Young Hallam was resting his empty blond head against the cushions, and had closed his eyes. He seemed to doze; but, as the carriage rolled past the frequent street-lights, Kirkwood could see that the eyes of Mrs. Hallam were steadily directed to his face.
His outward composure was tempered by some amusement, by more admiration; the woman's eyes were very handsome, even when hardest and most cold. It was not easy to conceive of her as being the mother of a son so immaturely mature. Why, she must have been at least thirty-eight or -nine! One wondered; she did not look it....
The carriage stopped before a house with lighted windows. Eccles jumped down from the box and scurried to open the front door. The radiance of a hall-lamp was streaming out into the misty night when he returned to release his employers.
They were returned to Craven Street! "One more lap round the track!" mused Kirkwood. "Wonder will the next take me back to Bermondsey Old Stairs."
At Mrs. Hallam's direction, Eccles ushered him into the smoking-room, on the ground floor in the rear of the dwelling, there to wait while she helped her son up-stairs and to bed. He sighed with pleasure at first glimpse of its luxurious but informal comforts, and threw himself carelessly into a heavily padded lounging-chair, dropping one knee over the other and lighting the last of his expensive cigars, with a sensation of undiluted gratitude; as one coming to rest in the shadow of a great rock in a weary land.
Over his shoulder a home-like illumination was cast by an electric reading-lamp shaded with red silk. At his feet brass fire-dogs winked sleepily in the fluttering blaze of a well-tended stove. The walls were hung with deep red, the doors and divans upholstered in the same restful shade. In one corner an old clock ticked soberly. The atmosphere would have proved a potent invitation to reverie, if not to sleep—he was very sleepy—but for the confusion in the house.
In its chambers, through the halls, on the stairs, there were hurryings and scurryings of feet and skirts, confused with murmuring voices. Presently, in an adjoining room, Philip Kirkwood heard a maid-servant wrestling hopefully with that most exasperating of modern time-saving devices, the telephone as countenanced by our English cousins. Her patience and determination won his approval, but availed nothing for her purpose; in the outcome the telephone triumphed and the maid gave up the unequal contest.
Later, a butler entered the room; a short and sturdy fellow, extremely ill at ease. Drawing a small taboret to the side of Kirkwood's chair, he placed thereon a tray, deferentially imparting the information that "Missis 'Allam 'ad thought 'ow as Mister Kirkwood might care for a bit of supper."
"Please thank Mrs. Hallam for me." Kirkwood's gratified eyes ranged the laden tray. There were sandwiches, biscuit, cheese, and a pot of black coffee, with sugar and cream. "It was very kindly thought of," he added.
"Very good, sir, thank you, sir."
The man turned to go, shuffling soundlessly. Kirkwood was suddenly impressed with his evasiveness; ever since he had entered the room, his countenance had seemed turned from the guest.
"Eccles!" he called sharply, at a venture.
The butler halted, thunderstruck. "Ye-es, s-sir?"
"Turn round, Eccles; I want a look at you."
Eccles faced him unwillingly, with a stolid front but shifty eyes. Kirkwood glanced him up and down, grinning.
"Thank you, Eccles; I'll remember you now. You'll remember me, too, won't you? You're a bad actor, aren't you, Eccles?"
"Yes, sir; thank you, sir," mumbled the man unhappily; and took instant advantage of the implied permission to go.
Intensely diverted by the recollection of Eccles' abortive attempt to stop him at the door of Number 9, and wondering—now that he came to think of it—why, precisely, young Hallam had deemed it necessary to travel with a body-guard and adopt such furtive methods to enter into as well as to obtain what was asserted to be his own property, Kirkwood turned active attention to the lunch.
Thoughtfully he poured himself a cup of coffee, swallowing it hot and black as it came from the silver pot; then munched the sandwiches.
It was kindly thought of, this early morning repast; Mrs. Hallam seemed more and more a remarkable woman with each phase of her character that she chose to disclose. At odds with him, she yet took time to think of his creature needs!
What could be her motive,—not in feeding him, but in involving her name and fortune in an affair so strangely flavored?... This opened up a desert waste of barren speculation. "What's anybody's motive, who figures in this thundering dime-novel?" demanded the American, almost contemptuously. And—for the hundredth time—gave it up; the day should declare it, if so hap he lived to see that day: a distant one, he made no doubt. The only clear fact in his befogged and bemused mentality was that he was at once "broke" and in this business up to his ears. Well, he'd see it through; he'd nothing better to do, and—there was the girl:
Dorothy, whose eyes and lips he had but to close his own eyes to see again as vividly as though she stood before him; Dorothy, whose unspoiled sweetness stood out in vivid relief against this moil and toil of conspiracy, like a star of evening shining clear in a stormy sky.
"Poetic simile: I'm going fast," conceded Kirkwood; but he did not smile. It was becoming quite too serious a matter for laughter. For her sake, he was in the game "for keeps"; especially in view of the fact that everything—his own heart's inclination included—seemed to conspire to keep him in it. Of course he hoped for nothing in return; a pauper who turns squire-of-dames with matrimonial intent is open to the designation, "penniless adventurer." No; whatever service he might be to the girl would be ample recompense to him for his labors. And afterwards, he'd go his way in peace; she'd soon forget him—if she hadn't already. Women (he propounded gravely) are queer: there's no telling anything about them!
One of the most unreadable specimens of the sex on which he pronounced this highly original dictum, entered the room just then; and he found himself at once out of his chair and his dream, bowing.
The woman nodded and smiled graciously. "Eccles has attended to your needs, I hope? Please don't stop smoking." She sank into an arm-chair on the other side of the hearth and, probably by accident, out of the radius of illumination from the lamp; sitting sidewise, one knee above the other, her white arms immaculate against the somber background of shadowed crimson.
She was very handsome indeed, just then; though a keener light might have proved less flattering.
"Now, Mr. Kirkwood?" she opened briskly, with a second intimate and friendly nod; and paused, her pose receptive.
Kirkwood sat down again, smiling good-natured appreciation of her unprejudiced attitude.
"Your son, Mrs. Hallam—?"
"Oh, Freddie's doing well enough.... Freddie," she explained, "has a delicate constitution and has seen little of the world. Such melodrama as to-night's is apt to shock him severely. We must make allowances, Mr. Kirkwood."
Kirkwood grinned again, a trace unsympathetically; he was unable to simulate any enthusiasm on the subject of poor Freddie, whom he had sized up with passable acumen as a spoiled and coddled child completely under the thumb of an extremely clever mother.
"Yes," he responded vaguely; "he'll be quite fit after a night's sleep, I dare say."
The woman was watching him keenly, beneath her lowered lashes. "I think," she said deliberately, "that it is time we came to an understanding."
Kirkwood agreed—"Yes?" affably.
"I purpose being perfectly straightforward. To begin with, I don't place you, Mr. Kirkwood. You are an unknown quantity, a new factor. Won't you please tell me what you are and.... Are you a friend of Mr. Calendar's?"
"I think I may lay claim to that honor, though"—to Kirkwood's way of seeing things some little frankness on his own part would be essential if they were to get on—"I hardly know him, Mrs. Hallam. I had the pleasure of meeting him only this afternoon."
She knitted her brows over this statement.
"That, I assure you, is the truth," he laughed.
"But ... I really don't understand."
"Nor I, Mrs. Hallam. Calendar aside, I am Philip Kirkwood, American, resident abroad for some years, a native of San Francisco, of a certain age, unmarried, by profession a poor painter."
"Beyond that? I presume I must tell you, though I confess I'm in doubt...." He hesitated, weighing candor in the balance with discretion.
"But who are you for? Are you in George Calendar's pay?"
"Heaven forfend!"—piously. "My sole interest at the present moment is to unravel a most entrancing mystery—"
"Entitled 'Dorothy Calendar'! Of course. You've known her long?"
"Eight hours, I believe," he admitted gravely; "less than that, in fact."
"Miss Calendar's interests will not suffer through anything you may tell me."
"Whether they will or no, I see I must swing a looser tongue, or you'll be showing me the door."
The woman shook her head, amused, "Not until," she told him significantly.
"Very well, then." And he launched into an abridged narrative of the night's events, as he understood them, touching lightly on his own circumstances, the real poverty which had brought him back to Craven Street by way of Frognall. "And there you have it all, Mrs. Hallam."
She sat in silent musing. Now and again he caught the glint of her eyes and knew that he was being appraised with such trained acumen as only long knowledge of men can give to women. He wondered if he were found wanting.... Her dark head bended, elbow on knee, chin resting lightly in the cradle of her slender, parted fingers, the woman thought profoundly, her reverie ending with a brief, curt laugh, musical and mirthless as the sound of breaking glass.
"It is so like Calendar!" she exclaimed: "so like him that one sees how foolish it was to trust—no, not to trust, but to believe that he could ever be thrown off the scent, once he got nose to ground. So, if we suffer, my son and I, I shall have only myself to thank!"
Kirkwood waited in patient attention till she chose to continue. When she did "Now for my side of the case!" cried Mrs. Hallam; and rising, began to pace the room, her slender and rounded figure swaying gracefully, the while she talked.
"George Calendar is a scoundrel," she said: "a swindler, gambler,—what I believe you Americans call a confidence-man. He is also my late husband's first cousin. Some years since he found it convenient to leave England, likewise his wife and daughter. Mrs. Calendar, a country-woman of yours, by the bye, died shortly afterwards. Dorothy, by the merest accident, obtained a situation as private secretary in the household of the late Colonel Burgoyne, of The Cliffs, Cornwall. You follow me?"
"Colonel Burgoyne died, leaving his estates to my son, some time ago. Shortly afterwards Dorothy Calendar disappeared. We know now that her father took her away, but then the disappearance seemed inexplicable, especially since with her vanished a great deal of valuable information. She alone knew of the location of certain of the old colonel's personal effects."
"He was an eccentric. One of his peculiarities involved the secreting of valuables in odd places; he had no faith in banks. Among these valuables were the Burgoyne family jewels—quite a treasure, believe me, Mr. Kirkwood. We found no note of them among the colonel's papers, and without Dorothy were powerless to pursue a search for them. We advertised and employed detectives, with no result. It seems that father and daughter were at Monte Carlo at the time."
"Beautifully circumstantial, my dear lady," commented Kirkwood—to his inner consciousness. Outwardly he maintained consistently a pose of impassive gullibility.
"This afternoon, for the first time, we received news of the Calendars. Calendar himself called upon me, to beg a loan. I explained our difficulty and he promised that Dorothy should send us the information by the morning's post. When I insisted, he agreed to bring it himself, after dinner, this evening.... I make it quite clear?" she interrupted, a little anxious.
"Quite clear, I assure you," he assented encouragingly.
"Strangely enough, he had not been gone ten minutes when my son came in from a conference with our solicitors, informing me that at last a memorandum had turned up, indicating that the heirlooms would be found in a safe secreted behind a dresser in Colonel Burgoyne's bedroom."
"At Number 9, Frognall Street."
"Yes.... I proposed going there at once, but it was late and we were dining at the Pless with an acquaintance, a Mr. Mulready, whom I now recall as a former intimate of George Calendar. To our surprise we saw Calendar and his daughter at a table not far from ours. Mr. Mulready betrayed some agitation at the sight of Calendar, and told me that Scotland Yard had a man out with a warrant for Calendar's arrest, on old charges. For old sake's sake, Mr. Mulready begged me to give Calendar a word of warning. I did so—foolishly, it seems: Calendar was at that moment planning to rob us, Mulready aiding and abetting him."
The woman paused before Kirkwood, looking down upon him. "And so," she concluded, "we have been tricked and swindled. I can scarcely believe it of Dorothy Calendar."
"I, for one, don't believe it." Kirkwood spoke quietly, rising. "Whatever the culpability of Calendar and Mulready, Dorothy was only their hoodwinked tool."
"But, Mr. Kirkwood, she must have known the jewels were not hers."
"Yes," he assented passively, but wholly unconvinced.
"And what," she demanded with a gesture of exasperation, "what would you advise?"
"Scotland Yard," he told her bluntly.
"But it's a family secret! It must not appear in the papers. Don't you understand—George Calendar is my husband's cousin!"
"I can think of nothing else, unless you pursue them in person."
"That remains to be discovered; I can tell you nothing more than I have.... May I thank you for your hospitality, express my regrets that I should unwittingly have been made the agent of this disaster, and wish you good night—or, rather, good morning, Mrs. Hallam?"
For a moment she held him under a calculating glance which he withstood with graceless fortitude. Then, realizing that he was determined not by any means to be won to her cause, she gave him her hand, with a commonplace wish that he might find his affairs in better order than seemed probable; and rang for Eccles.
The butler showed him out.
He took away with him two strong impressions; the one visual, of a strikingly handsome woman in a wonderful gown, standing under the red glow of a reading-lamp, in an attitude of intense mental concentration, her expression plainly indicative of a train of thought not guiltless of vindictiveness; the other, more mental but as real, he presently voiced to the huge bronze lions brooding over desolate Trafalgar Square.
"Well," appreciated Mr. Kirkwood with gusto, "she's got Ananias and Sapphira talked to a standstill, all right!" He ruminated over this for a moment. "Calendar can lie some, too; but hardly with her picturesque touch.... Uncommon ingenious, I call it. All the same, there were only about a dozen bits of tiling that didn't fit into her mosaic a little bit.... I think they're all tarred with the same stick—all but the girl. And there's something afoot a long sight more devilish and crafty than that shilling-shocker of madam's.... Dorothy Calendar's got about as much active part in it as I have. I'm only from California, but they've got to show me, before I'll believe a word against her. Those infernal scoundrels!...Somebody's got to be on the girl's side and I seem to have drawn the lucky straw.... Good Heavens! is it possible for a grown man to fall heels over head in love in two short hours? I don't believe it. It's just interest—nothing more.... And I'll have to have a change of clothes before I can do anything further."
He bowed gratefully to the lions, in view of their tolerant interest in his soliloquy, and set off very suddenly round the square and up St. Martin's Lane, striking across town as directly as might be for St. Pancras Station. It would undoubtedly be a long walk, but cabs were prohibited by his straitened means, and the busses were all abed and wouldn't be astir for hours.
He strode along rapidly, finding his way more through intuition than by observation or familiarity with London's geography—indeed, was scarce aware of his surroundings; for his brain was big with fine imagery, rapt in a glowing dream of knighterrantry and chivalric deeds.
Thus is it ever and alway with those who in the purity of young hearts rush in where angels fear to tread; if these, Kirkwood and his ilk, be fools, thank God for them, for with such foolishness is life savored and made sweet and sound! To Kirkwood the warp of the world and the woof of it was Romance, and it wrapped him round, a magic mantle to set him apart from all things mean and sordid and render him impregnable and invisible to the haunting Shade of Care.
Which, by the same token, presently lost track of him entirely, and wandered off to find and bedevil some other poor devil. And Kirkwood, his eyes like his spirit elevated, saw that the clouds of night were breaking, the skies clearing, that the East pulsed ever more strongly with the dim golden promise of the day to come. And this he chose to take for an omen—prematurely, it may be.
AGAIN "BELOW BRIDGE"; AND BEYOND
Kirkwood wasted little time, who had not much to waste, were he to do that upon whose doing he had set his heart. It irked him sore to have to lose the invaluable moments demanded by certain imperative arrangements, but his haste was such that all was consummated within an hour.
Within the period of a single hour, then, he had ransomed his luggage at St. Pancras, caused it to be loaded upon a four-wheeler and transferred to a neighboring hotel of evil flavor but moderate tariff, where he engaged a room for a week, ordered an immediate breakfast, and retired with his belongings to his room; he had shaved and changed his clothes, selecting a serviceable suit of heavy tweeds, stout shoes, a fore-and-aft cap and a negligee shirt of a deep shade calculated at least to seem clean for a long time; finally, he had devoured his bacon and eggs, gulped down his coffee and burned his mouth, and, armed with a stout stick, set off hotfoot in the still dim glimmering of early day.
By this time his cash capital had dwindled to the sum of two pounds, ten shillings, eight-pence, and would have been much less had he paid for his lodging in advance. But he considered his trunks ample security for the bill, and dared not wait the hour when shopkeepers begin to take down shutters and it becomes possible to realize upon one's jewelry. Besides which, he had never before been called upon to consider the advisability of raising money by pledging personal property, and was in considerable doubt as to the right course of procedure in such emergency.
At King's Cross Station on the Underground an acute disappointment awaited him; there, likewise, he learned something about London. A sympathetic bobby informed him that no trains would be running until after five-thirty, and that, furthermore, no busses would begin to ply until half after seven.
"It's tramp it or cab it, then," mused the young man mournfully, his longing gaze seeking a nearby cab-rank—just then occupied by a solitary hansom, driver somnolent on the box. "Officer," he again addressed the policeman, mindful of the English axiom: "When in doubt, ask a bobby."—"Officer, when's high-tide this morning?"
The bobby produced a well-worn pocket-almanac, moistened a massive thumb, and rippled the pages.
"London Bridge, 'igh tide twenty minutes arfter six, sir," he announced with a glow of satisfaction wholly pardonable in one who combines the functions of perambulating almanac, guide-book, encyclopedia, and conserver of the peace.
Kirkwood said something beneath his breath—a word in itself a comfortable mouthful and wholesome and emphatic. He glanced again at the cab and groaned: "O Lord, I just dassent!" With which, thanking the bureau of information, he set off at a quick step down Grey's Inn Road.
The day had closed down in brilliance upon the city—and the voice of the milkman was to be heard in the land—when he trudged, still briskly if a trifle wearily, into Holborn, and held on eastward across the Viaduct and down Newgate Street; the while addling his weary wits with heart-sickening computations of minutes, all going hopelessly to prove that he would be late, far too late even presupposing the unlikely. The unlikely, be it known, was that the Alethea would not attempt to sail before the turn of the tide.
For this was his mission, to find the Alethea before she sailed. Incredible as it may appear, at five o'clock, or maybe earlier, on the morning of the twenty-second of April, 1906, A.D., Philip Kirkwood, normally a commonplace but likable young American in full possession of his senses, might have been seen (and by some was seen) plodding manfully through Cheapside, London, England, engaged upon a quest as mad, forlorn, and gallant as any whose chronicle ever inspired the pen of a Malory or a Froissart. In brief he proposed to lend his arm and courage to be the shield and buckler of one who might or might not be a damsel in distress; according as to whether Mrs. Hallam had spoken soothly of Dorothy Calendar, or Kirkwood's own admirable faith in the girl were justified of itself.
Proceeding upon the working hypothesis that Mrs. Hallam was a polished liar in most respects, but had told the truth, so far as concerned her statement to the effect that the gladstone bag contained valuable real property (whose ownership remained a moot question, though Kirkwood was definitely committed to the belief that it was none of Mrs. Hallam's or her son's): he reasoned that the two adventurers, with Dorothy and their booty, would attempt to leave London by a water route, in the ship, Alethea, whose name had fallen from their lips at Bermondsey Old Stairs.
Kirkwood's initial task, then, would be to find the needle in the haystack—the metaphor is poor: more properly, to sort out from the hundreds of vessels, of all descriptions, at anchor in midstream, moored to the wharves of 'long-shore warehouses, or in the gigantic docks that line the Thames, that one called Alethea; of which he was so deeply mired in ignorance that he could not say whether she were tramp-steamer, coastwise passenger boat, one of the liners that ply between Tilbury and all the world, Channel ferry-boat, private yacht (steam or sail), schooner, four-master, square-rigger, barque or brigantine.
A task to stagger the optimism of any but one equipped with the sublime impudence of Youth! Even Kirkwood was disturbed by some little awe when he contemplated the vast proportions of his undertaking. None the less doggedly he plugged ahead, and tried to keep his mind from vain surmises as to what would be his portion when eventually he should find himself a passenger, uninvited and unwelcome, upon the Alethea....
London had turned over once or twice, and was pulling the bedclothes over its head and grumbling about getting up, but the city was still sound asleep when at length he paused for a minute's rest in front of the Mansion House, and realized with a pang of despair that he was completely tuckered out. There was a dull, vague throbbing in his head; weights pressed upon his eyeballs until they ached; his mouth was hot and tasted of yesterday's tobacco; his feet were numb and heavy; his joints were stiff; he yawned frequently.
With a sigh he surrendered to the flesh's frailty. An early cabby, cruising up from Cannon Street station on the off-chance of finding some one astir in the city, aside from the doves and sparrows, suffered the surprise of his life when Kirkwood hailed him. His face was blank with amazement when he reined in, and his eyes bulged when the prospective fare, on impulse, explained his urgent needs. Happily he turned out a fair representative of his class, an intelligent and unfuddled cabby.
"Jump in, sir," he told Kirkwood cheerfully, as soon as he had assimilated the latter's demands. "I knows precisely wotcher wants. Leave it all to me."
The admonition was all but superfluous; Kirkwood was unable, for the time being, to do aught else than resign his fate into another's guidance. Once in the cab he slipped insensibly into a nap, and slept soundly on, as reckless of the cab's swift pace and continuous jouncing as of the sunlight glaring full in his tired young face.
He may have slept twenty minutes; he awoke faint with drowsiness, tingling from head to toe from fatigue, and in distress of a queer qualm in the pit of his stomach, to find the hansom at rest and the driver on the step, shaking his fare with kindly determination. "Oh, a' right," he assented surlily, and by sheer force of will made himself climb out to the sidewalk; where, having rubbed his eyes, stretched enormously and yawned discourteously in the face of the East End, he was once more himself and a hundred times refreshed into the bargain. Contentedly he counted three shillings into the cabby's palm—the fare named being one-and-six.
"The shilling over and above the tip's for finding me the waterman and boat," he stipulated.
"Right-o. You'll mind the 'orse a minute, sir?"
Kirkwood nodded. The man touched his hat and disappeared inexplicably. Kirkwood, needlessly attaching himself to the reins near the animal's head, pried his sense of observation open and became alive to the fact that he stood in a quarter of London as strange to him as had been Bermondsey Wall.
To this day he can not put a name to it; he surmises that it was Wapping.
Ramshackle tenements with sharp gable roofs lined either side of the way. Frowsy women draped themselves over the window-sills. Pallid and wasted parodies on childhood contested the middle of the street with great, slow drays, drawn by enormous horses. On the sidewalks twin streams of masculine humanity flowed without rest, both bound in the same direction: dock laborers going to their day's work. Men of every nationality known to the world (he thought) passed him in his short five-minute wait by the horse's head; Britons, brown East Indians, blacks from Jamaica, swart Italians, Polaks, Russian Jews, wire-drawn Yankees, Spaniards, Portuguese, Greeks, even a Nubian or two: uniform in these things only, that their backs were bent with toil, bowed beyond mending, and their faces stamped with the blurred type-stamp of the dumb laboring brute. A strangely hideous procession, they shambled on, for the most part silent, all uncouth and unreal in the clear morning glow.
The outlander was sensible of some relief when his cabby popped hurriedly out of the entrance to a tenement, a dull-visaged, broad-shouldered waterman ambling more slowly after.
"Nevvy of mine, sir," announced the cabby; "and a fust-ryte waterman; knows the river like a book, he do."
The nephew touched his forelock sheepishly.
"Thank you," said Kirkwood; and, turning to the man, "Your boat?" he asked with the brevity of weariness.
"This wye, sir."
At his guide's heels Kirkwood threaded the crowd and, entering the tenement, stumbled through a gloomy and unsavory passage, to come out at last upon a scanty, unrailed veranda overlooking the river. Ten feet below, perhaps, foul waters purred and eddied round the piles supporting the rear of the building. On one hand a ladder-like flight of rickety steps descended to a floating stage to which a heavy rowboat lay moored. In the latter a second waterman was seated bailing out bilge with a rusty can.
"'Ere we are, sir," said the cabman's nephew, pausing at the head of the steps. "Now, where's it to be?"
The American explained tersely that he had a message to deliver a friend, who had shipped aboard a vessel known as the Alethea, scheduled to sail at floodtide; further than which deponent averred naught.
The waterman scratched his head. "A 'ard job, sir; not knowin' wot kind of a boat she are mykes it 'arder." He waited hopefully.
"Ten shillings," volunteered Kirkwood promptly; "ten shillings if you get me aboard her before she weighs anchor; fifteen if I keep you out more than an hour, and still you put me aboard. After that we'll make other terms."
The man promptly turned his back to hail his mate. "'Arf a quid, Bob, if we puts this gent aboard a wessel name o' Allytheer afore she syles at turn o' tide."
In the boat the man with the bailing can turned up an impassive countenance. "Coom down," he clenched the bargain; and set about shipping the sweeps.
Kirkwood crept down the shaky ladder and deposited himself in the stern of the boat; the younger boatman settled himself on the midship thwart.
"Ready," assented old Bob from the bows. He cast off the painter, placed one sweep against the edge of the stage, and with a vigorous thrust pushed off; then took his seat.
Bows swinging down-stream, the boat shot out from the shore.
"How's the tide?" demanded Kirkwood, his impatience growing.
"On th' turn, sir," he was told.
For a long moment broadside to the current, the boat responded to the sturdy pulling of the port sweeps. Another moment, and it was in full swing, the watermen bending lustily to their task. Under their unceasing urge, the broad-beamed, heavy craft, aided by the ebbing tide, surged more and more rapidly through the water; the banks, grim and unsightly with their towering, impassive warehouses broken by toppling wooden tenements, slipped swiftly up-stream. Ship after ship was passed, sailing vessels in the majority, swinging sluggishly at anchor, drifting slowly with the river, or made fast to the goods-stages of the shore; and in keen anxiety lest he should overlook the right one, Kirkwood searched their bows and sterns for names, which in more than one case proved hardly legible.
The Alethea was not of their number.
In the course of some ten minutes, the watermen drove the boat sharply inshore, bringing her up alongside another floating stage, in the shadow of another tenement.—both so like those from which they had embarked that Kirkwood would have been unable to distinguish one from another.
In the bows old Bob lifted up a stentorian voice, summoning one William.
Recognizing that there was some design in this, the passenger subdued his disapproval of the delay, and sat quiet.
In answer to the third ear-racking hail, a man, clothed simply in dirty shirt and disreputable trousers, showed himself in the doorway above, rubbing the sleep out of a red, bloated countenance with a mighty and grimy fist.
"'Ello," he said surlily. "Wot's th' row?"
"'Oo," interrogated old Bob, holding the boat steady by grasping the stage, "was th' party wot engyged yer larst night, Bill?"
"Party name o' Allytheer," growled the drowsy one. "W'y?"
"Party 'ere's lookin' for 'im. Where'll I find this Allytheer?"
"Best look sharp 'r yer won't find 'im," retorted the one above. "'E was at anchor off Bow Creek larst night."
Kirkwood's heart leaped in hope. "What sort of a vessel was she?" he asked, half rising in his eagerness.
"Thank—you!" replied Kirkwood explosively, resuming his seat with uncalculated haste as old Bob, deaf to the amenities of social intercourse in an emergency involving as much as ten-bob, shoved off again.
And again the boat was flying down in midstream, the leaden waters, shot with gold of the morning sun, parting sullenly beneath its bows.
The air was still, heavy and tepid; the least exertion brought out beaded moisture on face and hands. In the east hung a turgid sky, dull with haze, through which the mounting sun swam like a plaque of brass; overhead it was clear and cloudless, but besmirched as if the polished mirror of the heavens had been fouled by the breath of departing night.
On the right, ahead, Greenwich Naval College loomed up, the great gray-stone buildings beyond the embankment impressively dominating the scene, in happy relief against the wearisome monotony of the river-banks; it came abreast; and ebbed into the backwards of the scene.
The watermen straining at the sweeps, the boat sped into Blackwall Reach, Bugsby Marshes a splash of lurid green to port, dreary Cubitt Town and the West India Docks to starboard. Here the river ran thick with shipping.
"Are we near?" Kirkwood would know; and by way of reply had a grunt of the younger waterman.
Again, "Will we make it?" he asked.
The identical grunt answered him; he was free to interpret it as he would; young William—as old Bob named him—had no breath for idle words. Kirkwood subsided, controlling his impatience to the best of his ability; the men, he told himself again and again, were earning their pay, whether or not they gained the goal of his desire.... Their labors were titanic; on their temples and foreheads the knotted veins stood out like discolored whip-cord; their faces were the shade of raw beef, steaming with sweat; their eyes protruded with the strain that set their jaws like vises; their chests heaved and shrank like bellows; their backs curved, straightened, and bent again in rhythmic unison as tiring to the eye as the swinging of a pendulum.
Hugging the marshy shore, they rounded the Blackwall Point. Young William looked to Kirkwood, caught his eye, and nodded.
Kirkwood rose, balancing himself against the leap and sway of the boat.
"Sumwhere's ... 'long ... o' 'ere."
From right to left his eager glance swept the river's widening reach. Vessels were there in abundance, odd, unwieldy, blunt-bowed craft with huge, rakish, tawny sails; long strings of flat barges, pyramidal mounds of coal on each, lashed to another and convoyed by panting tugs; steam cargo boats, battered, worn, rusted sore through their age-old paint; a steel leviathan of the deep seas, half cargo, half passenger boat, warping reluctantly into the mouth of the Victoria Dock tidal basin,—but no brigantine, no sailing vessel of any type.
The young man's lips checked a cry that was half a sob of bitter disappointment. He had entered into the spirit of the chase heart and soul, with an enthusiasm that was strange to him, when he came to look back upon the time; and to fail, even though failure had been discounted a hundredfold since the inception of his mad adventure, seemed hard, very hard.
He sat down suddenly. "She's gone!" he cried in a hollow gasp.
The boatmen eased upon their oars, and old Bob stood up in the bows, scanning the river-scape with keen eyes shielded by a level palm. Young William drooped forward suddenly, head upon knees, and breathed convulsively. The boat drifted listlessly with the current.
Old Bob panted: "'Dawn't—see—nawthin'—o' 'er." He resumed his seat.
"There's no hope, I suppose?"
The elder waterman shook his head. "'Carn't sye.... Might be round—nex' bend—might be—passin' Purfleet.... 'Point is—me an' young Wilyum 'ere—carn't do no more—'n we 'as. We be wore out."
"Yes," Kirkwood assented, disconsolate, "You've certainly earned your pay." Then hope revived; he was very young in heart, you know. "Can't you suggest something? I've got to catch that ship!"
Old Bob wagged his head in slow negation; young William lifted his.
"There's a rylewye runs by Woolwich," he ventured. "Yer might tyke tryne an' go to Sheerness, sir. Yer'd be positive o' passin' 'er if she didn't syle afore 'igh-tide. 'Ire a boat at Sheerness an' put out an' look for 'er."
"How far's Woolwich?" Kirkwood demanded instantly.
"Mile," said the elder man. "Tyke yer for five-bob extry."
Young William dashed the sweat from his eyes, wiped his palms on his hips, and fitted the sweeps again to the wooden tholes. Old Bob was as ready. With an inarticulate cry they gave way.
Old Bob seemed something inclined toward optimism, when the boat lay alongside a landing-stage at Woolwich, and Kirkwood had clambered ashore.
"Yer'll mebbe myke it," the waterman told him with a weatherwise survey of the skies. "Wind's freshenin' from the east'rds, an' that'll 'old 'er back a bit, sir."
"Arsk th' wye to th' Dorkyard Styshun," young William volunteered. "'Tis th' shortest walk, sir. I 'opes yer catches 'er.... Thanky, sir."
He caught dextrously the sovereign which Kirkwood, in ungrudging liberality, spared them of his store of two. The American nodded acknowledgments and adieux, with a faded smile deprecating his chances of winning the race, sorely handicapped as he was. He was very, very tired, and in his heart suspected that he would fail. But, if he did, he would at least be able to comfort himself that it was not for lack of trying. He set his teeth on that covenant, in grim determination; either there was a strain of the bulldog latent in the Kirkwood breed or else his infatuation gripped him more strongly than he guessed.
Yet he suspected something of its power; he knew that this was altogether an insane proceeding, and that the lure that led him on was Dorothy Calendar. A strange dull light glowed in his weary eyes, on the thought of her. He'd go through fire and water in her service. She was costing him dear, perhaps was to cost him dearer still; and perhaps there'd be for his guerdon no more than a "Thank you, Mr. Kirkwood!" at the end of the passage. But that would be no less than his deserts; he was not to forget that he was interfering unwarrantably; the girl was in her father's hands, surely safe enough there—to the casual mind. If her partnership in her parent's fortunes were distasteful, she endured it passively, without complaint.
He decided that it was his duty to remind himself, from time to time, that his main interest must be in the game itself, in the solution of the riddle; whatever should befall, he must look for no reward for his gratuitous and self-appointed part. Indeed he was all but successful in persuading himself that it was the fascination of adventure alone that drew him on.
Whatever the lure, it was inexorable; instead of doing as a sensible person would have done—returning to London for a long rest in his hotel room, ere striving to retrieve his shattered fortunes—Philip Kirkwood turned up the village street, intent only to find the railway station and catch the first available train for Sheerness, were that an early one or a late.
A hapchance native whom he presently encountered, furnished minute directions for reaching the Dockyard Station of the Southeastern and Chatham Rail-way, adding comfortable information to the effect that the next east-bound train would pass through in ten minutes; if Kirkwood would mend his pace he could make it easily, with time to spare.
Kirkwood mended his pace accordingly, but, contrary to the prediction, had no time to spare at all. Even as he stormed the ticket-grating, the train was thundering in at the platform. Therefore a nervous ticket agent passed him out a first-class ticket instead of the third-class he had asked for; and there was no time wherein to have the mistake rectified. Kirkwood planked down the fare, swore, and sprinted for the carriages.
The first compartment whose door he jerked violently open, proved to be occupied, and was, moreover, not a smoking-car. He received a fleeting impression of a woman's startled eyes, staring into his own through a thin mesh of veiling, fell off the running-board, slammed the door, and hurled himself to-wards the next compartment. Here happier fortune attended upon his desire; the box-like section was untenanted, and a notice blown upon the window-glass announced that it was "2nd Class Smoking." Kirkwood promptly tumbled in; and when he turned to shut the door the coaches were moving.
A pipe helped him to bear up while the train was making its two other stops in the Borough of Woolwich: a circumstance so maddening to a man in a hurry, that it set Kirkwood's teeth on edge with sheer impatience, and made him long fervently for the land of his birth, where they do things differently—where the Board of Directors of a railway company doesn't erect three substantial passenger depots in the course of a mile and a half of overgrown village. It consoled him little that none disputed with him his lonely possession of the compartment, that he had caught the Sheerness train, or that he was really losing no time; a sense of deep dejection had settled down upon his consciousness, with a realization of how completely a fool's errand was this of his. He felt foredoomed to failure; he was never to see Dorothy Calendar again; and his brain seemed numb with disappointment.
Rattling and swaying, the train left the town behind.
Presently he put aside his pipe and stared blankly out at a reeling landscape, the pleasant, homely, smiling countryside of Kent. A deeper melancholy tinted his mind: Dorothy Calendar was for ever lost to him.
The trucks drummed it out persistently—he thought, vindictively: "Lost!... Lost!... For ever lost!..."
And he had made—was then making—a damned fool of himself. The trucks had no need to din that into his thick skull by their ceaseless iteration; he knew it, would not deny it....
And it was all his own fault. He'd had his chance, Calendar had offered him it. If only he had closed with the fat adventurer!...
Before his eyes field and coppice, hedge and homestead, stream and flowing highway, all blurred and ran streakily into one another, like a highly impressionistic water-color. He could make neither head nor tail of the flying views, and so far as coherent thought was concerned, he could not put two ideas together. Without understanding distinctly, he presently did a more wise and wholesome thing: which was to topple limply over on the cushions and fall fast asleep.
* * * * *
After a long time he seemed to realize rather hazily that the carriage-door had been opened to admit somebody. Its smart closing bang shocked him awake. He sat up, blinking in confusion, hardly conscious of more, to begin with, than that the train had paused and was again in full flight. Then, his senses clearing, he became aware that his solitary companion, just entered, was a woman. She was seated over across from him, her back to the engine, in an attitude which somehow suggested a highly nonchalant frame of mind. She laughed, and immediately her speaking voice was high and sweet in his hearing.
"Really, you know, Mr. Kirkwood, I simply couldn't contain my impatience another instant."
Kirkwood gasped and tried to re-collect his wits.
"Beg pardon—I've been asleep," he said stupidly.
"Yes. I'm sorry to have disturbed you, but, you know, you must make allowances for a woman's nerves."
Beneath his breath the bewildered man said: "The deuce!" and above it, in a stupefied tone: "Mrs. Hallam!"
She nodded in a not unfriendly fashion, smiling brightly. "Myself, Mr. Kirkwood! Really, our predestined paths are badly tangled, just now; aren't they? Were you surprised to find me in here, with you? Come now, confess you were!"
He remarked the smooth, girlish freshness of her cheeks, the sense and humor of her mouth, the veiled gleam of excitement in her eyes of the changing sea; and saw, as well, that she was dressed for traveling, sensibly but with an air, and had brought a small hand-bag with her.
"Surprised and delighted," he replied, recovering, with mendacity so intentional and obvious that the woman laughed aloud.
"I knew you'd be!... You see, I had the carriage ahead, the one you didn't take. I was so disappointed when you flung up to the door and away again! You didn't see me hanging half out the window, to watch where you went, did you? That's how I discovered that your discourtesy was unintentional, that you hadn't recognized me,—by the fact that you took this compartment, right behind my own."
She paused invitingly, but Kirkwood, grown wary, contented himself with picking up his pipe and carefully knocking out the dottle on the window-ledge.
"I was glad to see you," she affirmed; "but only partly because you were you, Mr. Kirkwood. The other and major part was because sight of you confirmed my own secret intuition. You see, I'm quite old enough and wise enough to question even my own intuitions."
"A woman wise enough for that is an adult prodigy," he ventured cautiously.
"It's experience and age. I insist upon the age; I the mother of a grown-up boy! So I deliberately ran after you, changing when we stopped at Newington. You might've escaped me if I had waited until We got to Queensborough."
Again she paused in open expectancy. Kirkwood, perplexed, put the pipe in his pocket, and assumed a factitious look of resignation, regarding her askance with that whimsical twist of his eyebrows.
"For you are going to Queensborough, aren't you, Mr. Kirkwood?"
"Queensborough?" he echoed blankly; and, in fact, he was at a loss to follow her drift. "No, Mrs. Hallam; I'm not bound there."
Her surprise was apparent; she made no effort to conceal it. "But," she faltered, "if not there—"
"'Give you my word, Mrs. Hallam, I have no intention whatever of going to Queensborough," Kirkwood protested.
"I don't understand." The nervous drumming of a patent-leather covered toe, visible beneath the hem of her dress, alone betrayed a rising tide of impatience. "Then my intuition was at fault!"
"In this instance, if it was at all concerned with my insignificant affairs, yes—most decidedly at fault."
She shook her head, regarding him with grave suspicion. "I hardly know: whether to believe you. I think...."
Kirkwood's countenance displayed an added shade of red. After a moment, "I mean no discourtesy," he began stiffly, "but—"
"But you don't care a farthing whether I believe you or not?"
He caught her laughing eye, and smiled, the flush subsiding.
"Very well, then! Now let us see: Where are you bound?"
Kirkwood looked out of the window.
"I'm convinced it's a rendezvous...?"
Kirkwood smiled patiently at the landscape.
"Is Dorothy Calendar so very, very beautiful, Mr. Kirkwood?"—with a trace of malice.
Ostentatiously Kirkwood read the South Eastern and Chatham's framed card of warning, posted just above Mrs. Hallam's head, to all such incurable lunatics as are possessed of a desire to travel on the running-boards of railway carriages.
"You are going to meet her, aren't you?"
He gracefully concealed a yawn.
The woman's plan of attack took another form. "Last night, when you told me your story, I believed you."
He devoted himself to suppressing the temptingly obvious retort, and succeeded; but though he left it unspoken, the humor of it twitched the corners of his mouth; and Mrs. Hallam was observant. So that her next attempt to draw him out was edged with temper.
"I believed you an American but a gentleman; it appears that, if you ever were the latter, you've fallen so low that you willingly cast your lot with thieves."
Having exhausted his repertoire of rudenesses, Kirkwood took to twiddling his thumbs.
"I want to ask you if you think it fair to me or my son, to leave us in ignorance of the place where you are to meet the thieves who stole our—my son's jewels?"
"Mrs. Hallam," he said soberly, "if I am going to meet Mr. Calendar or Mr. Mulready, I have no assurance of that fact."
There was only the briefest of pauses, during which she analyzed this; then, quickly, "But you hope to?" she snapped.
He felt that the only adequate retort to this would be a shrug of his shoulders; doubted his ability to carry one off; and again took refuge in silence.
The woman abandoned a second plan of siege, with a readiness that did credit to her knowledge of mankind. She thought out the next very carefully, before opening with a masked battery.
"Mr. Kirkwood, can't we be friends—this aside?"
"Nothing could please me more, Mrs. Hallam!"
"I'm sorry if I've annoyed you—"
"And I, too, have been rude."
"Last night, when you cut away so suddenly, you prevented my making you a proposal, a sort of a business proposition...."
"To come over to our side—"
"I thought so. That was why I went."
"Yes; I understood. But this morning, when you've had time to think it over—?"
"I have no choice in the matter, Mrs. Hallam." The green eyes darkened ominously. "You mean—I am to understand, then, that you're against us, that you prefer to side with swindlers and scoundrels, all because of a—"
She discovered him eying her with a smile of such inscrutable and sardonic intelligence, that the words died on her lips, and she crimsoned, treasonably to herself. For he saw it; and the belief he had conceived while attending to her tissue of fabrication, earlier that morning, was strengthened to the point of conviction that, if anything had been stolen by anybody, Mrs. Hallam and her son owned it as little as Calendar.
As for the woman, she felt she had steadily lost, rather than gained, ground; and the flash of anger that had colored her cheeks, lit twin beacons in her eyes, which she resolutely fought down until they faded to mere gleams of resentment and determination. But she forgot to control her lips; and they are the truest indices to a woman's character and temperament; and Kirkwood did not overlook the circumstance that their specious sweetness had vanished, leaving them straight, set and hard, quite the reverse of attractive.
"So," she said slowly, after a silent time, "you are not for Queensborough! The corollary of that admission, Mr. Kirkwood, is that you are for Sheerness."
"I believe," he replied wearily, "that there are no other stations on this line, after Newington."
"It follows, then, that—that I follow." And in answer to his perturbed glance, she added: "Oh, I'll grant that intuition is sometimes a poor guide. But if you meet George Calendar, so shall I. Nothing can prevent that. You can't hinder me."
Considerably amused, he chuckled. "Let us talk of other things, Mrs. Hallam," he suggested pleasantly. "How is your son?"
At this juncture the brakes began to shriek and grind upon the wheels. The train slowed; it stopped; and the voice of a guard could be heard admonishing passengers for Queensborough Pier to alight and take the branch line. In the noise the woman's response was drowned, and Kirkwood was hardly enough concerned for poor Freddie to repeat his question.
When, after a little, the train pulled out of the junction, neither found reason to resume the conversation. During the brief balance of the journey Mrs. Hallam presumably had food for thought; she frowned, pursed her lips, and with one daintily gloved forefinger followed a seam of her tailored skirt; while Kirkwood sat watching and wondering how to rid himself of her, if she proved really as troublesome as she threatened to be.
Also, he wondered continually what it was all about. Why did Mrs. Hallam suspect him of designing to meet Calendar at Queensborough? Had she any tangible ground for believing that Calendar could be found in Queensborough? Presumably she had, since she was avowedly in pursuit of that gentleman, and, Kirkwood inferred, had booked for Queensborough. Was he, then, running away from Calendar and his daughter to chase a will-o'-the-wisp of his credulous fancy, off Sheerness shore?
Disturbing reflection. He scowled over it, then considered the other side of the face. Presuming Mrs. Hallam to have had reasonably dependable assurance that Calendar would stop in Queensborough, would she so readily have abandoned her design to catch him there, on the mere supposition that Kirkwood might be looking for him in Sheerness? That did not seem likely to one who esteemed Mrs. Hallam's acumen as highly as Kirkwood did. He brightened up, forgot that his was a fool's errand, and began again to project strategic plans into a problematic future.
A sudden jolt interrupted this pastime, and the warning screech of the brakes informed that he had no time to scheme, but had best continue on the plan of action that had brought him thus far—that is, trust to his star and accept what should befall without repining.
He rose, opened the door, and holding it so, turned.
"I regret, Mrs. Hallam," he announced, smiling his crooked smile, "that a pressing engagement is about to prohibit my 'squiring you through the ticket-gates. You understand, I'm sure."
His irrepressible humor proved infectious; and Mrs. Hallam's spirit ran as high as his own. She was smiling cheerfully when she, too, rose.
"I also am in some haste," she averred demurely, gathering up her hand-bag and umbrella.
A raised platform shot in beside the carriage, and the speed was so sensibly moderated that the train seemed to be creeping rather than running. Kirkwood flung the door wide open and lowered himself to the running-board. The end of the track was in sight and—a man who has been trained to board San Francisco cable-cars fears to alight from no moving vehicle. He swung off, got his balance, and ran swiftly down the platform.
A cry from a bystander caused him to glance over his shoulder; Mrs. Hallam was then in the act of alighting. As he looked the flurry of skirts subsided and she fell into stride, pursuing.
Sleepy Sheerness must have been scandalized, that day, and its gossips have acquired ground for many, an uncharitable surmise.
Kirkwood, however, was so fortunate as to gain the wicket before the employee there awoke to the situation. Otherwise, such is the temper of British petty officialdom, he might have detained the fugitive. As it was, Kirkwood surrendered his ticket and ran out into the street with his luck still a dominant factor in the race. For, looking back, he saw that Mrs. Hallam had been held up at the gate, another victim of British red-tape; her ticket read for Queensborough, she was attempting to alight one station farther down the line, and while undoubtedly she was anxious to pay the excess fare, Heaven alone knew when she would succeed in allaying the suspicions and resentment of the ticket-taker.
"That's good for ten minutes' start!" Kirkwood crowed. "And it never occurred to me—!"
Before the station he found two hacks in waiting, with little to choose between them; neither was of a type that did not seem to advertise its pre-Victorian fashioning, and to neither was harnessed an animal that deserved anything but the epithet of screw. Kirkwood took the nearest for no other reason than because it was the nearest, and all but startled the driver off his box by offering double-fare for a brisk pace and a simple service at the end of the ride. Succinctly he set forth his wants, jumped into the antiquated four-wheeler, and threw himself down upon musty, dusty cushions to hug himself over the joke and bless whatever English board of railway, directors it was that first ordained that tickets should be taken up at the end instead of the outset of a journey.
It was promptly made manifest that he had further cause for gratulation. The cabby, recovering from his amazement, was plying an indefatigable whip and thereby eliciting a degree of speed from his superannuated nag, that his fare had by no means hoped for, much less anticipated. The cab rocked and racketed through Sheerness' streets at a pace which is believed to be unprecedented and unrivaled; its passenger, dashed from side to side, had all he could do to keep from battering the vehicle to pieces with his head; while it was entirely out of the question to attempt to determine whether or not he was being pursued. He enjoyed it all hugely.
In a period of time surprisingly short, he saw, from fleeting glimpses of the scenery to be obtained through the reeling windows, that they were threading the outskirts of the town; synchronously, whether by design or through actual inability to maintain it, the speed was moderated. And in the course of a few more minutes the cab stopped definitely.
Kirkwood clambered painfully out, shook himself together and the bruises out of his bones, and looked fearfully back.
Aside from a slowly settling cloud of dust, the road ran clear as far as he could see—to the point, in fact, where the town closed in about it.
He had won; at all events in so much as to win meant eluding the persevering Mrs. Hallam. But to what end?
Abstractedly he tendered his lonely sovereign to the driver, and without even looking at it, crammed the heavy weight of change into his pocket; an oversight which not only won him the awe-struck admiration of the cabby, but entailed consequences (it may be) he little apprehended. It was with an absentminded nod that he acquiesced in the man's announcement that he might arrange about the boat for him. Accordingly the cabby disappeared; and Kirkwood continued to stare about him, eagerly, hopefully.
He stood on the brink of the Thames estuary, there a possible five miles from shore to shore; from his feet, almost, a broad shingle beach sloped gently to the water.
On one hand a dilapidated picket-fence enclosed the door-yard of a fisherman's cottage, or, better, hovel,—if it need be accurately described—at the door of which the cabby was knocking.
The morning was now well-advanced. The sun rode high, a sphere of tarnished flame in a void of silver-gray, its thin cold radiance striking pallid sparks from the leaping crests of wind-whipped waves. In the east a wall of vapor, dull and lusterless, had taken body since the dawn, masking the skies and shutting down upon the sea like some vast curtain; and out of the heart of this a bitter and vicious wind played like a sword.
To the north, Shoeburyness loomed vaguely, like a low-drifted bank of cloud. Off to the right the Nore Lightship danced, a tiny fleck of warm crimson in a wilderness of slatey-blue waters, plumed with a myriad of vanishing white-caps.
Up the shelving shore, small, puny wavelets dashed in impotent fury, and the shingle sang unceasingly its dreary, syncopated monotone. High and dry, a few dingy boats lay canted wearily upon their broad, swelling sides,—a couple of dories, apparently in daily use; a small sloop yacht, dismantled and plainly beyond repair; and an oyster-smack also out of commission. About them the beach was strewn with a litter of miscellany,—nets, oars, cork buoys, bits of wreckage and driftwood, a few fish too long forgotten and (one assumed) responsible in part for the foreign wealth of the atmosphere.
Some little distance offshore a fishing-boat, catrigged and not more than twenty-feet over all, swung bobbing at her mooring, keen nose searching into the wind; at sight of which Kirkwood gave thanks, for his adventitious guide had served him well, if that boat were to be hired by any manner of persuasion.
But it was to the farther reaches of the estuary that he gave more prolonged and most anxious heed, scanning narrowly what shipping was there to be seen. Far beyond the lightship a liner was riding the waves with serene contempt, making for the river's mouth and Tilbury Dock. Nearer in, a cargo boat was standing out upon the long trail, the white of riven waters showing clearly against her unclean freeboard. Out to east a little covey of fishing-smacks, red sails well reefed, were scudding before the wind like strange affrighted water-fowl, and bearing down past a heavy-laden river barge. The latter, with tarpaulin battened snugly down over the cockpit and the seas dashing over her wash-board until she seemed under water half the time, was forging stodgily Londonwards, her bargee at the tiller smoking a placid pipe.
But a single sailing vessel of any notable tonnage was in sight; and when he saw her Kirkwood's heart became buoyant with hope, and he began to tremble with nervous eagerness. For he believed her to be the Alethea.
There's no mistaking a ship brigantine-rigged for any other style of craft that sails the seas.
From her position when first he saw her, Kirkwood could have fancied she was tacking out of the mouth of the Medway; but he judged that, leaving the Thames' mouth, she had tacked to starboard until well-nigh within hail of Sheerness. Now, having presumably, gone about, she was standing out toward the Nore, boring doggedly into the wind. He would have given a deal for glasses wherewith to read the name upon her bows, but was sensible of no hampering doubts; nor, had he harbored any, would they have deterred him. He had set his heart upon the winning of his venture, had come too far, risked far too much, to suffer anything now to stay his hand and stand between him and Dorothy Calendar. Whatever the further risks and hazards, though he should take his life in his hands to win to her side, he would struggle on. He recked nothing of personal danger; a less selfish passion ran molten in his veins, moving him to madness.
Fascinated, he fixed his gaze upon the reeling brigantine, and for a space it was as if by longing he had projected his spirit to her slanting deck, and were there, pleading his case with the mistress of his heart....
Voices approaching brought him back to shore. He turned, resuming his mask of sanity, the better to confer with the owner of the cottage and boats—a heavy, keen-eyed fellow, ungracious and truculent of habit, and chary of his words; as he promptly demonstrated.
"I'll hire your boat," Kirkwood told him, "to put me aboard that brigantine, off to leeward. We ought to start at once."
The fisherman shifted his quid of tobacco from cheek to cheek, grunted inarticulately, and swung deliberately on his heel, displaying a bull neck above a pair of heavy shoulders.
"Dirty weather," he croaked, facing back from his survey of the eastern skies before the American found out whether or not he should resent his insolence.
"How much?" Kirkwood demanded curtly, annoyed.
The man hesitated, scowling blackly at the heeling vessel, momentarily increasing her distance from shore. Then with a crafty smile, "Two pound'," he declared.
The American nodded. "Very well," he agreed simply. "Get out your boat."
The fisherman turned away to shamble noisily over the shingle, huge booted heels crunching, toward one of the dories. To this he set his shoulder, shoving it steadily down the beach until only the stern was dry.
Kirkwood looked back, for the last time, up the road to Sheerness. Nothing moved upon it. He was rid of Mrs. Hallam, if face to face with a sterner problem. He had a few pence over ten shillings in his pocket, and had promised to pay the man four times as much. He would have agreed to ten times the sum demanded; for the boat he must and would have. But he had neglected to conclude his bargain, to come to an understanding as to the method of payment; and he felt more than a little dubious as to the reception the fisherman would give his proposition, sound as he, Kirkwood, knew it to be.
In the background the cabby loitered, gnawed by insatiable curiosity.
The fisherman turned, calling over his shoulder: "If ye'd catch yon vessel, come!"
With one final twinge of doubt—the task of placating this surly dog was anything but inviting—the American strode to the boat and climbed in, taking the stern seat. The fisherman shoved off, wading out thigh-deep in the spiteful waves, then threw himself in over the gunwales and shipped the oars. Bows swinging offshore, rocking and dancing, the dory began to forge slowly toward the anchored boat. In their faces the wind beat gustily, and small, slapping waves, breaking against the sides, showered them with fine spray....
In time the dory lay alongside the cat-boat, the fisherman with a gnarled hand grasping the latter's gunwale to hold the two together. With some difficulty Kirkwood transhipped himself, landing asprawl in the cockpit, amid a tangle of cordage slippery with scales. The skipper followed, with clumsy expertness bringing the dory's painter with him and hitching it to a ring-bolt abaft the rudder-head. Then, pausing an instant to stare into the East with somber eyes, he shipped the tiller and bent to the halyards. As the sail rattled up, flapping wildly, Kirkwood marked with relief—for it meant so much time saved—that it was already close reefed.
But when at least the boom was thrashing overhead and the halyards had been made fast to their cleats, the fisherman again stood erect, peering distrustfully at the distant wall of cloud.
Then, in two breaths: "Can't do it," he decided; "not at the price."
"Why?" Kirkwood stared despairingly after the brigantine, that was already drawn far ahead.
"Danger," growled the fellow, "—wind."
At a loss completely, Kirkwood found no words. He dropped his head, considering.
"Not at the price," the sullen voice iterated; and he looked up to find the cunning gaze upon him.
"How much, then?"
"Five poun' I'll have—no less, for riskin' my life this day."
"Impossible. I haven't got it."
In silence the man unshipped the tiller and moved toward the cleats.
"Hold on a minute."
Kirkwood unbuttoned his coat and, freeing the chain from his waistcoat buttonholes, removed his watch.... As well abandon them altogether; he had designed to leave them as security for the two pounds, and had delayed stating the terms only for fear lest they be refused. Now, too late as ever, he recognized his error. But surely, he thought, it should be apparent even to that low intelligence that the timepiece alone was worth more than the boat itself.
"Will you take these?" he offered. "Take and keep them—only set me aboard that ship!"
Deliberately the fisherman weighed the watch and chain in his broad, hard palm, eyes narrowing to mere slits in his bronzed mask.
"How much?" he asked slowly.
"Eighty pounds, together; the chain alone cost me twenty."
The shifty, covetous eyes ranged from the treasure in his hand to the threatening east. A puff of wind caught the sail and sent the boom athwartships, like a mighty flail. Both men ducked instinctively, to escape a braining.
"How do I know?" objected the skipper.
"I'm telling you. If you've got eyes, you can see," retorted Kirkwood savagely, seeing that he had erred in telling the truth; the amount he had named was too great to be grasped at once by this crude, cupidous brain.
"How do I know?" the man repeated. Nevertheless he dropped watch and chain into his pocket, then with a meaning grimace extended again his horny, greedy palm.
"Hand over th' two pound' and we'll go."
"I'll see you damned first!"
A flush of rage blinded the young man. The knowledge that the Alethea was minute by minute slipping beyond his reach seemed to madden him. White-lipped and ominously quiet he rose from his seat on the combing, as, without answer, the fisherman, crawling out on the overhand, began to haul in the dory.
"Ashore ye go," he pronounced his ultimatum, motioning Kirkwood to enter the boat.
The American turned, looking for the Alethea, or for the vessel that he believed bore that name. She was nearing the light-ship when he found her, and as he looked a squall blurred the air between them, blotting the brigantine out with a smudge of rain. The effect was as if she had vanished, as if she were for ever snatched from his grasp; and with Dorothy aboard her—Heaven alone knew in what need of him!
Mute and blind with despair and wrath, he turned upon the man and caught him by the collar, forcing him out over the lip of the overhang. They were unevenly matched, Kirkwood far the slighter, but strength came to him in the crisis, physical strength and address such as he had not dreamed was at his command. And the surprise of his onslaught proved an ally of unguessed potency. Before he himself knew it he was standing on the overhang and had shifted his hold to seize the fellow about the waist; then, lifting him clear of the deck, and aided by a lurch of the cat-boat, he cast him bodily into the dory. The man, falling, struck his head against one of the thwarts, a glancing blow that stunned him temporarily. Kirkwood himself dropped as if shot, a trailing reef-point slapping his cheek until it stung as the boom thrashed overhead. It was as close a call as he had known; the knowledge sickened him a little.
Without rising he worked the painter loose and cast the dory adrift; then crawled back into the cockpit. No pang of compassion disturbed him as he abandoned the fisherman to the mercy of the sea; though the fellow lay still, uncouthly distorted, in the bottom of the dory, he was in no danger; the wind and waves together would carry the boat ashore.... For that matter, the man was even then recovering, struggling to sit up.
Crouching to avoid the boom, Kirkwood went forward to the bows, and, grasping the mooring cable, drew it in, slipping back into the cockpit to get a stronger purchase with his feet. It was a struggle; the boat pulled sluggishly against the wind, the cable inching in jealously. And behind him he could hear a voice bellowing inarticulate menaces, and knew that in another moment the fisherman would be at his oars.
Frantically he tugged and tore at the slimy rope, hauling with a will and a prayer. It gave more readily, towards the end, but he seemed to have fought with it for ages when at last the anchor tripped and he got it in.
Immediately he leaped back to the stern, fitted in the tiller, and seizing the mainsheet, drew the boom in till the wind should catch in the canvas. In the dory the skipper, bending at his oars, was not two yards astern.
He was hard aboard when, the sail filling with a bang, Kirkwood pulled the tiller up; and the cat-boat slid away, a dozen feet separating them in a breath.
A yell of rage boomed down the wind, but he paid no heed. Careless alike of the dangers he had passed and those that yawned before him, he trimmed the sheet and stood away on the port tack, heading directly for the Nore Lightship.
OFF THE NORE
Kirkwood's anger cooled apace; at worst it had been a flare of passion—incandescent. It was seldom more. His brain clearing, the temperature of his judgment quickly regained its mean, and he saw his chances without distortion, weighed them without exaggeration.
Leaning against the combing, feet braced upon the slippery and treacherous deck, he clung to tiller and mainsheet and peered ahead with anxious eyes, a pucker of daring graven deep between his brows.
A mile to westward, three or more ahead, he could see the brigantine standing close in under the Essex shore. At times she was invisible; again he could catch merely the glint of her canvas, white against the dark loom of the littoral, toned by a mist of flying spindrift. He strained his eyes, watching for the chance which would take place in the rake of her masts and sails, when she should come about.
For the longer that manoeuver was deferred, the better was his chance of attaining his object. It was a forlorn hope. But in time the brigantine, to escape Maplin Sands, would be forced to tack and stand out past the lightship, the wind off her port bows. Then their courses would intersect. It remained to be demonstrated whether the cat-boat was speedy enough to arrive at this point of contact in advance of, or simultaneously with, the larger vessel. Every minute that the putative Alethea put off coming about brought the cat-boat nearer that goal, but Kirkwood could do no more than hope and try to trust in the fisherman's implied admission that it could be done. It was all in the boat and the way she handled.
He watched her anxiously, quick to approve her merits as she displayed them. He had sailed small craft before—frail center-board cat-boats, handy and swift, built to serve in summer winds and protected waters: never such an one as this. Yet he liked her.
Deep bosomed she was, with no center-board, dependent on her draught and heavy keel to hold her on the wind; stanch and seaworthy, sheathed with stout plank and ribbed with seasoned timber, designed to keep afloat in the wickedest weather brewed by the foul-tempered German Ocean. Withal her lines were fine and clean; for all her beam she was calculated to nose narrowly into the wind and make a pretty pace as well. A good boat: he had the grace to give the credit to his luck.
Her disposition was more fully disclosed as they drew away from the beach. Inshore with shoaling water, the waves had been choppy and spiteful but lacking force of weight. Farther out, as the bottom fell away, the rollers became more uniform and powerful; heavy sweeping seas met the cat-boat, from their hollows looming mountainous to the man in the tiny cockpit; who was nevertheless aware that to a steamer they would be negligible.
His boat breasted them gallantly, toiling sturdily up the steep acclivities, poising breathlessly on foam-crested summits for dizzy instants, then plunging headlong down the deep green swales; and left a boiling wake behind her,—urging ever onward, hugging the wind in her wisp of blood-red sail, and boring into it, pulling at the tiller with the mettle of a race-horse slugging at the bit.
Offshore, too, the wind stormed with added strength, or, possibly, had freshened. For minutes on end the leeward gunwales would run green, and now and again the screaming, pelting squalls that scoured the estuary would heel her over until the water cascaded in over the lee combing, and the rudder, lifted clear, would hang idle until, smitten by some racing billow, the tiller would be all but torn from Kirkwood's hands. Again and again this happened; and those were times of trembling. But always the cat-boat righted, shaking the clinging waters from her and swinging her stem into the wind again; and there would follow an abbreviated breathing spell, during which Kirkwood was at liberty to dash the salt spray from his eyes and search the wind-harried waste for the brigantine. Sometimes he found her, sometimes not.
Long after he had expected her to, she went about and they began to close in upon each other. He could see that even with shortened canvas she was staggering drunkenly under the fierce impacts of the wind. For himself, it was nip-and-tuck, now, and no man in his normal sense would have risked a sixpence on the boat's chance to live until she crossed the brigantine's bows.
Time out of reckoning he was forced to kneel in the swimming cockpit, steering with one hand, using the bailing-dish with the other, and keeping his eyes religiously turned to the bellying patch of sail. It was heartbreaking toil; he began reluctantly to concede that it could not last much longer. And if he missed the brigantine he would be lost; mortal strength was not enough to stand the unending strain upon every bone, muscle and sinew, required to keep the boat upon her course; though for a time it might cope with and solve the problems presented by each new, malignant billow and each furious, howling squall, the end inevitably must be failure. To struggle on would be but to postpone the certain end ... save and except the possibility of his gaining the brigantine within the period of time strictly and briefly limited by his powers of endurance.
Long since he had become numb with cold from incessant drenchings of icy spray, that piled in over the windward counter, keeping the bottom ankle-deep regardless of his laborious but intermittent efforts with the bailing dish. And the two, brigantine and cockle-shell, were drawing together with appalling deliberation.
A dozen times he was on the point of surrender, as often plucked up hope; as the minutes wore on and he kept above water, he began to believe that if he could stick it out his judgment and seamanship would be justified ... though human ingenuity backed by generosity could by no means contrive adequate excuse for his foolhardiness.
But that was aside, something irreparable. Wan and grim, he fought it out.
But that his voice stuck in his parched throat, he could have shouted in his elation, when eventually he gained the point of intersection an eighth of a mile ahead of the brigantine and got sight of her windward freeboard as, most slowly, the cat-boat forged across her course.
For all that, the moment of his actual triumph was not yet; he had still to carry off successfully a scheme that for sheer audacity of conception and contempt for danger, transcended all that had gone before.
Holding the cat-boat on for a time, he brought her about handsomely a little way beyond the brigantine's course, and hung in the eye of the wind, the leach flapping and tightening with reports like rifle-shots, and the water sloshing about his calves—bailing-dish now altogether out of mind—while he watched the oncoming vessel, his eyes glistening with anticipation.
She was footing it smartly, the brigantine—lying down to it and snoring into the wind. Beneath her stem waves broke in snow-white showers, whiter than the canvas of her bulging jib—broke and, gnashing their teeth in impotent fury, swirled and eddied down her sleek dark flanks. Bobbing, courtesying, she plunged onward, shortening the interval with mighty, leaping bounds. On her bows, with each instant, the golden letters of her name grew larger and more legible until—Alethea!—he could read it plain beyond dispute.
Joy welled in his heart. He forgot all that he had undergone in the prospect of what he proposed still to do in the name of the only woman the world held for him. Unquestioning he had come thus far in her service; unquestioning, by her side, he was prepared to go still farther, though all humanity should single her out with accusing fingers....
They were watching him, aboard the brigantine; he could see a line of heads above her windward rail. Perhaps she was of their number. He waved an audacious hand. Some one replied, a great shout shattering itself unintelligibly against the gale. He neither understood nor attempted to reply; his every faculty was concentrated on the supreme moment now at hand.
Calculating the instant to a nicety, he paid off the sheet and pulled up the tiller. The cat-boat pivoted on her heel; with a crack her sail flapped full and rigid; then, with the untempered might of the wind behind her, she shot like an arrow under the brigantine's bows, so close that the bowsprit of the latter first threatened to impale the sail, next, the bows plunging, crashed down a bare two feet behind the cat-boat's stern.
Working in a frenzy of haste, Kirkwood jammed the tiller hard alee, bringing the cat about, and, trimming the mainsheet as best he might, found himself racing under the brigantine's leeward quarter,—water pouring in generously over the cat's.
Luffing, he edged nearer, handling his craft as though intending to ram the larger vessel, foot by foot shortening the little interval. When it was four feet, he would risk the jump; he crawled out on the overhang, crouching on his toes, one hand light upon the tiller, the other touching the deck, ready ... ready....
Abruptly the Alethea shut off the wind; the sail flattened and the cat dropped back. In a second the distance had doubled. In anguish Kirkwood uttered an exceeding bitter cry. Already he was falling far off her counter....
A shout reached him. He was dimly conscious of a dark object hurtling through the air. Into the cockpit, splashing, something dropped—a coil of rope. He fell forward upon it, into water eighteen inches deep; and for the first time realized that, but for that line, he had gone to his drowning in another minute. The cat was sinking.
As he scrambled to his feet, clutching the life-line, a heavy wave washed over the water-logged craft and left it all but submerged; and a smart tug on the rope added point to the advice which, reaching his ears in a bellow like a bull's, penetrated the panic of his wits.
"Jump! Jump, you fool!"
In an instant of coherence he saw that the brigantine was luffing; none the less much of the line had already been paid out, and there was no reckoning when the end would be reached. Without time to make it fast, he hitched it twice round his waist and chest, once round an arm, and, grasping it above his head to ease its constriction when the tug should come, leaped on the combing and overboard. A green roaring avalanche swept down upon him and the luckless cat-boat, overwhelming both simultaneously.
The agony that was his during the next few minutes can by no means be exaggerated. With such crises the human mind is not fitted adequately to cope; it retains no record of the supreme moment beyond a vague and incoherent impression of poignant, soul-racking suffering. Kirkwood underwent a prolonged interval of semi-sentience, his mind dominated and oppressed by a deathly fear of drowning and a deadening sense of suffocation, with attendant tortures as of being broken on the wheel—limb rending from limb; of compression of his ribs that threatened momentarily to crush in his chest; of a world a-welter with dim swirling green half-lights alternating with flashes of blinding white; of thunderings in his ears like salvoes from a thousand cannon....
And his senses were blotted out in blackness....
Then he was breathing once more, the keen clean air stabbing his lungs, the while he swam unsupported in an ethereal void of brilliance. His mouth was full of something that burned, a liquid hot, acrid, and stinging. He gulped, swallowed, slobbered, choked, coughed, attempted to sit up, was aware that he was the focal center of a ring of glaring, burning eyes, like eyes of ravening beasts; and fainted.
His next conscious impression was of standing up, supported by friendly arms on either side, while somebody was asking him if he could walk a step or two.
He lifted his head and let it fall in token of assent, mumbling a yes; and looked round him with eyes wherein the light of intelligence burned more clear with every second. By degrees he catalogued and comprehended his weirdly altered circumstances and surroundings.
He was partly seated, partly held up, on the edge of the cabin sky-light, an object of interest to some half-dozen men, seafaring fellows all, by their habit, clustered round between him and the windward rail. Of their number one stood directly before him, dwarfing his companions as much by his air of command as by his uncommon height: tall, thin-faced and sallow, with hollow weather-worn cheeks, a mouth like a crooked gash from ear to ear, and eyes like dying coals, with which he looked the rescued up and down in one grim, semi-humorous, semi-speculative glance. In hands both huge and red he fondled tenderly a squat brandy flask whose contents had apparently been employed as a first aid to the drowning.
As Kirkwood's gaze encountered his, the man smiled sourly, jerking his head to one side with a singularly derisive air.
"Hi, matey!" he blustered. "'Ow goes it now? Feelin' 'appier, eigh?"
"Some, thank you ... more like a drowned rat." Kirkwood eyed him sheepishly. "I suppose you're the man who threw me that line? I'll have to wait till my head clears up before I can thank you properly."
"Don't mention it." He of the lantern jaws stowed the bottle away with jealous care in one of his immense coat pockets, and seized Kirkwood's hand in a grasp that made the young man wince. "You're syfe enough now. My nyme's Stryker, Capt'n Wilyum Stryker.... Wot's the row? Lookin' for a friend?" he demanded suddenly, as Kirkwood's attention wandered.
For the memory of the errand that had brought him into the hands of Captain William Stryker had come to the young man very suddenly; and his eager eyes were swiftly roving not along the decks but the wide world besides, for sight or sign of his heart's desire.
After luffing to pick him up, the brigantine had been again pulled off on the port tack. The fury of the gale seemed rather to have waxed than waned, and the Alethea was bending low under the relentless fury of its blasts, driving hard, with leeward channels awash. Under her port counter, a mile away, the crimson light-ship wallowed in a riot of breaking combers. Sheerness lay abeam, five miles or more. Ahead the northeast headland of the Isle of Sheppey was bulking large and near. The cat-boat had vanished....
More important still, no one aboard the brigantine resembled in the remotest degree either of the Calendars, father or daughter, or even Mulready, the black-avised.
"I sye, 're you lookin' for some one you know?"
"Yes—your passengers. I presume they're below—?"
A hush fell upon the group, during which Kirkwood sought Stryker's eye in pitiful pleading; and Stryker looked round him blankly.
"Where's Miss Calendar?" the young man demanded sharply. "I must see her at once!"
The keen and deep-set eyes of the skipper clouded as they returned to Kirkwood's perturbed countenance. "Wot're you talking about?" he demanded brusquely.
"I must see Miss Calendar, or Calendar himself, or Mulready." Kirkwood paused, and, getting no reply, grew restive under Stryker's inscrutable regard.
"That's why I came aboard," he amended, blind to the absurdity of the statement; "to see—er—Calendar."
"Well ... I'm damned!"
Stryker managed to infuse into his tone a deal of suspicious contempt.
"Why?" insisted Kirkwood, nettled but still uncomprehending.
"D'you mean to tell me you came off from—wherever in 'ell you did come from—intendin' to board this wessel and find a party nymed Calendar?"
"Certainly I did. Why—?"
"Well!" cried Mr. Stryker, rubbing his hands together with an air oppressively obsequious, "I'm sorry to hin-form you you've come to the wrong shop, sir; we don't stock no Calendars. We're in the 'ardware line, we are. You might try next door, or I dessay you'll find what you want at the stytioner's, round the corner."
A giggle from his audience stimulated him. "If," he continued acidly, "I'd a-guessed you was such a damn' fool, blimmy if I wouldn't've let you drownd!"
Staggered, Kirkwood bore his sarcastic truculence without resentment.
"Calendar," he stammered, trying to explain, "Calendar said—"
"I carn't 'elp wot Calendar said. Mebbe 'e did myke an engygement with you, an' you've gone and went an' forgot the dyte. Mebbe it's larst year's calendar you're thinkin' of. You Johnny" (to a lout of a boy in the group of seamen), "you run an' fetch this gentleman Whitaker's for Nineteen-six. Look sharp, now!"
"But—!" With an effort Kirkwood mustered up a show of dignity. "Am I to understand," he said, as calmly as he could, "that you deny knowing George B. Calendar and his daughter Dorothy and—"
"I don't 'ave to. Listen to me, young man." For the time the fellow discarded his clumsy facetiousness. "I'm Wilyum Stryker, Capt'n Stryker, marster and 'arf-owner of this wessel, and wot I says 'ere is law. We don't carry no passengers. D'ye understand me?"—aggressively. "There ain't no pusson nymed Calendar aboard the Allytheer, an' never was, an' never will be!"
"What name did you say?" Kirkwood inquired.
"This ship? The Allytheer; registered from Liverpool; bound from London to Hantwerp, in cargo. Anythink else?"
Kirkwood shook his head, turning to scan the seascape with a gloomy gaze. As he did so, and remarked how close upon the Sheppey headland the brigantine had drawn, the order was given to go about. For the moment he was left alone, wretchedly wet, shivering, wan and shrunken visibly with the knowledge that he had dared greatly for nothing. But for the necessity of keeping up before Stryker and his crew, the young man felt that he could gladly have broken down and wept for sheer vexation and disappointment.
Smartly the brigantine luffed and wore about, heeling deep as she spun away on the starboard tack.
Kirkwood staggered round the skylight to the windward rail. From this position, looking forward, he could see that they were heading for the open sea, Foulness low over the port quarter, naught before them but a brawling waste of leaden-green and dirty white. Far out one of the sidewheel boats of the Queensborough-Antwerp line was heading directly into the wind and making heavy weather of it.
Some little while later, Stryker again approached him, perhaps swayed by an unaccustomed impulse of compassion; which, however, he artfully concealed. Blandly ironic, returning to his impersonation of the shopkeeper, "Nothink else we can show you, sir?" he inquired.
"I presume you couldn't put me ashore?" Kirkwood replied ingenuously.
In supreme disgust the captain showed him his back. "'Ere, you!" he called to one of the crew. "Tyke this awye—tyke 'im below and put 'im to bed; give 'im a drink and dry 'is clo's. Mebbe 'e'll be better when 'e wykes up. 'E don't talk sense now, that's sure. If you arsk me, I sye 'e's balmy and no 'ope for 'im."
Contradictory to the hopeful prognosis of Captain Stryker, his unaccredited passenger was not "better" when, after a period of oblivious rest indefinite in duration, he awoke. His subsequent assumption of listless resignation, of pacific acquiescence in the dictates of his destiny, was purely deceptive—thin ice of despair over profound depths of exasperated rebellion.
Blank darkness enveloped him when first he opened eyes to wonder. Then gradually as he stared, piecing together unassorted memories and striving to quicken drowsy wits, he became aware of a glimmer that waxed and waned, a bar of pale bluish light striking across the gloom above his couch; and by dint of puzzling divined that this had access by a port. Turning his head upon a stiff and unyielding pillow, he could discern a streak of saffron light lining the sill of a doorway, near by his side. The one phenomenon taken with the other confirmed a theretofore somewhat hazy impression that his dreams were dignified by a foundation of fact; that, in brief, he was occupying a cabin-bunk aboard the good ship Alethea.