A Girl and Two Strangers

KENNETH PERKINS January 1 1937

A Girl and Two Strangers

KENNETH PERKINS January 1 1937

A Girl and Two Strangers

They met for the first time at sea; and it took a shipwreck to reveal their strange and dramatic relationship to one another

KENNETH PERKINS

THAT APPARENTLY infinitesimal circumstance—the break in the cadence of the liner’s movement—had a peculiar effect on Judy Meredith and her two companions. Beginning with that moment, these three revealed themselves to one another as if it were a costume ball and the time had come to unmask.

Something had happened which was like a missed beat in the sad sweet thrum of the palm garden’s orchestra, the pulsing of the turbines and the vast perpetual song of the bow wave. Those who were dancing felt as if the deck had dipped from beneath their feet, leaving them poised for an instant without anything to stand on. The ship might have shouldered up against a large wave and then felt the sagging moment. But there were no large waves. The sea was like blue glass under the moonlight.

Three people sitting at one of the tables turned to one another, incredulous and bewildered, as if a sharp light had been turned suddenly on their faces. Judy’s face seemed very white because of her coral rouge. Her skin was a fragile magic sort of substance that would seem cool and yet radiant with life. Light from any source would pick her out, shining all over her hair which she wore in short curls, and it would flicker on her smile which was like a boyish grin.

Her two companions were young men. She had picked them up, as one says, on the second day out. She could have picked up anyone she fancied. There were others on board who knew her. Some might have come on this cruise just to be near her. But they were disappointed. They could buy drinks for her father all the day long, but that did not surmount the impregnable wall she had built about herself. She kept all admirers off by the simple ruse of spending her time with two young strangers -one who was a good dancer, the other an athlete.

Although she was with them fourteen hours a day, she did not tell these two much about herself. She did not invite confidences nor give them. All they really knew about her after seven days was that she was the daughter of a retired doctor, that she loved horses, hated bridge; that her father owned a stud farm, and that he took her to various race tracks where she indulged an inherited weakness for four-horse parlays. In other words she was a gambler like her forebears, and she was gambling when she picked up these two dark horses for her steady escorts.

Inseparable, aloof from the ship, they were in certain vital respects, aloof from one another. The two men had met at the bar before passing Ambrose Light, but they had never seen each other before, and neither seemed to care much about the other’s business. For that matter, neither seemed disposed to talk much about his own business. But when that bump was felt and the orchestra leader was biting his lip trying to rap his disorganized players back into the measure, the girl and her two companions were caught as if off guard. They began to lay themselves open.

THE EFFECT on Randy Burke was the most astonishing. The girl was the only one who noticed it. Burke, a youth with a yellow shock of hair and hard blue eyes, gave the other man a long tense stare for no apparent reason in the world, glaring as if he hated him with all the hate in his soul. But then he caught himself, suddenly surprised in a covert act.

“What happened to us?” he asked.

“Something in the turbines, a jolt,” Dick Talmadge said. Dick was the athletic one. He was thirty-two but seemed older except in the swimming

HTHE PIECE ended, leaving the -*■ air buzzing with pleasurable excitement. More couples left. But others were coming back, unimpressed. The liner had merely bumped some flotsam and shouldered it out of the way. The turbines, to the disappointment of the debutantes, had started again. There was nothing thrilling after all.

Judy knew Dick was fooling. But somehow it did not seem a time for fooling. Anything that was said under these conditions had a sort of incisive meaning, whether implied or open.

They returned to their seats. Randy Burke had ordered drinks, but then he had stepped out on deck. They saw him out there with a group of men passengers, talking excitedly.

“Whom did you kill—and how did you do it?” Judy asked.

“With a hangman’s rope. And in the course of my duties. He got scared in a hold-up and pulled the trigger. ”

“Then why is it preying on your mind?”

pool on the afterdeck, when he looked as if he had stepped out of a Dorian frieze. “Come on, Judy, let’s dance.” There was a tenseness in the air—the ordinary effect on the psychology of a ship’s passengers when the turbines stop their endless beating. And then there was a lift of excitement. Languorous and bored voices t(X)k on life and more sound as if after the first drink at a cocktail party. The music resumed and all but three or four couples kept dancing, but the more sensitive imaginations felt as if the world had stopjxxl going around.

Judy danced, her slim young Ixxly a part of Dick’s, the melody ruling the movement of their muscles. They were a visual projection of the song. A soft fall of confetti drifted on her bare shoulders, tossed by a table of guests who felt the untoward exhilaration. People had stared at Judy every night, but now as more couples dropped out to find out why those turbines had stopped, she felt that she and her partner were drifting for the first time in their own sky.

“1 thought you and Randy were fond of each other,” she said.

“We are.”

“At least lie’s always looking at you almost abjectly, at every!liing you do, the way you play squash, and the way you swim. He watches you like a young brother. What’s happened?”

"To our ship?”

“To you and Randy. I believe you’ve got a past, Dick.”

Dick Talmadge gave such a start that they got out of step. She stared at him hard. She realized how an aura of mystery may suddenly glimmer rip around a very ordinary young man. All she knew about Dick was that he was from a Western college and was now an assistant prosecutor in a small city. When she asked him about his past, she felt him hold her a little tighter.

Perhaps this was because a steward had just said something to the orchestra leader and the music flared up purposefully rollicking. It occurred to Dick that they were deliberately trying to cover up something. Judy must have made the same guess for she said:

“How far could you swim with me dragging on you?”

“Forever.”

“What is the thing in your past that’s worrying you so much?”

Considering the pregnancy of the moment, this did not seem a haj> hazard question.

“When did you find that out?”

“When we felt that bump,” she said. “It seemed to throw us all off guard.”

“For all you know, you may be dancing with a fugitive from justice —is that what you’re imagining?”

“Or a gangster perhaps,” she laughed. “I may as well let my imagination sail high. Did you ever kill a man?”

“Yes.”

Dick took half his drink in quick swallows. “Because it was all up to me. I could have soft-pedalled some of the evidence if I’d wanted to be crooked. There was only one man to be hushed up—I mean myself. I prosecuted. The boy’s mother came to me and begged me to think of her. The rest of the family, innocent and good people, would suffer. Of course I wouldn’t listen. I leaned the other way. I used every scrap of evidence in the boy’s past—even though it hurt the family name—so I could be sure of a conviction. It was my first big job. I showed mercy to no one, not even the innocent. It’s on my mind.”

“Why don’t you try and forget it, Dick?”

This pleased him tremendously. It meant she understood him, that she was on his side. But he said:

“I can’t forget it. It would have been right—everything I did —if the man had been a gangster. But he wasn’t. He was the black sheep of a fine family. He came East, and drink and a woman finished him.”

“Something’s wrong all right,” a lively young girl said, coming to the next table with her escort. “All the officers have gone up to the bridge. No one knows what’s going to happen. Isn’t it exciting!”

Judy and Dick hurried out on deck, and, other couples following, the orchestra played to an empty palm garden.

“The starboard boiler’s closed down, I heard that much,” someone was saying.

“The turbines are going anyway,” another answered.

“It’s not the turbines. It’s the pumps.”

A steward interrupted. “The captain’s just keeping her to her proper marks. That’s all. Cautious, the Old Man is.”

“I want to go down and find dad,” Judy said.

“I’ll go with you. Hello, Randy, we thought you’d forsaken us.”

Randy Burke was listening intently to a group of passengers. One of them was saying, “I heard there’s water coming in from the stokehole to the engine room. This’ll slow us up plenty.”

Judy said, “Come on, Randy. We’ll all have a drink on dad.”

Randy Burke turned to her with obvious irritation. “Count me out! Don’t you see what’s happening? That was a submerged wreck we bumped into.”

Judy looked as if she’d been scolded. “If there’s any danger I’ve got to find dad. Aren’t we going to stick together—you and Dick and I?”

“No, I’m not going anywhere. I want to find out. . . ” He turned off toward the bridge.

“Well, I’ve discovered another thing,” Judy said. “Randy Burke isn’t very much in love with me.”

'“THEY GOT into the lift, which was crowded. Dancers and bridge players were going below to the older people who had retired earlier. There were still men at poker, however, and a big jam at the bar. Excitement and conviviality increased.

Judy’s father was not in their suite, but a steward said Judy was to wait. Her father had tried to phone her at the palm garden, but everyone on board was trying to use the phones. “If you go trying to hunt him now you’ll miss him,” the steward said. “Better do what he says and wait.”

All cabin doors were open, and there were flashes of bare arms and lingerie. Heads poked out. Judy and Dick went into the sitting room of her suite, leaving the door open. She mixed a drink with her father’s bourbon.

Dick paced as he drank. She asked him why he was so jumpy. “There’s no real danger, is there? If you’re afraid I’ll be scared to death.”

He said quickly. “No. Not that. It’s something else that’s got my nerves. It’s eating into me.”

“Remorse for doing your job so relentlessly?”

“Well, yes,” he said uncertainly. “But there’s something else too. I’ve got to tell you. I came on this trip to rest up. I worked pretty hard, you can guess. Besides, there was an aftermath.

There were threats.”

“Threats?”

“As a matter of fact, I wasn’t able to get away from them by coming on this cruise. In the old days I suppose men could get out of sight of land and forget their troubles. We can’t now. I got a marconigram at ten o’clock tonight.” His hand went to the pocket of his dinner jacket, but he checked himself. “Well, this is no time to be talking about myself.”

“It’s just the time to tell me everything about yourself. Let me read it.”

“As a matter of fact, it’s nothing to be frightened about. It’s just rather grim. I didn’t know that I could be hated so for doing what I thought was right. Hated so murderously. But the marconigram is from our office. They say Jed Lee—that’s the brother of the condemned man—they say he’s on this ship.”

Judy’s lips sprang into sharp red relief against her skin.

“You must have found out if it’s true.”

“The purser said there was no Jed Lee on the passenger list—or the crew either. He’s under an alias of course. And I don’t know what he looks like. He didn’t come to the trial. I think he was on some sort of reconstruction job out West. His picture was in the paper, but only as a little kid, playing with his brother. Sob stuff, you know. I’ve been looking at every face, trying to remember that picture of a boy.”

“But, Dick! What’s he on board for? You don’t mean he’s going to kill you!”

“When he gets a chance, yes. Of course. He’s threatened it. Maybe he’s waiting till we’re on a shore excursion Simple enough, isn’t it?”

Judy did not answer, for she was intensely preoccupied with an idea of her own. Nor did she bring the idea to light, for at that moment her father entered.

HE WAS flushed and more or less hilarious with excitement. He had a light overcoat over his silk pyjamas and a cap over his leonine head. He gave his daughter a hug and said, “Looks kind of bad. They’re making a lot of water. Hello, Dick. Let’s have a drink. Did you ever hear of how many pumps they have on a ship like this? Boiler feed pump, engine pump rams, and what else did they say? Oh, yes—a general service pump and something they call an ash ejector. I heard they’ve got every one of ’em going !” He poured himself a half a tumbler of bourbon. “No danger though, really. Of course not.” He hugged his daughter again and looked into her face. “Say, listen! You look scared. Nothing can happen. Don’t be afraid.” “Afraid with a swimmer like Dick on board!” Judy laughed. “Let’s cheer up.”

“Sure. Let’s have some music.” Her father turned to the radio, but could get nothing save an ordered and monotonous clicking.

“You ought to get something,” Dick said, wanting to make conversation.

“There’s no broadcasting,” somebody in the passageway called in. Everyone wanted to talk to everyone else, inside the staterooms or out. “Didn’t you say there was no broadcasting, steward?”

The steward was very nervous, noticing everyone listening to him hard. The passageway was crowded now, as if at ix>rt with visitors waiting for the All Ashore signal.

“They’re sending the C-Q, sir!” the steward blurted without measuring his words.

“So that’s what we hear.” Judy’s father said, still at the radio, which was cracking in a definite cadence. “Our own wireless on this radio. Lord, I’m going to get some more clothes on !”

“What’s the C-Q?” they asked out in the passageway.

“It means all stations to listen—all over the Atlantic seaboard,” a young man answered agreeably. “New York’s having a thrill, I’d say.”

When her father went into his own stateroom, Judy turned to Dick. She had listened to little of this interlude, for her brain still whirled with that idea of hers.

"Listen, Dick. There’s something 1 want to ask you. Randy Burke and you are pretty thick, aren’t you?”

“I thought we were. But he looks a little yellow to me, if you want to know my opinion.”

“Was it you that picked him up at the bar when you first met—or was it he?”

"Can’t remember. Fellows get to talking over their

drinks. I wanted to get rid of him, but he stuck. Then I got to like him.”

“Was it you who planned that shore excursion at La Ceiba, when you two were to take a banana railway up into the mountains together?”

“H’m; well no, he planned that. I wanted you and your dad to go along I remember, but he objected. It was no trip for a girl—” He stopped with a gasp. “Judy ! What are you saying?”

“When that bump caught us all off guard, I saw a look in his eyes. If ever I saw murder in a look—”

A purser’s assistant, hurrying down the passageway was calling into every door. “Put on warm clothes everybody and report on B Deck.”

Hysterical dowagers in mink or summer ermine were jabbering at him like a cageful of monkeys at a keeper. “Are we going down? How long, how long? Help me find my sister, please, for heaven’s sake! Please, please!”

“How long we going to float?”

VWTIEN JUDY and her father had on their life jackets, Dick went out with them. A steward handed him a life jacket. Judy begged him to stop at his stateroom and put on woollen stockings, and the suggestion gave him the first real thrill of the night. “No time for that,” he laughed. Judy’s father kept his arm hooked in hers. Dick and Judy held hands. They said nothing more. It was the first silence she had allowed ever since they had met.

A growing fracas beat about them as they went above. People were hurrying past, some running, some staggering, for, as Dick noticed, there was a growing list. A silverhaired lady was screaming for her missing daughter. A man was carrying a little girl bundled in blankets. An ash blond had a parakeet in a cage. The only order to this growing chaos was the sound of a cargo boom far forward swinging out, followed by a thunderous splash. Dick heard without being impressed that they were jettisoning crated machinery.

They came out on deck. The air hummed with the steady cracking of the SOS. Scores of people were already piling into boats, leaving deserted spaces of slanting planes that twisted the geometry of the world. The giant funnels leaned, hovering, blotting out the sky. A rocket zoomed at a crazy angle like a shooting star thrown from a planet in labor. The cargo masts tilted slowly across the dome of moonlit sky inch by inch, their booms no longer marking off the gallop of time. With the falling off of steam, their work ceased.

Dick searched the drifting mass of white faces, hunting for one man. He had a strange yearning to meet Randy Burke face to face, so that they could look at each other for the first time with masks thrown away. He was impatient to see Judy and her father safe in a boat so that he could continue his search. When they climbed into a lifeboat, Dick made no attempt to get in with them. Others piled in before Judy knew what was happening. She looked up bewildered, to discover that Dick was no longer clutching her.

“Dick !” she burst out. “Where are you?”

“Right here.” Dick reached across the rail to her. “I’ll get into the next boat.”

She sprang up from her thwart, reaching for him. She got his hand.

“Dick ! You’ve got to get in. I won’t go unless you get in !”

“Take care of your dad.”

“Pipe that woman down,” an officer said calmly. “No hysterics now.”

Judy’s father pulled her back to the thwart.

“Lower away!”

"Lower away!”

“Good-by, sweet,” Dick said.

Judy revealed herself for the first time. “I love you!” Blocks creaked on their davits. The boat swung out and, because of the list, was suspended instantly over darkness.

The wireless scratched its call against the sky. Leaving the rail, Dick heard an officer announcing in a loud steadyvoice that a small liner was coming under forced draught and would be alongside directly. A banana boat was standing up from the south, a Japanese freighter from the southeast.

One lifeboat after the other filled and lowered away.

Dick wandered from boat to boat, {xtering into the upturned faces as they dropjxd Ixdow successive tiers of lighted portholes. Then he searched those that were still on board. He was like a lost spirit on the shores of the Styx, wandering in a region that was neither life nor death.

T—TE FOUND Randy Burke at the last boat, which was fouled on the starboard side. A rope, stretched from bulkhead to railhead, corralled a group of men passengers, waiters, the black gang that had been driven up from the wallowing stokehold. They all stood tense, dumb, no man looking into another’s face. “How you getting on, Randy?”

Randy Burke’s lips were moving, shivering. He twisted and knotted his fingers. His head was lowered, staring hungrily at the lifeboat.

“Look at me, Randy.”

Randy Burke’s eyes turned up glassy and wild. “Dick !” he gasped. “I can’t swim. They won’t let me into a boat !” “Look me in the eyes, Randy. That’ll help.”

“What are you talking about ! We’re going down ! They roped us off here. They’re letting us drown like rats!” Dick clutched him by the shoulders and twisted him around, forcing him to look up. “We know each other now, don’t we, kid?”

Randy Burke’s eyes widened. They clung to Dick’s for one ghastly moment. Then he whimpered, “I don’t know what you mean. I only know I’m afraid. I want to get home. My mother’s waiting for me there—she’s old. She wanted me to stay home. If I’d only listened to her! I’m scared, man. I can’t face what’s coming!”

“That’s all I meant, Randy. You’re yellow. Think of your mother. They all know this ship’s sinking. They know it all over the world. Your mother’s praying for you.” “If they don’t let us up to that boat—”

“That boat’s no good. We’ll swim. Hang on to me. I’ll tow you.”

Randy Burke’s limp arm hooked under Dick’s.

“Room for three more here,” a voice from the lifeboat called steadily. “Only passengers.”

Seven or eight leaped forward, ducking or hurdling the rope. Randy let go of Dick’s arm, whirled madly, shoving everyone out of the way. They were all waiting for this first steer of the herd to bolt. Randy fought, grunted, choked, gave a bellow. He windmilled his arms. He struck a man who had bumped him. An officer, easily picking out the focal point of this disturbance, stepped up and clipped him neatly on the chin. He rolled.

The officer turned to Dick. “All right, you. Get aboard. The rest of you back aft to the life rafts.”

Dick stepped forward obediently, almost stumbling over Randy Burke’s form. He stopped. Another man got to the boat first and the officer let him in. Dick yanked Randy Burke to his feet.

“Lower away!” the officer shouted. And then the lights went out.

THEY WENT out all over the ship. There was a roar of steam as water poured into the fires. The wireless went dead. A rocket whistled, lighting the near sky. Flashlights spurted, darting over the blind stamjxxle to the life rafts.

Dick Talmadge shook the man he held, clutching him by the lapels until his teeth chattered and his head lolled groggily, then stiffened.

Out of the darkness above a voice yelled from the bridge. “By the Ixjard, everybody ! She’s going !”

The ship seemed to struggle as if awakening from a lethargy. She stretched herself, growing enormous in size, her stern moving upward in the moonlight.

Dick threw off his coat and life belt. He dragged the man to the rail.

“Go ahead and jump!” he shouted. “We’ve got to get clear when she sinks. You hear me? Jump!”

“No, no! I can’t. I’ll go down. I can’t swim. Hold me, Dick. Don’t let go!”

Arm in arm, they jumped.

The wireless, working now on its emergency set, was sputtering its last cry for help when Dick came up out of fathoms of black water. He started swimming in a steady overhand, towing the bulky thing that clung behind him. All about him were splashes of phosphorescence as one man after the other went by the board. But these blots of dim

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white moved back slowly, inexorably, as the liner went down. She went with a long rhythmic crash of seas, a giant wave rolling out in a dilating circle, pounding over Dick’s head, tossing him like a bull, trampling him down deep. The man clutching him lost his grip. Dick came up free. He could clear that fearful undertow now, his arms swinging unimpeded in long powerful strokes.

One by one, but within the space of a few seconds, the white blobs were rubbed out, the seas rolling over many upraised hands.

Dick heard Randy Burke’s cry gurgling in a water-choked throat. Burke was floating backward, screaming, Dick turned like a seal and went for him. He flipped his long agile body up under the helpless hulk, his shoulder coming up just within reach of Burke’s hand. Then he swam, using both arms, his head under, his legs in a scissors. He spent his strength in a desperate spurt.

He did not know whether they were drifting back or not. His heart pounded like a trip hammer, his lungs cramped and heaved, but neither blood nor air would restore his spent muscles. He was still wondering if that spurt had saved them when he saw stars coming up over the horizon. They arose, he noticed, ahead of him and on one side and behind dim galaxies of them in multiple and ordered lines. If

that were east where that light broke, then these other constellations were rising in the west and in the south. The universe was crazy. Or else, it occurred to him as he sank, these would be the first rescue ships to stand by.

He went down trying to grasp the floating hulk he had been towing. But he could find nothing. He wondered if Burke had drowned. It was not likely; Burke had a life jacket that had kept his head and shoulders out of the water. He must be bobbing around somewhere in the slow run of the seas.

Dick relaxed, wondering why men were afraid to die. It was actually pleasurable, as he had heard once from someone who had almost drowned. But when he relaxed he floated upward again on his back, and the cold salt air whipped every nerve and cell in his body into a craving for life. He moved his arms, which were like waterlogged chunks of wood.

HE WAS on his back again, gazing upward into two stars which glowed with human life. The element in which he swung was not cold or salty. It was warm and comforting. It smelled of oil and onions and suki yaki. The air was not keen, but thick with sweetish smoke, crossbanded by the glare from a swinging lamp. Above the fan of the lamp there was blue

darkness very close and solid—and marked like a gridiron with the beams of a deck that terminated the world. The sky no longer existed.

The stars he became convinced were the eyes of a woman. They were the eyes of a woman who loved him.

A lank form behind her, pacing up and down, began to assume shape. It was Judy’s father and he kept looking at Dick, his face red as a lobster, his lips sucking heatedly at a cigarette so that it made sparks. The old man saw Dick’s eyes following him, and he stopped and handed him a flask. The girl held it to Dick’s lips. They did not seem at all surprised when he thanked them. He must have been mumbling to them for some time.

Other faces were floating in the thick air. There were forms, torsos beheaded by the shadow cast by the fan of that lamp. Lower, in the light, there was one closecropped head with gopher teeth and bulging glasses. His smiles were actually audible, hissing through great teeth. He was a Japanese, no doubt about it.

One face, haggard and with deep-set blue eyes, hovered in the half dark. This was Randy Burke, dressed in dry dungarees and a pea jacket. A Japanese was holding some wet clothes up in front of him, emptying the pockets like a laundrvman. fie performed the same rite with another

pile of clothes which Dick assumed vaguely must be his, since under his swaddling blankets he discovered himself nude.

“How did we all get here, and now that we’re here, where is it?”

“It’s the freighter that picked up a lot of the boats,” Judy’s father said casually. “It’s a Jap freighter. Saved a lot of swimmers too.”

Dick was staring blankly into the girl’s eyes. He bridged a long distance in time and space, remembering.

“I love you too. Judy.”

“I will dry clothes for your convenience.” the Japanese messboy chuckled through his teeth. “Please to keep items of value.” He got out the contents of the pockets and set them on a table, then went out with both sopping bundles.

But a moment later he came back.

“Here is item which I overlook in excitement,” he apologized. “Which gentleman claim it?”

He handed a marconigram first to Randy Burke, who thought it might possibly be his, for he read the blurred water-soaked typing and noticed that it was from the prosecutor’s office. He read the rest of it.

And then his hard blue eyes snapjxri down to Dick’s. He could not hide that moment of amazement and misbelief. Nor could he have revealed what was in his mind more clearly than if he had said the words, “So you know who I am. You knew it even before you saved my life!”

But he did not say the words. He swallowed hard, then handed the paper to Dick.

Dick shook the haze from his memory. He looked up for the first time cannily. “I don’t suppose you have any idea who

the man is the man this message tells about?" he asked.

Randy Burke’s eyes shifted to the girl’s. She was staring at him like a cat. The shipwreck and its interlude of revelations were over. Everyone had put on masks again.

“Yes. 1 do know who he is.” Randy Burke said, “and 1 happen to know that he jumped when the ship was sinking. Remember a lot of ’em went under right after you and I jumped. Dick?”

“You mean.” Judy cried exultantly, “Dick can forget that message? He’s safe?”

Randy Burke nodded, looking Dick in the eyes.

“I mean.” he said steadily, “the man who wanted to take your life went down with the ship.”