CAPTAIN KERRY had been playing second fiddle to old men all his life.
He had started as cabin boy. At forty-four he had thirty years of faithful service with the Green Star Line behind him—and now this! His first command— and his last—until more old men died or were retired.
He ran jaundiced eyes about the ornate master's cabin of the Gargan'uan. When the liner was built in 1904. the decorative idea of ships’ architects had been to come as close to a hotel ballroom as possible. The cabin was a nightmare of green dolphins pursued by Neptunes with golden beards. The mirrors were oval, bevelled French plate in frames of gilt seaweed leaves.
Captain Kerry stared at his own image in one of them and shuddered, listening to the old engines driving the Gargantuan toward her last port.
This was not what he had bargained for when he had gone to srra at fourteen with romance in his heart. At thirty he had his master’s license. Now, at forty-four, his first command. And what a command! The Gargantuan, one-time crack liner of the Green Star, to be sold for junk, and himself, escorting her to the junk heap.
When he delivered the Gargantuan on the other side, he’d come back to rot as first officer in some berth. Promotion by seniority, they called it. Old men running the world !
Captain Horne had been a case in point. At fifty-one, Captain Peter Horne had taken the Gargantuan across on her maiden voyage because Commodore Rodney, senior officer of the fleet, was in the hospital for an appendectomy. Horne had been given the command as a substitute, and the moment he brought the Gargantuan back from her maiden voyage, and made her fast to her pier, he was relieved of his command in favor of the sixty-four-year-old recovered senior commodore. Horne had been transferred
to the bridge of the Persephone, a tramp steamer plying the Mediterranean.
It had broken his heart. He sailed the Persephone for two years until—drunk—he piled her up in the Bay of Biscay. Then old-timers told of having run across him in far places—in the Straits Settlements, captaining a schooner, drinking himself crazy. In the black-bird trade in the Solomons, in gun-running on the Caribbean, broken by a system that turned fine men into bitter ones.
Captain Kerry was occupied with these dark thoughts when there was a knock on his door, and Second Mate Kintner entered.
At fifty-five Kintner was still second mate. Under the rank of first officer he had lost the Hermes in Cook Strait. The tide rip had been t;x> much for the Hermes’ worn-out engines. He had been exonerated by the shipping board, but the company had never forgiven him for showing it up.
"l/r INTNER laid his gold-braided cap on the flat-top desk and said: “One of the hands wants to see you, sir.”
“I don't know, sir. He wouldn’t say. He’s down on the articles as Arthur Brent, A.B., but he looks like some kind of a foreigner. He said he had important information. Being that we’re going—where we are—I thought I'd better tell you, sir.”
Captain Kerry glanced curiously at his second mate. Something in the man's manner disturbed him. The wide planes of Kintner’s face were crisscrossed by a network of fine wrinkles, deepened as with apprehension. His blue eyes under their prominent orbital arches were serious. Kerry pointed to a chair.
“What’s on vour mind, mister?”
Kintner looked behind him before sitting down.
“There’s something going on aboard this ship, sir. I’ve had to tell off two or three of the hands for taking their time obeying orders, and Mr. Carsten, the first engineer, tells me that the stokers are grumbling about the coal.” Captain Kerry smiled bitterly.
“They filled our bunkers with half slag before we left. Anything to get us to the junk pile cheaply. Even the fire pumps aren’t functioning properly, and half the lifeboats are sieves. It would be just our luck to have a sub turn loose a torpedo on us.”
“I’m not worrying on that score, sir,” Kintner replied. “After all, this is still a neutral ship.”
“That’s what the company banks on,” Kerry replied grimly. He looked contemplatively at the other. “Then what is worrying you?”
Kintner regarded his red, hairy hands.
“I just wasn’t cut out for a pallbearer, I guess. ’
Kintner had been a young squirt of a fourth mate on the Gargantuan's maiden voyage with Captain Horne.
“I guess the company thought they were doing us a favor.” Kerry replied grimly. “There are eighteen maidentrippers aboard, including Rush, the chief steward. We’ve about as much need of a chief steward on this trip as a cat has for an extra tail.”
Kintner rubbed the back of his hand.
“I was going to speak to you about Rush, sir. I caught him coming down the runway on A deck with a tray of dishes yesterday. Asked him what he was doing there, and he told me to mind my own business. He’s been with the Green Star over half a century—was second steward on the maiden voyage—so I let it go. I tried all the doors of the staterooms on A deck, but every one was locked.”
The skipper smiled.
“Rush probably picked himself the bridal suite for the
Two men of the sea share first and last commands of a ship worth her weight in scrap-iron
trip. He’s in his dotage.” He paused and pushed cigarettes across the desk to the other. “Light up and forget it, mister. We mustn’t let this trip get on our nerves.”
“No, sir. Thank you, sir.” Kintner picked up a cigarette, lit it and arose. “I’ll send Brfcnt in if you say so, sir.” “Very good,” Captain Kerry replied with a shrug.
THE MAN who came to the cabin a little later was dressed in the uniform of a deck hand. He was in his early fifties, dark but not swarthy. His eyes were intelligent and observing. Captain Kerry looked him up and down, getting the instant impression that he himself was being v appraised.
“What can I do for you, Brent?”
The man's dark eyes moved about the spacious cabin. “Nothing, I think, sir,” he replied, eyes on the stillsmoking cigarette which Second Officer Kintner had dropped in the ash tray. “Sorry to have troubled you, sir.” He saluted and made as if to leave. Kerry leaned forward in his chair.
“Look here, my man—you asked to see me. I don’t like being made a fool of. We’re alone—if that’s what’s troubling you.”
Brent saluted again.
“Intending no disrespect, sir, but will you permit me to examine the bathroom? The thing which I’ve come to discuss with you requires the utmost discretion.”
Captain Kerry’s first impulse was to eject the man, but the fellow’s face was impassively respectful, anything but insolent. There was no mistaking his foreign accent, faint though it was.
“Go ahead and look in the bathroom,” Kerry said shortly.
The man did so, and returned to his former position facing the skipper.
“I’ve been delegated to call on you, sir.”
“Delegated? What is the complaint?”
“No complaint, sir. Before going further, may I point out that a certain considerable number of the deck hands and of the crew of the engine room, are greatly opposed to the Gargantuan being sold for junk to her consignees.”
“I can appreciate their sentiments,” Captain Kerry replied. “But I don’t see that there’s anything they or I can do about it.”
“I’m afraid that you don’t get what I mean, sir. It is not a matter of sentimental regard for the ship.”
“No? Then, what is it?”
“We’re opposed to the Gargantuan being sold for junk, because the consignees are our enemies. You understand, I’m sure?”
Kerry removed his cigarette from his lips and regarded the other stonily. It came to him suddenly that the uniform of a man with authority to command would have suited the fellow’s personality better than the garb of a deck hand.
“Not quite,” he replied, “but go on.”
“My—friends—in the engine room and in the foe’s’le are all bona fide stokers and seamen and their papers are all in order. The same goes for Sparks’ assistant in the radio room.”
“If they hadn’t been,” said Kerry, “the company would not have signed them on.”
The man permitted himself a thin smile.
“Right, sir. By now you will have inferred that they’re also opposed to the cause sponsored by a certain faction in my unfortunate country?”
“I’d be very stupid if I hadn’t,” Kerry replied grimly. “I take it that you and your—friends are armed?” “Naturally, sir.”
Captain Kerry smoked in silence for perhaps fifteen seconds before asking, “You realize, of course, that what you’re suggesting is piracy on the high seas?”
“It is war, Captain Kerry. The breaking up of the Gargantuan for junk would seriously delay the cause to which I and my friends are devoted. Our opponents are running short of certain raw material. Upon their not getting such material hinges the happiness of my country.” Captain Kerry smiled grimly.
“That is, of course, a matter of opinion.”
“Quite, sir. We cannot expect you to be sympathetic to our cause.” He looked straight at the skipper. “Except for a consideration.”
Captain Kerry glared at the man. “What makes you think I can be bribed?” he asked hoarsely.
“An ugly word, Captain Kerry,” the other replied, without dropping his eyes. “This is your first command. When you return to port, you’ll go back as first officer. In ten years you may get a command—if you’re lucky—and if the company has not ceased to exist. The latter is quite likely to happen, since the Marquands have retired and turned the company over to speculators. In that case you will be in your middle fifties—a sailor without a ship, or at best the command of some tramp steamer at three hundred dollars a month.” He paused. “Not a rosy future for a man with a charming wife and two handsome children. Besides, it is doubtful if the encumbrance on your charming home could be refinanced in these difficult times—as you remarked to your wife not long ago.”
The skipper stared at him.
“How did you find out all this?” he demanded. “Josefina, ybur maid, is sympathetic to our cause. When we heard that our opponents were purchasing this vessel for six hundred thousand dollars, and that you, sir, were slated to take her across, we—induced your former maid to leave your employ, and had Josefina apply for the position.”
The man never changed expression, nor by his tone suggested threat or disrespect to a superior officer.
“If I touch on a delicate matter, sir, it is only to convince you how very thorough we are. Josefina is a very observant girl. She remarked upon your frank discussion with Mrs. Kerry about the unfair and discriminating policies of the Green Star Line.”
Kerry looked at the man with a certain amount of respect.
“You didn’t overlook a thing, did you?”
“I hope not, sir.”
“And if I don’t agree to whatever your proposition is, I and the loyal members of my crew will œ murdered?”
The other remained silent for all of ten seconds. Kerry, watching his face, could have sworn that he saw him wince.
“I should regret exceedingly such a necessity,” he replied finally.
The skipper looked at him long and hard.
“Just what is your proposition?”
The man reached into his pocket and drew' out a leather w'allet. From it he took a slip of paper w'hich he unfolded and laid on the skipper’s desk.
“This,” he said, “is a certified draft on the Bank of London for ten thousand pounds sterling—almost fifty thousand dollars. The moment I countersign it, it becomes payable to the possessor, since it is made to cash. I couldn’t stop payment if I wished.”
Kerry drew a deep breath. “You must want this ship pretty badly,” he said without touching the cheque. “Fifty thousand is a lot of money.”
“More than you could save in a lifetime, captain, as skipper of the Green Star Line; but cheap to us. Six hundred thousand dollars worth of good metal and findings for less than ten cents on the dollar.”
“And what am I supposed to do for this?”
“Merely lay a course according to my
instructions, to a point within the territory held by my compatriots instead of to the port for which you cleared. The moment w e sight this point. I ’ll countersign the cheque and it’s yours. Your crew will be shipped back home. You can stop off at London and cash the cheque. No identification will be required of you. Your company will, of course, be the loser in the sum of six hundred thousand dollars, since the insurance does not cover being taken as a prize by a belligerent. But what, may I ask, has the company ever done for you?”
Kerry was forced to admit to himself that the Green Star had done little for him except waste half of his lifetime, but he said:
“I’ll be a man without a country. I’ll never dare show my face in America again. It isn’t worth it.”
“We have foreseen that objection. My friends in the engine room have seen to it that something is wrong with the pumps, so that the leak which we have planned will endanger the Gargantuan sufficiently to make it imperative that you put into the nearest port to save your crew—for which no board of enquiry will blame you. It w'ill be unfortunate that this port happens to be held by my compatriots instead of by the opposition. The fortunes of war, Captain Kerry.”
“Why pay out all this money?” Kerry asked, still not convinced. “Why not just kill me and my crew'?”
“On keeping the good will of uninvolved nations depends the survival of our state. Your Government has warned its nationals that in trading with belligerents they do so at their own risk. But to kill neutrals is something we wish to avoid except in direct emergency. In conclusion—none of your officers or men need know of our little arrangement. You will simply develop a dangerous leak with which your antiquated pumps are unable to cope, and change your course to save your crew.”
“So you’re the ones responsible for the condition of the pumps?” Kerry said. “I thought it was only the fire pumps.”
“We took care of those, too, while we were at it.”
The skipper reached for a fresh cigarette, lit it and sat regarding the other in silence for several moments.
“I’ll think this over,” he replied finally.
The man glanced at his w’rist watch.
“I can give you an hour, sir, ” he replied. “By eight bells, midnight, when my w'atch turns out, I must have your answer. We will raise Concejxion Point by noon tomorrow. By daylight we will be in hostile waters. It will be too late, then, to do anything but sink the ship, and w'e w'ish to avoid that. First because it might involve the loss of life, secondly because we, ourselves, need the metal desix’rately. Your course must be changed by eight bells, midnight, Captain Kerry. My friends will ojxm the seacocks. Your purnj» w ill be inadequate to keep ahead of the leak. You will run for land to save your crew—land which w'ill lx at the most three or four hours run away.”
Kerry said, “I’ll give you my answer by eight bells, Brent. You arc, of course, a navigator?”
“No, sir, and there was none available on such short notice. Our only squadron is blockaded in port by the enemy. That is why we need your co-ojx*ration—why we’re willing to j>ay liberally for it.”
As the man picked uj) the draft and returned it to his wallet, something occurred to Captain Kerry. He remembered what Second Mate Kintner had told him about meeting Rush, the chief steward, on A deck with a tray of dirty dishes.
“One more thing,” he said. "Is Rush, my chief steward, one of your friends?”
“Rush? No, sir. Why were you asking, sir?”
CAPTAIN KERRY sat a long time smoking and thinking after Brent had gone. Fifty thousand dollars was more than ten years salary—twice as much as he exjxcted to save in a lifetime. And, there would be—as the man who called himself Brent had said—little or no danger. Since the Gargantuan’s insurance did not cover being taken as a prize by a belligerent, the loss of six hundred thousand dollars would probably be the end of the Green Star Line.
It looked as if fate had selected him to be the instrument to pay back the company for what they had done to men like Second Officer Kintner ... to old Captain Peter Horne ... to scores of others who, like himself, had gone to sea with high hopes in their hearts, only to be broken by office politics, favoritism, seniority rule.
Kerry’s dark thoughts were interrupted by a third knock on his door. It was ' Sanderson, the young third mate.
“What is it now?” Kerry demanded wearily.
“Beg your pardon. Captain Kerry. I’m reporting a stowaway."
“Yes, sir. An old man?” Sanderson hung his head. “I’m sorry, sir. I had the ship
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searched thoroughly before leaving port. I can’t understand—”
The skipper shrugged.
“In a ghost ship like this there are plenty of places to hide. I shan’t be hard on you in the log. How old is he?”
Third Mate Sanderson sighed.
“Eighty or ninety, I’d say.”
“What! Where is he?”
The young officer moistened his lips as if there were a foreign taste upon them. “In the grand saloon, sir.”
Captain Kerry glared at his youngest officer.
“And what is a stowaway doing in the grand saloon, Mr. Sanderson? Take him out of there at once.”
“Begging your pardon, sir—” the young man stammered. “May I ask you to come down with me, Captain Kerry—”
“What? I go down and interview a stowaway? Have you lost your senses?” “No, sir—I mean, yes, sir, I probably have. Bu—but meaning no disrespect,
Captain Kerry, I beg of you most earnestly to come dowm with me.* Mr. Kintner is in the saloon with him.”
“Why in heaven’s name should I go dowm and look at a bundle of rags?” “That’s just it, sir. He isn’t—a bundle of rags! He—-he’s wearing the uniform of a commander, sir. A skipper of this line— with the Green Star on his collar and cap.” Captain Kerry stared helplessly at Third Mate Sanderson, then picked up his own visored cap, jammed it on his head and followed the young man along the runway and down a flight of stairs beside the elevator shaft where the cages hung lifeless in their pulleys.
All the lights were turned on in the grand saloon on B deck where nabobs of three decades past had paraded their jewelled and plumed women. In the armchair at the head of the central table, under the great prismed chandelier that swung gently as the ship moved on long swells, sat an old. old man, resplendent in the gold braid of a commander of the Green Star Line, and beside him sat Second Officer Kintner, his furrowed face white as a sheet.
Kintner got to his feet and said to the old man, with a pleading look at Captain Kerry, “First Officer Kerry, Captain Horne.”
In the silence that followed there passed through Kerry’s mind fragments of the myth that had been Captain Peter Horne. As the octogenarian peered at him. Kerry saw the curious pale-blue of cataracts beginning to form over the man’s old eyes, already dimmed by the ravages of drink. Kerry drew a deep breath.
“At your service, Captain Horne,” he said, saluting.
“Be seated, gentlemen,” the old man croaked, with a wave of his thin, veined hand, and the three officers sat down.
Kerry gave the youth a warning look, but there was no need of warning Third Mate Sanderson.
THE OLDSTER peered at them.
“I’ve called you together, gentlemen,” he said, “to let you know that the
company expects all of us to do our utmost to make this maiden voyage of the Gargantuan a record in maritime crossings. She has been built to challenge the supremacy of the transatlantic sea lanes. The greatest honor our company could confer upon us was to entrust us with the command of her—even though this is my first and last voyage as your skipper.” Second Mate Kintner whispered hollowly in Captain Kerry’s ear.
“I can’t go through with this again, sir —it was the way he broke the news to us thirty-four years ago !”
Kerry admonished him with a look.
“You were saying. Captain Horne, that this is your last trip? It means, I take it, that you’ve been made commodore of the fleet, with a fine office in Whitehall? Accept our congratulations, sir. I can think of no man better fitted for the rank of commodore than you, sir.”
“Thank you, Mister Mate!” the old man straightened up in his chair, ran his hand into the pocket of his faded goldbraided jacket. With his palsied hand he drew out a slip of soiled paper, yellowed with age, which he unfolded with fumbling fingers and passed around the table. “I was handed this at the pier—sealed,” he said, “with instructions not to open it until we were on the high seas. It—speaks for itself.”
Captain Kerry read the short, terse note written on the Green Star Line’s stationery thirty-four years before, and signed by Sidney Marquand, president of the line, now twenty years dead.
“Captain Peter Horne,
S. S. Gargantuan, Mid-Atlantic.
Pursuant with the confirmation of the board of directors of the Green Star Line, I take this opportunity to congratulate you on having been selected to the command of the Gargantuan on her maiden voyage.
Commodore Rodney will take over on his recovery, which, you will be happy to hear, will be on the Gargantuan's very next voyage.
You will be given the command of the S. S. Persephone, newly built for the Mediterranean trade—which you have so ably helped the Green Star to develop in the past.
Very truly yours,
President, Green Star Line.”
Kerry handed the letter back to Captain Horne.
“The Persephone is a fine ship, sir.” he heard himself say. “She could have no finer master.”
The old nian peered at the faces of the three men illumined starkly by the prismed chandelier.
“It is understood, gentlemen.” he said, “that you will speak no word of condolence ! And that I’ll knock down the first man who speaks that word?”
The three men nodded silently.
“Mr. Mate, ring for the chief steward, please.”
Captain Kerry rang. It seemed an age
before Rush came shuffling in. He stood blinking fatuously in the doorway, his pale old eyes flitting from one to the other of the group.
Captain Home said, “A bottle of old Spanish port and four glasses, steward.” Captain Kerry inclined his head almost imperceptibly, and Rush tiptoed away. When he had gone, closing the door softly behind him, Captain Home cackled in his cracked voice:
"Rush insisted that I take the best suite on A deck for the trip over, since the decorators are still working on my quarters. I wouldn’t want it to get back to the company, however."
Kerry replied, "Certainly not, sir.” Rush returned with a decanter and four glasses on a tray. At a nod from Kerry he placed the tray before the old man.
Kerry said to him, ‘‘You’ll please move Captain Home’s gear to the master’s cabin, steward. The decorators are done with it.”
“Ye-yes, sir!” Rush stuttered. “Very good, sir.”
Captain Horne poured wine from the decanter, spilling half of it on the tray with his shaking hand. He raised his glass. The three followed suit. All four glasses were drained.
“That’ll be all, gentlemen!” The old man’s thin hand opened and the wineglass lay in his wrinkled palm with its stem broken. “I guess the company’s right,” he said ruefully. “I was born to drink from a tin pannikin.”
The three men rose, saluted, and Kerry motioned Kintner and Sanderson to leave. When they were gone, he said to the octogenarian:
“Shall we go to your cabin, sir? There’s something I’d like to discuss with you, Captain Horne, if it is convenient.”
“Very well, Mister Mate.” The old man peered up at the skipper. “Kerry?” he said. “I don’t seem to recollect the name.” "In the intercolonial trade, sir. Australia and New Zealand. My last berth, first officer of the S.S. Pericles. ”
“I see. Mine has been the Mediterranean-Atlantic for the past ten years. We wouldn’t have met.”
He hoisted himself to his feet, and Kerry took his arm and led him up the two flights of stairs to his own cabin. Looking at his wrist watch, he saw it lacked a few minutes of midnight.
He drew out a chair for the old man and helped ease him into it. There, but for the grace of God, sat he himself—was his first thought, as he stood looking down at what had been one of his country’s finest sailors—but he brushed the sentimental platitude aside. The surge of pity he felt for the derelict was supplanted by the contemplation that fate had selected him as the instrument to avenge the wrecking of good men like Captain Horne, avenge them by hitting the company where it hurt the most, in its coffers !
He heard eight bells, midnight, being struck. The four double notes tinkled faintly about his head. A kind of bitter ecstasy swept him. The problem which faced him could be shifted now'. Who would know the answer better than Peter I lome, sea captain and beach bum? And if the answer was to be revenge—who else had such a right to order it?
(CAPTAIN HORNE.” he said rapidly.
"In a moment, a man will come here with a problem. I’d like to knowhow you’d solve it, sir.”
“A problem in navigation?”
"Yes, sir. A problem in navigation. Here he is now,” he added as a knock sounded on the door. “Come in !”
The man called Brent stepped across the threshold. He blinked at the octogenarian seated at Kerry’s fiat-top desk.
The skipper said, “This is Captain Peter Home, master of the Gargantuan, Brent. Suppose you put your problem to him.” The man’s face was as impassive as before.
“You chose a poor time to joke. Captain Kerry.”
“First Officer Kerry, Brent,” the skipper corrected.
The man said nothing for several moments. He stood looking at the derelict in the faded and w'rinkled uniform.
“If this is a trick, sir,” he said finally, “I don’t see what you hope to gain by it.” “Trick—trick !” Captain Horne croaked. “What’s the man talking about, Mister Mate?”
“It is no trick, Brent,” Kerry replied. He turned to Captain Horne. Laid Brent’s cards on the table. Talked fast. Time was short. As he spoke, he watched the old wrinkled face for signs of intelligence. When he finished, the old man removed his gold-braided cap and ran his thin hand across his incredibly corrugated forehead.
“A somewhat parallel case occurred to one of our ships during the Crimean War, I’m told,” he said, peering at Brent. “But the freedom of the seas has never been seriously questioned since that incident. And we carry no contraband of war.”
The skipper smiled grimly, remembering the Lusitania.
“Even an empty vessel may be construed as contraband of war, sir,” he replied. He was about to explain why, but Captain Horne got to his feet painfully and said to Brent without rancor:
“There is not enough money in the world to buy me, Brent.”
Then to Kerry: “I’m taking over the bridge, Mister Mate.”
Kerry said to the other, “You’ve had Captain Horne’s answer. Brent. Get out !” The man’s face seemed to draw in upon itself. He saluted and left.
As Kerry and Captain Horne made their w'ay to the bridge, they were met by First Officer Jamieson coming down.
“The crew has taken over the engine room, sir!” he reported breathlessly. “The chief engineer is on his way up. The second has taken command below. He seems to be in with the mutineers!”
Jamieson was staring at the face of Captain Horne. He opened his mouth to speak, but ended with a gulp. Jamieson had been second officer on the Gargantuan s maiden voyage. Kerry brushed him aside with a warning look. He ran to the oldfashioned speaking tube and bellowed down it. There was no answer.
Chief Engineer Carsten came clattering up the steps.
"Reporting mutiny in the engine room, sir. The mutineers are armed with pistols and sub-machine guns—” He stopped and stared at Captain Home.
Kerry motioned him off the bridge, and Carsten backed down the steps, querulous amazement written on his hard-bitten face.
Captain Horne said to Kerry: “What’s our exact position, Mr. Mate?”
The skipper gave it to him.
“Fifty miles—more or less off Concepcion Point, sir. Your old lane of travel, sir.”
He was watching the derelict’s face for a flash of that lucidness that had illumined it for an instant when he had told Brent that there wasn’t money enough in the world to buy him. The oldster had crossed to the binnacle and was standing peering at the compass swinging there slowly, as Brent came into the bridge house followed by two men w ith drawn revolvers.
“You will change the course for the Arguellos. captain,” he told Kerry.
The skipper nodded toward the octogenarian.
“Tell your troubles to Captain Horne, Brent. He’s in command.”
Brent snapped, “You will obey orders. I’m no navigator, but I know that we’re approximately fifty miles off the Arguellos and that a change of course of three or four points will take us there long before daylight. Give this new course to the helmsman, or my men open the sea cocks !” Horne stepped into the chart room. “There seems to be nothing else to do, Mister Mate,” he croaked over his shoulder.
The great engines of the Gargantuan were turning at quarter speed. The vessel was barely moving through the choppy
seas. Horne came out of the chart room.
He gave the new course to the quartermaster and the man repeated it after him. The great liner moved in a slow arc to port, and Brent crossed to the speaking tube.
“Full speed ahead !” he sang out.
Brent motioned to one of his men.
“Take—Captain Horne below and lock him up in one of the staterooms on B deck next to the saloon where the rest are.”
The old man glanced at the fellow’s side arms. He shrugged. As he went down the ladder, followed by the man, he said to Kerry:
“I’m leaving you in charge of the bridge, Mister Mate. Do nothing that will endanger the hands.”
“Very good, sir.”
I Brent called out after him.
“You understand that if the course you gave the helmsman is not the correct one, ^you’ll be shot?”
“As a threat to a man of my age, I don’t think much of it,” the old derelict croaked. i’But you needn’t worry. I’m not sacrificing my men. Keep on the course I laid out '.and you’ll make Arguello channel before daylight.”
When they were alone on the bridge, Brent said to Kerry, “I don’t know what your motive is in bringing that old soak into the picture, but I warn you, Captain Kerry, that any overt act on your part will result very unpleasantly for you. I’m keeping you here on the bridge with me because Í don’t trust you.”
“I gathered as much,” said Kerry.
The man who called himself Brent was silent for some time as the Gargantuan plowed through the dark sea at twentytwo knots—her top speed now, leaving a long wake of phosphorescence astern.
Presently he said, “Would you mind telling me who that old man is, masquerading in the uniform of a captain of the Green Star Line?”
“Not at all. He is Captain Peter Horne, who took the Gargantuan across on her maiden voyage. The company instructed me to—humor him—up to a certain point. He has his—lucid moments, as you perhaps noticed.”
“It was a rather fine thing of the Green Star to do.”
“The company is—very humane—to its old employees,” Kerry stated grimly.
THE bridge telephone tinkled. As Brent took the receiver off the hook and put it to his ear, Captain Kerry saw his face grow suddenly tense. He asked a few sharp questions, then slammed the receiver back.
“Fire has broken out on B deck, Captain!” he snapped out. “Come with me!”
Kerry followed Brent down the two flights of stairs to B deck. They were met in the corridor by a handful of men. One of them was breaking down the door of one of the staterooms with a fire axe. As the door gave away, old Captain Horne stumbled across the threshold with his wrinkled uniform smoking.
Kerry went through the door with Brent
at his heels. The suite—one of the largest —was a mass of flames. Fighting their way to get at the fire, they saw at a glance that it had been deliberately set by Captain Horne. Also that nothing but water—and plenty of water—was of any avail.
They were forced back into the corridor coughing.
“Nice work, Brent—knocking the pumps out of commission!” the skipper roared.
He ran for the saloon where Brent had herded the loyal members of his crew under guard. Threw the door open.
“All hands to your fire stations!” he sang out. “Step lively. Form a bucket brigade!”
Brent was behind him. He walked up to old Captain Horne rubbing the smoke from his streaming eyes. Raised his pistol. Kerry jumped for him—struck his hand up —wrenched the pistol from it.
He swung the pistol about. “Obey my orders or roast with me! Get to your stations, men. Jamieson—Kintner—get
your crews together!”
Brent’s men stood indecisive for a moment—but only for a moment. He muttered an order in a foreign tongue and they scattered with the rest to their fire stations.
Brent followed Captain Kerry to the bridge. The skipper jumjied for the telegraph and rang the engines down, to take headway off the liner and cut down the wind draft. The telephone tinkled. He yanked the receiver off the hook.
“What’s that?” He turned to Brent. “Those white-livered mutineers of yours are deserting their posts !”
Second Officer Kintner came up the ladder on the run.
“Mr. Jamieson’s compliments, sir,” he said to the skipper. “The bucket brigade is inadequate. The fire is gaining. The whole of B deck is affected.”
“Chief Engineer Carsten just called from the engine room,” Kerry said. “Tell Mr. Jamieson to ask for volunteers to get the fire pumps to working.”
“Yes, sir. Very good, sir.”
Brent went down the ladder after Kintner. The night swallowed both men up. Spirals of smoke were already curling through the deck of the bridge house.
The helmsman coughed.
“Beg your pardon, Captain Kerry,” he said. “I’d like the privilege of volunteering for the engine room, if you’ll take the wheel, sir.”
The skipper grasped the spokes.
“What’s your name, quartermaster?” “Robbins, sir.”
“Report to First Engineer Carsten with my compliments—to you, Robbins.” Alone on the bridge, with his hands on the wheel, Captain Kerry made a calculation. Fifty miles or less to the nearest land. A little over two hours run with a burning ship and the pumps out of commission. A hundred men depending on his judgment for life or death. The liner was barely moving now.
At a step behind him he turned his head. It was old Captain Horne. He entered just as the telephone jangled again.
“Take the wheel, sir!” Kerry snapped. “Steady as she lies. I’ve changed the course.”
The octogenarian groped for the spokes and Kerry jumped for the telephone.
It was First Officer Jamieson calling from the chief steward’s office.
“The mutineers are launching lifeboats, sir!” he reported.
“All right, Jamieson. Don’t interfere. Let the rats go.”
The liner had stopped. From the bridge windows, Kerry saw through clouds of billowing smoke, that two lifeboats were being lowered to port.
Sparks rang from the wireless room. “Reporting the wireless out of commission, sir. My assistant wrecked it before leaving. I’m trying to get it to working, sir.”
Kerry ámiled grimly. Brent was taking
no chances at being intercepted in the lifeboats by the—opposition, as he called it, before reaching land.
“Never mind, Sparks. Go to Mr. Jamieson in the chief steward’s office. Tell him to swing two of the soundest boats into the davits to starboard, ready to lower.’’ “Yes, sir.”
The two boats containing the mutineers were already in the water, when there was a step behind the skipper. It was Brent.
“As one officer to ano to two others. Captain Kerry and Captain Horne— accept my congratulations. Hope we meet under more auspicious circumstances.” “Which will probably be in hell!” old Captain Horne cackled. “Get off my bridge! Rats and smoke!”
Brent saluted, walked slowly away.
The bridge house was filling with smoke. Little tongues of flame appeared here and there in the superstructure immediately abaft. The telephone rang. It was Jamieson reporting.
“The boats are ready to lower, sir. The mutineers have pushed off. All hands accounted for except Chief Engineer Carsten still in the engine room with two men trying to get the pumps working. The log and the ship’s papers are in your portfolio here in the chief steward’s cabin.” “Very well. Stand by !”
Captain Kerry hung up. Pie turned to Captain Horne at the helm.
“All ready, sir?” he asked.
“Yes, you may go,” the old man croaked. “My last order to you is—drop the two boats astern at the end of three hundred foot painters. Then ring the engines to half speed. I’m towing the boats as far as—possible. Fifty miles is a stiff pull with oars in this rising wind.” Kerry said: “Are you sure you want to do this, Captain Horne—that there will be no last-minute regrets?”
“Aren’t you forgetting yourself, Mister Mate?” the old man snapped.
The urge came to Captain Kerry to stand beside this old, drink-sodden man to the end, if only to learn from his half-blind eyes the utter lack of fear. He could take him off the bridge by force. Instead he said:
“Would you like me to stay with you, sir? I’d consider it a privilege,” and in the same breath knew that they were empty words, wrought of high emotion, and a little silly. He was young and had everything to live for.
“Into the boat with you, Mr. Mate!” the old man roared. “That’s all !”
Captain Kerry saluted and went down the ladder. Captain Horne leaned out of the window.
“It’s a nice thought, Mr. Mate—to be taking with me,” he called out after Kerry, “but what I’m doing now might help to pay a debt I owe the sea. A debt I hope you’ll never incur!”
The skipper made his way aft through gusts of hot blinding smoke, to the stairway of the engine room. First Engineer Carsten was standing by with his eyes on the indicator of the telegraph. He glanced up as Kerry came clattering down the iron steps.
“Show me how to start the engines and set them at half speed,” the skipper coughed.
Carsten stared at him.
“You heard me!” Kerry snapped.
Carsten showed the skipper. Kerry smiled to himself. A child could have started them. He wondered mildly what chief engineers were paid for.
“All right,” he said, “take your two men off the pumps. All three of you report to Mr. Jamieson on A deck to starboard. Tell him to drop both boats astern with lines of different lengths for towing—three hundred feet or better.” He glanced at his wrist watch. “I’m giving him five minutes before I start the engines. Get along.”
While he waited he was conscious of many conflicting emotions—uppermost of
which was rage at the man who called himself Brent, in taking for granted that he, Captain Kerry, could have been bought like any common politician. But in the same breath he was honest enough to wonder what his decision might have been if it hadn’t been for Captain Peter Home, and he knew that only the old man's past mistakes had cleared the path to his own salvation.
It was not a nice thought.
Glancing at his watch, he saw that the time was up. He pulled the lever that started the great engines. Stood watching while they began to turn, set them at half speed, then ran up the ladder. He had to step lively before the lines gathered speed.
The two boats had dropped astern. Their long painters were already tautening. He grasped one of them and swung himself over the railing.
He slid down the taut line until his feet touched water, then worked himself, hand over hand, through the boiling wake. Thirty seconds later, Second Officer Kintner and Chief Steward Rush hauled him over the gunwale of one of the boats.
r"PHE TWO frail craft raced through the churning wake of the liner at better than fifteen miles an hour, plowing through great rolling billows of smoke which, drifting astern, obliterated the vessel for minutes at the time. Flames appeared, here and there, livid tongues licking the tinder-dry superstructure of the old ship, and on gusts of the wind, driving hot air in the faces of the men behind.
For an hour the two boats raced in the wake of the burning liner, tobogganing down the long swells, churning water slapping their bows and drenching the men with spray. The first intimation that the flames had reached the bridge, was
when the liner sheered off to starboard and began to describe a wide arc.
“Stand by to cut your lines!” Kerry sang out.
“All ready, sir!” came from the two officers.
The sudden checking of the speed threw some of the men off their seats. Both boats spun around, then drifted apart on the choppy seas beyond the liner’s wake.
The bridge and upper works of the Gargantuan were now a mass of flames. Steam appeared, here and there, in hissing puffs—like cotton flowers bursting into bloom—as she raced out to sea in a wide circle—bereft of her helmsman.
Captain Kerry stared at the ship that had been his first command, rushing madly like a hunted thing to escape from the livid inferno consuming her.
He reflected with some irony on the fate that had made an honest man of him. That had won for his company six hundred thousand dollars in insurance, and that would, in the end, win promotion for himself for circumventing being taken as a prize, and saving his crew.
But mostly he thought of an old man in whose groping drink-sodden mind the tradition of the sea had flashed like a bright star.
“It was all my fault, sir!” Chief Steward Rush said in awed tones. “He came aboard the night before we sailed— imagined himself still skipper and this her maiden voyage. I didn’t have the heart to turn him away.”
“Stowaways, Mr. Rush, will be—stowaways,” Kerry replied as the two boats drew close, waiting for orders. “Mr. Jamieson—Mr. Kintner—ship your oars. The course is east by south—thirty miles more or less.”
“East by south, sir.”