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L5000 To Detain The Ship







From: The Crack Of Doom

Brande was asleep when I entered his cabin. His writing-table was
covered with scraps of paper on which he had been scribbling. My name
was on every scrap, preceded or followed by an unfinished sentence,
thus: "Marcel is thinking-- When I was ill, Marcel thought-- Marcel
means to--" All these I gathered up carefully and put in my pocket. Then
I inoculated him with as strong a solution of the drug I was using on
him as was compatible with the safety of his life. Immediate danger
being thus averted, I determined to run no similar risk again.

For many days after this our voyage was monotonous. The deadly secret
shared by Edith Metford and myself drew us gradually nearer to each
other as time passed. She understood me, or, at least, gave me the
impression that she understood me. Little by little that capricious mood
which I have heretofore described changed into one of enduring
sympathy. With one trivial exception, this lasted until the end. But for
her help my mind would hardly have stood the strain of events which were
now at hand, whose livid shadows were projected in the rising fire of
Brande's relentless eyes.

Brande appeared to lose interest gradually in his ship's company. He
became daily more and more absorbed in his own thoughts. Natalie was
ever gentle, even tender. But I chafed at the impalpable barrier which
was always between us. Sometimes I thought that she would willingly have
ranged herself on my side. Some hidden power held her back. As to the
others, I began to like the boy Halley. He was lovable, if not athletic.
His devotion to Natalie, which never waned, did not now trouble me. It
was only a friendship, and I welcomed it. Had it been anything more, it
was not likely that he would have prevailed against the will of a man
who had done murder for his mistress. We steamed through the Malay
Archipelago, steering north, south, east, west, as if at haphazard,
until only the navigating officers and the director of the Society knew
how our course lay. We were searching for an island about the bearings
of which, it transpired, some mistake had been made. I do not know
whether the great laureate ever sailed these seas. But I know that his
glorious islands of flowers and islands of fruit, with all their
luscious imagery, were here eclipsed by our own islands of foliage. The
long lagoons, the deep blue bays, the glittering parti-coloured fish
that swam in visible shoals deep down amidst the submerged coral groves
over which we passed, the rich-toned sea-weeds and brilliant anemones,
the yellow strands and the steep cliffs, the riotous foliage that swept
down from the sky to the blue of the sea; all these natural beauties
seemed to cry to me with living voices--to me bound on a cruise of
universal death.

After a long spell of apparently aimless but glorious steaming, a small
island was sighted on our port bow. The Esmeralda was steered directly
for it, and we dropped anchor in a deep natural harbour on its southern
shore. Preparations for landing had been going on during the day, and
everything was ready for quitting the ship.

It was here that my first opportunity for making use of the gold I had
brought with me occurred. Anderson was called up by Brande, who made
him a short complimentary speech, and finished it by ordering his
officer to return to England, where further instructions would be given
him. This order was received in respectful silence. Captain Anderson had
been too liberally treated to demur if the Esmeralda had been ordered
to the South Pole.

Brande went below for a few minutes, and as soon as he had disappeared I
went forward to Anderson and hailed him nervously, for there was not a
moment to spare.

"Anderson," I said hurriedly, "you must have noticed that Mr. Brande is
an eccentric--"

"Pardon me, sir; it is not my business to comment upon my owner."

"I did not ask you to comment upon him, sir," I said sharply. "It is I
who shall comment upon him, and it is for you to say whether you will
undertake to earn my money by waiting in this harbour till I am ready to
sail back with you to England."

"Have you anything more to say, sir?" Anderson asked stiffly.

"I presume I have said enough."

"If you have nothing more to say I must ask you to leave the bridge,
and if it were not that you are leaving the ship this moment, I would
caution you not to be impertinent to me again."

He blew his whistle, and a steward ran forward.

"Johnson, see Mr. Marcel's luggage over the side at once." To me he said
shortly: "Quit my ship, sir."

This trivial show of temper, which, indeed, had been provoked by my own
hasty speech, turned my impatience into fury.

"Before I quit your ship," I said, with emphasis, "I will tell you how
you yourself will quit it. You will do so between two policemen if you
land in England, and between two marines if you think of keeping on the
high seas. Before we started, I sent a detailed statement of this ship,
the nature of this nefarious voyage, and the names of the passengers--or
as many as I knew--to a friend who will put it in proper hands if
anything befalls me. Go back without me and explain the loss of that
French fishing fleet which was sunk the very night we sailed. It is an
awkward coincidence to be explained by a man who returns from an unknown
voyage having lost his entire list of passengers. You cannot be aware
of what this man Brande intends, or you would at least stand by us as
long as your own safety permitted. In any case you cannot safely return
without us."

Anderson, after reflecting for a moment, apologised for his peremptory
words, and agreed to stand by night and day, with fires banked, until I,
and all whom I could prevail upon to return with me, got back to his
vessel. There was no danger of his running short of coal. A ship that
was practically an ocean liner in coal ballast would be a considerable
time in burning out her own cargo. But he insisted on a large money
payment in advance. I had foolishly mentioned that I had a little over
L5000 in gold. This he claimed on the plea that "in duty to himself"--a
favourite phrase of his--he could not accept less. But I think his sense
of duty was limited only by the fact that I had hardly another penny in
the world. Under the circumstances he might have waived all
remuneration. As he was firm, and as I had no time to haggle, I agreed
to give him the money. Our bargain was only completed when Brande
returned to the deck.

It was strange that on an island like that on which we were landing
there should be a regular army of natives waiting to assist us with our
baggage, and the saddled horses which were in readiness were out of
place in a primeval wilderness. An Englishman came forward, and,
saluting Brande, said all was ready for the start to the hills. This
explained the puzzle. An advance agent had made everything comfortable.
For Brande, his sister, and Miss Metford the best appointed horses were
selected. I, as physician to the chief, had one. The main body had to
make the journey on foot, which they did by very easy stages, owing to
the heat and the primitive track which formed the only road. Their
journey was not very long--perhaps ten miles in a direct line.

Mounted as we were, it was often necessary to stoop to escape the dense
masses of parasitic growth which hung in green festoons from every
branch of the trees on either side. Under this thick shade all the
riotous vegetation of the tropics had fought for life and struggled for
light and air till the wealth of their luxuriant death had carpeted the
underwood with a thick deposit of steaming foliage. As we ascended the
height, every mile in distance brought changes in the botanical
growths, which might have passed unnoticed by the ordinary observer or
ignorant pioneer. All were noted and commented on by Brande, whose eye
was still as keen as his brain had once been brilliant. His usual staid
demeanour changed suddenly. He romped ahead of us like a schoolboy out
for a holiday. Unlike a schoolboy, however, he was always seeking new
items of knowledge and conveying them to us with unaffected pleasure. He
was more like a master who had found new ground and new material for his
class. Natalie gave herself up like him to this enjoyment of the moment.
Edith Metford and I partly caught the glamour of their infectious
good-humour. But with both of us it was tempered by the knowledge of
what was in store.

When we arrived at our destination we dismounted, at Brande's request,
and tied our horses to convenient branches. He went forward, and,
pushing aside the underwood with both hands, motioned to us to follow
him till he stopped on a ledge of rock which overtopped a hollow in the
mountain. The gorge below was the most beautiful glade I ever looked
upon.

It was a paradise of foliage. Here and there a fallen tree had formed a
picturesque bridge over the mountain stream which meandered through it.
Far down below there was a waterfall, where gorgeous tree-ferns rose in
natural bowers, while others further still leant over the lotus-covered
stream, their giant leaves trailing in the slow-moving current. Tangled
masses of bracken rioted in wild abundance over a velvety green sod,
overshadowed by waving magnolias. Through the trees bright-plumaged
birds were flitting from branch to branch in songless flight, flashing
their brilliant colours through the sunny leaves. In places the water
splashed over moss-grown rocks into deep pools. Every drifting spray of
cloud threw over the dell a new light, deepening the shadows under the
great ferns.

It was here in this glorious fairyland; here upon this island, where
before us no white foot had ever trod; whose nameless people represented
the simplest types of human existence, that Herbert Brande was to put
his devilish experiment to the proof. I marvelled that he should have
selected so fair a spot for so terrible a purpose. But the papers which
I found later amongst the man's effects on the Esmeralda explain much
that was then incomprehensible to me.

Our camp was quickly formed, and our life was outwardly as happy as if
we had been an ordinary company of tourists. I say outwardly, because,
while we walked and climbed and collected specimens of botanical or
geological interest, there remained that latent dread which always
followed us, and dominated the most frivolous of our people, on all of
whom a new solemnity had fallen. For myself, the fact that the hour of
trial for my own experiment was daily drawing closer and more
inevitable, was sufficient to account for my constant and extreme
anxiety.

Brande joined none of our excursions. He was always at work in his
improvised laboratory. The boxes of material which had been brought from
the ship nearly filled it from floor to roof, and from the speed with
which these were emptied, it was evident that their contents had been
systematised before shipment. In place of the varied collection of
substances there grew up within the room a cone of compound matter in
which all were blended. This cone was smaller, Brande admitted, than
what he had intended. The supply of subordinate fulminates, though
several times greater than what was required, proved to be considerably
short. But as he had allowed himself a large margin--everything being
on a scale far exceeding the minimum which his calculations had pointed
to as sufficient--this deficiency did not cause him more than a
temporary annoyance. So he worked on.

When we had been three weeks on the island I found the suspense greater
than I could bear. The crisis was at hand, and my heart failed me. I
determined to make a last appeal to Natalie, to fly with me to the ship.
Edith Metford would accompany us. The rest might take the risk to which
they had consented.

I found Natalie standing on the high rock whence the most lovely view of
the dell could be obtained, and as I approached her silently she was not
aware of my presence until I laid my hand on her shoulder.

"Natalie," I said wistfully, for the girl's eyes were full of tears, "do
you mind if I withdraw now from this enterprise, in which I cannot be of
the slightest use, and of which I most heartily disapprove?"

"The Society would not allow you to withdraw. You cannot do so without
its permission, and hope to live within a thousand miles of it," she
answered gravely.

"I should not care to live within ten thousand miles of it. I should try
to get and keep the earth's diameter between myself and it."

She looked up with an expression of such pain that my heart smote me.
"How about me? I cannot live without you now," she said softly.

"Don't live without me. Come with me. Get rid of this infamous
association of lunatics, whose object they themselves cannot really
appreciate, and whose means are murder--"

But there she stopped me. "My brother could find me out at the uttermost
ends of the earth if I forsook him, and you know I do not mean to
forsake him. For yourself--do not try to desert. It would make no
difference. Do not believe that any consideration would cause me
willingly to give you a moment's pain, or that I should shrink from
sacrificing myself to save you." With one of her small white hands she
gently pressed my head towards her. Her lips touched my forehead, and
she whispered: "Do not leave me. It will soon be over now. I--I--need
you."

As I was returning dejected after my fruitless appeal to Natalie, I met
Edith Metford, to whom I had unhappily mentioned my proposal for an
escape.

"Is it arranged? When do we start?" she asked eagerly.

"It is not arranged, and we do not start," I answered in despair.

"You told me you would go with her or without her," she cried
passionately. "It is shameful--unmanly."

"It is certainly both if I really said what you tell me. I was not
myself at the moment, and my tongue must have slandered me. I stay to
the end. But you will go. Captain Anderson will receive you--"

"How am I to be certain of that?"

"I paid him for your passage, and have his receipt."

"And you really think I would go and leave--leave--"

"Natalie? I think you would be perfectly justified."

At this the girl stamped her foot passionately on the ground and burst
into tears. Nor would she permit any of the slight caresses I offered.
I thought her old caprices were returning. She flung my arm rudely from
her and left me bewildered.





Next: This Earth Shall Die

Previous: If Not Too Late!



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