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Miss Metford's Plan







From: The Crack Of Doom

We coaled at Port Said like any ordinary steamer. Although I had more
than once made the Red Sea voyage, I had never before taken the
slightest interest in the coaling of the vessel on which I was a
passenger. This time everything was different. That which interested me
before seemed trivial now. And that which had before seemed trivial was
now absorbing. I watched the coaling--commonplace as the spectacle
was--with vivid curiosity. The red lights, the sooty demons at work,
every bag of coals they carried, and all the coal dust clouds they
created, were fitting episodes in a voyage such as ours. We took an
enormous quantity of coal on board. I remained up most of the night in a
frame of mind which I thought none might envy. I myself would have made
light of it had I known what was still in store for the Esmeralda and
her company. It was nearly morning when I turned in. When I awoke we
were nearing the Red Sea.

On deck, the conversation of our party was always eccentric, but this
must be said for it: there was sometimes a scintillating brilliance in
it that almost blinded one to its extreme absurdity. The show of high
spirits which was very general was, in the main, unaffected. For the
rest it was plainly assumed. But those who assumed their parts did so
with a histrionic power which was all the more surprising when it is
remembered that the origin of their excellent playing was centred in
their own fears. I preserved a neutral attitude. I did not venture on
any overt act of insubordination. That would have only meant my
destruction, without any counter-balancing advantage in the way of
baulking an enterprise in which I was a most unwilling participator. And
to pretend what I did not feel was a task which I had neither stomach to
undertake nor ability to carry out successfully. In consequence I kept
my own counsel--and that of Edith Metford.

Brande was the most easily approached maniac I had ever met. His
affability continued absolutely consistent. I took advantage of this to
say to him on a convenient opportunity: "Why did you bring these people
with you? They must all be useless, and many of them little better than
a nuisance!"

"Marcel, you are improving. Have you attained the telepathic power? You
have read my mind." This was said with a pleasant smile.

"I can not read your mind," I answered; "I only diagnose."

"Your diagnosis is correct. I answer you in a sentence. They are all
sympathetic, and human sympathy is necessary to me until my purpose is
fulfilled."

"You do not look to me for any measure of this sympathy, I trust?"

"I do not. You are antipathetic."

"I am."

"But necessary, all the same."

"So be it, until the proper time shall come."

"It will never come," Brande said firmly.

"We shall see," I replied as firmly as himself.

Next evening as we were steaming down the blue waters--deep blue they
always seemed to me--of the Red Sea, I was sitting on the foredeck
smoking and trying to think. I did not notice how the time passed. What
seemed to me an hour at most, must have been three or four. With the
exception of the men of the crew who were on duty, I was alone, for the
heat was intense, and most of our people were lying in their cabins
prostrated in spite of the wind-sails which were spread from every port
to catch the breeze. My meditations were as usual gloomy and despondent.
They were interrupted by Miss Metford. She joined me so noiselessly that
I was not aware of her presence until she laid her hand on my arm. I
started at her touch, but she whispered a sharp warning, so full of
suppressed emotion that I instantly recovered a semblance of unconcern.

The girl was very white and nervous. This contrast from her usual
equanimity was disquieting. She clung to me hysterically as she gasped:

"Marcel, it is a mercy I have found you alone, and that there is one
sane man in this shipful of lunatics."

"I am afraid you are not altogether right," I said, as I placed a seat
for her close to mine. "I can hardly be sane when I am a voluntary
passenger on board this vessel."

"Do you really think they mean what they say?" she asked hurriedly,
without noticing my remark.

"I really think they have discovered the secret of extraordinary natural
forces, so powerful and so terrible that no one can say what they may or
may not accomplish. And that is the reason I begged you not to come on
this voyage."

"What was the good of asking me not to come without giving me some
reason?"

"Had I done so, they might have killed you as they have done others
before."

"You might have chanced that, seeing that it will probably end that
way."

"And they would certainly have killed me."

"Ah!"

I wondered at the sudden intensity of the girl's sharp gasp when I said
this, and marvelled too, how she, who had always been so mannish,
nestled close to me and allowed her head to sink down on my shoulder. I
pitied the strong-willed, self-reliant nature which had given way under
some strain of which I had yet to be told. So I stooped and touched her
cheek with my lips in a friendly way, at which she looked up to me with
half-closed eyes, and whispered in a voice strangely soft and womanish
for her:

"If they must kill us, I wish they would kill us now."

I stroked her soft cheek gently, and urged a less hopeless view. "Even
if the worst come, we may as well live as long as we can."

Whereupon to my surprise she, having shot one quick glance into my eyes,
put my arm away and drew her chair apart from mine. Her head was turned
away from me, but I could not but notice that her bosom rose and fell
swiftly. Presently she faced round again, lit a cigarette, put her hands
in the pocket of her jacket, and her feet on another chair, and said
indifferently:

"You are right. Even if the worst must come, we may as well live as long
as we can."

This sudden change in her manner surprised me. I knew I had no art in
dealing with women, so I let it pass without comment, and looked out at
the glassy sea.

After some minutes of silence, the girl spoke to me again.

"Do you know anything of the actual plans of these maniacs?"

"No. I only know their preposterous purpose."

"Well, I know how it is to be done. Natalie was restless last night--you
know that we share the same cabin--and she raved a bit. I kept her in
her berth by sheer force, but I allowed her to talk."

This was serious. I drew my chair close to Miss Metford's and whispered,
"For heaven's sake, speak low." Then I remembered Brande's power, and
wrung my hands in helpless impotence. "You forget Brande. At this moment
he is taking down every word we say."

"He's doing nothing of the sort."

"But you forget--"

"I don't forget. By accident I put morphia in the tonic he takes, and he
is now past telepathy for some hours at least. He's sound asleep. I
suppose if I had not done it by accident he would have known what I was
doing, and so have refused the medicine. Anyhow, accident or no
accident, I have done it."

"Thank God!" I cried.

"And this precious disintegrating agent! They haven't it with them, it
seems. To manufacture it in sufficient quantity would be impossible in
any civilised country without fear of detection or interruption. Brande
has the prescription, formula--what do you call it?--and if you could
get the paper and--"

"Throw it overboard!"

"Rubbish! They would work it all out again."

"What then?" I whispered.

"Steal the paper and--wouldn't it do to put in an extra x or y, or
stick a couple of additional figures into any suitable vacancy? Don't
you think they'd go on with the scheme and--"

"And?"

"And make a mess of it!"

"Miss Metford," I said, rising from my chair, "I mean Metford, I know
you like to be addressed as a man--or used to like it."

"Yes, I used to," she assented coldly.

"I am going to take you in my arms and kiss you."

"I'm hanged if you are!" she exclaimed, so sharply that I was suddenly
abashed. My intended familiarity and its expression appeared grotesque,
although a few minutes before she was so friendly. But I could not waste
precious time in studying a girl's caprices, so I asked at once:

"How can I get this paper?"

"I said steal it, if you recollect." Her voice was now hard, almost
harsh. "You can get it in Brande's cabin, if you are neither afraid nor
jealous."

"I am not much afraid, and I will try it. What do you mean by jealous?"

"I mean, would you, to save Natalie Brande--for they will certainly
succeed in blowing themselves up, if nobody else--consent to her
marrying another man, say that young lunatic Halley, who is always
dangling after her when you are not?"

"Yes," I answered, after some thought. For Halley's attentions to
Natalie had been so marked, the plainly inconsequent mention of him in
this matter did not strike me. "If that is necessary to save her, of
course I would consent to it. Why do you ask? In my place you would do
the same."

"No. I'd see the ship and all its precious passengers at the bottom of
the sea first."

"Ah! but you are not a man."

"Right! and what's more, I'm glad of it." Then looking down at the
rational part of her costume, she added sharply, "I sha'n't wear these
things again."





Next: Rockingham To The Sharks

Previous: No Death Save In Life



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