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Rockingham To The Sharks







From: The Crack Of Doom

At one o'clock in the morning I arose, dressed hurriedly, drew on a pair
of felt slippers, and put a revolver in my pocket. It was then time to
put Edith Metford's proposal to the proof, and she would be waiting for
me on deck to hear whether I had succeeded in it. We had parted a couple
of hours before on somewhat chilling terms. I had agreed to follow her
suggestion, but I could not trouble my tired brain by guesses at the
cause of her moods.

It was very dark. There was only enough light to enable me to find my
way along the corridor, off which the state-rooms occupied by Brande and
his immediate lieutenants opened. All the sleepers were restless from
the terrible heat. As I stole along, a muffled word, a sigh, or a
movement in the berths, made me pause at every step with a beating
heart. Having listened till all was quiet, I moved on again noiselessly.
I was almost at the end of the corridor. So intent had I been on
preserving perfect silence, it did not sooner occur to me that I was
searching for any special door. I had forgotten Brande's number!

I could no more think of it than one can recall the name of a
half-forgotten acquaintance suddenly encountered in the street. It might
have been fourteen, or forty-one; or a hundred and fifty. Every number
was as likely as it was unlikely. I tried vainly to concentrate my mind.
The result was nothing. The missing number gave no clue. To enter the
wrong room in that ship at that hour meant death for me. Of that I was
certain. To leave the right room unentered gave away my first chance in
the unequal battle with Brande. Then, as I knew that my first chance
would probably be my last, if not availed of, I turned to the nearest
door and quietly tried the handle. The door was not locked. I entered
the state-room.

"What do you want?" It was Halley's voice that came from the berth.

"Pardon me," I whispered, "a mistake. The heat, you know. Went on deck,
and have blundered into your room."

"Oh, all right. Who are you?"

"Brande."

"Good-night. You did not blunder far;" this sleepily.

I went out and closed the door quietly. I had gained something. I was
within one door of my destination, for I knew that Halley was berthed
between Rockingham and Brande. But I did not know on which side Brande's
room was, and I dared not ask. I tried the next door going forward. It
opened like the other. I went in.

"Hallo there!" This time no sleepy or careless man challenged me. It was
Rockingham's voice.

"May I not enter my own room?" I whispered.

"This is not your room. You are?" Rockingham sprang up in his berth, but
before he could leave it I was upon him.

"I am Arthur Marcel. And this iron ring which I press against your left
ear is the muzzle of my revolver. Speak, move, breathe above your
natural breath and your brains go through that porthole. Now, loose your
hold of my arm and come with me."

"You fool!" hissed Rockingham. "You dare not fire. You know you dare
not."

He was about to call out, but my left hand closed on his throat, and a
gurgling gasp was all that issued from him.

I laid down the revolver and turned the ear of the strangling man close
to my mouth. I had little time to think; but thought flies fast when
such deadly peril menaces the thinker as that which I must face if I
failed to make terms with the man who was in my power. I knew that
notwithstanding his intensely disagreeable nature, if he gave his
promise either by spoken word or equivalent sign, I could depend upon
him. There were no liars in Brande's Society. But the word I could not
trust him to say. I must have his sign. I whispered:

"You know I do not wish to kill you. I shall never have another happy
day if you force me to it. I have no choice. You must yield or die. If
you will yield and stand by me rather than against me in what shall
follow, choose life by taking your right hand from my wrist and touching
my left shoulder. I will not hurt you meanwhile. If you choose death,
touch me with your left."

The sweat stood on my forehead in big beads as I waited for his choice.
It was soon made. He unlocked his left hand and placed it firmly on my
right shoulder.

He had chosen death.

So the man was only a physical coward--or perhaps he had only made a
choice of alternatives.

I said slowly and in great agony, "May God have mercy on your soul--and
mine!" on which the muscles in my left arm stiffened. The big biceps--an
heirloom of my athletic days--thickened up, and I turned my eyes away
from the dying face, half hidden by the darkness. His struggles were
very terrible, but with my weight upon his lower limbs, and my grasp
upon his windpipe, that death-throe was as silent as it was horrible.
The end came slowly. I could not bear the horror of it longer. I must
finish it and be done with it. I put my right arm under the man's
shoulders and raised the upper part of his body from the berth. Then a
desperate wrench with my left arm, and there was a dull crack like the
snapping of a dry stick. It was over. Rockingham's neck was broken.

I wiped away the bloody froth that oozed from the gaping mouth, and
tried to compose decently the contorted figure. I covered the face.
Then I started on my last mission, for now I knew the door. I had
bought the knowledge dearly, and I meant to use it for my own purpose,
careless of what violence might be necessary to accomplish my end.

When I entered Brande's state-room I found the electric light full on.
He was seated at a writing-table with his head resting on his arms,
which hung crossways over the desk. The sleeper breathed so deeply it
was evident that the effect of the morphia was still strong upon him.
One hand clutched a folded parchment. His fingers clasped it
nervelessly, and I had only to force them open one by one in order to
withdraw the manuscript. As I did this, he moaned and moved in his
chair. I had no fear of his awaking. My hand shook as I unfolded the
parchment which I unconsciously handled as carefully as though the thing
itself were as deadly as the destruction which might be wrought by its
direction.

To me the whole document was a mass of unintelligible formulae. My rusty
university education could make nothing of it. But I could not waste
time in trying to solve the puzzle, for I did not know what moment some
other visitor might arrive to see how Brande fared. I first examined
with a pocket microscope the ink of the manuscript, and then making a
scratch with Brande's pen on a page of my note-book, I compared the two.
The colours were identical. It was the same ink.

In several places where a narrow space had been left vacant, I put 1 in
front of the figures which followed. I had no reason for making this
particular alteration, save that the figure 1 is more easily forged than
any other, and the forgery is consequently more difficult to detect. My
additions, when the ink was dry, could only have been discovered by one
who was informed that the document had been tampered with. It was
probable that a drawer which stood open with the keys in the lock was
the place where Brande kept this paper; where he would look for it on
awaking. I locked it in the drawer and put the keys into his pocket.

There was something still to do with the sleeping man, whose brain
compassed such marvellous powers. His telepathic faculty must be
destroyed. I must keep him seriously ill, without killing him. As long
as he remained alive his friends would never question his calculations,
and the fiasco which was possible under any circumstances would then be
assured. I had with me an Eastern drug, which I had bought from an
Indian fakir once in Murzapoor. The man was an impostor, whose tricks
did not impose on me. But the drug, however he came by it, was reliable.
It was a poison which produced a mild form of cerebritis that dulled but
did not deaden the mental powers. It acted almost identically whether
administered sub-cutaneously or, of course in a larger dose, internally.
I brought it home with the intention of giving it to a friend who was
interested in vivisection. I did not think that I myself should be the
first and last to experiment with it. It served my purpose well.

The moment I pricked his skin, Brande moved in his seat. My hand was on
his throat. He nestled his head down again upon his arms, and drew a
deep breath. Had he moved again that breath would have been his last. I
had been so wrought upon by what I had already done that night, I would
have taken his life without the slightest hesitation, if the sacrifice
seemed necessary.

When my operation was over, I left the room and moved silently along the
corridor till I came to the ladder leading to the deck. Edith Metford
was waiting for me as we had arranged. She was shivering in spite of the
awful heat.

"Have you done it?" she whispered.

"I have," I answered, without saying how much I had done. "Now you must
retire--and rest easy. The formula won't work. I have put both it and
Brande himself out of gear."

"Thank God!" she gasped, and then a sudden faintness came over her. It
passed quickly, and as soon as she was sufficiently restored, I begged
her to go below. She pleaded that she could not sleep, and asked me to
remain with her upon the deck. "It would be absurd to suppose that
either of us could sleep this night," she very truly said. On which I
was obliged to tell her plainly that she must go below. I had more to
do.

"Can I help?" she asked anxiously.

"No. If you could, I would ask you, for you are a brave girl. I have
something now to get through which is not woman's work."

"Your work is my work," she answered. "What is it?"

"I have to lower a body overboard without anyone observing me."

There was no time for discussion, so I told her at once, knowing that
she would not give way otherwise. She started at my words, but said
firmly:

"How will you do that unobserved by the 'watch'? Go down and bring up
your--bring it up. I will keep the men employed." She went forward, and
I turned again to the companion.

When I got back to Rockingham's cabin I took a sheet of paper and wrote,
"Heat--Mad!" making no attempt to imitate his writing. I simply scrawled
the words with a rough pen in the hope that they would pass as a message
from a man who was hysterical when he wrote them. Then I turned to the
berth and took up the body. It was not a pleasant thing to do. But it
must be done.

I was a long time reaching the deck, for the arms and legs swung to and
fro, and I had to move cautiously lest they should knock against the
woodwork I had to pass. I got it safely up and hurried aft with it.
Edith, I knew, would contrive to keep the men on watch engaged until I
had disposed of my burden. I picked up a coil of rope and made it fast
to the dead man's neck. Taking one turn of the rope round a boat-davit,
I pushed the thing over the rail. I intended to let go the rope the
moment the weight attached to it was safely in the sea, and so lowered
away silently, paying out the line without excessive strain owing to the
support of the davit round which I had wound it. I had not to wait so
long as that, for just as the body was dangling over the foaming wake of
the steamer, a little streak of moonlight shot out from behind a bank of
cloud and lighted the vessel with a sudden gleam. I was startled by
this, and held on, fearing that some watching eye might see my curious
movements. For a minute I leaned over the rail and watched the track of
the steamer as though I had come on deck for the air. There was a quick
rush near the vessel's quarter. Something dark leaped out of the water,
and there was a sharp snap--a crunch. The lower limbs were gone in the
jaws of a shark. I let go the rope in horror, and the body dropped
splashing into that hideous fishing-ground. Sick to death I turned
away.

"Get below quickly," Edith Metford said in my ear. "They heard the
splash, slight as it was, and are coming this way." Her warning was
nearly a sob.

We hurried down the companion as fast as we dared, and listened to the
comments of the watch above. They were soon satisfied that nothing of
importance had occurred, and resumed their stations.

Before we parted on that horrible night, Edith said in a trembling
voice, "You have done your work like a brave man."

"Say rather, like a forger and murderer," I answered.

"No," she maintained. "Many men before you have done much worse in a
good cause. You are not a forger. You are a diplomat. You are not a
murderer. You are a hero."

But I, being new to this work of slaughter and deception, could only
deprecate her sympathy and draw away. I felt that my very presence near
her was pollution. I was unclean, and I told her that I was so.
Whereupon, without hesitation, she put her arms round my neck, and said
clinging closely to me:

"You are not unclean--you are free from guilt. And--Arthur--I will kiss
you now."





Next: If Not Too Late!

Previous: Miss Metford's Plan



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