ONE MORNING there was a council of war amidships to which Denman was not invited until it had adjourned as a council to become a committee of ways and means. Then they came aft in a body, and asked him to navigate.
“No,” said Denman, firmly, rising to his feet and facing them. “I will not navigate unless you surrender this craft to me, and work her back to Boston, where you will return to the prison.”
“Well, we won’t do that,” shouted several, angrily.
“Wait, you fellows,” said Jenkins, firmly, “and speak respectfully to an officer, while he acts like one. Mr. Denman, your position need not be changed for the worse. You can command this boat and all hands if you will take us to the African coast.”
“My position would be changed,” answered Denman. “If I command this boat, I take her back to Boston, not to the African coast.”
“Very well, sir,” said Jenkins, a shade of disappointment on his face. “We cannot force you to join us, or help us; so—well, come forward, you fellows.”
“Say, Jenkins!” broke in Forsythe. “You’re doing a lot of dictating here, and I’ve wondered why! Who gave you the right to decide? You admit your incompetency; you can’t navigate, can you?”
“No, I cannot,” retorted Jenkins, flushing. “Neither can I learn, at my age. Neither can you.”
“I can’t?” stormed Forsythe, his eyes glaring white as he glanced from Jenkins to Denman and back. “Well, I’ll tell you I can. I tell you I haven’t forgotten all I learned at school, and that I can pick up navigation without currying favor from this milk-fed thief. You know well”—he advanced and held his fist under Denman’s face—“that I won the appointment you robbed me of, and that the uniform you wear belongs to me.”
At the first word Denman’s heart gave the old, familiar thump and jump into his throat. Then came a quick reaction—a tingling at the hair roots, an opening of the eyes, followed by their closing to narrow slits, and, with the full weight of his body behind, he crashed his fist into Forsythe’s face, sending him reeling and whirling to the deck.
He would have followed, to repeat the punishment, but the others stopped him. In an intoxication of ecstasy at the unexpected adjustment of his mental poise, he struck out again and again, and floored three or four of them before Jenkins backed him against the companion.
“He’s broken his parole—put him in irons—chuck him overboard,” they chorused, and closed around him threateningly, though Forsythe, his hand to his face, remained in the background.
“That’s right, sir,” said Jenkins, holding Denman at the end of one long arm. “You have violated your agreement with us, and we must consider you a prisoner under confinement.”
“All right,” panted Denman. “Iron me, if you like, but first form a ring and let me thrash that dog. He thrashed me at school when I was the smaller and weaker. I’ve promised him a licking. Let me give it to him.”
“No, sir, we will not,” answered Jenkins. “Things are too serious for fighting. You must hand me that pistol and any arms you may have, and be confined to the wardroom. And you, Forsythe,” he said, looking at the victim, “if you can master navigation, get busy and make good. And you other ginks get out of here. Talk it over among yourselves, and if you agree with Forsythe that I’m not in command here, get busy, too, and I’ll overrule you.”
He released Denman, moved around among them, looking each man steadily in the face, and they straggled forward.
“Now, sir,” he said to Denman, “come below.”
Denman followed him down the companion and into the wardroom. Knowing the etiquette as well as Jenkins, he led him to his room, opened his desk and all receptacles, and Jenkins secured the revolver.
“Is this all you have, sir?” asked Jenkins.
“Why do you ask that?” answered Denman, hotly. “As a prisoner, why may I not lie to you?”
“Because, Mr. Denman, I think you wouldn’t. However, I won’t ask; I’ll search this room and the whole boat, confiscating every weapon. You will have the run of your stateroom and the wardroom, but will not be allowed on deck. And you will not be annoyed, except perhaps to lend Forsythe any books he may want. He’s the only educated man in the crowd.”
“Better send him down under escort,” responded Denman, “if you want him back.”
“Yes, yes, that’ll be attended to. I’ve no part in your private affairs, sir; but you gave him one good one, and that ought to be enough for a while. If you tackle him again, you’ll have the whole bunch at you. Better let well enough alone.”
Denman sat down in his room, and Jenkins departed. Soon he came back with three others—the steadiest men of the crew—and they made a systematic search for weapons in the wardroom and all staterooms opening from it. Then they locked the doors leading to the captain’s quarters and the doors leading forward, and went on deck, leaving Denman a prisoner, free to concoct any antagonistic plans that came to his mind.
But he made none, as yet; he was too well-contented and happy, not so much in being released from a somewhat false position as a prisoner under parole as in the lifting of the burden of the years, the shame, humiliation, chagrin, and anger dating from the school-day thrashing. He smiled as he recalled the picture of Forsythe staggering along the deck. The smile became a grin, then a soft chuckle, ending in joyous laughter; then he applied the masculine leveler of all emotion—he smoked.
The staterooms—robbed of all weapons—were left open, and, as each room contained a deadlight, or circular window, he had a view of the sea on each beam, but nothing ahead or astern; nor could he hear voices on deck unless pitched in a high key, for the men, their training strong upon them, remained forward.
There was nothing on either horizon at present. The boat was storming along to the southward, as he knew by a glance at the “telltale” overhead, and all seemed well with the runaways until a sudden stopping of the engines roused him up, to peer out the deadlights, and speculate as to what was ahead.
But he saw nothing, from either side, and strained his ears for sounds from the deck. There was excitement above. Voices from forward came to him, muffled, but angry and argumentative. They grew louder as the men came aft, and soon he could distinguish Jenkins’ loud profanity, drowning the protests of the others.
“She’s afire and her boats are burned. There’s a woman aboard. I tell you we’re not going to let ’em drown. Over with that boat, or I’ll stretch some o’ you out on deck—Oh, you will, Forsythe?”
Then came a thud, as of the swift contact of two hard objects, and a sound as of a bag of potatoes falling to the deck, which told Denman that some one had been knocked down.
“Go ahead with the machine, Sampson,” said Jenkins again, “and forward, there. Port your wheel, and steer for the yacht.”
Denman sprang to a starboard deadlight and looked. He could now see, slantwise through the thick glass, a large steam yacht, afire from her mainmast to her bow, and on the still intact quarter-deck a woman frantically beckoning. Men, nearer the fire, seemed to be fighting it.
The picture disappeared from view as the boat, under the impulse of her engines and wheel, straightened to a course for the wreck. Soon the engines stopped again, and Denman heard the sounds of a boat being lowered. He saw this boat leave the side, manned by Hawkes, Davis, Forsythe, and Kelly, but it soon left his field of vision, and he waited.
Then came a dull, coughing, prolonged report, and the voices on deck broke out.
“Blown up!” yelled Jenkins. “She’s sinking forward! She’s cut in two! Where are they? Where’s the woman? That wasn’t powder, Riley. What was it?”
“Steam,” answered the machinist, coolly. “They didn’t rake the fires until too late, I suppose, and left the engine under one bell possibly, while they steered ’fore the wind with the preventer tiller.”
“They’ve got somebody. Can you see? It’s the woman! Blown overboard. See any one else? I don’t.”
Riley did not answer, and soon Jenkins spoke again.
“They’re coming back. Only the woman—only the woman out o’ the whole crowd.”
“They’d better hurry up,” responded Riley. “What’s that over to the nor’ard?”
“Nothing but a tramp,” said Jenkins, at length. “But we don’t want to be interviewed. Bear a hand, you fellows,” he shouted. “Is the woman dead?”
“No—guess not,” came the answer, through the small deadlight. “Fainted away since we picked her up. Burned or scalded, somewhat.”