AFTER supper about a week later, Denman and Florrie sat in the deck chairs, watching the twilight give way to the gloom of the evening, and speculating in a desultory manner on the end of this never-ending voyage, when Munson again darted on deck, and ran up the bridge stairs with a sheet of paper, barely discernible in the gathering darkness, and handed it to Jenkins, who peered over it in the glow from the binnacle.
Then Jenkins blew on a boatswain’s whistle—the shrill, trilling, and penetrating call that rouses all hands in the morning, but is seldom given again throughout the day except in emergencies.
All hands responded. Both cooks rushed up from the galley, the engineers on watch shut off all burners and appeared, and men tumbled up from the forecastle, all joining Jenkins and Munson on the bridge.
Denman strained his ears, but could hear nothing, though he saw each man bending over the paper in turn.
Then they quickly went back to their places below or on deck; and, as the bells were given to the engine room, the rasping of the wireless could be heard.
As the two cooks came aft, Denman heard them discussing excitedly but inaudibly the matter in hand; and, his curiosity getting the better of his pride, he waited only long enough to see the boat steadied at east-northeast, then went down and forward to the door leading into the passage that led to the galley.
Billings was doing most of the talking, in a high-pitched, querulous tone, and Daniels answered only by grunts and low-pitched monosyllables.
“Gigantia—ten to-morrow—five million,” were a few of the words and phrases Denman caught; and at last he heard the concluding words of the talk.
“Dry up,” said Daniels, loudly and threateningly. “Yes, thirteen is an unlucky number; but, if you don’t shut up and clear off these dishes, I’ll make our number twelve. Glad you’ve got something to think about besides that woman, but—shut up. You make me tired.”
Denman went back to Florrie somewhat worried, but no longer puzzled; yet he gave the girl none of his thoughts that evening—he waited until morning, when, after a look around a bright horizon dotted with sail and steam, he said to her as she came up:
“Eat all the breakfast you can this morning, Florrie, for it may be some time before we’ll eat again.”
“Why, Billie, what is the matter?” asked the girl.
“We’ve traveled at cruising speed all night,” he answered, “and now must be up close to the ‘corner,’ as they call the position where the outbound liners change to the great circle course.”
“Well?” she said, inquiringly.
“Did you ever hear of the Gigantia?”
“Why, of course—you mean the new liner?”
“Yes; the latest and largest steamship built. She was on her maiden passage when this boat left port, and is about due to start east again. Florrie, she carries five million in bullion, and these fellows mean to hold her up.”
“Goodness!” exclaimed the girl. “You mean that they will rob her—a big steamship?”
“She’s big enough, of course, to tuck this boat down a hatchway; but these passenger boats carry no guns except for saluting, while this boat could sink her with the armament she carries. Look at those torpedoes—eight altogether, and more below decks. Eight compartments could be flooded, and bulkheads are not reliable. But will they dare? Desperate though they are, will they dare fire on a ship full of passengers?”
“How did you learn this, Billie? It seems impossible—incredible.”
“Remember the gun and torpedo drill!” said Denman, softly, yet excitedly. “Our being in these latitudes is significant. They put Casey ashore the other night and robbed the captain and me to outfit him. I overheard some of the talk. He has reached New York, secured a position as night operator in a wireless station, studied the financial news, and sent word last night that the Gigantia sails at ten this morning with five million in gold.”
“And where do you think she is now?” asked the girl, glancing around the horizon.
“At her dock in New York. She’ll be out here late in the afternoon, I think. But, heavens, what chances!—to wait all day, while any craft that comes along may recognize this boat and notify the nearest station! Why didn’t they intercept the lane route out at sea, where there is no crowd like this? I can only account for it by the shortage of stores. Yes; that’s it. No sane pirate would take such risks. We’ve plenty of oil and water, but little food.”
That Denman had guessed rightly was partly indicated by the action of the men and the boat that day.
All hands kept the deck, and their first task was to discard the now useless signal mast, which might help identify the boat as the runaway destroyer.
Two engineers sawed nearly through the mast at its base, while the others cleared away the light shrouds and forestay. Then a few tugs on the lee shroud sent it overboard, while the men dodged from under. Beyond smashing the bridge rail it did no damage.
The dodging tactics were resumed. A steamer appearing on the east or west horizon, heading so as to pass to the northward or southward, was given a wider berth by a dash at full speed in the opposite direction.
Every face—even Florrie’s and Denman’s—wore an anxious, nervous expression, and the tension increased as the hours went by.
Dinner was served, but brought no relief. Men spoke sharply to one another; and Jenkins roared his orders from the bridge, bringing a culmination to the strain that no one could have foreseen.
The sudden appearance of an inbound steamer out of a haze that had arisen to the east necessitated immediate full speed. Riley was in charge of the engine room, but Sampson stood at the hatch exercising an unofficial supervision; and it was he that received Jenkins’ thundering request for more steam.
Sampson, in a voice equally loud, and with more profanity, admonished Jenkins to descend to the lower regions and attend to his own affairs.
Jenkins yielded. Leaving Forsythe in charge of the bridge, he came down the stairs and aft on the run. Not a word was spoken by either; but, with the prescience that men feel at the coming of a fight, the two cooks left their dishes and the engineers their engines to crowd their heads into the hatches. Riley showed his disfigured face over the heads of the other two; and on the bridge Forsythe watched with the same evil grin.
But few blows were passed, then the giants locked, and, twisting and writhing, whirled about the deck. Florrie screamed, but Denman silenced her.
“Nothing can be done,” he said, “without violating the parole; and even if—”
He stopped, for the two huge forms, tightly embraced, had reeled like one solid object to the rail, which, catching them at just above the knees, had sent them overboard, exactly as Sampson had gone before.
“Man overboard!” yelled Denman, uselessly, for all had seen. But he threw a life-buoy fastened to the quarter, and was about to throw another, when he looked, and saw that his first was a hundred feet this side of the struggling men.
He turned to glance forward. Men were running about frantically, and shouting, but nothing was done, and the boat still held at a matter of forty knots an hour. Riley grinned from the hatch; and, forward on the bridge, Forsythe turned his now sober face away, to look at the compass, and at the steamer fast disappearing in the haze that followed her.
Then, more as an outlet for his anger and disgust than in the hope of saving life, Denman threw the second life-buoy high in air over the stern, and led the shocked and hysterical Florrie down the stairs.
“Rest here a while,” he said, gently, “and try to forget it. I don’t know what they’ll do now, but—keep your pistol with you at all times.”
He went up with a grave face and many heartfelt misgivings; for, with Forsythe and Riley now the master spirits, things might not go well with them.