IN about ten minutes Forsythe ground the wheel over and headed back; but, though Denman kept a sharp lookout, he saw nothing of the two men or the life-buoys. He could feel no hope for Sampson, who was unable to swim. As for Jenkins, possibly a swimmer, even should he reach a life-buoy, his plight would only be prolonged to a lingering death by hunger and thirst; for there was but one chance in a million that he would be seen and picked up.
After ten minutes on the back track, the boat was logically in about the same position as when she had fled from the steamer; but Forsythe kept on for another ten minutes, when, the haze having enveloped the whole horizon, he stopped the engines, and the boat lost way, rolling sluggishly in the trough.
There was no wind, and nothing but the long ground swell and the haze to inconvenience them; the first in making it difficult to sight a telescope, the second in hiding everything on the horizon, though hiding the boat herself.
But at last Forsythe fixed something in the glass, gazing long and intently at a faint spot appearing to the northwest; and Denman, following suit with the binoculars, saw what he was looking at—a huge bulk coming out of the haze carrying one short mast and five funnels. Then he remembered the descriptions he had read of the mighty Gigantia—the only ship afloat with five funnels since the Great Eastern.
Forsythe called, and all hands flocked to the bridge, where they discussed the situation; and, as Denman judged by the many faces turned his way, discussed him and Florrie. But whatever resulted from the latter came to nothing.
They suddenly left the bridge, to disappear in the forecastle for a few moments, then to reappear—each man belted and pistoled, and one bringing an outfit to Forsythe on the bridge.
Two engineers went to the engines, Forsythe rang full speed to them, and the rest, cooks and all, swung the four torpedo tubes to port and manned the forward one.
The big ship seemed to grow in size visibly as her speed, plus the destroyer’s, brought them together. In a few moments Denman made out details—six parallel lines of deadlights, one above the other, and extending from bow to stern, a length of a thousand feet; three tiers of deck houses, one above the other amidships; a line of twenty boats to a side along the upper deck, and her after rails black with passengers; while as many as six uniformed officers stood on her bridge—eighty feet above the water line.
The little destroyer rounded to alongside, and slowed down to a little more than the speed of the larger ship, which permitted her to creep along the huge, black side, inch by inch, until the bridges were nearly abreast. Then a white-whiskered man on the high bridge hailed:
“Steamer ahoy! What do you want?”
“Want all that bullion stowed in your strong room,” answered Forsythe through a megaphone; “and, if you please, speak more distinctly, for the wash of your bow wave prevents my hearing what you say.”
The officer was handed a megaphone, and through it his voice came down like a thunderclap.
“You want the bullion stowed in our strong room, do you? Anything else you want, sir?”
“Yes,” answered Forsythe. “We want a boat full of provisions. Three barrels of flour, the rest in canned meats and vegetables.”
“Anything else?” There was as much derision in the voice as can carry through a megaphone.
“That is all,” answered Forsythe. “Load your gold into one of your own boats, the provisions in another. Lower them down and let the falls unreeve, so that they will go adrift. We will pick them up.”
“Well, of all the infernal impudence I ever heard, yours is the worst. I judge that you are that crew of jail-breakers we’ve heard of that stole a government boat and turned pirates.”
“You are right,” answered Forsythe; “but don’t waste our time. Will you give us what we asked for, or shall we sink you?”
“Sink us, you scoundrel? You can’t, and you’d better not try, or threaten to. Your position is known, and three scouts started this morning from Boston and New York.”
“That bluff don’t go,” answered Forsythe. “Will you cough up?”
“No; most decidedly no!” roared the officer, who might, or might not, have been the captain.
“Kelly,” said Forsythe, “send that Whitehead straight into him.”
Whitehead torpedoes, be it known, are mechanical fish of machined steel, self-propelling and self-steering, actuated by a small air engine, and carrying in their “war heads” a charge of over two hundred pounds of guncotton, and in their blunt noses a detonating cap to explode it on contact.
At Forsythe’s word, Kelly turned a lever on the tube, and the contained torpedo dived gently overboard.
Denman, looking closely, saw it appear once on the surface, porpoiselike, before it dived to its indicated depth.
“The inhuman devil!” he commented, with gritting teeth.
A muffled report came from the depths. A huge mound of water lifted up, to break into shattered fragments and bubbles. Then these bubbles burst, giving vent to clouds of brown and yellow smoke; while up through the ventilators and out through the opened lower deadlights came more of this smoke, and the sound of human voices, screaming and groaning. These sounds were drowned in the buzzing of thousands of other voices on deck as men, women, and children fought their way toward the stern.
“Do you agree?” yelled Forsythe, through the megaphone. “Do you agree, or shall we unload every torpedo we’ve got into your hull?”
Old Kelly had calmly marshaled the crew to the next torpedo, and looked up to Forsythe for the word. But it did not come.
Instead, over the buzzing of the voices, came the officer’s answer, loud and distinct:
“We agree. We understand that your necks are in the halter, and that you have nothing to lose, even though you should fill every compartment and drown every soul on board this ship. So we will accede to your demands. We will fill one boat with the bullion and another with provisions, and cast them adrift. But do not fire again, for God’s sake!”
“All right,” answered Forsythe. “Bear a hand.”
Breast to breast, the two craft charged along, while two boats were lowered to the level of the main deck, and swiftered in to the rail. Sailors appeared from the doors in pairs, each carrying a box that taxed their strength and made them stagger. There were ten in all, and they slowly and carefully ranged them along the bottom of one of the boats, so as to distribute their weight.
While this was going on, stewards and galley helpers were filling the other boat with provisions—in boxes, barrels, and packages. Then the word was given, and the boats were cast off and lowered, the tackles of the heavier groaning mightily under the strain.
When they struck the water, the falls were instantly let go; and, as the boats drifted astern, the tackles unrove their long length from the blocks, and were hauled on board again.
Forsythe stopped the engines, and then backed toward the drifting boats. As the destroyer passed the stern of the giant steamer, a shout rang out; but only Denman heard it above the buzzing of voices. And it seemed that only he saw Casey spring from the high rail of the mammoth into the sea; for the rest were busy grappling for the boat’s painters, and Forsythe was looking aft.
When the painters were secured and the boats drawn alongside, Forsythe rang for half speed; and the boat, under a port wheel, swung away from the Gigantia, and went ahead.
“There is your man Casey,” yelled Denman, excitedly. “Are you going to leave him?”
Forsythe, now looking dead ahead, seemed not to hear; but Riley spoke from the hatch:
“Hold yer jaw back there, or ye’ll get a passage, too.”
With Casey’s cries in his ears—sick at heart in the belief that not even a life-buoy would avail, for the giant steamship had not stopped her engines throughout the whole transaction, and was now half a mile away, Denman went down to Florrie, obediently waiting, yet nervous and frightened.
He told her nothing of what had occurred—but soothed and quieted her with the assurance that they would be rescued soon.