EIGHT TUGS dragged the great mass to midstream and pointed her nose down the river; then the pilot on the bridge spoke a word or two; the first officer blew a short blast on the whistle and turned a lever; the tugs gathered in their lines and drew off; down in the bowels of the ship three small engines were started, opening the throttles of three large ones; three propellers began to revolve; and the mammoth, with a vibratory tremble running through her great frame, moved slowly to sea.
East of Sandy Hook the pilot was dropped and the real voyage begun. Fifty feet below her deck, in an inferno of noise, and heat, and light, and shadow, coal-passers wheeled the picked fuel from the bunkers to the fire-hold, where half-naked stokers, with faces like those of tortured fiends, tossed it into the eighty white-hot mouths of the furnaces. In the engine-room, oilers passed to and fro, in and out of the plunging, twisting, glistening steel, with oil-cans and waste, overseen by the watchful staff on duty, who listened with strained hearing for a false note in the confused jumble of sound—a clicking of steel out of tune, which would indicate a loosened key or nut. On deck, sailors set the triangular sails on the two masts, to add their propulsion to the momentum of the record-breaker, and the passengers dispersed themselves as suited their several tastes. Some were seated in steamer chairs, well wrapped—for, though it was April, the salt air was chilly—some paced the deck, acquiring their sea legs; others listened to the orchestra in the music-room, or read or wrote in the library, and a few took to their berths—seasick from the slight heave of the ship on the ground-swell.
The decks were cleared, watches set at noon, and then began the never-ending cleaning-up at which steamship sailors put in so much of their time. Headed by a six-foot boatswain, a gang came aft on the starboard side, with paint-buckets and brushes, and distributed themselves along the rail.
“Davits an’ stanchions, men—never mind the rail,” said the boatswain. “Ladies, better move your chairs back a little. Rowland, climb down out o’ that—you’ll be overboard. Take a ventilator—no, you’ll spill paint—put your bucket away an’ get some sandpaper from the yeoman. Work inboard till you get it out o’ you.”
The sailor addressed—a slight-built man of about thirty, black-bearded and bronzed to the semblance of healthy vigor, but watery-eyed and unsteady of movement—came down from the rail and shambled forward with his bucket. As he reached the group of ladies to whom the boatswain had spoken, his gaze rested on one—a sunny-haired young woman with the blue of the sea in her eyes—who had arisen at his approach. He started, turned aside as if to avoid her, and raising his hand in an embarrassed half-salute, passed on. Out of the boatswain’s sight he leaned against the deck-house and panted, while he held his hand to his breast.
“What is it?” he muttered, wearily; “whisky nerves, or the dying flutter of a starved love. Five years, now—and a look from her eyes can stop the blood in my veins—can bring back all the heart-hunger and helplessness, that leads a man to insanity—or this.” He looked at his trembling hand, all scarred and tar-stained, passed on forward, and returned with the sandpaper.
The young woman had been equally affected by the meeting. An expression of mingled surprise and terror had come to her pretty, but rather weak face; and without acknowledging his half-salute, she had caught up a little child from the deck behind her, and turning into the saloon door, hurried to the library, where she sank into a chair beside a military-looking gentleman, who glanced up from a book and remarked: “Seen the sea-serpent, Myra, or the Flying Dutchman? What’s up?”
“Oh, George—no,” she answered in agitated tones. “John Rowland is here—Lieutenant Rowland. I’ve just seen him—he is so changed—he tried to speak to me.”
“Who—that troublesome flame of yours? I never met him, you know, and you haven’t told me much about him. What is he—first cabin?”
“No, he seems to be a common sailor; he is working, and is dressed in old clothes—all dirty. And such a dissipated face, too. He seems to have fallen—so low. And it is all since—”
“Since you soured on him? Well, it is no fault of yours, dear. If a man has it in him he’ll go to the dogs anyhow. How is his sense of injury? Has he a grievance or a grudge? You’re badly upset. What did he say?”
“I don’t know—he said nothing—I’ve always been afraid of him. I’ve met him three times since then, and he puts such a frightful look in his eyes—and he was so violent, and headstrong, and so terribly angry,—that time. He accused me of leading him on, and playing with him; and he said something about an immutable law of chance, and a governing balance of events—that I couldn’t understand, only where he said that for all the suffering we inflict on others, we receive an equal amount ourselves. Then he went away—in such a passion. I’ve imagined ever since that he would take some revenge—he might steal our Myra—our baby.” She strained the smiling child to her breast and went on. “I liked him at first, until I found out that he was an atheist—why, George, he actually denied the existence of God—and to me, a professing Christian.”
“He had a wonderful nerve,” said the husband, with a smile; “didn’t know you very well, I should say.”
“He never seemed the same to me after that,” she resumed; “I felt as though in the presence of something unclean. Yet I thought how glorious it would be if I could save him to God, and tried to convince him of the loving care of Jesus; but he only ridiculed all I hold sacred, and said, that much as he valued my good opinion, he would not be a hypocrite to gain it, and that he would be honest with himself and others, and express his honest unbelief—the idea; as though one could be honest without God’s help—and then, one day, I smelled liquor on his breath—he always smelled of tobacco—and I gave him up. It was then that he—that he broke out.”
“Come out and show me this reprobate,” said the husband, rising. They went to the door and the young woman peered out. “He is the last man down there—close to the cabin,” she said as she drew in. The husband stepped out.
“What! that hang-dog ruffian, scouring the ventilator? So, that’s Rowland, of the navy, is it! Well, this is a tumble. Wasn’t he broken for conduct unbecoming an officer? Got roaring drunk at the President’s levee, didn’t he? I think I read of it.”
“I know he lost his position and was terribly disgraced,” answered the wife.
“Well, Myra, the poor devil is harmless now. We’ll be across in a few days, and you needn’t meet him on this broad deck. If he hasn’t lost all sensibility, he’s as embarrassed as you. Better stay in now—it’s getting foggy.”