A TASTE OF THE INQUISITION
| It could have been no more than
five minutes after I left her that Evelyn followed me to the upper deck saloon. Yet
in the interval her nimble fingers had found time to garb her in a simple blue princess
dress she had found near to her hand.
Without looking at me she went straight to Blythe, who was sponging the wrist of Alderson.
"You'll let me help, won't you?" she asked, with such sweet simplicity that I fell fathoms deeper in love.
"Of course. You're our chief surgeon. Eh, Alderson?"
The sailor grinned. Though he was a little embarrassed he was grateful for the addition to the staff.
After they had finished I brought her water to wash her hands. For the first time since she had entered the room our gaze met.
Braver eyes no woman ever had, but the thick lashes fluttered down now and a wave of pink beat into her cheeks. Moved as she was by a touch of shy confusion, the oval of her face stirred delicately as if with the spirit of fire, she seemed a very blush rose, a creature of so fine a beauty as to stir a momentary fear.
But I knew her to be strong, even if slight, and abrim with health. When she walked away with that supple, feathered tread of hers, so firm and yet so light, the vitality of her physique reasserted itself.
"Some one slipping this way in the shadows, Captain Blythe," spoke up Morgan, who was on guard.
Sam had been reloading his revolver. At once he stepped to the door.
"Who goes there? Hands up! I have you covered. Move forward into the light. Oh, it's you, Smith! What do you want?"
"I've come to give myself up, sir. I'm sick of it. Very likely you won't believe me, sir, but I joined under compulsion to save my life. I didn't dare leave them so long as Captain Bothwell"
"Mr. Bothwell," corrected Blythe sharply.
"Mr. Bothwell, sir, I meant. He watched me as if I were a prisoner."
"I think I noticed you on my bridge with a revolver in your hand," the Englishman told him dryly.
"Yes, sir. But I fired in the air, except once when I shot the fireman who was killing Mr. Sedgwick over the wheel."
I turned in astonishment to Blythe.
"That explains it. Some one certainly saved me. If you didn't it must have been Smith."
"That's one point to your credit," Blythe admitted. "So now you want to be an honest man?"
"I always have been at heart, sir. I had no chance to come before. They kept me unarmed except during the fighting."
His head bandaged with a blood-soaked bandanna, his face unshaven and bloodstained, Smith was a sorry enough sight. But his eye met the captain's fairly. I don't think it occurred to any of us seriously to doubt him.
Sam laughed grimly.
"You look the worse for the wars, my friend."
Smith put his hand to the bound head and looked at the captain reproachfully.
"Your cutlas did it at the pilot-house, sir."
"You should be more careful of the company you keep, my man."
"Yes, sir. I did try to slip away once, but they brought me back."
"Let me look at your head. Perhaps I can do something for it," Evelyn suggested to the sailor.
While she prepared the dressings I put the question to Smith.
"Jimmie. Oh, yes, sir. He's down in the f'c'sle. Gallagher ran across him and took him down there."
This was good news, the best I had heard since the mutiny began. It seemed that the boy had slipped out to get a shot at the enemy, and that his escape had been cut off by the men returning from the attack.
Judging from what Smith said the men were very down-hearted and in vicious spirits. They were ready to bite at the first hand in reach, after the manner of trapped coyotes.
"How many of them are there?" I asked.
"Let's see. There's the two Flemings, sir, and Gallagher, and the cook, and Neidlinger, and Mack, but he won't last long."
"Do you think they're likely to hurt the boy?"
"Not unless they get to drinking, sir. They want him for a hostage. But there has been a lot of drinking. You can't tell what they will do when they're in liquor."
I came to an impulsive decision. We couldn't leave Jimmie to his fate. The men were ready to give up the fight if the thing could be put to them right. The time to strike was now, the absence of Bothwell, while they were out of heart at their failure.
Why shouldn't I go down into the forecastle and see what could be done? That there was some danger in it could not be denied, but not nearly so much as if the Russian had been down there.
I was an officer of the ship, and though that would have helped me little if they had been sure of victory it would have a good deal of weight now.
Blythe would, I knew, forbid me to go. Therefore I did not ask him. But I took Yeager aside and told him what I intended.
"I'll likely be back in half an hour, perhaps less. I don't want you to tell Sam unless he has to know. Don't let him risk defeat by attempting a rescue in case I don't show up. Tell him I'm playing off my own bat. That's a bit of English slang he'll understand."
"Say! Let me go too," urged the cattleman his eyes glistening.
"No. We can't go in force. I'm not even going to take a weapon. That would queer the whole thing. It's purely a moral and not a physical argument I'm making."
He did not want to see it that way, but in the end he grumblingly assented, especially when I put it to him that he must stay and keep 'an eye on Bothwell.
While Blythe was down in his cabin getting a shave I watched my chance and slipped down to the main deck. Cautiously I ventured into the forecastle, tiptoeing down the ladder without noise.
"Dead as a door nail. That makes seven gone to Davy Jones's locker," I heard a despondent voice say.
"'E could sing a good song, Mack could, and 'e carried 'is liquor like a man, but that didn' 'elp 'im from being shot down like a dog. It'll be that wye with us next."
"Stow that drivel, cookie," growled a voice which I recognized as belonging to the older Fleming. "You're nice, cheerful commune for devils down on their luck. Ain't things bad enough without you croaking like a sky pilot?"
"That's wot I say, says I; we'll all croak before this blyme row is over," Higgins prophesied.
I sauntered forward with my hands in my pockets.
"Looks that way, doesn't it? Truth is, you've made a mess of it from first to last. Whichever way you look at it the future is devilishly unpleasant. Even if you live to be hangedwhich isn't at all likelyone can't call it a cheerful end."
Conceive, if you can, a more surprised lot of ruffians than these. They leaped to their feet and stared at me in astonishment. I'll swear four revolvers jumped to sight while one could bat an eyelid.
I leaned on the edge of the table and gave them the most care-free grin I could summon. All the time I was wondering whether some fool would perhaps blaze away at me and do his thinking afterward.
"How did you get down here?" the senior engineer demanded.
"Walked down. I'm really surprised at you, Fleming. What would Bothwell think of you? Why, I might have shot half of you before Higgins could say Jack Robinson."
It showed how ripe they were for my purpose that at the mention of Bothwell's name two or three growled curses at him.
"He got us into this, he did; promised us a fortune if we'd join him," Gallagher said sulkily.
"And no blood shed, Mr. Sedgwick. That's wot 'e promised," whined the cook.
Probably he meant none of ours," I explained ironically.
"He was going to wait till you'd got the treasure and then put you in a boat near the coast," Gallagher added.
Neidlinger spat sulkily at a knot in the floor. His eyes would not meet mine. It was a fair guess that he was no hardened mutineer, but had been caught in a net through lack of moral backbone.
"Afraid Bothwell isn't a very safe man to follow. He's let you be mauled up pretty badly. I've a notion he'll slip away and leave you to be hanged without the comfort of his presence."
"You don't need to rub that in, Mr. Sedgwick," advised George Fleming. "And perhaps, since you're here, you will explain your business."
It must be said for George Fleming that at least he was a hardy villain and no weakling. The men were like weather-vanes. they veered with each wind that blew.
"That's right," chimed in Gallagher. "We didn't ask your company. If we go to hell I shouldn't wonder but you'll travel the road first, sir. Take a hitch and a half turn on this. We're in the boat, you and us. Now you take an oar and pull us out of the rough water, Mr. Sedgwick."
"Not I, Gallagher. You made your own bed, and I'm hanged if I'll like in it, though I believe it is bad taste to refer to hanging in this company. I didn't start a little mutiny. I didn't murder a good a mate as any seaman could ask for. It isn't my fault that a round half dozen of you are dead and gone to feed the fishes."
Higgins groaned lugubriously. Neidlinger shifted his feet uneasily. Not one of them but was impressed.
Harry Fleming glanced at his brother, cleared his throat, and spoke up.
"Mr. Sedgwick, spit it out. What have you to offer? Will Captain Blythe let this be a bygone if we return to duty? That's what we want to know. If not, we've got to fight it out. A blind man could see that."
I told them the truth, that I had no authority to speak for Blythe. He would probably think it his duty to give them up to the authorities if they were still on board when we reached Panama.
It was pitiful to see how they clutched at every straw of hope.
"Well, sir, what do you mean by that if? Will he stand back and let us escape?"
"All of you but Bothwell. Mind, I don't promise this. Why not send a deputation to the captain and ask for terms?"
Higgins slapped his fat thigh.
"By crikey, 'e's said it. A delegation to the captain. That's the bloomin' ticket."
Pat to his suggestion came an unexpected and startling answer.
"Fortunately it won't be necessary to send the delegation, since your captain has come down to join you."
The voice was Bothwell's; so, too, were the ironic insolence, the sardonic smile, the air of contemptuous mastery that sat so lightly on him. He might be the greatest scoundrel unhangedand that was a point upon which I had a decided opinionbut I shall never deny that there was in him the magnetic force which made him a leader of men.
Immediately I recognized defeat for my attempt to end the mutiny at a stroke. His very presence was an inspiration to persistence in evil. For though he had brought them nothing but disaster, the fellow had a way of impressing himself without appearing to care whether he did or not.
The careless contempt of his glance emphasized the difference between him and them. He was their master, though a fortnight before none of them had ever seen Bothwell. they feared and accepted his leadership, even while they distrusted him.
The men seemed visibly to stiffen. Instead of beseeching looks I got threatening ones. Three minutes before I had been dictator; now I was a prisoner, and if I could read signs one in a very serious situation.
I'm waiting for the deputation," suggested Bothwell, his dark eye passing from one to another and resting on Higgins.
The unfortunate cook began to perspire.
"Just our wye of 'aving a little joke, captain," he protested in a whine.
"You didn't hear aright, Bothwell. A deputation to the captain was mentioned," I told him.
"And I'm captain of this end of the ship, or was at last accounts. Perhaps Mr. Sedgwick has been elected in my absence," he sneered.
"You bet he ain't," growled Gallagher.
"It's a position I should feel obliged to decline. No sinking ship for me, thank you. I've no notion of trying to be a twentieth century Captain Kidd. And, by the way, he was hanged, too, wasn't he, captain?"
"That's a prophecy, I take it. I'll guarantee one thing: You'll not live to see it fulfilled. You've come to the end of the passage, my friend."
"But before you pass out I've a word to say to you about that map."
His eye gave a signal. Before I could stir for resistance even if I had been so minded, George Fleming and Gallagher pinned my back to the table. Bothwell stepped forward and looked down at me.
A second time I glimpsed the Slav behind his veneer of civilization. Opaque and cruel eyes peered into mine through lids contracted to slits. Something in me stronger than fear looked back at his steadily.
His voice was so low that none, I think, except me caught the words. In his manner was an extraordinary bitterness.
"You're the rock I've split on from the first. You stole the map from meand you tried to steal her. By God, I wipe the slate clean now!"
I've only one thing to say to you. I'd like to see you strung up, you damned villain!" I replied.
"The last time I asked you for that map your friend from Arizona blundered in. He's not here now. I'm going to find out all you know. You think you can defy me. Before I've done with you I'll make you wish you'd never been born. There are easy deaths and hard ones. You shall take your choice."
With that fiend's eyes glittering into mine it was no easy thing to keep from weakening. I confess it, the blood along my spine was beginning to freeze. Fortunately I have a face well under control.
"You have a taste for dramatics, Captain Kidd." I raised my voice so that all might hear plainly. "You threaten to torture me. You forget that this is the year 1913. The inquisition is a memory. You are not in Russia now. American sailorseven mutineerswill draw the line at torture."
His face was hard as hammered iron.
"Don't flatter yourself, Mr. Sedgwick. I'm master here. When I give the word you will suffer."
I turned my head and my eyes fell upon Henry Fleming. He had turned white, shaken to the heart. Beyond him was Neidlinger, and the man was moistening his gray lips with his tongue. The fat cockney looked troubled. Plainly they had not stomach for the horrible work that lay before them if I proved resolute.
To fight for treasure was one thing, and I suppose that even in this they had been led to believe that a mere show of force would be sufficient; to lend their aid to torture an officer of the ships was quite another and a more sinister affair.
The Slav in Bothwell had failed to understand the Anglo-Saxon blood with which he was dealing.
I faced the man with a dry laugh.
"We'll see. Begin, you coward!"
Pinned down to the table as I was, he struck me in the face for that.
"You lose no time in proving my words true," I jeered."
An odd mixture is man. Faith, one might have thought Bothwell impervious to shame, but at my words the fellow flushed. He could not quite forget that he had once been a gentleman.
In the way of business he could torture me, wipe me from his path without a second thought, but on the surface he must live up to the artificial code his training had imposed upon him.
"I beg your pardon, Mr. Sedgwick. Were there time I would give you satisfaction for that blow in the customary manner. But time presses. I shall have to ask you instead to accept my apologies. I have the devil of a temper."
"So I judge."
"It flares like powder. But I must not waste your time in explanations." From his vest pocket he drew three little cubes of iron. "You still have time, Mr. Sedgwick. The map!"
I flushed to the roots of my hair.
"Never, you Russian devil!"
He selected the hand pinned down by Fleming, perhaps because he was not sure that he could trust Gallagher. Between my fingers close to the roots he slipped the cubes. His fingers fastened over mine and drew the ends of them together slowly, steadily.
An excruciating pain shot through me. I set my teeth to keep from screaming and closed my eyes to hide the anguish in them.
"You are at liberty to change your mindand your answer, Mr. Sedgwick," he announced suavely.
"You devil from hell!"
Again I suffered that jagged bolt of pain. It seemed as if my fingers were being rent asunder at the roots. I could not concentrate my attention on anything but the physical agony, yet it seems to me now that Gallagher was muttering a protest across the table.
Bothwell released my hand. I saw a flash of subtle triumph light his eyes.
"A wilful man must have his way, Mr. Sedgwick," he nodded to me, then whispered in the ear of George Fleming, who at once left the room.
They pulled me up from the table and seated me in a chair. Bothwell whistled a bar or two of the sextet from Lucia until he was interrupted by the entrance of the engineer with Jimmie Welch.
In a flash I knew what the man meant to do, and the devilish ingenuity of it appalled me. He had concluded that I was strung up to endure anything he might inflict.
Now he was going to force me to tell what I knew in order to save the boy from the pain I had myself found most unendurable.
What must I do? I beat my wits for a way out. Once glance around the room showed me that the scoundrel's accomplices would not let him go much further.
The weak spot in his leadership was that he did not realize the humanity which still burned in their lost souls. But at what point would they revolt? I could not let little Jimmie go through the pain I had undergone.
The boy gave a sobbing cry of relief when he saw me and tried to break away to my side. He was flung on the table just as I had been. Gallagher looked at me imploringly while Bothwell fitted the cubes.
Neidlinger stole a step nearer. His fingers were working nervously. Harry Fleming had turned away so as not to see what would follow.
"Mr. Sedgwick, what are they going to do with me?" the frightened little fellow called in terror.
Both took the lad's fingers in his. I opened my lips to surrenderand closed them again. Neidlinger had drawn still another step nearer. The big blond Scandinavian had reached his limit.
The Slav gave a slight pressure and Jimmie howled. Crouched like a panther, Neidlinger flung himself upon his chief and bore him back to the wall. Bothwell, past his first surprise, lashed out with a straight left and dropped the man.
Simultaneously Gallagher closed with him, tripping Bothwell so that the two went down hard together. Neidlinger crawled forward on hands and knees to help his partner.
Shaking off the grip of the irresolute men holding me, I was in time to seize George Fleming, who had run forward to aid the captain.
From the hatchway a crisp order rang out.
"Back there, Fleming!"
I turned. Blythe and Yeager were standing near the foot of the ladder; behind them Alderson, Smith, Morgan, and Philips. All six were armed. Their weapons covered the mutineers.
"GallagherNeidlinger, don't release that man. You are prisonersall of you," Sam announced curtly.
Taken by surprise, the two sailors had ceased to struggle with Bothwell. I could see the master villain's hand slip to the butt of his revolver.
My foot came down heavily on his wrist and the fingers fell limp. A moment, and the revolver was in my hand.
Bothwell was handcuffed and disarmed before the eyes of his followers, who in turn had to endure the same ignominy.
The mutiny on the Argos was quelled at last.