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The _Veiled Ladye_! Absorbed as Dan was, he felt a momentary flash of
surprise that the announcement of that name came to him almost as a
matter of course. Through the long course of nearly two years the
conviction that a time would come when he should once more meet the
girl who had spoken to him from the _Veiled Ladye's_ deck at Norfolk
had strengthened inexplicably, until he had come to accept it as an
assured fact. Was she aboard that yacht now? Aboard that laboring
section of gingerbread, in the hands of incompetents and poltroons?
Was she? It could not be otherwise. And this was the nature of the
meeting which had colored his dreams and intensified the ambitions of
his waking moments!

A strange thrill quivered through him, and he glanced dazedly at
Mulhatton, as a stout man in yachting garb stumbled to the officer's
side and snatched the megaphone from his hands.

"On board the tug!" he cried. "I'm Horace Howland of the Coastwise and
West Indian Shipping Company. We're helpless; we can't last an hour
unless you hold our head up. Engineer making a collar for cracked
shaft . . . have it made and fitted in twelve hours. Twelve hours.
Hold us up that long and we are safe! Do you hear me . . . twelve
hours!"

Dan looked at the yacht, rolling to her beam ends almost every minute.
It would be a bad business fooling with that craft; and with iron will
he fought back his surging emotions. He had his tug and his men to
consider, if not himself. His tug was weakened by her long struggle,
and to the best of his judgment he knew it would be wiser for his own
interests to go his way, leaving the yacht to her life fight, while the
_Fledgling_ fought hers. And yet he could not go away. Aside from the
wild theory that the girl might be aboard, there were lives to save
over there. That was it. There were lives to save over there. Duty
called - a stern, clear call; at least, Dan so heard it, and he was
willing to answer it with his life, if necessary. But he did not think
of that part of it. It was the lives of those imperilled persons that
concerned him. He and his tug were there that they might live. There
were women aboard; he had seen their white faces gazing imploringly at
him through the cabin portholes - bright, beautiful lives - and men in
the glorious prime of their youth. His heart went out to them, and as
Mr. Howland laid aside his megaphone the problem was clear. He waved
his megaphone in assent and then, levelling it at the yacht, he cried:

"All right. Float a hawser down to us; you are pitching too wild-eyed
to come within heaving-line distance." Passing the pilot-house on his
way below, he nodded and smiled at the men inside. There had been no
need to question them. They had been too long with Dan, and too
faithful, not to catch his drift of mind in all emergencies long before
he expressed it in words; too brave and hardened to danger, in fact, to
care what Dan wanted, just so that he was willing to lead them - to
share with them the work to be done.

In the course of a few minutes a small raft, bearing a heaving-line
which the yachtsmen had streamed, drifted down upon the tug, clearing
the bow by a few feet. Dan leaned out and caught it with his
boat-hook, bringing the line aboard. Then he and his fireman tailed on
to the end of it, bringing in the attached hawser hand over hand. This
they hurried to the stern bitts, taking a pass also around the steam
winch. Leaving the fireman to watch it, Dan dashed into the
pilot-house and sounded the jingle-bell in the engine-room.

For a few minutes the churnings of the screw were discounted by the
bulk of the yacht plus the elemental forces which sought to keep her
head just where it was - in the trough of the sea. The tow-line
vibrated itself into a blur, the tug strained and quivered and groaned.

"Why don't you help us in some way, you fools!" roared Dan, struggling
at the wheel. "You can at least steer, or - "

Before he could proceed there was a report like the bark of a cannon
and a torn and shredded end of hawser came writhing and twisting up out
of the sea, sluing across the face of the pilot-house as though
possessed of all the venom of the living thing it resembled - a python.

There was silence on both the tug and the yacht for a full minute. Dan
watched the distressed craft as she tossed up her bow and glided
sternward from his view behind a jet of black wave, while the
_Fledgling_ seemed to slide from under his feet in the opposite
direction. As the yacht came up again he could see that this mishap
had scattered all semblance of fortitude to the winds. Except for the
young second officer, Mr. Howland, and a sailor, all holding their
places pluckily on the bridge, terror reigned. Sailors, men in
yachting costumes, and women with hair flying flashed along the decks
or in and out of doorways, while forward a group of three young men
lashed to a big anchor held out their hands toward the tug.

Dan turned to his deck-hand, his face hard and determined.

"Pete," he said, "go down and get out the double cables. Welch is
astern and will help you. I'm going to swerve the tug in close and you
heave the lines aboard when we re near enough. We won't trust any more
to their rotten hemp."

As a knight, with reckless abandon, might have urged his steed into the
very midst of his foes, so Dan urged the _Fledgling_ up to the wildly
pitching yacht. Nearer the tug advanced, so near that the tugmen could
see the streaks through the red underbody. Nearer yet, head on, and
then the wheel was swung broad, while Dan leaned out of the
pilot-house, looking down at the two men forward, who were whirling
weighted heaving-lines about their heads like lariats. "Now, now
then!" yelled Dan, as the mate in response to a wave of his hand began
to sheer off from the yacht. "Aye, aye," came the replies from below,
and a second later two lines whistled clean over the forward decks of
the white craft. Eager hands seized them and hauled in the great
cables and made them fast.

Just for an instant Dan and the mate peered at the yacht to see if the
lines had carried, an instant of which the wily sea took full
advantage. An oily wave reared the bow of the yacht while the swell of
its predecessor slued the _Fledgling_ in and around and upward, so that
the two craft reared, side by side, bows up and not more than five feet
apart. A scream fluttered from the bridge; men's voices raised in
curses at the clumsy yacht were borne from the pilot-house. Dan,
however, had not time for words; he stood with hands on the wheel
watching the red, reeking bow rearing almost in his face; watched it,
cool, ready to take the first chance of escape, if the present danger
offered such a chance. Slowly, easily, the wave passed, and down came
the two bows with a crash. The bow of the _Veiled Ladye_ just grazed
the _Fledgling's_ weather rail, tearing off a fender, while Dan
signalled full speed astern. It was fortunate that he had his wits
about him, for the erratic yacht, instead of falling back as she
naturally should have done, suddenly moved forward under the impulse of
a swell, butting the tug, almost gently, about ten feet from the bow.
Then the tug backed clear, and, breasting the waves, began to take up
the slack cables. A hundred yards she went and then stopped headway
with a jerk as the men slipped the cables over the bitts.

The collision had not hurt the tug apparently, although there was no
telling whether or not the jolt had weakened her structurally. But Dan
was not the man to worry about eventualities. An hour's straining and
hauling resulted in bringing the yacht's head full into the seas, and
then at four o'clock Dan snuggled his craft to, for the long eleven
hours' fight.

The afternoon waned into twilight, softly, impalpably, and the twilight
wavered into night. A few lights quivered from the reeling yacht and
her mast-head lamps described glimmering arcs against the heavens.
Silent and grim, the tug took the brunt of all the seas had to
give - nose piercing the very heart of the waves, splitting them with
beautiful precision, rising, falling, reeling, pitching, but, through
all, hanging to the yacht with undying tenacity. So she fought, as she
had ever fought.

Contrary to the promise of the afternoon, the gale had not abated; the
seas, if anything, raced more fiercely, and the wind, which tore the
dark with a wailing moan, departed with a venomous shriek. Dan and his
mate stood hard at the wheel, Noonan, the deck-hand, was stationed
astern, and Crampton, the stanch old chief, and his fireman were down
in the heart of things, nursing the engines.

They were well nursed, too. The steady throb, the clank of the throws,
and the hum of the eccentrics rose to the pilot-house in cadence as
regular as the heart-throbs of a healthy ox. And the while Dan and his
mate gingerly manipulated the wheel so that the strain on the tow-line
was constant and even, with no slack or sudden jerks, which were truly
to be avoided in the face of the mad sea.

The sea grew indefinite in the dark, - as indefinite as the undulations
of a black shroud. It was as though the tug were tossing through some
mysterious agency. There were times when the tall mast-head lights
astern showed not a foot above the rim of that more intense darkness
which marked where the water ended and the horizon began.

Again there were times when the glowing specks seemed to scale the
heights of a sable vacuum. Once a section of the rail went ripping
away in the gloom and once a shredded small boat was torn and hurled
into the waters.

One hour, two hours, three hours, four hours - and still the wild night
went on, and still the _Fledgling_ held to her work. Crampton, the
chief engineer, struggled up from the engine-room at nine o'clock, his
swart face lined and creased.

"She's like an old man dyin'," he said, and his voice quivered. "The
old injines are drivin' as hard and brave as a man with a club; but a
lot of the kick has gone out of them. Nothin' the matter of 'em that I
can see - but just feel. My old injines are feelin' about fur an excuse
to cave in."

"Well, hang on," replied Dan, "and don't tell me what you feel may
happen; I can think up enough things myself."

"Well," and Crampton hesitated. "I didn't come up here fur anythin'
I've said - Cap'n," he added in a low voice; "we're takin' in water."

An imprecation trembled on Dan's lips, and one of his hands left the
wheel in an involuntary gesture of resignation. Then he shut his teeth
tight and talked slowly through them.

"Where the yacht hit us?" he asked.

"Yes, forward; it's opened up a little under the floor plates - about
twenty strokes a minute I should say; the force-pump's kept it level so
far."

"Good," said Dan; "there's nothing else to do but keep it going."

"Nothing," said the chief, and he reeled out of the pitching
pilot-house.

Two, three, four hours more - the water had gained nine inches, so the
chief reported through the speaking-tube. But still the _Fledgling_
held her tow, and Dan and Mulhatton stood silent at the wheel, the rush
of the wind, which had long torn out the double windows, swirling their
hair into their eyes and numbing their torn and bleeding hands. The
elements, as though divining the weakening of the tug, - a tug which
often had laughed them to scorn, - were making mad work of it; there
were strange sounds, unforeseen blows - but still the tug hung on.

There came an hour in which she did not rise to the waves as she had
been doing, - an hour when the leak gained terribly, and when the
_Fledgling_, struggling bravely, if wearily, upward to meet a wave,
would stop half-way with a jerk and a sigh, the wave gouging along the
deck - breaking over the stern-board.

They could feel her going in the pilot-house. But she hung on to her
lines with the grip of death. Dan stood at his mate's side, his eyes
fixed straight ahead into the darkness. He had cast his die; he had
chosen his lot - now the toll was to be paid. He thought, too, of the
men who, without question, had taken their stand with him. He reached
out his left hand and placed it gently on his mate's shoulder.

"Good boy, old Mul," he said, in words which, however inadequate,
revealed all the heart of his meaning. And Mulhatton simply shifted
his feet and gazed ahead, his hard, light eyes as expressionless as
marble disks.

The dawn came filtering across the raven waters as the bloodless hand
of an old man quivers across a chess-board, - gray dawn, cold dawn, even
more merciless than the night, in that it heralded the rise of the sun
to smile over the evil wrought in the darker hours. Astern, the white
yacht alternately pierced the sky with her bow and sought the depths.

Suddenly a long, triumphant scream of a whistle rang across the dawn - a
roll of water parted a retiring wave. The big white yacht moved of her
own power. Again the whistle sounded, as though in joy that the vessel
had at last found herself. Once more. . . . She mounted the waves in
proud defiance. . . . The tow-lines slackened.

"Cast off, cast off!" megaphoned an officer, while two of his sailors
threw the ends of the cables into the sea. The deck-hand and fireman
started to bring them in, while Dan gave the signal for Crampton to go
ahead.

The tug started timidly forward and then hesitated and trembled. A
wave hit her, and she rocked like a cork. The jump had all gone out of
her. Another wave struck her and almost hove her down, and then
another wave snapped her back again, jerking out the funnel, which
hissed overside into the sea. Half on her side, she clanked into the
trough. She struggled to right herself and had partly succeeded, when
a mighty wave smote her viciously on her listed side. She went over to
her beam ends and lay there a second, while Dan and his men shot
through the windows, off from the deck, into the sea. Another instant
and the _Fledgling_ rolled her keel to the morning light and swiftly
disappeared.

As Dan rose on a wave he saw her go, saw too, the white face of his
engineer framed in the engine-room doorway, which a wave filled just as
she turned, obliterating the face forever.

The next few minutes were nothing but a buffeting, swirling confusion.
Suddenly a line struck Dan's face . . . his hands closed upon a
circular life preserver. . . . The next instant he lay gasping on the
deck of the _Veiled Ladye_, beside his deck-hand and mate.

Half an hour later, Dan, in warm clothes, sat upon the pitching deck of
the yacht, at the doorway of the saloon.

The _Fledgling_ gone and Welch and Crampton - that was all he could
think of as he sat gazing into the gray of the waters, which in closing
over the black tragedy immediately presented a surface as free from all
evidence of guilt as the placid surface of a mill-pond. He had made
himself in the _Fledgling_, - had rounded to the measure of a man aboard
of her, - had grown in the plenitude of man's strength and will and
courage and success. He felt the loss of his tug; it hit him hard; he
suffered in every mental corner and cranny. And when the two men who
had given their lives for him and for the yacht came to mind in all the
clearness of their personality and devotion to him, his head sank on
his hand and he groaned aloud.

A hand was laid gently on his shoulder, and looking up, he saw Mr.
Howland and a tall, beautiful girl by his side, both gazing at him from
the doorway with eyes filled with compassion.

"You were the captain of the tug?" asked Mr. Rowland.

"Yes, Captain Merrithew," and Dan ceased speaking and gazed at the deck.

"You owned the tug?"

"No," replied Dan.

"Captain Merrithew, I cannot say anything adequate. I appreciate what
you have done - I cannot say how much."

"Oh, father," broke in the girl, "tell him it was noble!"

[Illustration: "Oh, father," broke in the girl, "tell him it was
noble!"]

"It was noble," resumed Mr. Howland. "It was big and fine - you saved a
score of lives, and for them you gave your tug and part of your crew.
I cannot reward such men as you - I can pay just debts, though. Your
men shall not suffer; neither shall the families of those who were
lost."

Then he paused a minute and reached behind the door jamb, bringing out
a water-soaked bit of plank. "One of our best men picked this from the
water. You had been clinging to it. I thought you might like to have
it in your cabin."

It was the name board of the _Fledgling_.




CHAPTER VI

THE BRAVE AND THE FAIR

As Dan seized the strip with its gilt letters and was about to reply,
the yacht slung sideways, and a wave arising amidships smote the
deck-house a lusty, full-bodied blow. It suddenly occurred to the
tugboat captain that the craft, all the time he had been aboard trying
to collect his bewildered senses, had acted strangely. He turned to
Mr. Howland.

"What's the matter with your yacht?"

Howland was a good deal of a thoroughbred, and yet he could not conceal
his eagerness as he spoke.

"The yacht was just what I wanted to speak to you about, Captain," he
said. "I know I have no right to ask anything more of you, but if you
have pulled together, I think we seem to need your assistance. Our
Captain was washed off the bridge, and the first mate is below with a
broken leg. The situation, I am afraid, is beyond young Terry, the
second mate; I - "

As the import of what Mr. Howland was trying to say flashed across
Dan's mind, he turned abruptly, without waiting for the completion of
the sentence, and ran for the bridge.

Without a glance at the second officer, who seemed on the verge of a
complete funk, he shouldered the two sailors from the wheel and hauled
on the spokes with all the strength of his long arms. As the yacht
began to respond he seized the indicator crank and called for full
speed ahead. The whistle of the bridge speaking-tube sounded
viciously, and Dan, placing his ear to the receiver, caught the words
of the old chief engineer as they flowed up in profane vehemence.

"Say, do you know what you want up there? If I had a man down here who
knew an engine from a plate of fruit, I'd 'a' been up there and snaked
you off the bridge long ago. I've been on my back under that triply
damned shaft for twelve hours and now - " the rest of the sentence was
an assortment of well-chosen oaths.

The outburst greeted Dan's ears sweetly. Evidently Howland had a man
down below the water line, anyway. He grinned as he clapped his lips
to the tube.

"I've just come aboard to take charge of this craft," he yelled; "now
you do as I say and do it quick. See!"

A great relieved, blasphemous roar came up the tube, and the next
instant the engines were laying down to their work.

The bow began to cut nicely into the waves, and Dan turned to the two
sailors.

"Here, you boys, tail on here and steer as I tell you." Whereupon,
fingering a pocket compass, he called the course, after which he
fastened the little instrument to the wreck of the binnacle.

"We will pull through," he said, turning to Mr. Howland, who, with his
daughter, had followed him to the bridge. "We are somewhere off the
Winter Quarter Shoals; if I can get the sun at noon I'll know exactly;
anyway, we will make Norfolk if that shaft holds. If it doesn't - well,
banking on that engineer you've got down below, I think it will hold."
Then inclining his head in the direction of Miss Howland, he added,
"I'd advise you to go below, Miss Howland." He thrilled as he uttered
her name, "You're wet; and then - I may have to swear."

"I should love awfully to hear some one swear to some purpose," she
replied. "Oh, I want to stay," she cried, speaking to her father, as
Dan suddenly turned his back and spoke to the second mate. "Father, I
am going to stay. The rest are seasick or frightened to pieces. I
feel braver up here."

She was perfectly candid. She did feel braver there on the bridge.
For Dan was the one dominant personality aboard the yacht. In her eyes
he typified bravery, skill, strength - safety, in a word, for all. It
was as though out of the wrack of despair and the overriding elements
had arisen the spirit of a man and all that at best he stands for, to
reclaim the lost honors of the darker hours. And so she clung to him
with her eyes and felt she could smile at danger; her soul went out to
him and enveloped him with gratitude and tenderness. And she neither
knew nor cared whether in these emotions was the uprearing of woman's
submerged, primal nature, giving all to the sheer power of the stronger
sex, or whether it was the result of a burden of dread suddenly lifted
from her heart - it made no difference which. She was living the
moment - here and now - clear, serene, justified, and ennobled.

And standing thus she watched him as he snapped the yacht slantwise
from the grip of succeeding sea hollows and guided her over the gray
hills, panting and straining, with much of pudgy deliberation, but
surely.

"We will make it easily," said Dan, "if nothing happens."

"Good," cried Mr. Rowland, and, taking his daughter by the arm, he
added, "come below, Virginia, and give them the good news. Your friend
Oddington has forgotten his cigarettes for a full twenty-four hours,
and the Dale girls are candidates for a sanitarium." There was a
chuckle of relief in his voice.

Dan turned to watch the girl as she followed her father from the
bridge. He was certain he had never seen anything so inspiring as
Virginia Howland standing braced square to the wind, her trim blue
skirt winding and unwinding; her cap in her hand; the wind tossing her
heavy hair in myriads of glowing pennons, which beat on the
blush-surged cheeks, alternately hiding and disclosing the sparkle of
the deep gray eyes or the flash of perfect teeth from between parted
lips.

It was a picture upon which he permitted himself to ponder but an
instant, however, for the wind was shifting again from the northeast,
growling ominously, and the yacht, humping along at a ridiculous speed
of six knots, made the situation less satisfactory than it had been.
He spoke to Terry over his shoulder.

"As you see," he said, "we're running into some new sort of hell," and
he glanced impatiently at the potential riot ahead. "Have these men
keep the course and look out for things, will you? I'm going down to
the engine-room for a few minutes."

"Very well, sir," said the young officer.

Dan found old Jim Arthur, the chief, swearing softly as he moved about
his engines with a long-spouted oil can.

"It is beginning to breeze again," said Dan. "I'm the new Captain and
I came down to tell you I don't think much of your machinery, and to
ask if the shaft will hold out."

"The shaft'll hold," said the engineer. Then he paused and looked at
Dan in supreme disgust. "Engines!" he snorted. "I've been holdin' 'em
together with my fingers since we left San Domingo. Cap'n, they'd been
fine for a Swiss cuckoo clock. Why, they're only held together by gilt
paint and polish. See how old Howland's had 'em painted - like a
bedizened old maid! I do believe he's got 'em perfumed. Well, they
may hold - "

Dan, who had been glancing about the engine-room, interrupted the
engineer's pessimistic outburst.

"What are your force pumps going for?" he asked.

"Well, it ain't fur to water no flowers," said Arthur, beckoning Dan to
the shaft tunnel, where a foot and a half of frothy water was rolling
to and fro, slushing against the stuffing box, laving the engine-room
bulkhead.

Leaking! Dan's first impulse was to drop his hands then and there and
let the yacht sink or do what she would for all he cared. He had
fought out his fight with a better craft than this and had lost her.
He did not yield to this; in truth, before he could think of yielding
there came a second impulse - to relieve his mind of several hundred
accumulated metaphors, to which inclination he surrendered
unconditionally, while Arthur, in the face of the verbal torrent, gazed
at the source in humble admiration.

"How - how much is she taking in?" the young man finally gasped.

"About thirty strokes a minute. I'd 'a' whistled up the tube about it
before, only I thought you had enough to fill your mind."

"How does it strike you?" asked Dan.

"It's gained only six inches in the past hour. I will say that much.
But if you ask me my honest opinion, I'd say this rotten old pleasure
hull is a-gettin' ready to open up and spread out like a - like
a - balloon with the epizo√ґtic."


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Online LibraryLawrence PerryDan Merrithew → online text (page 4 of 12)