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have been termed receptive. So far as Dan was concerned, he felt that,
whether unwisely or not, he had made quite clear to her the terms upon
which their friendship could continue; she had expressed her views no
less clearly. The stand of both was irrevocable.

The second day out, feeling it to be his duty, he made tentative advances
which, if not directly declined, at least left him the impression he had
been gently and skilfully rebuffed. Since then he had been careful not
to place himself again in a similar position.

At the table she would address him in the line of general conversation,
and was at pains to greet him cordially whenever they met about the ship.
But otherwise she left no doubt as to her wishes concerning him. Once
she came into the saloon for breakfast before the rest of the party had
taken their places. Dan was in his accustomed seat at the head of the
table; he arose and wished her good-morning. She replied faintly, and
then she sat toying idly with her rusk, her eyes for the most part
fastened upon Dan, who had resumed his breakfast as though oblivious of
her presence. She seemed trying to make up her mind to speak; but she
failed. When Dan arose, bowed slightly, and left the saloon, she was
still sitting silent with her breakfast untasted.

At Galveston Oddington left for New York by train, but Mr. Howland,
receiving more assuring despatches, decided to remain with the party.
They crammed cotton into the _Tampico's_ holds, and later at Savannah
they put pine-tar and pitch and other naval supplies aboard; thereby
increasing Dan's responsibilities a hundredfold. But business was
business, as Mr. Howland had said; and Dan had but to accept his worries
and keep them from the party, which had fared well at the hands of
friends in the two ports.

The _Tampico_ left Savannah one afternoon about an hour after a trim
Savannah liner had dropped down the river. At dinner that night the
merriment was supreme, for in four days the _Tampico_ would be in New
York, and the Howlands' guests had had about all the excitement and salt
air they wanted. The air was soft; there was brilliant starlight.

Dan had spent most of the evening on the bridge, Mr. Howland having
requested him to make up the coast well out to sea in order to give the
party a "final soaking" of real ocean air. He had not complied
absolutely. Still, the Tampico was a good ninety miles off shore, well
outside the track of south-bound vessels.

Shortly after nine o'clock he left the bridge and walked along the deck.
The party was breaking up. Miss Howland had sauntered away from the
group, and was leaning over the rail with her chin resting on her hands.

"Good-evening, Miss Howland," said Dan, pausing.

Virginia looked up quickly, and then resumed her former position.

"I don't know whether I ought to be nice to you or not, Captain
Merrithew," she said.

Something in her voice gave Dan encouragement to make his reply.

"Won't you please try to be? In less than four days now you will be
ashore - and then you'll probably never have any more opportunities."

The girl settled her chin more deeply into her palms.

"But _you_ have not been nice. You have been horrid, ever since we left
San Blanco."

Here was a phase of feminine character which Dan, not knowing, had not
reckoned upon. However, he instinctively said the tactful thing.

"I - I am sorry. I thought I was pleasing you."

The girl slowly dragged her chin sidewise along her palms until she faced
the Captain.

"Oh, you did! Has your experience with women taught you that is the best
way to please them?"

Dan, now completely at sea, simply regarded her in silence. Virginia,
inwardly triumphant, smiled.

"Now what can you do in four days to atone?"

"I might jump overboard."

"That would be romantic, but hardly - "

As the girl was speaking she turned her eyes to the water rushing past
the hull, just as a dull, wallowing shape flashed by the bow, assuming
form right under her eyes - a dark, soughing, coughing derelict, moving in
the waves spinelessly, like a serpent; black, slimy, repulsive, with
broken, hemp-littered masts and rusty chains clanking over the bow.

"Oh!" Virginia jumped back with a startled cry and looked fearfully at
her companion. He was smiling, and intuitively she recognized that it
was not a smile of amusement, but of sympathy, reassurance.

"Oh, wasn't it horrid!"

"Yes, it was not a pretty sight," replied Dan. "Derelicts never are.
There are lots of them around here; they travel in currents, sometimes in
short orbits, sometimes hundreds of miles in a straight line."

The terror had not left her eyes, and she glanced astern to where the
ugly shape was burying itself in the gloom. She was an impressionable
girl, and that loathsome object, rising as it were out of the bottom of
the deep, clanking, sighing, brought to her an epitome of all the fear
and mystery of the great, dark, silent waste. And she looked at the
Captain with new interest. Here was one of the men who brave these
things, who brave great big problems, who face the unknown and a future
as full of mystery, as fraught with evil possibilities as when the first
mariner put out to the Beyond in a boat hollowed from a tree. In a flash
that derelict taught her to read Dan better; gave her a better insight
into the look that she sometimes caught in his steely, inscrutable eyes,
and the grave lines in his sun-bronzed face. And in the light of this
knowledge her soul went out to this man, this type of man, so strange, so
utterly foreign to a girl brought up in an environment where such types
do not exist.

She held out her hand.

"I am going to my stateroom now, Captain. Good-night. We are going to
be better friends, aren't we?"

"Thank you," said Dan; and he watched her tall, white form as it
disappeared down the deck. He gazed moodily out at the dark horizon.
Friends! He searched himself thoroughly, and he could not deny the truth
as formulated in his mind. Friends! How hollow the word sounded! He
knew how hollow it would seem all through his life.

Better it should be nothing. Yes, far better, instinct told him that.
Miss Howland had come into his existence, radiant, pure, beautiful, and
so utterly feminine; as a meteor flashing across the night pauses for a
brief instant in the sky before shivering to nothingness. This simile
occurred to Dan, who, though no poet, was at least a sailor and as such a
student of the heavenly bodies. Yes, a meteor which had illumined his

He had never permitted himself to think in this way before. It is
doubtful if before to-night he could have felt as he now did. It had all
come over him suddenly with a rush. When he talked with her at the hotel
in San Blanco he was filled with thoughts of his future, and assumed as
granted his footing upon her plane. How absurd, how ridiculous this
seemed now!

Why, why was it, he asked himself, that society or convention or whatever
it was had drawn the grim _chevaux de frise_ between those who had
accomplished, or whose forebears had accomplished for them, and those who
were yet to accomplish; with hosts eager to applaud the achievements of
finality, but who had no adequate encouragement for those who had yet to
achieve their mission, who fought their battles in the dark and won them
in the glorious light, or losing, sank back into that oblivion out of
which they had striven to emerge?

If fate had been different - yet if fate had been different he would never
have seen her, perhaps. Yes, he should be satisfied; he had seen his
star. And when it faded, as fade it must, in the vastness of the
dark - why, what then? Well, at least he had seen his star; even this
much is denied many. So, he would live it out and be thankful he had
been permitted to feel the great thrill - to know that at least he had the
heart for the greatest passion the world knows. Poor consolation, he
told himself with a grim smile. And yet he who hitches his chariot to a
star might well be content with less.



Just an hour later the _Tampico_ lay burning at a point in the Atlantic
where if the white lights of Cape Fear and Cape Lookout had converged
ninety-two miles farther out to sea they would have rested full on the
reeking hull.

Dan had been fearful of the results of Mr. Howland's policy in loading
the _Tampico_ with inflammable cargo. He had been reared with the fear
of fire in his heart. From one of his voyages his grandfather, Daniel
Merrithew, had never returned. A charred name board had told the grim
tale, and so Dan had gone out into the world with a long, red, flaming
line across his fate, as in knightly days a man might have included the
bar sinister or some other portentous device among his symbols of

Pacing the forward deck with his pipe, thinking deeply of his talk with
Virginia, Dan had seen pitch bubbling out of the deck seams and
spilling into rich black pools. And thus the fire was discovered - some
fifteen minutes too late, however, to effect the rescue of several of
the crew, who shrieked and pounded at the bulkhead door, warped and
welded tight by the heat; shrieked and pounded, until the throttling
smoke bade them hold their peace.

First, Dan had the vessel swung about with her stern to the wind, the
fire being forward; and the crew had piled up on deck and rushed
without confusion or undue noise to their various stations. Some
unscrewed deck valves over the burning hold, fastening thereto the ends
of seven-inch rubber hose; while below, the engine-room staff, with
soldierly precision, attached the other ends to the boilers and stood
like statues until a signal gong sounded through the black depth.
Whereupon they handled certain valves, and with a hissing scream great
volumes of hot vapor poured into the blazing compartment. On deck
other seamen dragged lengths of hose forward, forced the nozzles
through narrow deck-vents, and held them there while the force pump
sent up thousands of gallons of brine.

Dan, ubiquitous, cheerful, commanding, lending a hand to one set of
men, directing another, came upon a station two short of its quota.

"Where are Phillips and Fagan?" asked Dan, sharply.

"They bunked in the steerage," replied a sailor, choking in the smoke
weltering up through the hose vent.

The young Captain's breath caught; but there was no time for sentiment.
He inspected the vessel, bow and stern, marshalled the members of the
Howland party into the saloon and bade them stay there until otherwise
ordered, and then went up to his men and fought with them. An hour
passed, and twenty more minutes. The lurid tinge to the smoke,
bellying up through the deck-vents, gave sharp hint of the undiminished
fury of the flames raging below.

"It's like pouring in oil," muttered Dan to himself; and then he added
aloud, "Keep right to it, men, you're holding it," and thus saying he
left them and ran aft to where the second mate and the reserve section
of eight men were growling impatiently.

"Take up your hose, men, and come with me down into hold No. 2. The
fire's going to clean out No. 1 to the skin, sure. We'll have to keep
it from breaking through to the other holds. Come on! Hurry!"

Without a word the men picked up the three lengths of emergency hose
and followed their Captain. As Dan ran along the deck, leading the way
to the hatch, he heard his name called, and looking up quickly, saw Mr.
Howland and Virginia approaching. The girl's hair was flying loose and
she had a long blue coat thrown over her shoulders. The deck was
filled with heavy smoke.

"Captain," said the shipping magnate, "how are we now?"

Dan paused just an instant.

"Fighting hard," he replied, and then he added quickly, "Mr. Howland,
we need men. Two of the crew are gone. Ask some of the men of your
party, please, to go forward and report to Mr. Jackson. And you, Miss
Howland, go into the saloon right away - and stay there. Tell the
others that if they appear on deck before I give the word I shall have
them locked in."

The girl obeyed silently, but Mr. Howland paused irresolutely a second,
in which time Dan had turned and was hastening after his men.

"I will do as you say," Mr. Howland called after the retreating form of
the Captain, "but I want to talk to you first."

"All right, sir, come on then. You'll have to talk to me down in the
hold, I'm afraid."

The second mate and his men had in the meantime pried the battens from
the hatch and thrown it open. The hold was about half full of cotton
bales, railroad ties, oakum, resin, and the like, and they descended to
them by means of a scaling ladder, clambering thence toward the forward
bulkhead. One of the men had a lantern which cast a pallid glow about
the immediate vicinity, bringing into vague relief the well-ordered
masses of cargo, and ending suddenly against a hard wall of dark as
palpable as a barrier of stone. The air was heavy with musty sweetness
and with yellow smoke which streaked lazily past the lantern globe - and
with silence, save for the dull roar in the adjoining hold.

"Make a stand right here," and Dan's voice sounded hollow through the
gloom. "Stand right here. You've got water in your hose; I want that
bulkhead kept soaked. Let her go."

As the streams of water plunged against the steel wall Dan turned to
his employer.

"You wanted to speak to me, Mr. Howland?"

"Yes, I want to compliment you on your discipline and - and what is the
exact situation?"

"Not so good; but a working chance. It will be a short and sharp go;
for the hold's lined with tar and sugar reek - otherwise the cotton
might go for days. It won't in that hold, though. The fight'll be
right here. If it breaks through into this we've got to run; if not,
it will burn out where it is."

"What are the chances that it won't?"

"Why, you know more about the structural strength of this boat than I
do. To be honest, I never liked your bulkheads, else I would have
opened a stop-cock and flooded the hold long ago. Still, what water
would burst through, fire might not."

Horace Howland, who had paid his own price for the _Tampico_, and who
by the same token had his own opinion of her, said nothing.

"I have arranged about the boats," resumed Dan. "If the worst comes,
my men know what to do and they are the men to do it. It's not too
rough to launch safely. Now, Mr. Howland, I've wasted too much time
talking. Don't forget to send two men to Mr. Jackson," and he sprang
up the ladder and hurried forward.

The feet of the men at work over the burning hold were blistering. Dan
yanked out an inch hose and set a cabin boy to sluicing the deck where
they stood, sending up dense clouds of enveloping steam. A broad
tongue of blue flame curled out of the port hawse-hole, licked along
the half-protruding anchor, rose above the rail, and then burst into a
puff of red fire which floated away in the wind. A cargo port door
warped in the heat, buckled outward, tearing plates and rivets with a
rasping screech, and dropped hissing into the black waters; and the
wind, blowing from astern, was sucked into the opening, fanning the
flames to screaming ferocity.

The tale was plain for every one, and Dan read it to the last word.
Water would be of more service elsewhere, that was certain. So he
withdrew the four crews from their hose vents, ordered two of them to
take their lines into the second hold, and set the others flooding the
deck. He shifted two of his seven-inch steam lines to the midship
plugs, and then followed the hose men, who had joined their comrades in
the darkness of the second hold. Streams of water were hissing against
the steel barrier and flying back at the faces of the nozzle men in hot

"There's a bulge in the centre," reported the second officer.

"Yes," said Dan, who seized a lantern and held it above his head,
pointing out new objective marks for the water. The smoke had grown
thicker. One man gagged at a nozzle; but drinking from the pipe the
air which the water brought, he lowered his head and fought on.

They fought as men should fight, in the pungent half-gloom, colliding
or falling prone as the vessel pitched, eyes fixed straight ahead,
following the powerful silver lines of water which ribbed the dark and
splashed against the steaming steel; white-yellow smoke spirals writhed
about their heads like some grotesque saraband; coatless, shirtless,
their streaked, sweating bodies gleamed dull and ghastly.

One of them straightened from the nozzle and glared at his side
partner; and Dan, whose eyes were everywhere, saw him and moved close
to him, where his fist could do best work if necessary. Any sign of
mutiny now called for decided measures.

"Say, Mike," said the man in a rich brogue, "give us a hunk o' yer
'bacca - this makes the mout' dry"; and Dan chuckled his admiration for
the fighting spirit of the Irish.

Once a tiny lance of flame leaped out through some hidden
crevice - leaped far out at the men as a rifle spits its deadly fire,
and then, curling about a sugar sack like a serpent's tongue, withdrew
so suddenly, so silently, that it seemed to those who saw it as
something which had flashed through their imaginations. A stream of
water sought the outlet and the flame came no more then.

Suddenly a cry came from one of the men, and all eyes turned to a point
in the bulkhead where a hectic flush glowed like a death's head. Four
streams struck it simultaneously. It went out, but reappeared in
another place. The water quenched this also, but it came back again
and widened, and the plunging water was dried to mist at the instant of
contact. The glow grew brighter, then dim, and then brighter, rising
and falling as life pulses in a fevered body. A flood of smoke choked
in from a viewless breach. Two of the men cried out, gurgled, fell on
their faces, and turned over on their backs, struggling; then they lay
still. Dan carried them to the deck, and returned with a sailor. The
two had just gained the sugar sacks when the centre bulkhead quivered.
A cross section collapsed into a V. A score of rivet holes yawned wide
and red-hot bolts fell on the sacks and set them on fire. A line of
plating, separating from its fellows, sagged open in a red grin and
gave view of the raging hell within.

"Now, into it, boys!" yelled Dan, and the men, bowing their heads,
advanced five feet, directing the streams into the fiery pit. For a
minute the flames were driven back by the concentrated rush of water;
two minutes, and then a gush of fire flared through the break. It
broke as a stream hit it, but its ghost, in the guise of hot gases,
choked the men.

A great roar of flame almost enveloped them, and the heat crisped their
hair and seared their bodies, and they dropped their hose and raced for
the ladder.

"Go on, men!" shouted Dan as they struggled out of the hold. "You've
done all I can ask. Hurry! Get out!" and they got out and then turned
to batten the hatch cover down. But the rush of fire was too swift to
be denied. A thick-bodied pillar choked through the opening and
spouted to the top of the funnel - great gouts of the devouring element
pulsed softly, but with lightning swiftness, down the deck, and
shrivelled a life raft. Long tongues and jets of fire were bursting
everywhere out of the forward deck.

It had come at last, just as Dan had seen it coming all through the
night - all through the years. His voice roared from the bridge:

"To the boats - every man to his station!"

The command was taken up and carried along, and noiseless shapes limned
briefly in the fire glow, scuttled quickly to their appointed places.
Mr. Howland and his party stumbled out of the saloon with blanched
faces and parted lips, but quietly.

"Women to the rail!" The cry echoed out over the sea, - over the sea,
which has heard these chivalrous words so often.

"Women first - women to the rail!" Dan's cry was taken up by the
officers. Silent figures in trailing garments moved as they were bid.

From the port quarter a gruff voice sounded.

"Ready, men - ease away." Came the creak of tackle, the thud of iron
upon steel - then a silence - then a rattle of oars in thole-pins - then a
clear hail from the darkness: "All's well, Captain Merrithew!"

Another boat clattered down the steel sides and cleared safely, and
still another. The last boat was filling with the last of the crew.

"Everybody accounted for?" Dan's shout as he rushed down from the
curling bridge brought Mr. Howland up with a sudden fear. He had taken
his daughter to the starboard boat only to find it full, and had sent
her across to the third boat, while he superintended the adjustment of
a wedged block. This done, he had hurried to the starboard, only to
find the third boat overboard and well away. He had assumed that she
was all right. But a cold rush of doubt assailed him.

"Virginia, Virginia - are you all right?" he called in tones of agony.

"I saw her at the third boat," said the first officer. "You must look
alive, Mr. Howland - we'll have to lower directly the Captain comes.
The deck's going now."

The ship-owner heard these words with a sigh of relief and stepped into
the boat without further ado.

"Every one accounted for?" repeated Dan as he dashed along deck to the

Something, a faint suggestion of sound rather than sound itself caused
him to pause. He heard nothing more, though he listened for a full
minute. Instinctively he turned to a stateroom in the midship

"Captain Merrithew - are - you - coming?" The first officer's voice arose
in impatient cadence.

"Yes - hold there a minute!" replied Dan, twisting the knob of the door.
It was locked. He ran back a few paces and sprang at it with his
shoulder. It trembled and gave. He rushed again and the door crashed
inward. The room was filling with smoke.

And on the bunk sat Virginia, her hands on her knees, her head hanging
low and swaying dazedly from side to side. She was on the verge of
collapse; but she looked up and smiled faintly as Dan burst in. Then
her head fell again.

"I knew you would come," she muttered.

Without a word Dan seized her by the arm and led her swiftly to the
shattered door. As they reached the threshold there came a dull boom
from below - the vessel shivered. A sheet of flame swept the entire
forward deck, and Dan looked out into a red, pulsing wall.

In terror the men in the fourth and last boat, the fire licking their
faces, let go the falls, and the little craft struck the water with a
crash, but on an even keel.

Knowing he could not reach the boat even were it still on the davits,
Dan left the stateroom and half led, half carried the girl toward the

The forward deck was now a seething inferno. The foremast, a pillar of
thin name, flickered like a pennon of gold until it broke in the middle
and sent up a shower of sparks. The shrouds and ratlines which went
with it had barred the black heavens with ruddy lines. From all the
openings dull red clouds rolled and bellied skyward, cloud upon cloud;
the funnel spouted like a blast furnace.

But the vessel slowly, but very surely, was falling off the wind; it
would soon blow astern. The shelter of the after deck-house would
serve for a while, perhaps until some vessel, attracted by the terrible
light, would bring them succor. Dan placed the girl behind this steel
structure and then, running to the taffrail, leaned far out and called
to the boats. But the roar of the flames drowned his cries, and the
boats, which had moved out to windward, could not see him. Foot by
foot crept the fire; but the stiff wind which finally came over the
stern did its work well, and the red avalanche began to slant toward
the bow. This meant respite. But he knew that at the very best it
could be only a respite, and short at that.

Again and again and again he called for the boats, until his voice grew
husky and faint. Then, hopeless of aid from his men, he returned to
the girl. She was exactly where he had left her, slightly crouching as
though to shut from her eyes the fearful red light.

The wind rush had revived her smoke-dimmed senses. When she was
approaching the star-board boat to which her father had directed her
she had lost her head, as persons will do in time of fire, and had
wandered mechanically, unconsciously, to her cabin and locked herself
in. But she was not frightened now. There was that in Dan which she
trusted. She looked at him strangely and smiled. She caressed him

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Online LibraryLawrence PerryDan Merrithew → online text (page 9 of 12)