This sudden change in her manner surprised me. I knew I had no art in dealing with women, so I let it pass without comment, and looked out at the glassy sea.
After some minutes of silence, the girl spoke to me again.
"Do you know anything of the actual plans of these maniacs?"
"No. I only know their preposterous purpose."
"Well, I know how it is to be done. Natalie was restless last night--you know that we share the same cabin--and she raved a bit. I kept her in her berth by sheer force, but I allowed her to talk."
This was serious. I drew my chair close to Miss Metford's and whispered, "For heaven's sake, speak low." Then I remembered Brande's power, and wrung my hands in helpless impotence. "You forget Brande. At this moment he is taking down every word we say."
"He's doing nothing of the sort."
"But you forget--"
"I don't forget. By accident I put morphia in the tonic he takes, and he is now past telepathy for some hours at least. He's sound asleep. I suppose if I had not done it by accident he would have known what I was doing, and so have refused the medicine. Anyhow, accident or no accident, I have done it."
"Thank God!" I cried.
"And this precious disintegrating agent! They haven't it with them, it seems. To manufacture it in sufficient quantity would be impossible in any civilised country without fear of detection or interruption. Brande has the prescription, formula--what do you call it?--and if you could get the paper and--"
"Throw it overboard!"
"Rubbish! They would work it all out again."
"What then?" I whispered.
"Steal the paper and--wouldn't it do to put in an extra x or y, or stick a couple of additional figures into any suitable vacancy? Don't you think they'd go on with the scheme and--"
"And make a mess of it!"
"Miss Metford," I said, rising from my chair, "I mean Metford, I know you like to be addressed as a man--or used to like it."
"Yes, I used to," she assented coldly.
"I am going to take you in my arms and kiss you."
"I'm hanged if you are!" she exclaimed, so sharply that I was suddenly abashed. My intended familiarity and its expression appeared grotesque, although a few minutes before she was so friendly. But I could not waste precious time in studying a girl's caprices, so I asked at once: "How can I get this paper?"
"I said steal it, if you recollect." Her voice was now hard, almost harsh. "You can get it in Brande's cabin, if you are neither afraid nor jealous."
"I am not much afraid, and I will try it. What do you mean by jealous?"
"I mean, would you, to save Natalie Brande--for they will certainly succeed in blowing themselves up, if nobody else--consent to her marrying another man, say that young lunatic Halley, who is always dangling after her when you are not?"
"Yes," I answered, after some thought. For Halley's attentions to Natalie had been so marked, the plainly inconsequent mention of him in this matter did not strike me. "If that is necessary to save her, of course I would consent to it. Why do you ask? In my place you would do the same."
"No. I'd see the ship and all its precious passengers at the bottom of the sea first."
"Ah! but you are not a man."
"Right! and what's more, I'm glad of it." Then looking down at the rational part of her costume, she added sharply, "I sha'n't wear these things again."
ROCKINGHAM TO THE SHARKS.
At one o'clock in the morning I arose, dressed hurriedly, drew on a pair of felt slippers, and put a revolver in my pocket. It was then time to put Edith Metford's proposal to the proof, and she would be waiting for me on deck to hear whether I had succeeded in it. We had parted a couple of hours before on somewhat chilling terms. I had agreed to follow her suggestion, but I could not trouble my tired brain by guesses at the cause of her moods.
It was very dark. There was only enough light to enable me to find my way along the corridor, off which the state-rooms occupied by Brande and his immediate lieutenants opened. All the sleepers were restless from the terrible heat. As I stole along, a muffled word, a sigh, or a movement in the berths, made me pause at every step with a beating heart. Having listened till all was quiet, I moved on again noiselessly. I was almost at the end of the corridor. So intent had I been on preserving perfect silence, it did not sooner occur to me that I was searching for any special door. I had forgotten Brande's number!
I could no more think of it than one can recall the name of a half-forgotten acquaintance suddenly encountered in the street. It might have been fourteen, or forty-one; or a hundred and fifty. Every number was as likely as it was unlikely. I tried vainly to concentrate my mind. The result was nothing. The missing number gave no clue. To enter the wrong room in that ship at that hour meant death for me. Of that I was certain. To leave the right room unentered gave away my first chance in the unequal battle with Brande. Then, as I knew that my first chance would probably be my last, if not availed of, I turned to the nearest door and quietly tried the handle. The door was not locked. I entered the state-room.
"What do you want?" It was Halley's voice that came from the berth.
"Pardon me," I whispered, "a mistake. The heat, you know. Went on deck, and have blundered into your room."
"Oh, all right. Who are you?"
"Good-night. You did not blunder far;" this sleepily.
I went out and closed the door quietly. I had gained something. I was within one door of my destination, for I knew that Halley was berthed between Rockingham and Brande. But I did not know on which side Brande's room was, and I dared not ask. I tried the next door going forward. It opened like the other. I went in.
"Hallo there!" This time no sleepy or careless man challenged me. It was Rockingham's voice.
"May I not enter my own room?" I whispered.
"This is not your room. You are?" Rockingham sprang up in his berth, but before he could leave it I was upon him.
"I am Arthur Marcel. And this iron ring which I press against your left ear is the muzzle of my revolver. Speak, move, breathe above your natural breath and your brains go through that porthole. Now, loose your hold of my arm and come with me."
"You fool!" hissed Rockingham. "You dare not fire. You know you dare not."
He was about to call out, but my left hand closed on his throat, and a gurgling gasp was all that issued from him.
I laid down the revolver and turned the ear of the strangling man close to my mouth. I had little time to think; but thought flies fast when such deadly peril menaces the thinker as that which I must face if I failed to make terms with the man who was in my power. I knew that notwithstanding his intensely disagreeable nature, if he gave his promise either by spoken word or equivalent sign, I could depend upon him. There were no liars in Brande's Society. But the word I could not trust him to say. I must have his sign. I whispered: "You know I do not wish to kill you. I shall never have another happy day if you force me to it. I have no choice. You must yield or die. If you will yield and stand by me rather than against me in what shall follow, choose life by taking your right hand from my wrist and touching my left shoulder. I will not hurt you meanwhile. If you choose death, touch me with your left."
The sweat stood on my forehead in big beads as I waited for his choice. It was soon made. He unlocked his left hand and placed it firmly on my right shoulder.
He had chosen death.
So the man was only a physical coward--or perhaps he had only made a choice of alternatives.
I said slowly and in great agony, "May God have mercy on your soul--and mine!" on which the muscles in my left arm stiffened. The big biceps--an heirloom of my athletic days--thickened up, and I turned my eyes away from the dying face, half hidden by the darkness. His struggles were very terrible, but with my weight upon his lower limbs, and my grasp upon his windpipe, that death-throe was as silent as it was horrible. The end came slowly. I could not bear the horror of it longer. I must finish it and be done with it. I put my right arm under the man's shoulders and raised the upper part of his body from the berth. Then a desperate wrench with my left arm, and there was a dull crack like the snapping of a dry stick. It was over. Rockingham's neck was broken.
I wiped away the bloody froth that oozed from the gaping mouth, and tried to compose decently the contorted figure. I covered the face. Then I started on my last mission, for now I knew the door. I had bought the knowledge dearly, and I meant to use it for my own purpose, careless of what violence might be necessary to accomplish my end.
When I entered Brande's state-room I found the electric light full on. He was seated at a writing-table with his head resting on his arms, which hung crossways over the desk. The sleeper breathed so deeply it was evident that the effect of the morphia was still strong upon him. One hand clutched a folded parchment. His fingers clasped it nervelessly, and I had only to force them open one by one in order to withdraw the manuscript. As I did this, he moaned and moved in his chair. I had no fear of his awaking. My hand shook as I unfolded the parchment which I unconsciously handled as carefully as though the thing itself were as deadly as the destruction which might be wrought by its direction.
To me the whole document was a mass of unintelligible formulae. My rusty university education could make nothing of it. But I could not waste time in trying to solve the puzzle, for I did not know what moment some other visitor might arrive to see how Brande fared. I first examined with a pocket microscope the ink of the manuscript, and then making a scratch with Brande's pen on a page of my note-book, I compared the two. The colours were identical. It was the same ink.
In several places where a narrow space had been left vacant, I put 1 in front of the figures which followed. I had no reason for making this particular alteration, save that the figure 1 is more easily forged than any other, and the forgery is consequently more difficult to detect. My additions, when the ink was dry, could only have been discovered by one who was informed that the document had been tampered with. It was probable that a drawer which stood open with the keys in the lock was the place where Brande kept this paper; where he would look for it on awaking. I locked it in the drawer and put the keys into his pocket.
There was something still to do with the sleeping man, whose brain compassed such marvellous powers. His telepathic faculty must be destroyed. I must keep him seriously ill, without killing him. As long as he remained alive his friends would never question his calculations, and the fiasco which was possible under any circumstances would then be assured. I had with me an Eastern drug, which I had bought from an Indian fakir once in Murzapoor. The man was an impostor, whose tricks did not impose on me. But the drug, however he came by it, was reliable. It was a poison which produced a mild form of cerebritis that dulled but did not deaden the mental powers. It acted almost identically whether administered sub-cutaneously or, of course in a larger dose, internally. I brought it home with the intention of giving it to a friend who was interested in vivisection. I did not think that I myself should be the first and last to experiment with it. It served my purpose well.
The moment I pricked his skin, Brande moved in his seat. My hand was on his throat. He nestled his head down again upon his arms, and drew a deep breath. Had he moved again that breath would have been his last. I had been so wrought upon by what I had already done that night, I would have taken his life without the slightest hesitation, if the sacrifice seemed necessary.
When my operation was over, I left the room and moved silently along the corridor till I came to the ladder leading to the deck. Edith Metford was waiting for me as we had arranged. She was shivering in spite of the awful heat.
"Have you done it?" she whispered.
"I have," I answered, without saying how much I had done. "Now you must retire--and rest easy. The formula won't work. I have put both it and Brande himself out of gear."
"Thank God!" she gasped, and then a sudden faintness came over her. It passed quickly, and as soon as she was sufficiently restored, I begged her to go below. She pleaded that she could not sleep, and asked me to remain with her upon the deck. "It would be absurd to suppose that either of us could sleep this night," she very truly said. On which I was obliged to tell her plainly that she must go below. I had more to do.
"Can I help?" she asked anxiously.
"No. If you could, I would ask you, for you are a brave girl. I have something now to get through which is not woman's work."
"Your work is my work," she answered. "What is it?"
"I have to lower a body overboard without anyone observing me."
There was no time for discussion, so I told her at once, knowing that she would not give way otherwise. She started at my words, but said firmly: "How will you do that unobserved by the 'watch'? Go down and bring up your--bring it up. I will keep the men employed." She went forward, and I turned again to the companion.
When I got back to Rockingham's cabin I took a sheet of paper and wrote, "Heat--Mad!" making no attempt to imitate his writing. I simply scrawled the words with a rough pen in the hope that they would pass as a message from a man who was hysterical when he wrote them. Then I turned to the berth and took up the body. It was not a pleasant thing to do. But it must be done.
I was a long time reaching the deck, for the arms and legs swung to and fro, and I had to move cautiously lest they should knock against the woodwork I had to pass. I got it safely up and hurried aft with it. Edith, I knew, would contrive to keep the men on watch engaged until I had disposed of my burden. I picked up a coil of rope and made it fast to the dead man's neck. Taking one turn of the rope round a boat-davit, I pushed the thing over the rail. I intended to let go the rope the moment the weight attached to it was safely in the sea, and so lowered away silently, paying out the line without excessive strain owing to the support of the davit round which I had wound it. I had not to wait so long as that, for just as the body was dangling over the foaming wake of the steamer, a little streak of moonlight shot out from behind a bank of cloud and lighted the vessel with a sudden gleam. I was startled by this, and held on, fearing that some watching eye might see my curious movements. For a minute I leaned over the rail and watched the track of the steamer as though I had come on deck for the air. There was a quick rush near the vessel's quarter. Something dark leaped out of the water, and there was a sharp snap--a crunch. The lower limbs were gone in the jaws of a shark. I let go the rope in horror, and the body dropped splashing into that hideous fishing-ground. Sick to death I turned away.
"Get below quickly," Edith Metford said in my ear. "They heard the splash, slight as it was, and are coming this way." Her warning was nearly a sob.
We hurried down the companion as fast as we dared, and listened to the comments of the watch above. They were soon satisfied that nothing of importance had occurred, and resumed their stations.
Before we parted on that horrible night, Edith said in a trembling voice, "You have done your work like a brave man."
"Say rather, like a forger and murderer," I answered.
"No," she maintained. "Many men before you have done much worse in a good cause. You are not a forger. You are a diplomat. You are not a murderer. You are a hero."
But I, being new to this work of slaughter and deception, could only deprecate her sympathy and draw away. I felt that my very presence near her was pollution. I was unclean, and I told her that I was so. Whereupon, without hesitation, she put her arms round my neck, and said clinging closely to me: "You are not unclean--you are free from guilt. And--Arthur--I will kiss you now."
"IF NOT TOO LATE!".
When I came on deck next morning the coast of Arabia was rising, a thin thread of hazy blue between the leaden grey of the sea and the soft grey of the sky. The morning was cloudy, and the blazing sunlight was veiled in atmospheric gauze. I had hardly put my foot on deck when Natalie Brande ran to meet me. I hung back guiltily.
"I thought you would never come. There is dreadful news!" she cried.
I muttered some incoherent words, to which she did not attend, but went on hurriedly: "Rockingham has thrown himself overboard in a hysterical fit, brought on by the heat. The sailors heard the splash--"
"I know they did." This escaped me unawares, and I instantly prevaricated, "I have been told about that."
"Do you know that Herbert is ill?"
I could have conscientiously answered this question affirmatively also. Her sudden sympathy for human misadventure jarred upon me, as it had done once before, when I thought of the ostensible object of the cruise. I said harshly: "Then Rockingham is at rest, and your brother is on the road to it." It was a brutal speech. It had a very different effect to that which I intended.
"True," she said. "But think of the awful consequences if, now that Rockingham is gone, Herbert should be seriously ill."
"I do think of it," I said stiffly. Indeed, I could hardly keep from adding that I had provided for it.
"You must come to him at once. I have faith in you." This gave me a twinge. "I have no faith in Percival" (the ship's doctor).
"You are nursing your brother?" I said with assumed carelessness.
"What is Percival giving him?"
She described the treatment, and as this was exactly what I myself would have prescribed to put my own previous interference right, I promised to come at once, saying: "It is quite evident that Percival does not understand the case."
"That is exactly what I thought," Natalie agreed, leading me to Brande's cabin. I found his vitality lower than I expected, and he was very impatient. The whole purpose of his life was at stake, dependent on his preserving a healthy body, on which, in turn, a vigorous mind depends.
"How soon can you get me up?" he asked sharply, when my pretended examination was over.
"I should say a month at most."
"That would be too long," he cried. "You must do it in less."
"It does not depend on me--"
"It does depend on you. I know life itself. You know the paltry science of organic life. I have had no time for such trivial study. Get me well within three days, or--"