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   Chapter 5 THE DEAD MAN IN THE PASSAGE

The Devil's Admiral By Frederick Ferdinand Moore Characters: 18630

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:04


The Kut Sang was dropping downstream as I locked my stateroom and made my way to the upper-deck, partly to get a last look at Manila, but more for the purpose of considering what I should do in the matter of telling Captain Riggs that I suspected Meeker was not a missionary.

In the last few minutes before the departure of the vessel I had suddenly been struck with the idea that Meeker was more than a mere spy who mistook me for one of his own ilk. This feeling was vague and formless, and I did not know how to begin to put together the various elements that seemed to connect some sort of a well-defined plot.

No sooner would I set about putting certain facts together than I would laugh at myself for manufacturing a mystery; and, after I had tried to shake off the impression that the Kut Sang and all of us in her were more than mere travellers and seamen, the fantastic ideas insisted upon running through my head.

Through this formless mass of queer events of the day, Meeker and the little red-headed man kept to the front of my fancies, and with them the steamer Kut Sang.

Why, I asked myself, had Meeker made such strenuous efforts to keep me from taking passage in the vessel? It seemed absurd to suppose that he had acted as he did, simply because he disliked the idea of having me for a fellow passenger.

Then there was Trego and Meeker's appearance at the bank, "seeking alms," and the further fact that Trego was in the Kut Sang. It seemed to be more than a coincidence that the two of them should meet as they did.

I even found something queer in the killing of the boatswain of the Kut Sang at the Flagship Bar, and began to wonder if Petrak did not have a hand in the murder, even though he was so ready with a denial when I spoke to him about it.

As I stood at the rail of the hurricane-deck, and thought of these things, Petrak came up from the fore-deck and stood at the foot of the ladder leading to the bridge, where I could hear Captain Riggs pacing to and fro and speaking through the trap to the helmsman about the course.

The little red-headed man grinned at me and set to work polishing the knob of the wheel-house door, and not until that minute did I realize that he had come along with us in the Kut Sang. And he likewise reminded me at once that it was I who had brought him aboard.

"I signed on, sir," he said, pointing to his new cap, which had the steamer's name embroidered upon it. "Thanks to you, sir, I got a ship out."

"I am glad you did," I said curtly, not sure whether I ought to be amused at the turn of events by which I had unwittingly brought the little rascal along with me.

I glanced up the companionway to Captain Riggs, and had a mind to go up and speak to him about Meeker, but I disliked to invade the bridge, sacred territory at sea. He was standing just at the head of the ladder then, and could see me.

"Would you mind the peseta, sir?" asked Petrak.

I remembered that he had brought my bag aboard, and, finding a peso in my pocket-five times what he had asked for-I gave him the coin.

"Here," I said; "take this, and keep out of my reach. I've seen quite enough of you for a time."

"Please don't tip my crew," Captain Riggs called down to me in a pleasant manner. "The steward's department must attend to the passengers, for we are short-handed on deck, and I can't have the men running errands."

"It's for services rendered," I told Riggs, and he nodded as if satisfied with my explanation, and turned away to the other end of the bridge.

Impulsively I started up the ladder, determined at least to tell him what I suspected of Meeker and let him judge for himself, or be on his guard against the old impostor, whether he liked my tale-bearing or not. As I put my hand out to take the ladder-guard, Petrak thrust himself before me and barred the way.

"Can't go on the bridge, sir; against orders," he said.

I fell back, convinced that he was right and that I had had a narrow escape from making an ass of myself. Captain Riggs probably would not thank me for disturbing him or bothering him with idle rumours and fanciful yarns about passengers, even though they might be spies.

The steamer was now well into the bay. The sun was at the rim of hills between us and the open sea, and the sky was aflame in a gorgeous tropical sunset.

Harris, the mate, was busy on the fore-deck battening down hatches and clearing up the litter of ropes and slings. The Kut Sang was plainly enough short-handed for the passage, for there were but half a dozen Chinese sailors in sight. Petrak worked with a cloth on the brass-knob, and he was loafing without a doubt.

I suspected that he was afraid I was waiting for him to go away, so that

I might go up the ladder to the bridge. One of the men who had brought

Meeker's organ aboard had the wheel, a long, lanky cockney he was, from

what I could see of him through the window of the pilot-house.

We were well clear of the ships at anchor outside the breakwater when four bells-six o'clock-struck, and Harris came up and went on the bridge, passing without apparently seeing me. He growled something to Petrak, and the red-headed man went toward the forecastle.

"Time for Rajah to have the bell going," said Riggs as he descended to the hurricane-deck and greeted me affably. "What do you say to going below and seeing what's on the table?"

As he spoke I heard the rattle of a gong, and as I turned to go below with Captain Riggs, Meeker came around the deck-house and joined us, regarding us from under his heavy brows as he approached, and rubbing his hands in a manner that increased my growing dislike for him.

"My dear sirs," he said; "that is a beautiful sight. I have never seen, in all my twenty years in the Orient, such a sunset."

"Can't keep me from my meals," said Captain Riggs, waving to Meeker to precede him into the companionway. I was rather pleased at the captain's gruffness with him, and resolved that as soon as the opportunity offered I would discuss the crafty gentleman with Riggs.

We found Trego at table. He looked up, and made no attempt to conceal his surprise at seeing Meeker.

"Ah! Mr. Trenholm," he said to me, and we shook hands, and the Malay boy gave me the seat opposite him.

"Mr. Trego-allow me-the Reverend Meeker," said Riggs.

"So you and Mr. Trenholm have met before?" said Meeker, evidently astonished because Trego spoke to me without an introduction.

"Old friends," and I winked at Trego, to the further mystification of the pseudo-missionary, who took the seat beside me. Captain Riggs took the head of the table, so that he was between Trego and me.

"And this is Rajah, the mess-boy," said Riggs, indicating the black boy who stood behind him, clad in a white jacket with brass buttons, below which he wore a scarlet sarong reaching to his bare feet, and evidently fashioned from an old table-cover. The hilt of a kris showed above the folds of his sarong, and the two lower buttons of the jacket were left open, so that the dagger might be free to his hand. He grinned and showed his teeth.

"Dumb as a dog-fish, but can hear like a terrier," said Riggs. "Picked him up in the streets of Singapore, where he was sort of an assistant magician. He's quick with that knife, gentlemen."

The captain was obviously proud of his queer bodyguard and servant.

"It is a pity that he should be allowed to carry a fearsome weapon, which is a menace to his fellowmen," said Meeker, shrinking away from the boy. "I believe he would slay a human over a trifle."

"Absolutely harmless unless he has some reason to anger," laughed Riggs, somewhat amused at the nervousness of Meeker. "Has to pack that cheese-knife-chinks pick on him if he don't. Give him a wide berth, though, when they see that blade. Quick with it."

"But we should lead the barbarian to the light," said Meeker. "It is a dreadful example for Christians to set such people. They should not be allowed to carry such weapons-the practice leads to crime."

"Soup all around, Rajah," said Riggs, as if to close the subject.

"Do you carry deadly weapons, Mr. Trenholm? Do you approve of the bearing of arms?"

"I always have a weapon at hand," I replied seriously. "One never can tell when it will be needed in this country, and I believe in always being ready for an emergency."

"Indeed! And is it possible that you have a dagger concealed upon your person?"

"No daggers; but this is my right bower"-tapping the butt of the pistol on my right side-"and this is my left bower," and I tapped my left side.

Mr. Trego burst out laughing at this, much to the discomfiture of Meeker, who glared at him, and edged away from me.

"And do you carry such death-dealing machinery, Mr. Trego?" asked Meeker, a sneer in the question.

Trego reached for his malacca cane. In an instant he had whipped it apart and presented a delicate point toward Meeker, who recoiled at the suddenness of the unexpected thrust.

"With me at all times," said Trego, when the captain stopped laughing. "And my cabeen-eet ees one beeg arsenal, like you call it in your language. Yes."

"A pitiable example for the heathen," said Meeker. "I trust that you are not armed to the teeth, as the expression goes, captain.

"

"I don't want to spoil your appetite," said Riggs.

"Of course, Mr. Trego needs those things, as he is-"

"A passenger," said Trego, giving the captain a quick glance.

"A passenger," said Riggs blankly. "To be sure, a passenger. Now, Mr.

Meeker, I wish you would say a grace, if it pleases you."

Meeker bowed his head and mumbled something which I could not make out; besides, I was much more interested in a little byplay between Captain Riggs and Trego, which began as soon as Meeker and I had piously cast our eyes downward.

It was a signal conveyed by Trego to the captain, in which he cautioned him to silence about something, by putting his finger to his lips, as if some subject were tabooed. Riggs nodded as if he understood. Before Meeker had finished, Trego looked at him and scowled, to convey to the captain that he did not like the missionary.

"The weather is going to be fine from the way it looks now," said Riggs, in an altered tone, as if he wanted to shift the conversation into more congenial lines. "I trust we will all do our best to stay up to the weather in that respect-quick passage and good company keeps everybody on good terms and in good spirits," he added significantly.

Then he began giving us the stock-jokes of the China Sea and telling stories of his younger days, when he had better commands than the old Kut Sang. He was a bluff but likable old sea-dog, but I saw that he observed Meeker closely as he talked, and I knew that he was none too well taken with him.

So the meal went on well enough. Night had fallen upon us with tropical swiftness, and a cooling breeze was blowing through the open ports, charged with the salt tang of the sea. The Kut Sang was humming along, and there was a soothing murmur through the ancient tub as she shouldered the gentle swells of the bay.

The saloon was cozy and we dallied at table, chiefly because we did not like to leave while Riggs was telling his stories, although I would have preferred my cigar on deck.

There was something about the little party in the saloon of the Kut Sang that evening that held my attention. To me the air seemed charged with a foreboding of something imminent-something out of the ordinary, something to be long remembered. I told myself, in a premonition of things to come, that I should always remember Captain Riggs and the Rev. Luther Meeker and Trego and Rajah, and the very pattern of the parti-coloured cloth on the table, the creak of the pivot-chairs and the picture of the Japanese girl in the mineral-water calendar which swayed on the bulkhead opposite my seat.

I can see them now; as clearly as if I were back in the old Kut Sang, with the chatter of the Chinese sailors coming through the ports to spice the tales of the China coast which Riggs kept going.

We picked up Corregidor Light, which winked at us through the ports as we entered the channel. Somebody looked in at the door of the passage and Riggs waved a napkin at him.

"Tell Mr. Harris to call me if he needs me," he said, and then to us: "It's clear, and Mr. Harris, my mate, knows the Boca Grande like the palm of his hand."

He was well launched into another of his long yarns and had a fresh cigar between his teeth when the pitching of the steamer told us we were heading into the China Sea. We were clear of the channel by the time he had finished the adventure he was relating, and Trego was beginning to fidget. We all moved as if to leave the table.

"I signed the two men you brought aboard, Mr. Meeker," said Riggs. "What are their names?"

"That I do not know for certain," replied Meeker. "I believe the chap in the navy-pantaloons is known as-Buckrow, and the other, the tall Briton, is called 'Long Jim,' or some such name, by his companions. They both appear to be worthy men, and it made me sad to see them on the beach in Manila for the need of passage to Hong-Kong, or some other place where they would be more likely to get a ship.

"That is why I interceded in their behalf, and it is very kind of you, captain, to make it possible for them to better themselves, for idle men in these ports fall into evil, and it is best that they should keep to the sea. They were both well spoken of by Mr. Marley, who has charge of the Sailors' Home."

"Two sailors that I see?" Trego asked the captain.

"Mr. Meeker brought two men aboard with him to carry his gear," explained Riggs. "They wanted to get out of Manila, and, as I was short-handed for chinks, I let 'em work their passage. They signed with the commissioner, and will get four Hong-Kong dollars for the trip."

Trego frowned as he toyed with a bamboo napkin-ring, but said nothing.

"Your red-headed chap is a good man at the helm," said Riggs to me. "He's got the wheel now, and, with the other two, I'll have good quartermasters. The chinkies are poor steerers."

"Meester Trenholm ees breeng a sailor, too?" demanded Trego, turning his black eyes on me in a manner that I could not understand.

"He brought my baggage aboard," said I, somewhat annoyed. "He offered his services to Captain Riggs, and was hired, and it is no affair of mine."

"The little man with hair of red?" persisted Trego.

"Decidedly red."

Knowing, as I did, that he had charge of the ship-a fact which he evidently wished to keep from Meeker and me, judging from his signals to the captain-I understood in a way his interest in the crew.

"Pardon, captain," said Trego abruptly. "I must go to my cabeen for some cigarettes. Soon I will return. I hope you will be here."

It struck me that his suggestion that Captain Riggs wait for him was more in the nature of a command than a request.

Rajah served coffee again, and the three of us fell silent. It was an awkward situation, for we all felt embarrassed-at least I did, as a result of Trego's displeasure over the method of recruiting the crew. I wished that I had left Petrak on the dock.

Meeker took an old newspaper from his pocket and unfolded it on the table carefully.

"I think I have something here which will interest you both," he began. "It concerns-my glasses! Will you pardon me for a minute while I get my glasses from my room? I'll be back presently," and he bowed himself out.

"The old shark is funny," said Riggs. "I hold to what I have said about parsons-I don't like 'em aboard me."

I glanced at the passage and wondered if I would have time to whisper to

Riggs about Meeker before the latter returned.

"He wants to hold some sort of service for'ard this evening," continued the captain. "I'm suited if the crew is. It's not that I'm against the sailing directions in the Bible, mind, Mr. Trenholm, or an ungodly man, for I was a deacon back home in Maine. I don't like this chap-he looks too slippery to suit me."

Meeker came back and closed the bulkhead door behind him, adjusting his glasses and picking up the newspaper as he took his seat.

"My dear sirs," he resumed, "I want to read this little article to you and then I'll explain it more fully to you. I am sure that you will find it of interest, Mr. Trenholm, as a literary man and a member of the press, even if in no other way, and you, my dear Captain Riggs, will be interested because it concerns the sea, and you may have some knowledge of the facts. When I was in Aden four-no, five years ago it was-I met a most remarkable gentleman. Most remarkable! He told me a story that was passing strange, and-"

He was interrupted by the bulkhead door flying open violently and Rajah, with his hands thrown up and terror in his eyes, ran toward Captain Riggs, making frantic efforts to frame words with his lips.

"Sally Ann!" cried Riggs in alarm, jumping up. "What the devil has happened to give the boy such a turn! He's nigh out of his wits!"

Rajah pointed to the open door, but we could not see into the passage beyond the triangle of light thrown out from the gimbal-lamps in the saloon. The boy ran toward the door and pointed again, and then drew back in fear, drawing his kris and raising it in a position of defence.

Captain Riggs ran to the door and I followed him, with my hand on my pistol, Meeker crowding against my shoulders. In the dim light oozing into the passage we made out an indistinct figure.

"What in Sally Ann's name is this?" shouted Riggs, darting out and seizing the object, which he pulled toward the light.

It was the body of Mr. Trego, stabbed to the heart, the sailor's sheath-knife which had killed him still in his fatal wound.

"What the blue blazes does this mean?" demanded Captain Riggs, turning to us as if we could explain the tragedy. "What in the name of Sally Ann has happened here? Tell me that?"

"Can that be our friend, Mr. Trego, who was with us but a minute ago?" asked Meeker, aghast as he gazed at the waxen features of the dead man.

"It's Mr. Trego right enough," shouted Riggs. "It's Trego and no doubt of that! Well, I'm blowed!"

"Who could have done such an awful thing?" whispered Meeker, staring at me with wide-open eyes. "Who could have done this?"

"Don't ask me!" Captain Riggs bawled at him. "Don't ask me!"

"He's quite dead," said Meeker, leaning forward again. "In the midst of life we are in death."

He held his hands over the dead man and said a prayer.

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