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   Chapter 8 MR. HARRIS HAS A FEW IDEAS

The Devil's Admiral By Frederick Ferdinand Moore Characters: 17664

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:04


Clutching the iron hand-rail of the ladder leading to the fore-deck, I went down as quickly as I could. For half a minute I stood on the wet plates of the deck, drenched by the spray which swept the head of the vessel every time she lurched forward into the seas. Above me I could make out the dim shape of the bridge and superstructure, and I could hear the wind slatting the storm-apron lashed along the bridge-rail and the singing of the funnel-stays, but it was so black overhead that I could not distinguish any figure on the bridge.

The forecastle-head could barely be made out, and the winch-wheels and ventilators on deck were inchoate masses which took shape only when they were within reach. The green starboard-light threw a sickly glare over the surges which rose to the rail. I had to feel my way along and not release my grip until I had found a hold on something else.

If it was dark on deck, the appalling gloom below was terrifying, and nothing seemed stable-there were times when I mistook the bulkhead for the deck, when the vessel took a long roll and laboured to right herself.

I found myself in a maze of stanchions below, and after I had passed under the hood of the companionway lost my bearings for a time, until I discovered that I had to turn aft to make any progress. Everything seemed to be making as much of a clatter as possible between decks, and I seemed to be directly over the engines. Fire-doors were clanging close at hand, and the Chinese firemen were bawling behind a bulkhead; so my difficulty was not so much to keep silent myself as to recognize sounds which would give me a clue as to where Captain Riggs and the others had gone.

For a time I was on the point of getting back to the deck above, for it was a foolhardy business with nothing to gain that I could see, and no end of trouble if I should be caught stalking Captain Riggs on his mysterious expedition to the storeroom. My silk pajamas, now thoroughly wet, clung to me, and the salt water began to sting, and my wet stockings were sticky and uncomfortable and formed bunches under my toes, but I kept them on for the little protection they afforded my feet.

But I kept crawling aft until I came squarely against a solid wall, and knew it for the bulkhead of the forward part of the superstructure. As I was in some sort of a passage, it must lead to a door, and I fumbled to find its outlines.

I found the knob, although it seemed to be on the wrong side, as things will in the dark, and I tried the door, but it was fast. Just as I was about to turn away I detected the sound of voices behind it, and knew that Riggs and the mate were inside, and that I had found the room which contained the mysterious cargo.

Bound to know what they were talking about, I made another effort to open the door a little. I did not succeed, but I found a big key protruding beneath the knob, and drew it out so I could hear better and even get a glimpse of the interior. All was dark inside, except for a small circle of light thrown against the bulkhead in such a way as to illumine a box which was braced against the wall.

I knew this light came from the bull's-eye lantern, and that if I opened the door an inch or so those inside could not detect it; but when I tried the key I found that the door was unlocked but hooked inside, so I took the key out again and put it down on the deck, and took another survey of the limited portion of the room visible to me. I could hear Harris talking in a low tone, and Captain Riggs asking questions, and by putting my ear to the keyhole I heard enough to get the drift of their conversation, although in this position I could not see what they were doing.

"Tinned milk," said Harris, and he laughed.

"Let the boy hold the light," said the captain. "Pry it open a bit more, Harris, and let me have a good, square look at it. I don't believe there's more than one box, at that-which wouldn't be no great trouble for us."

"Make a devil of a racket to git it broke open," said Harris, using some sort of a tool on a box. "Thar's two chists here, to tell the truth about it. One is heavier than t'other and bound with iron strips, and this outside one is cleated with tin. I'll rip the whole works open, cap'n, if ye say the word."

"No, no, Mr. Harris! Sally Ann, not that! Just enough so I can see and have no doubt about it-I don't want no guesswork."

"They made it fast right enough," growled Harris. "I never see no tinned milk nursed so particular as this, blow me if I did! But when I started this side so's I could get my thumb in, I was Jerry Smith-here, cap'n-quick while I hold this side out-put your thumb in there and feel the aidge."

"It feels like it. Take the light from the boy and hold it down so I can get a look at it-no, let him keep it, Mr. Harris-you hold the board out so I can see it in good shape-down, Rajah, down low, so."

I tried to see what they were doing, but all I could make out was Captain Riggs as he bent low between me and the object on which the light was turned. I put my ear back to the keyhole.

"Sally Ann! Sally Ann!" I heard Captain Riggs exclaim, and then he whistled. "Blast me if ye ain't right, Mr. Harris!"

"I knew I was right," growled Harris. "Can't fool me with that-it felt like it and looked like it, and that man Trego fits into the game to a T. I thought he was a mighty shady customer from the first look I got at him, when he come alongside and bossed things. When he got that knife throwed in him I thought I'd come down here and have a look around on my own hook, and thar ye be, cap'n."

"But Sally Ann! What are we going to do with it? We can't leave it here, can we?"

"Maybe it would be better, at that," said Harris. "But I look at it this way, cap'n-somebody knows it's here, that's what. Maybe the parson; maybe that Mr. Trenhum; maybe Petrak knowed about it; maybe Buckrow and Long Jim knows; but, anyhow, whoever had that knife hooked into Trego knowed, and ye can put that in yer pipe and smoke it."

"But I don't believe anybody would broach cargo. We can keep the door locked, and bury this under a mess of stuff, say spare chain and a lot of old heavy gear."

"Broach Tophet!" snorted Harris. "Ye call this cargo, Cap'n Riggs? Wal, if ye do, I don't! Broach cargo! Think a man that would kill Trego, or get him killed, would stop at broaching cargo to git his paws on this?"

"That's true enough," said Riggs. "It's bad business to have it aboard,

Mr. Harris. I hope nobody in the ship knows about it. If they find out it

may lead to trouble, and I'm too old to have trouble with my ships now.

I've had trouble enough this night as it is-"

"That ain't the idea at all, cap'n," said Harris, entirely out of patience. "Ye've had trouble already, and all over this, and ye'll have more of it, and ye can't avoid it. We got some pretty fancy passengers aboard, and I'll bet my shirt the parson and Mr. Trenhum knows; and what's more, that parson ain't no more a parson than I be-if he's a parson I'm a bishop. Now, them two brought a bad lot aboard with 'em-Petrak, thar in irons, and this Buckrow, and Long Jim."

"It does look queer," admitted Riggs.

"Trego had his suspicions all the time, cap'n. They got him before he could tell ye what he guessed. Trego never liked the both of 'em. When ye come to look this thing over in yer mind, a little at a time, it gits plain to me. Ye see, the parson brought Long Jim and Buckrow; and Tryhum, or whatever his name is, brung Petrak to do his part of the dirty work.

"Now, look what I'm sayin', cap'n. We got short-handed quick thar in Manila, didn't we? I been turnin' that over in my mind, too. Somebody cut the boatswain, didn't they? The police got that Lascar quartermaster who we had for lampman, didn't they? That's two men gone, ain't it?

"Look a here. The police come aboard lookin' for a little red-headed sailor they said done the killin', and I told 'em they was dreamin'; but they said the lampman, who they took for the murder, blamed it on a little red-headed sailor. I just told 'em I guessed the lampman was their man, and they said a parson told 'em he done the killin', but they wanted to find this little red-headed sailor 'cause he had some hand in it, so some witnesses said.

"See what I'm drivin' at? I didn't know about no red-headed man, and I didn't want to. We had to get out of Manila, and I didn't want to be monkeyin' around with no courts nor judges, and I let the police have their own say, and agreed with 'em when I saw a chance to keep clear, and disagreed when I saw it would delay us to get tangled up in the killin' of the bos'n."

"Well, I don't see what all that has got to do with this," said Captain

Riggs.

"Ye don't? Look a here! One of our men cut up; a

red-headed little sailor has a hand in it of some sort; a parson tells the police our lampman done it, and thar goes another of our hands. Who do we git in their place? A parson for a passenger and two men of his own he brings aboard. Looks like he made room for 'em, cap'n."

"You've been reading books," said Captain Riggs. "What I need is a mate, not a detective. But go on, Mr. Harris-maybe ye're right-I'm getting old and trustful."

"That ain't my main p'int, either," continued Harris. "What I mean is this-come to think it over, the lampman didn't leave the ship's side until after the Greek was cut up ashore. It was the parson who put the police on to the lampman."

"This same parson, Mr. Harris? Ye ain't sure about that?"

"Oh, shucks! Think thar's fourteen thousand parsons runnin' around Manila with a red-headed sailor that's too handy by far with a knife? Ain't I got brains in my head? He had to make room for his pals aboard here, didn't he? It's plain as Cape Cod Light to me, cap'n."

"Well, what does it all mean? You suppose this is what they want?"

"Ye don't guess they killed the bos'n and this Trego just for friendship sake, do ye? If ye want to know what my personal, private feelings are, it looks like we've been boarded by the Devil's Admiral."

"Sally Ann's black cat!" said Riggs. "That story was started by some sea-lawyer full of gin, and the newspapers took it up for fun. There ain't no more a Devil's Admiral than there is a Flying Dutchman."

"Wal, didn't I see the Flying Dutchman off the cape with my own eyes when I was second in the brig Peerless? Ye can't tell me thar ain't no Flying Dutchman, and ye can't make me believe thar ain't no Devil's Admiral-I've been told some things about both of 'em, and dang me for a blue-nose fisherman if I don't believe in 'em both!"

"Who is your Devil's Admiral aboard here, then?"

"The parson."

"You're full of hashish! You been bothered lately with your head, Mr.

Harris?"

"That's all right, cap'n. When a man looks overside and says ten knots and better, and the log says ten knots and a shade, he ain't no landsman. He spits to looward like a commodore, that parson, and I've had my suspicions right along."

"All buncombe. You been readin' too many Manila newspapers."

"Yes, and I see a few things on deck, too, that ain't got nothin' to do with newspapers. Petrak, Buckrow, and the long lime-juicer was all pretty thick when no one was lookin' at 'em. And they don't let on to know each other, neither. Askin' one another their names when I was standin' by, and soon as my back was turned thick as flies at a molasses-barrel, sneakin' round and whisperin'.

"'Who's the red chap?' asks Long Jim from Buckrow, when he knows I can hear.

"'Says he's out of a collier,' says Buckrow, speakin' loud a purpose so I can hear.

"The next I know, cap'n, Reddy was tellin' Long Jim that Buckrow never paid him that two bob for a round of drinks in the Flagship Bar before the cuttin'. Don't that sound funny? Then when Petrak takes the wheel I asks him if he knows Long Jim, and he says not afore he come aboard, and Buckrow says the same.

"They all lied; and ye remember how Buckrow helped Petrak with a knife when he was in a tight jam thar at the door. I put two and two together, and I'm here, Ezra Harris, your mate, to tell ye that they make four, and ye can't git away from it-and what's more, this Trenjum is in with the parson and the other three. Devil's Admiral or no, it don't look nice to me."

"Do you think Buckrow and the other two know about this, Mr. Harris?"

"It ain't clear to me, so far as that goes, but Trenjum and the parson do. I looks at it this way-they knowed ye didn't know, and that Trego might tell ye; so they ups and lets a knife into him before he can tell, and then we're up in the air. If I hadn't found it they'd keep us guessin' until they was ready to get in some more fancy work, the Lord knows what.

"That Trenjum is a slick customer-I don't believe he ever writ anything for a newspaper, anyway-he's too tall and strong-lookin' to make his livin' with a pencil. This Trenjum and the parson is in together for all of their lettin' on they don't like one another. What business has a writin' chap with his breeches full of pistols like he had in the saloon? Ye can't tell me writin' chaps eats their meals with guns enough in their clothes to arm a landin'-party, no, sir!"

"A pretty pickle! Sally Ann, but I've got a nice mess aboard me, and I'm hanged if I know what it's all going to come to! I've half a mind to throw the whole lot in irons and work the ship with the chinks."

"Now ye're talkin' like somebody," said Harris. "But go slow and git 'em one at a time when it's convenient, so they won't suspect nothin'. If ye go after the whole gang at once I'll bet ye have a fight on yer hands. Grab one and then the other so ye'll git 'em separate: and keep 'em separate, so they can't talk it over, or ye'll have a peck of trouble on yer hands."

"It's no small matter to put passengers in irons, Mr. Harris. They would make trouble for me when they get into port."

"They'll make a cussed sight more trouble for ye aboard here, is my way of lookin' at it. We got Petrak, anyway, for a start. He said Trenjum got him to do it, and Trenjum told ye Meeker had a hand in it. Just say one accused the other, and when ye come to find this aboard ye had to put 'em in irons 'cause it looked like they was hatchin' mutiny in the crew. Then we'll slam the other two in irons on suspicion, and they bein' crew, ye got a right to do that.

"What's the good o' bein' master if ye can't protect yerself and yer ship? Trenjum is safe enough, as it goes for now, but I'd make him fast below when we have the others, and see what sort of a talk he puts up. If we git 'em to tellin' on one another, then we've got the whole yarn out, and ye won't have no trouble with the port authorities. Don't that sound sensible to ye?"

"I don't see any other way out of it," said Riggs. "I suppose the best

thing to do is to go up and take the parson. His room being next to Mr.

Trenholm's, the two of 'em will know what's going on, but we don't care.

Then we'll take Buckrow and Long Jim."

"I guessed ye'd see it that way, cap'n. I'm willin' to stand double watches and take the wheel myself, and, with the Dutchman doin' the same, we'll manage to get the old packet to port right enough."

"We'll go right up," said Captain Riggs, and I heard them move toward the door.

"Blow out that stinking lantern," said Riggs.

For an instant I had a wild idea of taking the key and locking them in, and then making terms with the captain, and arguing him out of the conviction that I was in league with Meeker, and offering my services in capturing the others. But I knew Harris could not be convinced that I was not in whatever plot was afoot, and that I could put no faith in any agreement Captain Riggs might make while the mate was with him.

Besides, I had borne out the mate's suspicions by being below spying upon them, and the wiser course would be for me to get back to my stateroom and let them find me there. Then I might be able to discuss the whole affair with them and prove that I was the victim of a plot myself.

As it was, I had lingered at the door too long, and Harris lifted the hook inside and nearly stepped on me as he stumbled into the dark passage. I crawled out of his path so that when the three of them came out they were between me and the companionway to the upper deck.

"Where's the cussed key?" whispered Harris. "I thought I left it in the door."

"Light a match," said Riggs, and he began to move his feet along the deck. "Sure you didn't put it in your pocket, Mr. Harris?"

"Who's that?" cried Harris suddenly, and I was sure he had seen me crouching against the bulkhead. I was about to surrender myself and explain my presence below when I heard the patter of feet and somebody bounded up the ladder and crashed into a ventilator as he gained the deck above.

"Somebody been listening I'll bet my hat!" said Harris. "I've got the key-it dropped out."

He locked the door and they hurried down the passage, Riggs telling Rajah to "go get him," and then I heard them running forward toward the forecastle as they got on deck.

I ran for the ladder as best I could, glad of the chance to get out of the black hole and wondering who could have been down there with me. I stepped upon something which slipped from under me, and I went down sprawling, sure that I had gashed my foot, for I had felt a sharp edge as I fell. I found that my stocking was not cut, and was getting to my feet again when my hand came in contact with the object which had tripped me.

I had stepped upon a large shell crucifix.

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