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The Devil's Admiral By Frederick Ferdinand Moore Characters: 20246

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:04

For several minutes I listened breathlessly, waiting for some sound which would indicate that Captain Riggs had been killed or captured by the three who had gone up the companionway after him. But when I heard no cry, or shot, or sounds of a struggle, I began to formulate plans for getting back to my room or finding the captain and begging him to let me help him fight against Thirkle and his men.

Lying huddled under the bunk in the bilge-water, which swung from side to side as the vessel rolled, I must admit that I would have presented a sorry spectacle to any one who could have seen me, clad only in the trousers of my pajamas, and suggesting anything but a fighting man.

But, in spite of the poor part I had taken so far in the fighting, I had no fear of an encounter with the men who seemed likely enough to take possession of the Kut Sang and murder all on board. I told myself that it was not my fault that I had been stripped of my arms and made a prisoner, and blamed Captain Riggs for allowing Thirkle-in the character of the Rev. Luther Meeker-to throw all the suspicion of the murder of Trego on me and hold his own liberty and good-standing as a passenger.

I fully realized the danger which confronted me and the ship, and as I crawled from under the bunk in the forecastle I had little hope of ever escaping from the vessel alive. It was no time to go over past mistakes, no time to moan over what had happened. I longed for action, but, with both Captain Riggs and Thirkle and his men against me, it looked as if I would have little chance, no matter which side was victorious in the battle that was being fought for the ship.

I had to crawl over the body of the mate in order to get clear of the tier of bunks, and, thinking it possible that Harris might have a pistol in his clothing, or had dropped one as he fell into the forecastle, I examined his pockets. I got no pistol, but did find a box of matches, and, standing with my back to the scuttle to protect the flame from the wind, and also to shade the light from the open scuttle, I struck a match and hurriedly looked over the littered deck of the forecastle.

I struck several matches at intervals in this way, waiting between lights to make sure that no one had seen the flashes from the upper deck. If Harris had had pistols his murderers must have taken them. I did find a dozen or more cartridges of heavy calibre loose in the side-pocket of his coat, but those and the matches were all that resulted from my ghoulish work.

In the brief illuminations of the forecastle I had seen clothing of the crew hanging from nails, and I dressed myself in light-blue nankeen frock and trousers which had belonged to a Chinese sailor, for the jacket buttoned in the back and smelled strongly of opium, as did the whole forecastle.

The ports were all fast, but leaked, and what little air came in descended through the scuttle, so the place still reeked with acrid powder-smoke that bit the throat and eyes. The deck was strewn with panniers and cups, that clattered to and fro with the motion of the ship. The water under foot, and the accumulations of refuse, rice, and food, made it difficult to keep a footing without clinging to the bunks at either side.

There was a slush-lamp swinging from a string, and I had a mind to light its rope wick and search through the chests for a weapon; but I did not want to remain too long below, although I could not bring myself to leave empty-handed the only place which offered a weapon.

Making a hasty search in the dark, I found a broken knife and an iron belaying-pin. The knife-blade was broken within a couple of inches of the handle, but diagonally from the point, so that it presented an end that might be dangerous at close quarters.

Ten minutes were probably spent in my exploration of the forecastle, although in my nervous haste it seemed an hour, and I stopped frequently to listen for intruders, and for some indication of how the fight was going on deck.

With the handle of the belaying-pin gripped in one hand, and the knife in the pocket of my nankeen jacket ready for an emergency, I felt my way along the port side toward the foot of the companion, determined to get out of the stinking hole and try my chances in the open. My plan was to find Riggs, if I could, and, if he were besieged, attack Thirkle and his men from the rear, although I knew full well my disadvantage against them, armed as they were with plenty of pistols.

But I trusted to the darkness, and hoped that I might outwit them by a bluff that I, also, had firearms. Unless I could outmanoeuvre them before daylight and join forces with Riggs I knew we had small chance against them in daylight, if, indeed, they had not already eliminated the captain from the fight.

I had a gleeful picture of myself challenging Thirkle in the dark, and urging him and Buckrow, Long Jim, and Petrak, to come and take me, telling them at the same time that I would give them shot for shot, and cautioning my imaginary force to hold fire until the enemy was close at hand. I imagined that a bold manner, and the surprise they would receive at my appearance in the fight would diminish their confidence and give them a wholesome respect for me until I could gain the saloon-deck and ally myself with Riggs.

Then all my brave plans went to smash as I heard some one sneaking down the companionway. For an instant I was in a panic of terror and chagrined that I had lingered long enough to give the enemy time to return. But I determined that I might as well fight there as anywhere else, and, bracing myself against the bunks, I drew my knife and raised the belaying-pin, prepared to begin the attack as soon as my visitor got within reach.

I could hear him breathing gently as he came down one step at a time, and from the light "smack" on each succeeding board I knew that he was barefooted. He was feeling his way along, as if in strange territory, and I knew that it could be neither one of the Chinese crew nor one of Thirkle's band.

As I stood there waiting for him to come within reach I heard a peculiar fluttering which puzzled me, until my memory served me, and I remembered that this queer swishing sound belonged to Rajah, the dumb Malay mess-boy. I knew it must be Rajah, probably seeking for Riggs; but I also knew that he would have his deadly kris, and I shivered for myself at the prospect of being dealt a blow from that awful, irregular blade which he could wield so expertly.

Now, I did not want to kill or wound Rajah, for, if Riggs were still alive, the boy would be a valuable member of our party; and, if Riggs were dead, I hoped that I might win the boy to my side. I could have struck him down with the heavy iron pin as he groped his way out of the companion; but there would be small satisfaction in killing him, for it would simply be doing a job which would please Thirkle and make his task of taking the ship all the easier.

Neither did I expect to be able to explain to the Malay that I was not his enemy, for he could not make any reply to my pleadings, and the only answer I might get would be the awful kris.

I thought of crouching in his path and adopting football tactics-tackling him low as soon as he stumbled upon me. But that way had its dangers, for he would undoubtedly have his knife and would make short work of me before I could overpower him.

As it happened I had no choice in the matter, and we came together suddenly and unexpectedly with a lurch of the vessel. He was nearer to me than I imagined, and as he threw up his knife-arm toward the bunk the blade clanged against the boarding, and his shoulder struck me.

I grabbed for his wrist, and at the same time dropped the pin, which must have fallen on his foot. Twisting his arm, I made him drop the kris; and then, as I flung him backward over a chest, went with him, and, startled by the attack, I had him pinioned to the deck and helpless before he knew what had happened.

"Rajah! Rajah!" I whispered frantically as he attempted to squirm out of my grasp. "Number Four! Number Four! Good man-no fight Number Four!"

That was my number at the saloon-table, and I thought he must recognize me by that. He hissed in the manner which he had to convey that he understood an order, but I held him as gently as I could for a minute and tried to demonstrate to him that I meant him no harm, and spoke the peace-language of pidgin-English, common enough in the Orient.

He lay quiet and made no resistance, hissing, and I let go of him and fumbled for his kris. I found it, and then patted his head as he still lay upon the deck, and he patted my hand in turn and kissed it; and then I gave him his blade, at which he was overjoyed.

I struck a match then, that he might see me, and by sign-language tried to make him understand that we should go on deck and search for Thirkle and the others.

Before we had finished our silent parley I heard a noise at the scuttle, and then Riggs whispered: "Rajah! Rajah!"

I was wondering what I should say to him, afraid that I might frighten him away again, or that when he recognized my voice he would be all the more convinced that I was against him, or make some startled exclamation which would betray his presence to Thirkle, and also give him the information of my whereabouts. Before I made any sound Rajah had rapped a signal to him, and I heard him coming down.

Rajah scratched my hand and felt for the matchbox in my pocket, and as Captain Riggs reached the foot of the companion I struck a match and held it before my face, between Rajah and myself.

"Good God!" cried Riggs, and he backed toward the companion, holding up his hands in terror as he thought that I had captured Rajah.

"Captain," I called as the match went out, "it's Trenholm, ready to fight with you. I'm not with that murdering crew. I didn't kill Trego. Don't be a fool, but give me a chance to help you."

"Didn't kill Trego!" he said, amazed. "I know you didn't kill Trego, but you had the red chap do it for you."

"No, I didn't. The mo

ney I gave that little devil was for bringing my bag on board, and he told you that I paid him for killing Trego so that Meeker, or Thirkle, would get me out of the way. I tell you that I am not with that gang. Give me a gun, and I'll help you in this fight."

"Who's that dead man on the deck?" he asked. "How come you down here?"

"That's Harris. Thirkle and Buckrow killed him."

"Thirkle! There's no Thirkle aboard here. Thirkle! Why, that's-"

"Thirkle," I said, "is the Rev. Luther Meeker. He is the head of the whole gang."

"Then poor Harris was right," he moaned, feeling for a chest and sitting down upon it. "Harris was right." I could hear despair in his voice-he was master no longer, but a broken, dispirited old man.

"Cheer up, captain; we'll beat them yet," I said as cheerily as I could.

"We're lost," he moaned. "Light the slush-lamp,-they won't bother us now."

"But let's get on deck and give them a fight," I said. "It won't do any good to stay down here-"

The board at the scuttle rattled, and we listened. I stooped and groped for the belaying-pin.

"They got below," growled Buckrow. After a minute he slammed the scuttle-board shut, and we heard a heavy, thumping sound and the clanking of a chain.

"We're lost!" moaned Riggs. "They are making the scuttle fast with rail-chains. All hands lost, and the Lord have mercy on us! Light the slush-lamp, Mr. Trenholm-we're dead men!"

"What is their game?" I asked, in doubt as to the meaning of what he said about the rail-chains, although I was dismayed by the ominous sounds at the scuttle and knew that we must be prisoners in the forecastle.

"There is no escape from here," said Riggs. "They hold the ship now, and they'll scuttle her before day comes."

I struck a match and lit the swinging slush-lamp, which made a dismal, smoking flame and added to the heat and the multitude of smells which made the forecastle a hole of torture. But the light was comforting, and Rajah crept to his master's side and clung to his arm, the boy's mouth open and his eyes full of questions.

"So they got poor Harris," said Riggs, still sitting on the chest and gazing at the body of the mate. "I told him not to come down, but he would have his way. I thought I could get down here and find one of his pistols."

"They are gone," I told him. "I made a search for them, and was about to get out of here when I heard Rajah coming down. It is lucky I didn't kill the boy-or that he didn't kill me. But that's all done and over, captain, and we ought to begin to plan for our escape. Is there no way out of here?"

He put his pallid face in his hands and shook his head, and it was then that I realized his age and his helplessness. He had given up the fight.

"You don't realize our situation, Mr. Trenholm, or what all this means, or the men we are against. That forecastle bulkhead is lined with sheet-iron on the other side to keep the crews from broaching cargo, and, even if we should cut through it, we would come against cargo in the hold, and would be no better off. I admire your pluck, but you don't know the odds against us. They'll loot her and scuttle her before the sun is well up, and we'll go down in this trap. Help me lift poor Harris into a bunk."

We stowed the body of the mate in a lower bunk and covered it with straw and some of the clothing of the Chinese. Riggs sat down again and stared at the littered deck.

"But we must fight to the last minute," I said. "We can't give up like this, even if we are trapped. You certainly do not intend to surrender now. I know, captain, that the odds are great; but we can fight, can't we?"

"You don't know!" he almost wailed, beating his knees with his hands. "You don't know what it all means, of course. I tell you they'll loot her and scuttle her when they have done their work aboard, and we're doomed men!"

"But what is there to loot in this old tub?" I asked, preferring to have him tell me of the mysterious cargo than to take the time of explaining how I had followed him and Harris below.

"That's what they want," he said, talking to himself more than to me. "Harris was right, but we found out too late. They got Mr. Trego before he could warn us. And it's not my fault if I die for it. Me, J. Riggs, master of sail and steam for thirty years, and never a ship lost nor a dishonest dollar in all my life, not to know what's in my ship!

"It's not me that lost her, God knows; but that's what the owners will say, and that's what everybody will say-if they don't say something worse when the truth comes out. 'Riggs gone, and his ship gone,' they'll say, and then others will wink and whisper: 'And you know the Kut Sang was ballasted with gold,' and who's to know I never stole it?"

"Gold!" I said. "You say there is gold aboard?"

"Yes, gold!" he almost shouted at me. "Chests of gold coin, a dozen or more! That's what they're after, and that's what they'll get, and that's what it is all about-Trego and all the rest of it!"

"And you never knew?" I asked, more to take his mind off his troubles and rouse his fighting spirit than for the information, for the details mattered little to us now.

"Mr. Trenholm," he began with fervor, "if I had known there were any dangers I could have met them. I've faced death enough in my day not to fear it, and I'm no weakling if I am an old man. But a master should know what's in his ship and what's before him, and not be caught in a mess of lies and sneaking. But perhaps the owners didn't know-the ship's in charter for the voyage, and Mr. Trego took charge at the last minute.

"Looking back now, I'm minded to think they were afraid I'd turn pirate at the sight of a few chests of gold. They thought they were slick; but there were others just as slick, laying lines to beat 'em; and here I am, without officers or crew or ship, and jailed in my own fo'c'sle. Doggone it! I guess all hands knew about that gold but me!

"What do they do? Kill my bos'n ashore, take the lampman for it, and make me so short-handed that I ship a gang of pirates as passengers. It was understood that there were to be no passengers this trip; but the owners saw a chance to make a few dollars extra, and the charter party says all right. I heard that much, and then the banker, who acted for the charter party, says to another: 'It will make it look more ordinary to carry passengers if there is some care exercised.'

"Some care! They give me a parson that's a pirate, and he makes me suspect you of a murder; and you bring one of his very men aboard-and me, like a fool, ship him-and the other two he brings with his organ."

"But the gold-why should they ship so much gold in this manner?"

"For the Russians," he said. "I went through Trego's papers, and the best I can make out of a lot of foreign writing is that it is going to Hong-Kong to buy coal for the Baltic fleet. At first they were going to make their headquarters in Manila and do the business there; but the most of the tramps-colliers-are British, and they found it easier to do business out of Hong-Kong, I suppose, because the Japanese could keep close watch of suspicious vessels making Manila a port of call.

"Ye see, all the banks out here are full of spies--Chinese clerks and all hands-and they are watching day and night. The masters of the colliers and the blockade-runners into Port Arthur won't take checks or other money-they want it slap down in solid gold before they will sail, and this gold had to be landed in Hong-Kong.

"The Japs might send a couple of cruisers for it if they shipped it openly, so they try to sneak it through like this, and with all their hiding and lying and sneaking there was a leak somewhere, and these fine chaps aboard us laid lines to git it-and here we are."

"And still fighting, captain," I said.

"Did you ever hear of the Devil's Admiral, Mr. Trenholm?"

"I never did. Who is the gentleman?"

"I never believed in the stories myself, but Harris did; and now I am sure that he is right. Two years ago a ship left Singapore for Bombay, and never was heard from until her chronometer turned up in Swatow or somewhere. A Portuguese Jew had them in a pawnshop, and he said he bought them from a chink for seven Mex dollars. They never found the chink; but there was the ship's name, or the captain's name written in the case with a pencil.

"Then last year the steamer Legaspi left Manila for Hong-Kong with cattle and Christmas goods and passengers, and never was heard from. Some said she went out to run the blockade before Port Arthur, and the Japs sunk her, but the others said the Devil's Admiral got her; and then the stories began, and when a ship was overdue or never heard from, people began to say the Devil's Admiral had her."

"But who is he, captain?"

"That's it, Mr. Trenholm. Nobody knows. He never leaves a man alive to tell the tale. Some say he's a big chink, some say he's a big black man from the African coast who was mate in a whaler, some say he was an officer in the British navy.

"They found a man dying from starvation and wounds in a boat that got away from him, and the poor chap told a crazy story that they couldn't make head or tail of, and he died before he told enough to help any, but he said it was the Devil's Admiral and his crew that got 'em.

"Pearlers he went after first, and then he got bolder and went after sailing-ships; and now they say he went after steamers and got the Legaspi, and, Mr. Trenholm, I believe he's aboard here now."

"But who-"

We heard heavy blows struck against a bulkhead, and the shriek of a door as it was torn from its hinges.

"They are breaking into the storeshold," explained Riggs. "They have got the gold, and the next move will be to get away with it in the boats after they have opened her sea-valves, and down we'll go with the old Kut Sang."

"But what makes you think we have this Devil's Admiral aboard?" I asked.

"Thirkle is supposed to be the name of the Devil's Admiral."

"And Thirkle is-"

"Our Rev. Luther Meeker, Mr. Trenholm. We are dead men."

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