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   Chapter 8 IN THE STOKE-HOLE.

Frank Merriwell's Nobility; Or, The Tragedy of the Ocean Tramp By Burt L. Standish Characters: 9277

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:02


Frank found the chief engineer taking some air. Merry fell into conversation with the man, who was smoking and seemed quite willing to talk.

Having a pleasant and agreeable way, Frank easily led the engineer on, and it was not long before the man was quite taken with the chatty passenger.

Frank was careful not to seem inquisitive or prying, for he knew it would be easy to arouse the engineer's suspicions if there should be anything wrong on the steamer.

However, Merry was working for a privilege, and he obtained it. When he expressed a desire to go below and have a look at the engines and furnaces, the engineer invited him to come along.

They passed through a door, and then began a descent by means of iron ladders. The clanking roar of the machinery came up to them. Frank could hear and feel the throbbing heart beats of the great boat.

The engine room was quickly reached, and there the engineer showed him the massive machinery that moved with the regularity of clockwork and the grace and ease that came from great power and perfect adjustment.

All this was interesting, but Frank was anxious to go still deeper.

"Go ahead," said the engineer, showing him the way. "Down that ladder there. You'll be able to see the furnaces and the stokers at work. I don't believe you'll care to go into the stoke-hole."

Frank descended. Great heat came up to him, accompanied by a glow that shifted and changed, dying down suddenly at one moment and glaring out at the next. He could hear the ring of shovels and the clank of iron doors.

He reached an iron grating, where a fierce heat rolled up and seemed to scorch him. From that position he could look down into the stoke-hole and see the black, grimy, sweating, half-clad men at work there.

Above him, at the head of the ladder he had just descended, a pair of shining eyes glared down, but he saw them not. He had not observed a cleaner who was at work on the machinery in the engine-room, and who kept his hat pulled over his eyes till Frank departed.

The blackened stokers looked like grim demons of the fiery pit as they labored at the coal, which they were shoveling into the mouths of the greedy furnaces.

The shifting glow was caused by the opening and closing of the furnace doors, which clanged and rang.

For a moment the pit below would seem shrouded in almost Stygian darkness, save for some bar of light that gleamed out from a crack or draft, and then there would be a rattle of iron and a flare of blood-red light that came with the flinging open of a furnace door.

In the glare of light the bare-armed, dirt-grimed stokers would shovel, shovel, shovel, till it seemed a wonder that the fire was not completely deadened by so much coal.

Sometimes the doors of all the furnaces would seem open at once, and the glare and heat that came up from the place was something awful.

Merry wondered how human beings could live down there in that terrible place.

Some of the men were raking out ashes and hoisting it by means of a mechanism provided for the purpose.

Frank pitied the poor creatures who were forced to work down in that place. Yet he remembered it was not so many months since he had applied for the position of wiper in an engine round-house, obtained the job, and worked there with the grimiest and lowest employees of the railroad.

There was something fascinating in the black pit and the grimy men who labored down there in the glare and heat. Frank was so absorbed that he heard no sound, received no warning of danger.

Merry leaned out over the edge of the iron grating. Something struck on his back, he was clutched, thrust out, hurled from the grating!

It was done in a twinkling. He could not defend himself, but he made a clutch to save himself, caught something, swung in, struck against the iron ladder, and went tumbling and sliding downward.

At the moment when Frank was attacked, a glare of light had filled the pit. One of the stokers had turned his back to the gleaming mouths of the furnaces and looked upward, as if to relieve his aching eyes.

He saw everything that occurred on the grating. He saw a man slip down the ladder behind Frank and spring on his back. He saw that man hurl Frank from the grating.

The stoker uttered a shout and ran toward the foot of the ladder, expecting to find Frank laying there, severely injured or killed. He was astounded when he saw the ready-witted youth grasp the grating, swing in, strike the ladder, cling and slide.

Down Frank came with a rush, but he did not fall. He landed in the stoke-hole without being severely injured. He w

as on his feet in a twinkling, and up that ladder he went like a cat.

His assailant had darted up the ladder above and disappeared. Merry reached the grating from which he had been hurled, and then he ran up the other ladder.

He was soon in the engine-room.

In that room there was no excitement. The machinery was sliding and swinging in a regular manner, while the engineer sat watching its movements, talking to an assistant. Oilers and cleaners were at work.

"Where is he?" cried Frank, his voice sounding clear and distinct.

They looked at him in amazement.

"What's the matter?" asked the engineer, coming forward.

"I was attacked from behind and thrown into the stoke-hole," Merry explained. "The fellow who did it came in here."

"Thrown into the stoke-hole?"

"Yes."

"From where?"

"The grating at the foot of the first ladder."

The engineer looked doubtful.

"My dear fellow," he said, "you would have been maimed or killed. You do not seem to be harmed."

Frank realized that the engineer actually doubted his word.

"He might have fallen," said the assistant; "but it would have broken his neck."

"I tell you I was attacked from behind and thrown down!" exclaimed Frank. "I managed to get hold of the ladder and slide, so I was not killed."

The engineer looked annoyed.

"This is what comes of letting a passenger in here," he said. "It's the last time I'll do it on my own responsibility. Now if you go out and tell you were thrown into the stoke-hole, there'll be any amount of fuss over it."

"I am telling it right here," said Frank, grimly, "and I want to know who did the trick. Somebody who came from this room must have done it."

"Impossible!"

"Then where did he come from?"

The engineer and his assistant looked at each other, and the former began to swear.

"What do you think of it, Joe?" he asked.

"Think you made a mistake, Bill; but his story won't go. Nobody'll take any stock in it."

Frank was angry. It was something unusual for his word to be doubted, and he felt like expressing his feelings decidedly.

He was saved the trouble. The grimy stoker who had witnessed the struggle and the fall appeared in the door of the engine-room. He saw Frank and cried:

"Hello, you! So you're all right? Wonder you wasn't killed. You came down with a rush, young feller, but you went back just as quick."

Frank understood instantly.

"Here is a man who saw it!" he cried. "He will tell you that I am not lying."

The engineer turned to the stoker.

"How did he happen to fall?" he asked.

"He didn't fall," declared the begrimed coal heaver.

"No? What then-"

"'Nother chap jumped on his back and flung him down. It's wonderful he wasn't killed."

Frank was triumphant. He regarded the engineer and his assistant with a grim smile on his face.

"This is incredible!" exclaimed the engineer. "Who could have done such a thing?"

"Somebody who came from this room!" rang out Merry's clear voice.

"This shall be investigated!" declared the engineer. "Look around! See if you can find the man who attacked you. The only ones here are myself, Mr. Gregory, and the wipers."

"I want a look at those wipers," said Frank.

"You shall have it. Mr. Gregory and I were talking together over here all the time you were gone."

"Oh, I do not suspect you," said Merry; "but I want a good look at those wipers."

"Did you see the man who threw you into the stoke-hole?"

"No, but-"

"Then how will you know who it was if you see him?"

"Whoever did so had a reason for the act-a motive. He must have known me before. I may know him."

"Come," invited the engineer.

He called one of the wipers down from amid the sliding shafts and moving machinery. The man came unhesitatingly.

Frank took a square look at this man, who did not seek to avoid inspection.

"Never saw him before," confessed Merry.

The wiper was dismissed.

"Hackett," called the engineer.

The other wiper did not seem to hear. He pretended to be very busy, and kept at work.

"Hackett!"

He could not fail to hear that. He kept his face turned away, but answered:

"Yes, sir."

"Come here. I want you."

The wiper hesitated. Then he turned and slowly approached. His face was besmeared till scarcely a bit of natural color showed, and his hat was pulled low over his eyes. He shambled forward awkwardly, and stood in an awkward position, with his eyes cast down.

Frank looked at him closely and started. Then, in a perfectly calm manner, but with a trace of triumph in his voice, he declared:

"This is the fellow who did the job!"

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