J. Archibald McKackney (Collector of Whiskers)/Chapter 4


 

THE EPISODE OF
THE SENTIMENTAL ANARCHIST

 

 

CHAPTER IV
THE EPISODE OF THE SENTIMENTAL ANARCHIST

THE Atlantic liner Hoch Der Kaiser was two days out from New York when my indefatigable assistant, Hank Wilkins, appeared in the smoking-room door and beckoned to me to join him on deck. I shook my head in a negative manner, for I was playing poker with several American trust magnates who had shown themselves to be a jovial company of philanthropists and most congenial companions. After gaining control of most of the food supply and transportation systems of their own country they were en route for Europe to attempt the formation of worldwide monopolies in pickles, beer, coffins, flour and so on.

Presently Wilkins returned to the doorway and beckoned with more emphasis than before. He was fidgeting with impatience and knowing that he would not venture to call me for a trifling matter I left the game and followed him on deck. He begged my pardon and said:

"You might regret it if I didn't tell you at once, sir. But you have been after it for three years, and I never saw a finer——"

"Not the Full-blooming Aurora pattern?" I gasped with a flash of intuition. "You don't mean that you have discovered a specimen of the rarest varieties of the Human Whisker?"

"I haven't examined them close," he replied, "but it looks that way, sir. You recall that imperfect imitation you have at home, sir the Hall Caine portrait in the billiard room? Well, that looks like a deck swab beside what I've found."

I was overjoyed and declared that I must see it at once. Wilkins chuckled with pleasure at my eagerness and as he led me aft he explained that the whiskers belonged to a second-cabin passenger, who looked like a Russian. Wilkins had tried in vain to scrape his acquaintance, for the fellow seemed so nervous and wild-eyed that he fled from all overtures. In fact, so Wilkins informed me, "he flocked by himself as if he was afraid of something." We lingered at the rail that barred the passage to the second cabin, and scanned the long row of steamer chairs. Wilkins was confident that the Russian would take a turn on deck before dinner, and said that when he walked it was with a head-long gait and incoherent mutterings to himself.

A little later a man of singular appearance emerged from the deck house aft and crossing to the vessel's side stood glaring at the inter minable carpet of blue water. His figure was slender and slouching, his attire well cared for but shabby, and that which made his otherwise commonplace aspect conspicuous was the framing of his features. Beard, whiskers, mustache, there were no lines of demarcation. The luxuriant and rayonnant growth encircled and fairly obscured his lineaments. It was almost as if he wore a mask, but such a mask. As the sunset glow became enmeshed in this peerless decoration, its forest of tendrils was illumined and the man's face loomed in a kind of golden aurora.

I silently shook the hand of Wilkins and told him that if Hall Caine could behold this peerless specimen he would shave for very humiliation. There was only one thing to do. I must have the Russian's portrait painted by the finest artist in Europe.

"We'll land him if we can get near enough to put salt on his whiskers," was Wilkins gloomy comment. "He's a d——n shy bird."

I told Wilkins that he simply must scrape some kind of an acquaintance in order to pave the way for me. If necessary, I would have his berth shifted to the second cabin. He was to stick to the Full-blooming Aurora by night and day. The man could not run away on shipboard, and Wilkins had never failed me. Late that night he reported that the coveted stranger had suddenly and violently fallen in love with a pretty English girl in the second
 
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"The coveted stranger had suddenly and violently fallen in love."

 

cabin, and forsaking his eccentric solitude, had been in the charmer's company for several hours. Wilkins advanced the theory that this sentimental attack might have been responsible for his singular actions; that while talking to himself and waving his arms he had been trying to screw his courage up to the point of declaring his passion. Wilkins had not talked to him, but explained:

"I made a date with the girl to play shuffle-board in the morning. I can make easier sailing with the petticoats, sir."

Mr. Hank Wilkins of the Titian beard had a way with him and at noon next day he was snugly tucked in a steamer chair by the side of the rosy English girl. He had artfully lured her to a secluded corner where they were screened from observation behind a huge ventilator. His attractive companion seemed to welcome this isolation, and she was frank enough to say after listening to the conversation of the versatile Wilkins:

"It's a relief to get away from that dotty person with the blond fringes, I'm sure. Fawncy, he flopped down on his knees to me this morning, right on deck. He almost frightens me."

Wilkins gallantly assured her that this kind of evidence would convince any jury of the Russian's sanity, but she went on to say:

"He talks very odd and violent most of the time. And he keeps on hinting about some awful disaster that is almost due to happen."

Wilkins expressed the fervent hope that the disaster might not involve his whiskers, and the girl became more confidential:

"When he spoke to me lawst night I felt like screamin'. But I didn't dare not to be nice to him, you know. He is an anarchist by trade. He told me so. Fawncy me an anarchist's bride. And he proposed to me twice this morning. I'm sure he has something dreadful on his mind. He passed me to-day muttering, 'too late, too late. My God, I never dreamed——' I missed the rest of it, but it was right out of a melodrama."

Just then the anarchist stepped from beyond the ventilator and shot a murderous glance at Wilkins as he slouched past. Wilkins swore to me that he could hear the man's teeth grinding like a coffee mill and that his pockets were bulging with bombs destined to be hurled at his dashing rival. When these reports were conveyed to me I perceived that the demon of jealousy had stepped in to thwart any plans that Wilkins might have for capturing the Full-blooming Aurora trophy. I decided to make the attempt on my own account, and deeming all weapons fair with such a prize at stake, I was ready to confess myself a brother anarchist on the instant. At the first opportunity I strolled aft with Wilkins. We leaned against the rail within earshot of the glowering Russian, whose tragic pose was evidently intended to impress the English girl. She was playing deck quoits with several passengers and her outlandish adorer had nothing better to do than to listen to me as I vehemently addressed Wilkins:

"Monstrous! Criminal! The predatory rich, the fat-headed princelings on tinsel thrones—in short, all human parasites ought to be obliterated. Look at that bloated group of trust kings in the smoking room. My dear sir, we are their serfs. All government is a crime. All wealth is——"

Wilkins smote the rail with his fist and burst out:

"Yes, siree. Three fingers of gun-cotton with a chaser of dynamite 'ud do the Kaiser a whole lot of good. And as for King Edward, somebody ought to jolt him clean off his perch. And them dog-robbin' trust barons aboard, why, for two cents I'd bump them off to glory myself."

The Russian had turned and was listening to this heated dialogue with open satisfaction. Wilkins found an errand forward, and left me to stare at the sea in a gloomy reverie, while the stranger was edging nearer. After a time Wilkins from afar off beheld us two desperate characters addressing each other with animated gestures. In this fashion I became an acquaintance of the Russian and learned that his name was Pebotsky. We passed most of the afternoon together. I accepted his invitation to dine with him in the second cabin. By this time he was calling me his friend.

In the evening we sat in a lonely corner on the deck, and I had totally forgotten his whiskers, for Pebotsky was a maddened fiend in human form. I dared not leave him until his tale was done. This shabby, wild-eyed anarchist whom I had laughed at from afar was become a hideous menace, a factor of life and death. And he had embraced me as a comrade! To such awful depths had the love of art led me!

I am sure that my ruddy cheek must have become a mottled gray before he was done with me. I know that when I started for my room my knees were trembling violently and my breathing was no more than a series of gasps. We had been talking for hours when he decided to make me his confidant. Heaven knows why he did not keep his infernal secret to himself. I surmised that he was almost insane from mental torture and could not hold in. I had lied and perjured myself to such an extent that he had accepted me as one of the blood-stained elect of all besotted anarchists. When he asked me if I valued my life I snapped my fingers and told him not a tinker's damn, and that I would gladly be blown up in sections if it were in company with a crowned head or a capitalist. In fact, I believe I swore I was thirsting for just such a chance. It was all for the sake of his whiskers, may Heaven forgive me!

To pass over this painful recollection as hastily as possible, I won the madman's implicit confidence. It seems that while ashore he had got wind of the intended sailing of Jordan and Packard and the other trust magnates aboard. As he figured it, here was the chance of the age to bag most of the arch-demons of commercial oppression at one fell swoop. Nothing like it was likely ever to come his way again. He had invented a most damnably clever infernal machine, and somehow had managed to smuggle two of them into the holds of the ship, concealed in harmless looking packages of freight.

Try to picture my emotions when Pebotsky calmly informed me that both infernal machines were timed to explode on the morrow. They would infallibly blow the Hoch Der Kaiser into a million pieces.

Pebotsky's own presence on board led me to think him a colossal and picturesque liar, but he snatched this hope of escape from me. He protested that he was not only anxious, but eager, to become a martyr and that the removal of six trust magnates in one operation would be such a glorious monument that it would be wicked to let the chance slip. Besides he wanted to see how his infernal machines worked. The inconceivable ass did not have an atom of common sense. Up to this period of the voyage matters had been running smoothly for Pebotsky. Then he fell in love with the pretty English girl, Miss Fletcher, and she knocked all his calculations into a cocked hat. He absolutely raved about her to me. He had come to the conclusion that she was his soul's affinity and various other volcanic tommy-rot, and therefore he did not want in the least to blow her up or be blown up himself. He told me that he was now willing to spare the trust magnates until they got ashore and then his friends would "bomb" them one at a time.

Pebotsky was fairly wild to save the ship, but he could not. It was too late. These two infernal machines of his had been stowed some where at the bottom of thousands of tons of miscellaneous cargo. He wouldn't know the boxes if he saw them. A friend of his had looked after shipping them. He was responsible only for their confounded insides. Even if the crew should be set to work to dump every package of cargo into the sea they could not have half of it out of the doomed ship in the next twenty-four hours. And the first machine had been timed to go off at noon sharp. He said that they exploded themselves by means of chronometer attachments.

I listened to this awful narrative in speechless horror while Pebotsky raved and tore his hair and tried to think of some way of saving Miss Fletcher and himself. I managed to express my surprise that he should have been so ready to blow up a thousand innocent souls to bag his trust magnates, but Pebotsky was as inconsistent as the average infatuated lover.

As soon as I had left him I determined to seek the captain of the ship. I was ready to betray Pebotsky, for it made no difference whether we all knew it or not. I could see no way out of the incredibly harrowing situation. I got as far as Wilkins stateroom and then my strength left me. I roused him and tottered inside and collapsed on his divan. He heard me out with his unfailing sang froid and took it upon himself to find the captain. Wilkins could see no hope of escape unless the crew and passengers should be ordered into the boats and the ill-fated liner abandoned to her doom.

It required much argument before the officer on deck could be persuaded to waken Captain Zimmer. The commander of the Hoch Der Kaiser was short-tempered and irritable when he confronted Wilkins, who stood by his guns, however, until the amazing tale was done.

"Send to the second cabin and fetch me a passenger named Pebotsky," the captain roared through a speaking tube to the officer on the bridge. "If he don't come put the irons on him. Mein Gott, man, do you know vat you vas saying just now? I should lock you up as a lunatic, but I know your boss, Herr McKackney. I have been at his house in America. He is sensible, only for this whisker business of his. So we blow up twice to-morrow? Once was enough."

When the anarchist was dragged into the captain's cabin he brushed his rude-fisted escort aside and struck a heroic attitude as he shouted:

"Ha, ha! It is all true. I am glad my fat friend McKackney has betrayed me. I glory in your anguish. It is I that makes you suffer. It is the last night on earth for you and——"

"Dot is plenty from you, Pebotsky," thundered the captain. "If you don't own up quick dot you vas a crazy liar I vill have you chucked overboard."

Thereupon this devil of a fellow fairly begged the captain to throw him overboard.
 
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"Struck a heroic attitude as he shouted."

 

It hastened the glorious end by only a few hours, he declared, and all he asked was a chance to say farewell to his "soul's affinity." The skipper was nonplussed and threatened to keep Pebotsky in irons and throw his soul's affinity overboard unless he produced his hidden infernal machines. The anarchist flung himself at the captain's feet and sobbed out that if there was any way to save the ship he would do his share, and explained that his own change of heart had come too late to avert the total destruction of the Hoch Der Kaiser.

Even that splendid old sea-dog, Captain Zimmer, was agitated and distraught. If he should take it for granted that Pebotsky was crazy and had dreamed his infernal machines, then it was not going to be pleasant waiting until noon next day to find out whether the verdict were right or wrong. Captain Zimmer ordered two seamen to lock Pebotsky in the ship's prison, and told Wilkins that he must have time to think things over. The two seamen who lugged Pebotsky from below had overheard his ravings. They told their comrades, who in turn passed the dreadful secret along to the stewards, and thence it leaked among a few of the passengers.

Before breakfast next morning the several presidents of the most powerful American trusts waited upon the captain. Their spokesman declared in a shaky voice (as overheard by Wilkins):

"If this ship is to be blown up at noon to-day, we are prepared to buy the cargo outright, provided it can be thrown overboard in time."

Another of the group exclaimed:

"We have subscribed a purse of a million dollars to bribe the anarchist to call it off."

A third broke in to say:

"And we will buy the ship on the spot and give you command of her. And then we will order you to desert her with the passengers and crew as quick as the Lord will let you."

Captain Zimmer set his jaw hard and told the magnates:

"It vas you gentlemen that started the performance. Why didn't you stay ashore before you come aboard to make this anarchist go crazy? Now your money will buy you nothings from me. The ship is being searched, all suspicious cargo hoisted on deck, and I can do nothing more. It is unheard of, gentlemen, that a vessel in perfect order should be abandoned at sea. My men have been working in the holds since midnight. Maybe your jackpots will be raised through the skylight at noon, eh?"

As the morning wore on, the excitement, confusion, and painful suspense on deck baffled description. The captain of the Hoch Der Kaiser had no more time for his passengers. His crew was on the edge of a panic-stricken mutiny, and the officers were ordered to shoot the first deserter from his post. Men and women fought their way to the captain's deck to plead that he take to the life-boats. Pebotsky had been released and was in the hold in charge of a squad of seamen, his ears strained to detect the tell-tale clicking of hidden clockwork.

I had made my will before sailing, bequeathing the McKackney Whisker Collection to the American Society for the Promotion of Curious Science. Other passengers with less forethought were flocking around a lawyer in the dining saloon who was rapidly writing wills and sealing them up in bottles to be tossed overboard at the last moment.

As the time crept nearer and nearer noon, the grimy men from the engine and fire rooms began to pour on deck. They could not be kept under, and it was all the officers could do to head off their rush for the boats. The jarring thud of the screws ceased. The Hoch Der Kaiser rolled idly on the long swell as if waiting for the unspeakable moment.

Exactly on the stroke of noon the huge vessel shivered from stem to stern as if she had run on a reef. There was a dull, muffled sound from somewhere under the forward hatch, and the air was filled with flying fragments of timber and shattered cargo. An instant later it seemed to rain cans of corned beef, tongue and deviled ham. Then followed a torrent of potatoes, showers of them, hurled aloft with their splintered barrels, and in their descent fairly bombarding the fear-stricken and cowering passengers. I was struck on the head by a juicy missile and sent reeling to the deck, and as in a dream I heard Hank Wilkins observe with his customary heartiness:

"It's what you might call an earthquake accompanied by violent showers of corn-beef hash."

 
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"It seemed to rain cans of corned beef, tongue and deviled ham."

 
He assisted me forward where we peered down the devastated hatchway. A squad of seamen was already hurrying into the hold with lines of hose, the captain at their head. Before long he sent the first officer to report that no lives had been lost. A hole was blown in the ship's bottom, but her bulkheads were still intact, and there was no danger of her sinking. The force of the explosion had been broken by a thousand barrels of potatoes and several hundred tons of canned meats that must have been piled on top of the first infernal machine. The joyful passengers flocked about the trust magnates, and cheered as they singled out the respective presidents of the beef and potato monopolies.

"You have saved our lives," they chorused. "Hurrah for the trusts."

Pebotsky was led past them just then, a sailor clutching him by the ear. An expression of poignant anguish convulsed the pallid features of the anarchist. I heard him hiss between his teeth:

"I would destroy these monsters of capital, and I have made heroes of them. Now I wish to die. But there will be yet another explosion—in one hour."

This escape from destruction had put new heart into the ship's company. With furious exertion they toiled in the afterholds, risking their lives like men with the hangman's rope around their necks. Fifteen minutes before the second explosion was scheduled to occur, a hoarse cheer rose from the open hatch abaft the first-class smoking room. It was lustily echoed on deck. Strong men, and men not so strong, burst into tears and were unashamed. Women were hysterical with joy and embraced utter strangers. Little children scampered to and fro with shrill and gladsome shouts. No one waited for a report from below. This roar of exultation could mean nothing less than the discovery of the second infernal machine.

A few minutes later, while all hands waited with incredibly painful emotions, a cargo boom slowly hoisted from the depth of the hold a heavy packing-case hastily wrapped and cushioned with pieces of burlap. It swayed skyward, and then swung to and fro and refused to budge. The wire cables had somehow jammed in their sheaves.

Groans burst from the paling lips of those who stood and watched the dreadful menace suspended above the deck. The donkey engine puffed and strained. The taut cables twanged like huge bow-strings, but in vain. Brave seamen ran up the mast and boom like monkeys and madly strove to release the tackle.

There was no hoisting or lowering the packing-case. The seamen dared not cut away the fastenings. It seemed impossible to avert a disaster as unlocked for as it was imminent. The frenzied onlookers fancied they could hear the inexorable ticking of the mechanism in the packing-case. Men stood as if rooted in their tracks, fascinated, hypnotized with horror. Several held their watches and shuddered as they saw the minute hands steal past six, five, four, three, minutes of the hour.

Then the ropes began slowly to slip through the sheaves. Inch by inch the infernal machine descended toward the vessel's rail. Twenty men rushed to be ready to cast it loose. As it swung within a few feet of the deck, a slender, slouching man broke away from his captors with a shrill cry. Before they could overtake him he had reached the side of the deck, and leaped upon the rail with arms outstretched toward the swaying packing-case. The singular abundance of his golden whiskers partly hid the expression of his face, but those who were nearest him said that he was weeping. The laboring seamen were absorbed in a frenzy of haste. They paid no heed to this strange figure on the rail. With a mighty heave they pushed the packing-case clear of the vessel's side.

I sprang forward, forgetting my own peril, for the anarchist was waving farewell to the pretty English girl with a gesture of tragic despair. I was bent upon saving the Full-blooming Aurora from the sea. But as the infernal machine surged from its fastenings, the Sentimental Anarchist leaped forward and plunged headlong, so nearly in company with his diabolical device that they made but one splash.

I glanced at my watch. It was one o'clock to the second. A huge column of water shot from the surface of the ocean and fell back in jeweled cascades. A subdued roar came from the depths and the steamer trembled. As if to testify to the genius of its creator, the second infernal machine had exploded precisely at the time appointed.

I was filled with the most profound gratitude and thanksgiving for our merciful preservation. But as I stared over the side and viewed the foaming whirlpool into which Pebotsky had vanished, I felt that there was one bitter drop in my cup. His whiskers had perished with him and I mourned the loss of the noblest specimen of the Full-blooming Aurora pattern that in all probability existed on earth.

While I tried to console myself with the reflection that there is no joy without some sorrow, the gusty wind wafted a bit of something like gossamer from the upper air and left it on the deck at my feet. I picked it up. It was a tiny strand of golden hair, a fragment of the peerless whiskers of the late Pebotsky. Almost reverently I placed the souvenir in my notebook. It was all that remained of the Sentimental Anarchist.