The Island Mystery/Chapter 25
THE strain on the nerves of the party in the palace became more and more severe. During the second week in October it almost reached the breaking point. For four days the sirocco blew across the island. The sky was grey and seemed to press down on sea and land, heavy, unbroken, intolerably near. The wind blew strongly, but with none of the fresh boisterous fierceness of a northern gale. There was a sullen malignity about its force. Out at sea grey-topped waves wrangled and strove together confusedly. They broke in a welter of soiled foam across the reef which lay opposite the mouth of the bay. Within the harbour little waves, like jagged steel blades, rose, hissed at each other spitefully, and perpetually stabbed at the rocky shore.
The close, suffocating heat oppressed men and beasts. The islanders retreated into their cottages and lay, patiently enduring, till the vile wind should pass away. Cattle cowered for shelter under the lee of walls or among the bent, swaying trees. Donovan sat alone in his room in the palace. He sweated continuously though he wore little clothing. He was the victim of many kinds of physical uneasiness, pains which would not quite declare themselves, restless fidgetings of his limbs, vague depression of spirit. Konrad Karl and Madame quarrelled openly and bitterly. His revilings stung her. Her own ill-temper left her raw. She fled to her room and locked herself into it. The King, perversely persistent, went after her. He could be heard scolding her through the closed door at one moment, begging pathetically for admittance at another. Gorman wandered restlessly from room to room. He opened windows, panting for air, and closed them with a curse when the hot blast of the sirocco smote him in the face. Smith, alone of all the party, preserved his self-control. The sweat trickled down his face; but he was alert, attentive, busy, as if the sun shone and the breeze blew fresh across sparkling water.
The Queen found the palace intolerable, worse than the wind outside. Very soon after breakfast she went out. Kalliope, faithful even amid the torment of the sirocco, followed her. They struggled together towards their watch place on the cliff. The wind buffeted them, set their hair floating wildly, struck their eyelids painfully. Their legs were caught and held by tangling petticoats. Sometimes as the path twisted they headed right against the storm. Then bent almost double, they bored their way through dense resisting air. Sometimes, moving slantwise, they were caught by a side blast, and then they walked leaning at a sharp angle against the wind. Or, for a little while, they scudded before it, driven against their wills to swift motion which was unbearably exhausting. More than once Kalliope flung herself down and lay flat, panting on the shelterless grass. If she had taken her own way she would have given the struggle up. But the Queen, though she too gasped for breath, would not turn back or rest for more than a few minutes. She was determined to reach the look-out post on the cliff. In the end she got there.
Kalliope lay at full length, face downwards, in the little hollow. The Queen sat beside her and looked out to sea. Her hair was blown backwards. Her blouse, its fastenings torn, was blown open at her neck. Her face was flecked with tiny crystals of salt. She breathed in quick short pants. She kept her eyelids open with an effort against the blast.
The welter of grey water, broken everywhere with splashes of lighter grey foam, merged into the misty grey of the low enveloping clouds. The half circle of the horizon seemed very near. She watched the waves rise, rush forward, curl their crests over and break in foam. In one place the foam was whiter, thicker than elsewhere. The waves broke more frequently there. It was as if a patch of very fiercely breaking water moved towards the island. Behind it, before it, and on either side of it the waves tossed and broke. On this one patch they broke more constantly and more wildly. In a little while the Queen got glimpses of a dark mass which rose from the middle of this breaking water. Then she saw, clear above the foam, a short thick mast. She guessed that in the middle of the breaking water, half submerged, washed constantly from stem to stern, there was a boat which made for the shore.
The Queen watched, fascinated. The boat held her course for the island. She reached the corner of the reef outside the bay. She swung round it and was to be seen plainly at last in the sheltered water of the harbour. She was a long low boat, narrow, sharply pointed bow and stern. A turret rose amidships. The smooth rounded slope of her deck was broken only by a hand rail which stretched fore and aft from the turret. The Queen had seen no craft like her, but she knew what she was, a submarine.
The Queen seized Kalliope by the arm and pointed to the boat. It was impossible to talk up there on the cliff in the storm. The two girls struggled to their feet. They started on their way back to the palace. Hand in hand, running, tripping, buffeted, breathless, they reached the bottom of the cliff.
The Queen and Kalliope were the first to see the submarine; but when she rounded the corner of the reef and entered the harbour every one on the island was aware of her arrival. From the houses of the village men came out and stood on the beach staring at the strange craft which moved across their bay. In the palace King Konrad Karl saw her and knew at once what she was. The effect her arrival produced on him was curious. Better than any one else on the island except perhaps Smith, he understood the German war spirit and guessed what the coming of the submarine might mean. Yet he seemed actually pleased to see her. He hurried to find Gorman. All the nervous agitation which had set him quarrelling with his Corinne disappeared. The effects of the horrible dullness and intolerable boredom of the past three months dropped away in an instant. The sirocco no longer afflicted him. He greeted Gorman with smiles. He was once more the irrepressible, cheery, street arab among kings, who had swindled the British public with his Vino Regalis, who defied all conventional decencies in his relations with Madame Ypsilante, who had failed to pay his bills in London and tried to outwit the Emperor over the sale of Salissa.
“Gorman,” he said, “my friend Gorman. Once more we are alive. Many things happen. It is a hand of no trumps doubled and redoubled. Gorman, I palpitate, I thrill. We arrive at the moment of destiny. Behold destiny!”
Gorman, who was looking out of the window, saw the submarine, but did not for the moment recognize destiny. He agreed with the King that her arrival made a desirable break in the monotony that oppressed them. But the situation did not strike him as equal in emotional value to a redoubled hand at bridge. The best he hoped for was some fresh company, a little news from the outside world and possibly a bundle of newspapers.
“Submarine?” he said. “English or German, do you think? and what do you suppose she wants here?”
“English, pooh! By this time no English ships are left on the sea. It is an under-water boat of the Emperor, and she comes to seek the petrol stored in the cave.”
“Liable to disappointment then,” said Gorman. “That petrol’s gone.”
“I know it,” said the King, “therefore I say ‘Behold destiny.’ But I, Gorman, I laugh at destiny. I mock. I snap the finger and thumb of my hand. So.” He snapped the fingers of both hands with airy defiance. “I am a king. I play a game until the end. I die game-playing. And Corinne will not grieve too much. On Salissa I think Corinne loves less than in Paris. Hurrah, Gorman. Hip, and hip, and hurrah, three times.”
Gorman was not impressed by this rhapsody. He was not yet sufficiently roused from the bad temper and depression induced by the sirocco to appreciate the King’s exalted mood.
“I suppose,” he said, “that Donovan will ask the captain to dinner. I hope to goodness he can talk English. There’s a lot of news I want to hear.”
Donovan, sitting alone in his room, did not see the arrival of the submarine. It was Smith who reported the matter to him.
“Warship of a belligerent nation?” said Donovan.
“Yes, sir; German, sir.”
“German or English,” said Donovan, “it’s the same thing. This is a neutral State and we haven’t got any quarrel with either party.”
“Yes, sir,” said Smith. “Quite so, sir. But, I beg your pardon. She’s German.”
Donovan thought this over for a minute.
“I appreciate your feelings, Smith,” he said, “and I don’t deny that your situation might be an awkward one if this wasn’t a neutral State. But you’re in the service of the Crown of Salissa now, and I reckon that any attempt to inflict punishment on you would be contrary to international law.”
“I’m sure you know best, sir.”
“That’s as good as to say that your interpretation of international law is superior to mine. It may be. But the matter will have to come before the superior courts before anything’s settled.”
“It’s not that, sir,” said Smith. “I’m not afraid of the law.”
“Oh,” said Donovan, “you’re inclined to think that the German captain may trample on the law?”
“Seeing as how you’ve no guns, sir, he might.”
“Smith,” said Donovan, “just look out of that window and tell me what banner the Queen has flying from the flagpost. Old Glory, isn’t it?”
“The American flag, sir. Yes, sir.”
“Well,” said Donovan, “I guess that’s good.”
Smith appears to have been remarkably cool. Both Donovan and Gorman agree that he showed no sign of fear or excitement. Yet he must have known that he was in serious danger. He had been a member of the German Secret Service. He had deserted it, revealed its secrets and acted against his employers. He had very good reason to expect to be hanged or shot within the next couple of hours. He cannot, I imagine, have placed much confidence in the protection afforded by the American flag. But he seems to have had a profound belief in Donovan.
When the Queen and Kalliope, wind torn and dishevelled, reached the palace, it was Smith who met them and in answer to her eager questions told the Queen that the submarine was German. He added that the captain would probably come ashore. He asked where the Queen would like to receive him.
“I’m afraid, your Majesty,” he said, “that there may be some trouble. I mean to say that it won’t be quite a friendly visit to your Majesty. He’ll be expecting a supply of petrol, and——”
The Queen gave a little gasp of surprise. Then she burst into a peal of laughter.
“There’s not a drop left,” she said. “He’ll be just mad. I wonder what he’ll say. Do you think he’ll be rude?”
“Quite possibly, your Majesty,” said Smith. “The Germans haven’t got very good manners.”
“We’ll have him in the big hall, Smith. And we’ll all be there. If he’s nice about the petrol and takes it as a joke we’ll ask him to dinner. If he’s rude he can just go back to his old submarine and sulk by himself.”
Smith was quick in making preparations for the reception in the great hall. But the captain of the submarine reached the landing steps before the party in the palace was ready for him. The Queen hurried into the hall and took her seat on a chair which Smith placed for her. Konrad Karl ran to warn his Corinne to stay in her room and keep the door locked. Smith went to summon Donovan. Gorman, eager now and full of curiosity, stood at the door of the hall to watch the landing of the German officer. As the Queen took her seat he turned to her.
“Hullo,” he said, “it’s our old friend von Moll.”
“That man!” said the Queen.
“Funny to think of his turning up here again,” said Gorman. “Hope he’ll keep sober this time.”
Von Moll was sober enough at the moment. He stood very erect, very stern, most awe-inspiring while his men landed, six of them, all armed. Then he tramped up the steps. He halted for a minute on the terrace where the flagstaff was. He gave an order. One of his men drew a knife from a sheath and cut the flag halyard. The Stars and Stripes crumpled up and fluttered down the wind.
Gorman turned to the Queen again.
“Your flag’s gone,” he said. “Von Moll appears to be in a bit of a temper.”
Then he stepped out of the hall and went forward down the path. He held out his hand to von Moll.
“How are you?” he said. “Perfectly beastly day, isn’t it? Any news?”
Von Moll marched on, taking no notice whatever of his friendly greeting. Gorman, smiling pleasantly, followed him towards the hall.
“Been in any more naval battles since we last met?” said Gorman. “By the way, was there any fuss when you got home about that man’s teeth?”
Von Moll stalked into the hall. Gorman followed him.
“It’s no use your pretending not to understand English,” he said. “You talked it splendidly last time you were here.”
Von Moll made no pretence at politeness. He did not even salute the Queen. He looked round him with an insolent glare. Konrad Karl hurried through the door at the far end of the hall and took his place at the Queen’s side. He had a lighted cigarette in his hand. It could not be said of him that he was frightened; but he was certainly excited. He fidgeted nervously with his moustache and his eyes were unusually bright. Von Moll watched him for a minute and then spoke.
“King Konrad Karl,” he said, “you will consider yourself under arrest and be prepared to follow me on board.”
The King gave a little twist to his moustache.
“By whose authority do you give these orders?” he said.
Von Moll clicked his heels together and saluted as he spoke. King Konrad Karl shrugged his shoulders. Gorman, determined not to be ignored this time, took von Moll by the arm.
“I say, von Moll,” he said. “After the frightfully impressive way you said that, we ought to have some sort of demonstration. Let’s drink the old boy’s health and say ‘Hoch!’ or whatever the proper thing is. I’m sure you must want a drink, and those swashbucklers of yours”—he looked round at von Moll’s six men—“could hold hands and sing ‘Deutschland über Alles.’ It would cheer us all up.”
The Queen looked at von Moll in amazement. Then she glanced at Konrad Karl. While Gorman was speaking she made up her mind to assert herself.
“You forget,” she said, “that King Konrad Karl is my guest, and so are you while you are in my house.”
Donovan, still in his shirt sleeves, looking very tired and hot, slouched into the hall while the Queen spoke. Smith followed him. The Queen, nervous and half frightened in spite of her brave words, turned to him.
“Oh, father,” she said, “I am glad you’ve come.”
Donovan nodded to von Moll.
“Sit right down,” he said, “there’s a chair behind you. You’ll stay for luncheon, won’t you?”
He sat down himself as he spoke and took a cigar out of his case.
“Smith,” he said, “cocktails.”
“Yes, sir,” said Smith.
Von Moll turned to the men behind him and pointed to Smith.
“Arrest that man,” he said.
Two of the sailors stepped forward and crossed the hall towards Smith.
“Say,” said Donovan, “is this a rehearsal for a cinema? and when do you reckon to have the camera operating?”
“That man,” said von Moll, pointing to Smith, “is a deserter from the service of the Emperor and a spy. He pays the penalty.”
Donovan deliberately cut the end off his cigar and struck a match. Then he looked up at von Moll.
“Seems to me,” he said, “that there’s some kind of misunderstanding. I’m not blaming you, Captain, not at all. But this is a neutral State, and according to international law you can’t butt in and arrest citizens without applying for an extradition order in the regular way.”
“You talk like a fool,” said von Moll. “This is war.”
He gave a fresh order to his men.
“Take him,” he said. “Shoot him on the steps outside.”
Donovan struck a fresh match and lit his cigar. He puffed at it slowly.
“It pains me some,” he said, “to go contrary to my life-long principles. I’m a humanitarian by conviction and I’m opposed to capital punishment. It seems to me that the taking of human life is not justified, and that the advance of civilization, especially in the great republic of which I am a citizen——”
“He is a spy,” said von Moll, “and he dies.”
“You’re hasty, Captain,” said Donovan. “I don’t blame you, but you’re hasty and you haven’t quite tumbled to my meaning. When I spoke of my humanitarian principles I wasn’t thinking of what would happen to Smith. You may shoot him, Captain, and I shall deplore it. But that won’t outrage my convictions any. For I shan’t be responsible, that execution being your affair and not mine. What I was thinking of was how I’d feel when I saw you and every damned one of your pirates hanging at the end of ropes over the edges of the various fancy balconies and other trimmings which adorn this palace. It will be going clean against my principles to arrange that kind of obituary dangle for you, Captain. I may have some trouble soothing my conscience afterwards. But I expect that can be managed. You may call me inconsistent and you may be right. But I’m not a hide-bound doctrinnaire. There are circumstances under which the loftier emanations of humanitarian principle kind of flicker out. The shooting of Smith is a circumstance of that sort. Your treatment of the American flag is another.”
Gorman tells me that he suspected Donovan of attempting a gigantic bluff. He admired the way he did it, but he did not think he could possibly succeed. Donovan did not, so far as Gorman could see, hold in his hand a single card worth putting down on the table. Smith stood, cool and apparently uninterested, between the two sailors who had arrested him. Konrad Karl was lighting and throwing away cigarette after cigarette. The Queen had grown pale at the mention of the shooting of Smith; but she kept her eyes fixed on her father. She did not understand what he was doing, but she had great confidence in him. Von Moll stared at Donovan with an insolent sneer.
“You threaten,” he said, “you think that your American Republic—— Pah! what is America? You have no army. Your navy is no good. What can you do?”
“You’re taking me up wrong again,” said Donovan. “I’m not reckoning on America just now. The hanging will be done by the crew of the English ship that I’m expecting to see in this harbour. Not to-day, maybe, or to-morrow, but some time before the end of this darned war.”
King Konrad Karl threw away another cigarette.
“Alas and damn!” he said, “by this time there are no longer any English ships.”
Gorman was watching von Moll closely. At the mention of an English ship the man’s eyes flickered suddenly. For an instant his face changed. A shadow of uneasiness appeared on it. But this passed at once, and the look of insolence took its place. Donovan was also watching.
“There may be one or two left,” he said. “I don’t say the one that turns up here will be a first-class battle cruiser; but I guess the men on her will be up to the little job of hanging you, Captain. And they’ll come. Sure. And you’ll be here, just waiting for them.”
“I shall be gone,” said von Moll. “Not that I fear your English ship. But to-morrow I go, and before I go, to-day—I shoot the spy.”
“You misapprehend the situation,” said Donovan. “As a warship of a belligerent Power entering a neutral harbour you are liable——”
Von Moll laughed aloud.
“You intern me,” he said.
“Well,” drawled Donovan, “I do. Say, Captain, you didn’t drop in here just for the pleasure of shooting Smith and carrying off the King. Those weren’t your main purposes. I’m not an observant man, but I did happen to notice as I left my room that your ship was shifting her anchorage a bit. Now I wouldn’t say that it’s particularly healthy, with a wind like this blowing, for a ship to lie right under those cliffs, slap up against the mouth of a cave. I give you credit, Captain, for knowing your trade as a sailor, and I don’t think that you’d put your ship there unless you wanted something out of that cave, and wanted it pretty bad. What’s more, Captain, you want it in a hurry. Now I may be wrong, but it’s my opinion that what you expect to find there is petrol. That so?”
It was plain—so plain that even King Konrad Karl saw it—that von Moll was disturbed. His confidence was not what it had been earlier in the interview. Donovan went on, speaking with irritating deliberation.
“Now when I said that you were interned in the harbour of this neutral State, Captain, I wasn’t counting on your respect for international law. I wouldn’t risk a dollar on that. What I meant was this. The petrol’s not there. Your darned tanks are empty. I’m not defending the action on economic grounds. It was waste. But that petrol is gone. We ran it off.”
“You have not dared,” said von Moll. “You could not dare—— No one but a madman would touch the Emperor’s war stores.”
“I hope,” said Gorman, “that the poor old Emperor won’t have a fit when he hears about it.”
“You may be able to run that ship a mile or two,” said Donovan. “But I reckon you’ll not go far. You were dependent on that petrol? Come now, Captain, own up.”
What von Moll intended to do next I do not know. Gorman is of opinion that he might very well have shot the whole party. He was white with passion.
Donovan rose from his chair, stuck his cigar in a corner of his mouth, and crossed the hall towards the door.
“While you’re sizing up the situation,” he said to von Moll, “I’ll just see if I can’t find that flag that you cut down. It would gratify me to have it flying again. You’d better come with me, Smith. I’m not inclined for climbing poles in this storm. I have to consider my heart.”
Smith stepped forward and followed him. It is interesting to notice that the sailors who guarded him made no attempt to stop him. It is unlikely that they understood English well enough to know what Donovan said to von Moll. But they were somehow aware that their captain’s authority was failing.
At the door of the hall Donovan stopped and turned to von Moll.
“Things seem to be happening,” he said, “right up to expectation, only more so. I own I didn’t look for that British ship quite so soon.”
He stood in the doorway and pointed out to sea. Gorman hurried across the hall, passed Donovan and went out. The Queen left her chair and ran to her father’s side. Konrad Karl followed her. Von Moll looked round him, astonished, slightly dazed. Then he, too, went out, pushing his way past Donovan.
Outside the reef, plunging and rolling heavily, was a small steamer. She was stumpy, high bowed, low waisted, with a short black funnel. Her bridge and single deck-house were disproportionately high. She was shabby and rusty. She looked insignificant. She was swept frequently with showers of white spray. On her bow and on her funnel could be seen the white letters and numbers which proclaimed her proper business. She was a trawler. In peace times she cast nets for fish in the North Sea. Now she flew the white ensign and on her fore-deck, above the high blunt bows, she carried a gun.
There were men handling the gun amid a smother of spray and the swirl of water round their legs. The deck on which they stood was the worst of all possible gun platforms. In the course of each few minutes it was set at a dozen angles as the little steamer plunged and rolled. But the men fired. Their shot went wide of the submarine which lay in the harbour, and spluttered against the side of the cliff. The trawler staggered on towards the end of the reef. Out of the welter of grey water to windward came another trawler, then a third appeared and a fourth.
Gorman edged up close to von Moll and caught him by the elbow.
“I say, von Moll,” he said, “it’s jolly lucky for you that you didn’t have time to shoot Smith. That ship of yours is a goner, you know. It’ll be a jolly sight pleasanter for you to be a prisoner of war than to be dangling about on the end of a rope in this beastly wind. And Donovan would have seen to it that you did swing if you’d shot Smith. There’s nobody so vindictive as your humanitarian pacifist, once you get him roused.”
The first of the little fleet of trawlers swung round the end of the reef into the sheltered water of the bay. She fired again. Her deck was steady. The target was an easy one. One shell and then another hit the submarine, ripped her thin hull, burst in her vitals.
Half an hour later Maurice Phillips landed on the palace steps.