THAT afternoon Captain Hewson—or rather Mr. Jason, who was the mouthpiece and active partner of the beefy skipper—fell to work upon the unhappy Kum Chao. There was much breaking out of paint; of which useful commodity, by some mystery which Boris Kryalpin or the skipper himself might have explained, there was a large supply aboard.
When Jason yielded the bridge to Venable, the skipper showed up and pushed the work savagely, revealing himself as a bullying bucko of the old type. The cargo-booms and derricks were stripped away and thrown into the hold; false rail and bulwarks were constructed that turned the craft from a well-deck tramp into one of the awning-deck species; a second funnel of wood, tin and canvas was stayed securely into position, and then, as a deft touch upon which the skipper prided himself hugely, was fed with smoke by a cunning pipe-line from the real funnel.
By means of much carpentry and spoiled canvas the entire shape of the superstructure amidships was altered, after which the painting was begun—every sign of the old Kum Chao being obliterated, and in her stead appearing the Porte Cochère of Marseilles. Mr. Hewson chose this name, as he explained to Venable, because he had once found it in a book and liked the tony sound of it.
All this was not done in an hour. By the time the painters got to work changing the white-and-red hull into black-and-gray, another day had passed. In that length of time Venable had made some discoveries.
The steward was in the pay of Boris. This was elucidated by Li John, whose brother Li Ho also asserted that old Paul had been murdered by Boris and Shinski together, and that the latter had wept bitter tears over the job. Further, the demeanor of the skipper and mate became so affable that Venable began to be seriously alarmed.
No opportunity had yet come to speak with Mrs. Ivanoff, apparently, and Abe Gerin was wearing a worried expression. On the third evening, however, when the painting of the hull was nearly completed, Gerin came to the bridge and told Venable that Mrs. Ivanoff would see him when he came off watch.
“I’ll be on guard at her door,” went on the poet with an ironic smile. “You’d better show up there about nine o’clock—two bells, isn’t it?—and slip in quietly. But leave the door ajar, because I want to hear what goes on. I’ve seen her, and she appears amiable; yet the woman is terrible of soul. She is capable of anything!”
“Very well,” assented Venable. “The skipper appears amiable, too, and I don’t like it. By the way, he’s changed our course altogether; we’re heading due south into the Eastern Sea, instead of east past Japan on a course for Honolulu. Look at the chart yourself.”
Gerin nodded carelessly. “Of course; he wants to get off the steamer-lanes until the work on the ship is done; then he’ll draw a line direct for Mexico. If he runs across any other ship, we sha’n’t be recognized. Well, we’d better arrange matters to-night, and I’ll attend to Mr. Hewson without delay. So long!”
VENABLE did not understand the poet’s unconcern over their course. He himself studied the pricked chart with a frown, for the Kum Chao seemed to be heading for Polynesia. To his landsman’s eye, with no thought of currents or leeway or drift, it seemed an absurdly easy thing to lay a course to any given point on that chart and follow it. But the ocean was very big, and Venable did not like the thought of heading aimlessly into the vastness of it as the skipper seemed to be doing. Also, the chart seemed thick with reefs and islands, most of which, to Venable’s great surprise, were assigned to Japan,
His surprise heightened as he looked farther. He had heard vaguely that Japan had taken all the German islands north of the equator; like most other people, he had paid little heed to it. But now he saw the large-scale chart outspread before him, and it seemed as though the Kum Chao were entering into a veritable Japanese world. From the Bonins down to the farthest Caroline, and away eastward through the Marshalls, stretched the great scimitar-sweep of Japan—the hilt at Asia, the point within fifteen hundred miles of Hawaii!
“Most astonishing!” murmured Venable, staring at the vast expanse of Micronesia which had passed from European hands to Asian. “An imaginative person would deduce a yellow peril from this chart, eh? And all closed to outside capital or enterprise, no doubt. Well, well, no matter! There comes Kryalpin, confound him!”
He nodded to Boris, who came to the bridge as he often did, and glanced at their course, Venable could pretend no liking for the man or his smooth courtesy, but Boris could be a charming individual at times, and seemed to exert this side of himself toward Venable. The latter liked it ill.
“Have you seen the Captain?” asked Boris casually. “No one seems to know where he is, and he’s not in his cabin.”
“No, he’s not been here,” answered Venable. “Last I saw of him, he was looking up some gold leaf for the new name on the stern. He’s probably below in the store-room.”
Kryalpin nodded and tendered Venable a cigarette, which the latter refused.
“You use a pipe, eh? By the way, I am very glad that you have decided to stick with us and obey orders. I’m afraid we’re going to have trouble with one or two of our friends; young Marks has taken a dislike to your friend Garrity, and Pinsky is advising that you be put out of the way. I thought I’d warn you. Those fellows are not to be trusted.”
“Thank you,” returned Venable, frowning a little. “Still, I fancy you’ve exaggerated; we’ve not mixed with any of your crowd, and they’d have no reason—”
“My dear fellow,” exclaimed Boris familiarly, “when an ill-gotten fortune is at stake, there is only one reason at bottom of everything; the fewer to divide the loot, the better! I have warned you; so look to it!”
WITH this admonition, Boris turned and left the bridge, Venable frowning after him in indecision and perplexity. What to make of this warning, he knew not; he decided to ask Garrity about it that night.
So, when he turned over the bridge and ship to Jason at eight that evening, Venable went direct to Garrity’s cabin. Darkness had fallen, earlier than usual; for the afternoon sky had been overcast, and the ship was rolling and lifting through heavy seas that boomed and battered upon her port counter.
As Eric Venable threw open the door of the tiny stateroom, a lurch of the deck sent him sidelong against the door-sash; at the same instant something crashed into the wood beside him. Instinctively he grappled with a dark figure that had up risen in front of him. A stunning blow broke the skin of his forehead. Venable clutched at the slungshot.
For the first time in years, passionate anger mastered him completely. The grunted oaths of his opponent told him this was not Garrity, but some one who had sought to murder Garrity by stealth and treachery. The blow, the touch of the coward’s weapon, maddened Venable. He threw out all his strength in a blind fierceness, a fury of surging muscles.
What happened next he could not tell. He was threshing about the stateroom with another man; that was all. Presently he found an electric torch flashing upon him, and knew that he was standing, trembling, with Garrity’s hand on him and Garrity’s voice in his ear.
“For the love o’ heaven, Parson!” cried the engineer excitedly. “Will ye not be content with killin’ the lad—”
“Killing!” echoed Venable. “He was waiting in here—”
“There’s a hell of a mess up for’ard,” thrust in Garrity. “Jason is—”
A dark shape appeared, crutch stamping to the roll of the ship, and Abe Gerin burst upon them in a blaze of energy. Garrity had extinguished the light.
“Venable—ah, I thought you’d be here! Get to the bridge—hurry! They’ve found that the Captain has disappeared, and the mate—”
“Quick!” snapped Garrity With a shove that sent Venable staggering away. “For’ard with ye, Parson! And take this along.”
Venable felt an automatic pushed into his coat pocket as he left.
Dazed, bewildered by what had taken place, he stumbled through the blackness, conscious of an uproar around him. At the bridge ladder he collided with Boris Kryalpin.
“Ah, Venable!” The voice of Boris was now steely, vibrant, and it lifted in a shout to the bridge above. “Here he is, Jason! Up with you, Venable—take charge of the ship! Captain Hewson has vanished.”
Venable did not stop to consider that Boris seemed actually in charge of the ship; he hastily gained the bridge, where Mr. Jason was dancing about and yelling frantic orders. He seized on Venable and gave him a push toward the wheel-house.
“Take charge!” he foamed. “Course is so’theast a quarter south—and git up a storm-apron—blowin’ hell’s bells ’fore morning. I’ll be back soon.”
He disappeared, with Boris, leaving Venable in charge of the ship.
ON the deck below was pandemonium, blackness, spindrift. The ship was bucking into a head-wind that pounded her with seas and kept her forward deck sluiced down continually, while Li Ho and another man at the wheel were kept at work to hold her steady.
From the confusion Venable gathered that search was being made for the missing Hewson. What had happened, he did not exactly know; things had broken too suddenly. But now, as though by some magic, his bewildered brain cleared. His hesitation was gone. He realized that he stood face to face with a dozen perils, and the knowledge steadied him, snapped his brain into cool precision.
Presently Li John made his appearance, and with much relief Venable ordered him to rig a storm-apron: The quartermaster summoned men from below. With them came Garrity, a cheerful whistle upon his lips.
“Praise be!”, exclaimed the engineer. “It’s all ravin’ maniacs they are, down there! D’ye mind, Venable, that whiskered chap Pinsky? He was in your cabin, waitin’ for ye—same as the boy Marks in mine. They’ve missed Marks already.”
“Missed him!” Venable stared. “You mean—they’ll find him—”
“Not much!” And Garrity chuckled. “Lord, what a grip ye have, Parson! We put him over the rail, Gerin and I.”
“What happened to Captain Hewson?” demanded Venable.
“Divil a bit does anyone know, or care, either—unless it’s Boris Kryalpin. Him an’ that bird Jason are fair wild! I see Mrs. Ivanoff out on deck, paradin’ around; she said for you to see her after the confusion quieted down a bit. They’ve been watching her pretty close, but Gerin had charge of her to-night, and I s’pose he let her drift around.”
“So Pinsky was waiting for me, eh?” said Venable slowly. “Garrity, I believe Kryalpin put them up to that murder-plot! Then he warned us. He didn’t care who got killed, so long as some one caught it. I believe Abe Gerin told the exact truth! Everybody aboard this ship is out to murder everybody else!”
“Pretty close to the mark, Parson,” assented Garrity. “Boris tried to buy up Stormalong, who was wise enough to say yes. I told him about things, and he says to tell you that he’ll throw in with us any old time.”
“All right.” Venable nodded. “Here’s some one now. Looks like Jason.”
The mate appeared, carrying a lantern and a strong whisky-breath. He squinted at the course, and nodded.
“Cap’n’s gone!” he said lugubriously. “Poor ol’ Hewson’s gone! Him an’ me has sailed together these seven year, too. And he owed me thirty dollars Mex! Aint it hell?”
“What d’ye mean?” snapped Garrity. “He’s not dead?”
“He’s gone; that’s all,” responded the mate in half-maudlin accents. “That’s what comes o’ having a woman owner aboard! Mr. Hewson aint aboard this hooker no more. That kid Marks, he’s gone too. I told the skipper to watch out for that crowd; so did Kryalpin. They’ve done him in, that’s what. It comes of them saints’ bones that’s aboard.”
Venable turned from the man.
“Take over the bridge,” he said curtly. “I’m going to turn in.”
“Aw right,” assented Jason, rubbing his hand over his bald, wet skull. “Aw right. It comes of them saints’ bones and a woman owner aboard! That’s what it does—”
Venable and Garrity left him mouthing words. The man was palpably knocked off his feet; he had had some affection for the beefy skipper, after all, perhaps. And he had drunk deep while below.
“You run along and see the missus,” said Garrity. “I’ll take a look-see for any more mousetraps in our cabins, and you can report afterward on what she says.”
“We’re safe enough now,” asserted Venable confidently. “Boris laid the trap for us, but the disappearance of Hewson has staggered him. He’ll go slow for the present and work in with Jason; he wont want more of the ship’s officers to turn up missing, for he figures on working the ship to the Mexican coast. So long!”
Venable swung away aft, toward the specially installed cabin of Mrs. Ivanoff, abaft the bridge-house. But Garrity paused by the ladder to gaze after him, and grinned as he gazed.
“Divil and all, if he aint comin’ out like a new man!” said the engineer reflectively. “That tone of him, now—and my Lord, what he done to Marks! Killed him with the two bare hands, praise be! Divil a cheep out of him about it, neither—he might be a bloody pirut for all a man knows, killin’ of ’em before breakfast. Hurray, says I!”
VENABLE passed on to Mrs. Ivanoff’s cabin, and came upon Abe Gerin.
“In with you!” Gerin jerked his head toward the door. “She expects you.”
Venable opened the door and stepped into the cabin. He disregarded Gerin’s prior instructions and closed the door behind him.
If he had anticipated a fateful interview, he was quite correct; but there was nothing prolonged or dramatic about it. Mrs. Ivanoff held out her hand, and smiled.
“I am glad to see you at last, Doctor Venable.”
“Please, not that!” Venable protested quietly. “The past is dead, madam.”
“Very well.” Her sea-gray eyes searched him curiously, strangely. “You’ve changed—and I’m glad! Gerin has made his position clear to you?”
“Gerin—and others. The Captain disappeared to-night. And Marks—”
“I know.” Her eyes shone out suddenly at him. “Gerin told me. Ah, that was wonderful! But you must not stay—it is dangerous. You are ready to act?”
“At your command, madam,” said Venable, standing very straight before her.
“To think what a man of iron you are now, and what you were when I first saw you!” she said softly; then she shrugged her shoulders. “Very well. I have assented to Gerin’s proposals. I have no commands, except that to-morrow you must be ready to act. Things will happen.”
“I can’t say. You and Garrity must watch. And I wish you’d take this and put it in some place of safety—stow it away in one of the lifeboats, where no one would look.”
She held out to him a parcel wrapped in burlap and tied with twine.
“Don’t let Gerin see it—put it under your coat,” she pursued calmly. “It contains some private effects, and our cabins are liable to search at any moment. Thank you. Pass the word to those whom you can trust about to-morrow; early in the morning, I think, there will be trouble.”
Venable frowned at her, perplexed.
“But what makes you think—”
“Oh, I have been busy to-night!” She laughed out at him, an eager, thrilling laugh that went into his blood like wine. “They were right to be afraid of me, those gutter-rats! But you shall see to-morrow.”
Venable bowed and left her.
Outside, Gerin looked up at him with a twisted smile. “Ah! We work together, eh? Good. That is a woman in there! A wonder!”
“She says there’ll be trouble to-morrow,” said Venable. “What does she mean?”
“Lord knows!” The poet shrugged. “But we got in the first blow, eh? Nobody knows how Hewson disappeared—and nobody saw. I was careful about that! The old fool was slung under the stern, lettering—”
Venable’s face hardened into steel. “You—murdered him?”
“No,” said Gerin, “I didn’t. I simply knocked him off the sling and let the water do the rest. And by to-morrow night you’ll be in charge of this ship.”
Venable started to speak, then halted. He could not trust himself to explain to this assassin.