The Ship of Shadows by H. Bedford-Jones
14. Mrs. Ivanoff Commands


Mrs. Ivanoff Commands

AINT that Stormalong a divil, now!” cried Garrity, awed. “Smashed up, them engines were, but Stormalong’s down there wi’ the Chinks, and he’s got ’em wheezing—”

Mrs. Ivanoff looked at him. Garrity met her eyes, and his own widened slightly, as though in those sea-gray orbs he read some covert message. He scratched his red head and then started off suddenly.

“I’ll be havin’ a look at them engines meself,” he said, and no one stopped him. But Boris Kryalpin gazed after him with a thin smile.

Captain Moto sputtered a word, and Kryalpin turned.

“What difference does it make?” he said with a shrug, and jerked his hand toward the sea. “She’s barely moving—barely got steerageway! Mr. Jason, you’d better close the hatch over the engine-room.”

Jason nodded and took a step away. Abe Gerin flung out at Kryalpin, a passionate heartbreak in his eyes.

“You devil! You’re shutting those men down there—”

Kryalpin reached out, unexpectedly, suddenly, with the swiftness of light. His hands clutched Gerin about the throat and lifted the lesser man. He shook Gerin bodily—and then the hand of Venable clamped down on his wrist.

“Stop that,” said Venable. His grip twisted into the flesh of Boris, whose hands loosened and relaxed. Abe Gerin, his crutch fallen, reeled to the rail and leaned there, his fingers searching at his throat as he coughed.

The Kum Chao had slowly come about; she was heading into the seas now, heading toward the schooner and the men-filled boat that was pulling toward her. No one noticed this, however. Jason had disappeared in the direction of the hatchway.

Boris Kryalpin and Venable looked into each other’s eyes. Venable was grim, silent, motionless; in his deeply lined face, in the beetling, haggard features, there was purpose indomitable. Yet his eyes were strangely serene and cool, deep-piercing—the eyes of one who has looked upon many things and learned much. Meeting those eyes, the bold impudence died out of the Russian’s face. Boris seemed to shiver a little, as though he read a strange fate in those eyes.

Then, mastering himself, he stepped back and sneered at Venable.

“You wish to get shot, my friend? Have a care! Now, step up to the bridge; we wish to look over things there, with your presence. Come, Captain Moto! Ah, here’s Mr. Jason returning—kindly assist Deardorf in taking care of these people, Mr. Jason; better keep them up in the bows, until Captain Moto’s men are all aboard. All ready, Mr. Venable.”

MR. JASON passed them, returning; he was gazing at Marie, and in his steady regard was a hungry anticipation. But Mrs. Ivanoff looked at Venable, and he read a smile in her eyes; utterly at a loss to understand the meaning of her smile, unable to do more than obey, he turned to the bridge-ladder, with Moto and Boris Kryalpin following him.

As he mounted to the bridge, Venable saw Mrs. Ivanoff and Marie walking together into the bows; Abe Gerin dragged himself behind, with recovered crutch, while Mr. Jason and Deardorf slowly followed. The latter, bearded and dirty, was chuckling some evil jest to the mate.

Venable stepped to the bridge and paused before the wheelhouse, glancing inside. As he came, he thought he had seen a movement here, as of some person whisking away from sight; but the place was empty. A loop had been slipped over one of the wheel spokes, so that the Kum Chao, under bare steerageway, was still heading toward the schooner. The latter’s boat, filled with little yellow men, was now close aboard.

The two ships were now much nearer to each other than at first, for the Kum Chao had not ceased her gradual progress toward the schooner. From down below, the reeling clangor of the racked engines filled the whole ship with strident groanings and clackings. She was reeling much less to the waves, and not without alarm did Venable’s startled senses take in the fact that she seemed lower than usual in the water. So, then—she was slowly sinking! Perhaps Stormalong was trying to work the steam-pumps, he thought, although he could not hear them going.

Yet in this thought he was very wrong.

Wondering why Mrs. Ivanoff had smiled in her eyes when she looked at him, Venable gazed down at the foredeck in a moody silence. Boris and Captain Moto had gone into the wheelhouse. The boat from the schooner was almost under the steamer’s ladder now; the schooner herself had lost nearly all way and was rolling idly up the seas and down again, as though waiting for the Kum Chao to crawl up be side her. A single man showed on her stern-deck, now toward the steamer. Obviously, every available man had been brought over to strip the prey.

Captain Moto came out beside Venable and shouted something in his own tongue. Venable looked down, at answering voices, and saw the two yellow seamen at the foot of the ladder. They exchanged a word with Captain Moto, and then began to ascend.

Only a few moments, an absurdly few moments, had passed since the engines had started and Garrity had gone below, to be shut down with Stormalong by Mr. Jason. Yet to Venable’s mind had intervened long ages of agony. And now, watching the two seamen coming up the ladder, he suddenly heard the laugh of Mr. Jason from the fore-deck.

VENABLE turned to that scene in the bows. He saw Jason speaking to Marie, saw the mate leer at her and reach out for her, saw Mrs. Ivanoff quietly come between them. An oath burst from Jason as he thrust her to one side, then caught Marie’s arm. And as he did this, Mrs. Ivanoff flashed out a small revolver and shot him through the body.

To Venable it seemed unreal, as though he were gazing at some stage rehearsal. Mr. Jason fell to the deck and rolled limply over. Deardorf, a wild and fearful cry breaking from him, threw up his automatic as if to shoot Mrs. Ivanoff—then Abe Gerin had clutched him about the shoulders, throwing him aside. Crippled poet and wounded Bolshevik, they twisted on the deck together.

Some instinctive warning, some half-caught panting of breath, caused Venable to turn around. He perceived Captain Moto coming at him from one side, Boris Kryalpin from the other—the yellow man empty-handed, the Russian with an automatic pistol. Even so, it came to Venable that Captain Moto was the more to be feared.

That instant was terrible and interminable. As it dragged its course, Venable realized that he had been fetched here to be murdered; he realized that all resistance was useless—that Mrs. Ivanoff had shot the mate to save Marie, yet it would be in vain. Even now, the schooner’s boat was alongside and her men were coming up the deck!

With this, befell action and a blurring of all things except what happened here at his side.

Boris was throwing up his pistol at Venable, a thin smile on his lips, when a silent figure came around the corner of the wheelhouse behind him—the quartermaster Li John, knife in hand! A warning cry from Captain Moto brought the Russian around in time to grapple with Li John.

Venable found the yellow skipper upon him, empty-handed but terrible. For, diving at Venable, Captain Moto drove his fingers into the white man’s throat and all but paralyzed him with a cunning strangling of the muscles.

Venable staggered back, clutching at those yellow hands. He was a little dazed by the swiftness of things, a little confused by all of it, unable to comprehend the situation in a clear light. The appearance of Li John had been bewildering.

PAIN wakened Venable, however; pain roused him and stabbed his brain into action, and ceased the aimless, panicky fumbling of his hands. He threw out all his strength into those hands. Coolness came upon him, and a deadly wrath that had no mercy. So quickly had events chanced that the two yellow seamen were still upon the ladder, ascending to the bridge. When they came, death would come also.

Thus thinking, Venable seized Captain Moto and tried to pluck him away, as one tries to snatch away some loathsome reptile that has suddenly seized and twined in a venomous embrace. Twice he strove in vain, while the saffron claws sank into his throat and had him gasping; then he gathered himself and plucked again. At this plucking, Captain Moto screamed out suddenly; his hands tore loose under the sheer strength that wrenched at him; Venable lifted him and hurled him into the air, so that the scream trailed off into space—hurled him clear of the bridge and over side, where he vanished.

Staggering from that mighty effort, and reacting to the pain that gripped his throat, Venable collapsed against the rail and clung there weakly. Down upon the foredeck still stood the two women together, Mrs. Ivanoff gazing up, revolver in hand. Abe Gerin was still rolling with Deardorf; but now Deardorf’s automatic cracked, with a queerly muffled report, then the two men lay quiet. As Venable still stared, he saw Deardorf raise himself to one elbow and lift his automatic toward Mrs. Ivanoff. Marie screamed, and Mrs. Ivanoff turned.

That was all Venable saw for the moment. One of the two approaching seamen had leaped to the aid of Boris Kryalpin, while the other fired point-blank at Venable; the bullet seared past his head, the explosion fanned him with a breath of fire. He flung himself sideways at the man, throwing up the weapon as he closed. The two, grappling, reeled into the wheelhouse, and the yellow seaman’s head smashed through the weather light. There was a rush of blood as the slithered glass sliced face and throat, and the man relaxed limply. Venable was dimly aware that his own arms had been badly gashed, sending a drip of crimson from his fingertips.

He remembered the quartermaster, and dropped into the tangle of bodies—just in time, too, for Li John had been hit over the head and lay senseless. Venable stamped with his foot on the wrist of Boris, as an automatic jerked up at him; the weapon fell and exploded, the cruel bullet raking upward through the body of the second seaman. Disarmed, Boris Kryalpin rolled over and gained his feet, snarled frenzied curses, caught Venable about the waist, tried to break the latter through the bridge rail where the canvas storm-apron shut them off from the world.

THE two men hung there, striking madly. As they hung, Venable saw over the shoulder of Boris—caught a glimpse of the deck below.

The mate of the schooner, with his men, had gained the deck of the Kum Chao. Three of the yellow seamen had advanced forward, the others were out of sight. But those three on the fore-deck had turned, were facing aft; Venable saw their revolvers cracking and heard the shots. Something was happening down there—what? At whom were they firing?

A shrill screaming filled the air, a shrill, strident rush of voices. Into Venable’s range of vision came half-naked yellow bodies; they were the Chinese of the crew, and the huge Stormalong was leading them, bellowing as he came. The three Japanese were engulfed, and knives streamed red down there. Farther, in the bows, stood Marie and Mrs. Ivanoff, the latter holding her smoking revolver; but Deardorf now lay with his arms flung out, dead.

Venable did not stop to wonder how Stormalong and Garrity had come from below—the Chinese had done that, of course. He had no chance to wonder about anything, for Kryalpin was at his throat, and the Russian was a tiger unleashed. The two reeled away from the rail, Boris trying to catch Venable off balance and thrust him down the ladder, but Venable bore forward again, back-heeled his opponent, and the grappled men shot headfirst into the wheelhouse. Boris landed on top. They lay there almost motionless. Venable had been partially stunned by the fall, and was unable to prevent the Russian getting a grip on his throat. His own hands, reddened with hot blood, drew Boris down close to him yet could not quell the fierce grip that strangled the life in his heart.

Almost motionless they lay, but every muscle in both bodies was working and tensed. Face to face—above him, Venable saw the snarling, tigerish features of the Russian, alight with the exulting confidence of triumph.

From somewhere below them, somewhere deep in the bowels of the ship, came a quick roar, a muffled, vibrant explosion that shook the entire vessel, followed at once by a lurching stagger as the Kum Chao dipped her nose into the seas and came up heavily. A bulkhead had blown out. The shell, passing through the engine-room, had exploded forward, and she was well down by the head now. With each sea, her stern lifted and the propeller raced madly, sending shuddering vibrations through the ship.

Venable realized that the ship was going down, realized that there was a mad chaos of fighting on the main-deck, and the reddened darkness before his eyes cleared away. The iron band about his throat clamped the tighter. Fire was in his lungs. His hands loosened from about the Russian, and groped out blindly and desperately for a weapon.

HIS left hand clenched upon a slim, heavy object—the ebony chart-ruler with which he had been laying out the course that morning. To strike with this thing would be futile; but Venable did not attempt to strike. He brought it up behind the neck of Boris Kryalpin, and his right hand closed upon the other end. His two hands slid up the black stem of wood and closed there, touching the neck of Boris, pressing the brass edge of the ebony into the Russian’s spine.

He felt the iron grasp dig deeper into his throat; the face of Boris came down closer to his own—their cheeks touched. Venable pressed home his fearful weapon, drew down and back with all his strength, threw up his face convulsively and forced the head of Boris back.

Suddenly fear came into Kryalpin—fear of the thing at the back of his neck, bending his spine! He loosened his death-grip on the throat of Venable and tried to tear himself clear. He caught at the wheel and dragged himself up; but Venable came with him.

Then the Russian tried to reach his feet, and this effort cost him life. For, in the effort, he lost his footing, lost his leverage—and Venable bent his head backward upon his body. The ruler fell to the deck and clattered. Boris, his neck broken, fell over it.

THE Kum Chao, with Garrity handling the emergency wheel in the stern, crowded down upon the Japanese schooner. The clangor of the engines ceased, leaving a sudden deathly hush upon the ship; the water had reached the fires, and presently the boilers would go. But still the steamer forged slowly ahead, and came down upon the schooner like a fate-driven thing. The one man aboard the schooner was working at the gun forward—running from gun to helm, unable to turn the schooner so that the gun could bear upon the sinking steamer. But when the two ships came rail to rail, and the lowered bows of the Kum Chao ground into the quarter of the schooner and slowly crept forward along her rail, both ships staggering and crunching in the seas—then the one man on the schooner began to fire.

He was too late. Other men, other yellow men, yellower than he, were flooding upon him with knives.