The Ship of Shadows by H. Bedford-Jones
7. The Kum Chao Puts to Sea


The Kum Chao Puts to Sea

THAT night Venable got his first inkling of the status of those aboard the Kum Chao. And it was an inkling with dynamite attached.

When darkness fell, the ship was in trim for her voyage. Mrs. Ivanoff might have made money by carrying a cargo, but she had no time to make money. Long previously, she had had a small dining-saloon and passenger staterooms installed abaft the bridge-house; after dinner she retired to her own stateroom in this pseudo-imperial suite, ordering that she be called half an hour before midnight.

Garrity, satisfied as to the engine-room and anticipating a hard trick ahead, also sought his bunk; Venable was in charge of the ship, with a half-sobered Stormalong for company. He appealed to the latter to give him some idea of the apparatus on the bridge-deck, and Stormalong was in the proper mood to be surly.

“No use tellin’ you anything, Parson,” he growled. “What I was comin’ to, shipping aboard this hooker, I don’t know! A woman for an owner, and a parson for—oh, hell!”

Something in the man’s tone stirred Venable.

“My friend,” he said calmly, “that is the wrong way to begin. I need at least an appearance of respect from you if I am to have it from anyone else.” And he indicated Li John and Li Ho, who were examining the binnacle and steering-gear with professional interest, and putting the flag-locker in shape.

“Fine chance, you have!” sneered Stormalong. “An old man like you what never put foot aboard ship before, to lord it over decent sailormen—”

Venable took him by the collar with one hand, lifted him off his feet, and kicked him toward the port ladder. The amazed engineer, too astonished to resist, gripped the rails and tumbled to the deck without pronounced disaster.

“Stay down there until you can speak decently—or come on up if you want more,” said Venable. But Stormalong merely voiced an oath and disappeared in the darkness, to figure out what had happened to him.

It was after eleven when the two chief officers of the steamer came aboard. They came by launch, and were carried up the ladder. For them to come aboard in any other manner was entirely out of the question, since they were drunk and snoring. Venable viewed them with unassumed disgust. Mr. Jason was a thin, baldheaded person of uncertain age, with unlovely features; Captain Hewson was fat and flabby, gingery as to hair and whiskers, and apoplectic.

“What’ll I do with this fine pair?” he asked Stormalong, who had appeared out of nowhere to view proceedings.

“Any second officer what valued his ticket,” returned Stormalong without mention of the late unpleasantness, “would send ’em to bed with a bottle in each bunk and a jug o’ cold water to wake up on. But if it was me—”

“Ah!” said Venable with understanding. “I certainly do not value my certificate! You, Li John! Take everything from the pockets of these gentlemen and give it to me; then order your men to draw up buckets of water and give these two men a good bath. They need it. Then take them to their cabins and lock them in.”

“Good Lord!” gasped Stormalong. “Lookee, Parson; it’ll raise hell with authority aboard to do that.”

“Nonsense!” broke in Venable, taking the revolvers and valuables handed him by Li John. “If I’m going to run this ship, I’ll run it; and I’ll not have these two men parading their bestial conduct before the crew. Douse ’em good, boys, and lock ’em up.”

SO it was done according to order, and Venable entered the fact in the rough log which he had started on Garrity’s advice. He had scarcely finished the entry when Li John brought word that the captain wished to see him at once. Venable sought the skipper’s cabin, to meet a half sobered and wholly enraged captain mouthing oaths.

“That’s enough from you, Mr. Hewson,” he broke in quietly. “Another word and you’ll be put off this ship—and you’ll stay off. Another word, mind! You turn in and go to sleep, and you’ll be in something of a decent condition to take charge of this ship to-morrow morning. I’m the second officer, and I’m in charge. Another word, and off you go!”

Mr. Hewson bethought him of his soft job, and stood in staring silence. He had expected to deal with a woman, not with this lantern-jawed man who looked able to break him in two hands—and was! Venable shut the door, locked it and returned to the bridge.

That the ship was peculiar, he knew. He could figure out no relationship between Mrs. Ivanoff and the poet, Abe Gerin; the old servant Paul was aboard, although generally invisible. The ship carried no cargo, but her cabin stores were of the best. No money was being spared on her. She was a mystery.

Shortly before twelve Mrs. Ivanoff appeared on the bridge.

“The captain has come?” she inquired.

“He came with Mr. Jason—drunk,” said Venable. “I had them doused with water and locked in their cabins. Once we are at sea, they may be in condition to take charge.”

He heard her soft laugh, like a low ’cello note.

“I hope our passengers will be aboard soon,” she said without comment. “They are Russians, Mr. Venable—princes and nobles of old Russia. By the way, you might find this of some interest.”

She handed him a typewritten sheet, and left the bridge. Venable found the writing to be an exegesis of her work in America, giving the purpose of the funds which she had raised there. He read, and reread. When he remembered how Mrs. Ivanoff had called upon him, and what had passed at their first meeting, he flushed again and called himself a fool.

He understood now. This ship was to take to the land of freedom a party of folk who had lost rank and name and wealth in Russia; also, probably stored aboard, must be the relics and sacred things of which the paper spoke. What about the poet Gerin? Well, no matter; a strange man, that!

VENABLE laid the paper aside, wondering at the chance which had thus brought him again into touch with Mrs. Ivanoff. Seldom had he met a woman whose personality so thrilled him, so vibrated him, as did hers. As he thought thus, a low hail from the lookout apprised him that a boat with the passengers was coming alongside; he could hear the chugging of her engine, blending with the striking of eight bells, midnight, from the bells of other ships up and down the river. As he left the bridge, Venable met Garrity.

“Watches all arranged, sir,” said the engineer cheerily. “I’ll be down below, this watch.”

“Good,” assented Venable, and passed on to the head of the ladder.

There he found Mrs. Ivanoff, with a group of the crew; Stormalong stood to one side, watching. The launch was just coming to the ladder, below. As the two men at the landing made fast their boat hooks, a single figure passed them and came to the deck hastily. Venable noted the lithe agility of the man.

“Your Highness?”

“I am here, Boris Kryalpin,” said Mrs. Ivanoff, her voice calmly poised despite the excitement that must have been tearing at her soul. “All are safe?”

“All, madame,” answered Boris. “But I must see you alone for a moment before they come aboard. I have an important letter for your eyes alone, and also there is a man with the party whom I do not know; the others are afraid he is a spy.”

“Come to my stateroom,” broke in Mrs. Ivanoff. “Paul! A light.”

Few lights were showing about the ship, for Mrs. Ivanoff was desirous of attracting no more attention than need be, to her departure. Boris Kryalpin followed her aft, and was lost in the darkness. Below, the launch rocked at the landing.

“Any baggage to come up?” demanded Venable of those below.

“I have two trunks,” floated back the voice of a woman. “And there are some suitcases.”

“Send them up.” Venable ordered some of the yellow men down, but Li John intervened and took charge of slings already rigged. The two trunks were landed safely on deck, and the men brought up the suitcases.

Still there was no sign of Mrs. Ivanoff returning, and those in the launch had made no move to come aboard. Venable was just beginning to become uneasy, when the erect figure of Boris Kryalpin made its appearance.

“You are the captain?” he said to Venable.

“I am in command—the captain is asleep.”

“Oh! Madame Ivanoff has received news of a disturbing nature. She orders you to put to sea at once. Our friends are to be assigned to their cabins.”

“She is not going to see them?” asked Venable in some astonishment.

Boris shrugged his shoulders. “Evidently not, until morning. I do not inquire too closely into her actions, my friend, and I would advise you not to. If you do not object, I shall come to the bridge a little later and get acquainted.”

“By all means,” murmured Venable.

BORIS leaned over and spoke in Russian to those below; they came up the ladder quickly, as though they had been awaiting his instructions. Venable saw that there was but one woman; all seemed well wrapped against the cold of the evening. Besides Boris and the woman, there were four men in the party. One of them, Venable recognized as the poet Gerin.

The yellow steward took charge of the passengers at once. Ordering the ladder hoisted in, Venable took his way to the bridge, with Li John beside him. Another helmsman followed.

Getting a steamer under way, even a small and venerable tramp, is a matter of order and ceremony and formality. Venable was ignorant of these things, but fortunately Li Ho and Stormalong were on hand to assist. As Li John issued the necessary orders, Venable repeated them in a voice that carried through the ship; the bellow of Stormalong and the shrill tones of Li Ho sounded as echoes.

Under the instructions of his yellow mentor, Venable went to the engine-room bell, heard the cheery voice of Garrity in the tube—and the Kum Chao was heading out between the flat, marshy river-banks toward the gulf of Pechili and the open sea. Stormalong and Li Ho departed to their bunks. Venable stood in the wheel-house behind the two yellow men, and watched the gulf open out ahead in the starlight; he realized with a sense of fright that upon him hung the lives of all aboard, the life of the ship herself!

Then Boris Kryalpin appeared and introduced himself.

For a little he stood beside Venable, chatting lightly, yet making it very clear that he was in command of the party of refugees.

“I’ve been below,” he said at length. “It seems that our captain and first mate are rather careless characters. I’m glad that a man of your personality is now in charge. Do you expect to have any trouble with them in the morning?”

“No,” said Venable grimly, “I don’t. By the way, may I ask how it happens that a man such as Gerin, the poet, was included in your party? I’m interested in him.”

Boris stood motionless for a moment, as though startled.

“There are some things,” he answered slowly, “which will perhaps appear strange to you. I would suggest that after breakfast in the morning, before you return on duty, you come to Madame Ivanoff’s cabin; we must arrive at a mutual understanding, all of us. We shall have an informal meeting there.”

“Very well,” assented Venable.

Boris presently took his departure, humming a gay air under his breath. The steamer headed out into the wide gulf, churning steadily along at her best ten-knot gait, and her second officer kept very careful jottings of the changes of course as she made for the straits. Li John was frank to say that when the skipper took charge, an expert knowledge of navigation was going to be much needed unless the ship were to pile up either on the Port Arthur headland or the Miao-tao Islands.

SIX bells had just passed when a yellow man, the junior steward, came stumbling up the ladder, chattering as he came. Li John at once abandoned the wheel to his colleague, and turned to Venable.

“Him say one piecee dead man stop along deck below. Huh? You my look-see.”

“Dead man!” repeated Venable. “You—”

“Look-see,” snapped the quartermaster, starting for the ladder.

Venable followed. Under one of the boats in the waist, huddled in among the shadows, they found the body of old Paul, the servitor of Mrs. Ivanoff. The body was cold, and had obviously been dead for some time. Li John straightened up and pointed.

“Him stabbed in back, all-samee pig, huh? You savvy who catchum knife?”

Venable shook his head, shocked by the thing, staring blankly at the dead servant. He realized that he himself was helpless to act; there was nothing to tell of the assassin, or of the cause. Bidding Li John have the body cared for, he went to the engine-room and found Garrity, relating what had happened and asking advice.

“Whew!” whistled the red-headed one. “Didn’t I say there’d be the divil and all to pay this voyage? Tell ye what, Parson—leave this up to the skipper, see? He’ll come on watch ’fore long, him and the first; jot it down in your rough log and leave him to straighten things out—him and Mrs. Ivanoff betwixt ’em. And don’t say a blessed word about bein’ off the bridge, neither! You duck this thing, and let Cap’n Hewson handle it.”

It was good advice, and Venable followed it.

At four bells he sent Li John to unlock the doors of the captain and mate. They reached the bridge and said no word. Venable indicated the course, handed them his rough log, and received a nod in reply. Two officers were evidently still shaky as to his attitude, and he was content to leave matters so.

Upon reaching his own cabin, Venable found that the revolvers he had taken from Hewson and Jason were missing. So was the automatic which Garrity had bought for him in Tientsin.