Wheels Within Wheels
IT was an hour later that Abe Gerin climbed to the bridge, with much difficulty. He stood puffing for a moment, then jerked his head toward Li John, who was alone at the wheel.
“Shall we go outside?”
“No need,” answered Venable, understanding. “He’s one of the quartermasters, and is perfectly safe. He will obey me in everything.”
Gerin looked at him, and suddenly smiled.
“You’re a strange man! What makes other men follow you?”
“Do they? I suppose, then, it’s because I’m used to leading them. But what drew you into such company as you’re in, Gerin?”
“Fate.” The poet shrugged his shoulders and sat down on the bunk, producing a cigarette. “See here! You’re a man of education, it seems; and you’re certainly a man of action. Also you’re a man to trust—and you have read some of my verses.”
“And understood them,” added Venable with a dry smile.
“Sure. Well, all of that’s largely the reason why I’m here talking to you; also, the fact that Mr. Garrity, who seems a decent sort, and others aboard here appear to follow your guidance. Then, you’re the second mate of this ship—which means a good deal.”
Venable said nothing. He saw that Abe Gerin was being somewhat deluded by surface appearances—the story of what he had done to the skipper and mate seemed to have spread. However, he was very hazy as to Gerin’s position, and so he merely grunted an assent.
“I wish,” said Gerin, puffing at his cigarette and gazing at the horizon, “to explain the situation aboard here as I view it. It has a dozen different viewpoints, but I am interested only in my own—and I hope to interest you in it.”
“Well said,” replied Venable, and hesitated. Then impulsively: “But you’ll have a hard job interesting me in any murderous proposition such as that devil Kryalpin—”
“Forget it!” Gerin turned to face him. In the strangely beautiful features, the features which were abnormally beautiful, there blazed anger and determination.
“Here’s the lay of things! Kryalpin has bribed Captain Hewson and the first mate to throw in with him, absolutely. Marie—the woman whom you’ve not met—is the most wonderful woman I ever knew; she and I will hang together, for she’s the only one of this crowd who is ruled by principle. There you have two groups of us. The third, headed by Serge Shinski, takes in the other three men. Those three groups, composing all of us, are in reality bitterly antagonistic.”
“You forget Mrs. Ivanoff,” said Venable, his voice harsh.
“I don’t. I’m coming to that later. Now, you know well that the old stories of treasure-trove are changed in meaning to-day; gold is hard to take into any country on earth, unless its origin is clear. Also it’s bulky. So! We brought out of Russia, all of us, a very large treasure, consisting of the finest gems and jewels we could lay our hands-on; many of them are historic stones; all of them are very valuable. However, they take up small space, and are easily gotten into such a country as Mexico. That treasure is now in the keeping of Marie, whom all of us know to be absolutely trustworthy.”
“And Mrs. Ivanoff’s relics?” put in Venable again. Again Gerin waved down the query.
“I’ll come to all that later; let me finish expounding things first! Kryalpin is at this moment an official of the Lenine government—he thinks none of us knows it. He is planning to get hold of that treasure and ditch the rest of us.
“Shinski and his friends have the same object in mind. I am a cripple for the present, and easily dealt with, while Marie would be shot by them without hesitation. That covers two of the groups. As for Marie, she wants her share of the treasure, but would not cheat the others. As for me, I don’t care a tinker’s dam about the treasure, except for Marie’s sake; I intend to get the whole thing for her.”
“I think you’re a liar there,” said Venable calmly.
GERIN turned and looked at him, steadily. The eyes of the two men clinched.
“Let me tell you something, Venable; I got a few thousand dollars out of Russia—oh, I’m not painting myself any better than the others! It’s safe in New York. More than that, I don’t want. But I’ve known Marie for ten years, and I’ve loved her for ten years. She wont marry me, doesn’t love me; but she’s slaved like a dog for this damned revolution, and now she’s seen that it’s like an apple that looks good outside, but is rotten under the skin. She’s out of it, disillusioned, helpless, facing the world squarely. And I’m here to help her. That’s all, my friend.”
In the man’s eyes Venable read a deep sincerity; despite himself he was impelled to belief. The old Venable would have apologized—but the new Venable merely shrugged his shoulders, a sardonic set to his lips.
“Very well,” he responded without emotion. “We will take your integrity for granted until it is disproved by the facts. I have no particular interest in you or any of your friends, after that interview with Kryalpin this morning.”
“Oh, but you will have!” And Abe Gerin laughed confidently. “You see, Captain Hewson is very bitter because of your treatment of him last night, and Boris knows that you are a man to be reckoned with. Therefore you will be the first to die.”
“How do you know this?” demanded Venable, looking at him.
Gerin shrugged. “Know? My dear fellow, we are not in the world of legal evidence and facts that must be unquestioned. We are moving in a little world of our own—a world of shadows. I have always respected Walt Whitman for rescuing that fine word eidolons from obscurity; well, we are moving in a dream-world, if you like!
“A ship of shadows! ” he continued musingly. “There’s poetry in the title, my friend; there’s hard, sober fact in it also. Everyone aboard this ship, with the exception of yourself—and I’m not so sure about you—is merely a shadow, an image of some former entity. Even Hewson, rascal that he is, must be far gone before he would run counter to all the severe law of the sea and adopt the mad course with this ship that he has planned. All of us are alike in this—men and women without name or place, shadows fighting around the solid substance of wealth, contriving to get away with that wealth and to regain our former positions. None of us are cowards, Venable, and a person who is not a coward is always fighting, upward—either for an ideal or for self. We have lost our ideals, we Reds, and so we are in the fight selfishly.
“And remember this, Venable—whoever strikes first and hardest in this fight will win. The first blow will count for a great deal. We can’t wait to go on facts; we must go on intuition, and if we make a mis take, let the other fellow suffer! That’s the fighting law. I mean to come out of this mess with my life, and I mean Marie to come out of it with the loot; that’s my position.”
“And you mean that I shall ally myself with you.” Venable produced his pipe, filled it, and shook his head when he had lighted it. “I don’t care for allies, Gerin, and I don’t care to mix in such a fight for my own sake—”
“Not so fast!” cut in Gerin calmly. “I understand that when you came aboard here, it turned out that you and Mrs. Ivanoff had known each other—or knew each other.”
“How did you hear this?” demanded Venable.
“The steward; he was in Shinski’s pay, although he’s now in that of Boris, I think. So, you may do for the sake of Mrs. Ivanoff what you would not do for your own! No one but I has the brains to suspect that you might help Mrs. Ivanoff—a strong point! They all think she is entirely isolated, now that Paul is dead. They know that if she had a single friend aboard, she would be capable of anything. That is why she is kept guarded; they fear her! And she is a woman to be feared, I can tell you!”
VENABLE frowned. “You propose—”
“I propose that you and all who stick with you shall join me. I propose that both of us join Mrs. Ivanoff, on the basis of restoring the ship and relics to her if she will take care of getting us home safe. And by ‘home,’ I mean America. I am ashamed of having left America! Until I get there again I am a Jew; once there I am—”
“Oh!” exclaimed Venable, astonished despite his growing knowledge of the man. “You mean to turn traitor and join Mrs. Ivanoff! What guarantee have we that you would not in turn betray us?”
Gerin made an impatient gesture. “We put ourselves in your hands. Can’t you see I’m giving you the straight of it? If we win, Marie and I will be in your power. I know that you and Mrs. Ivanoff can be trusted; you two have the instinct of honor and the tradition of conscience deep-grounded in you—making a bargain, you would keep it, you two!”
“Thanks,” said Venable dryly. “Where does Marie stand in this? Is she a party to your proposals?”
“No. She doesn’t realize the situation yet—nor does anyone else. Good Lord, man! Can’t you see that I’m ahead of the others? Can’t you see that I’m striking first? That devil Boris is not to be caught napping every day, I tell you!”
“Who is to do your striking?” asked Venable. “If you think I’m going to murder people, or that Mrs. Ivanoff is either, you’re far wrong!”
“You’ll not refuse to fight if you’re attacked?” snapped the other.
“Of course not. But I have scruples about deliberately going in for sudden death!”
“I haven’t.” Gerin produced a fresh cigarette, lighted it, and scrutinized the long horizon for a moment as he puffed. Then he turned.
“Venable, I’ll handle the offensive. All I ask of you is to fight when attacked; or if you prefer, to obey the orders of Mrs. Ivanoff and to protect her and the ship! You’ll have to fight quick enough, if you want to live—I’ll guarantee as much! There’s the proposition in a nutshell, the basis of our agreement. What do you say?”
Venable sucked moodily at his pipe. What scheme was in the mind of Gerin, how the crippled poet meant to open the fight and get in the first blow, he neither knew nor cared. But he was fairly certain that the situation aboard here was exactly as Gerin had described it.
Since that conference in the cabin, since getting an insight into the manner of passengers this ship carried, Venable had been mentally staggered, not knowing which way to turn or what to do. Gerin, with his talk of shadows, had visualized the situation very accurately. Venable thought grimly that he was a shadow himself, as much as anyone!
That matter of treasure had provided a solid basis for murder and sudden death, although Venable refused to entertain such a suggestion very seriously. He was not close enough to it to realize its possibilities; it eluded his mental grasp. Thus thinking, he rose and went to the engine-room tube; Garrity answered him.
“Terence?” he said. “You remember Abe Gerin? He’s coming down to see you. Listen to what he says, and think it over. When we’re off duty, give me your opinion. That’s all.”
He turned to Gerin. His beetling, iron-cast features were set in lines of severity; sun-bronzed, he looked younger than when he had left his old home and parish and life all behind him. His graying hair was now close-cut, and from his rugged face looked out his gray eyes, steady with purpose and gravity.
“You go down to the engine-room and tell Garrity all you’ve told me,” he said simply. “Then see Mrs. Ivanoff and arrange for me to see her. If she and Garrity agree to your proposals, you can count me in.”
Gerin’s face wrinkled up; the abnormally beautiful features clouded into anxious lines.
“Man, that may mean the death of us all!” he countered slowly. “For you to see her at once is impossible—the others must never dream that you and she have anything in common! You cannot see her until I can arrange it—and it will take time and caution, just now when time means everything to us!”
“Very well,” answered Venable coldly. “You have my reply; take it or leave it.”
With a savage curse Gerin rose and took up his crutch.
“All right—you win! But I hope that your cursed delay doesn’t get all our throats cut!”
HE departed without further words. After he had gone, Venable suddenly came to the realization that Abe Gerin had not tried to bribe him. The thought gave him pause, gave him a new and steadier reliance upon this queer poet-man. He began to believe that Gerin was playing a straight game. Venable was slow to come to any such decision, but once arrived at it, he was wont to accept it without reserve.
The one thing that never occurred to him was that his position as second officer of the Kum Chao, with all that it implied, could have any direct bearing upon Gerin’s scheme of action. Yet upon this fact hung the fate of the Kum Chao and all aboard her.
Shortly before noon Venable saw the skipper for the first time. Captain Hewson came to the bridge, bearing his instruments, greeted Venable with frigid politeness, and after inspecting the compass and chart, made no comment. Venable, for his part, was glad to keep silence. He saw that the florid chops of the skipper were bristling with repressed rage, and he gave the other no opening.
“You need not bother to get out your instruments—if you have any,” volunteered the skipper as noon neared. “Mr. Jason and I will handle the navigation of this craft.”
“Very good, sir,” said Venable with an assumed humility that brought the purple into Captain Hewson’s face.
Venable wondered if this pursy, apoplectic, whisky-logged man could really be then scheming his murder, as Gerin had intimated. When the mate appeared, he wondered if this scrawny, bald vulture could be all evil smiles on the surface, and bold murder in his heart. Hard to think such things true! Perhaps, after all, Gerin had exaggerated. At any rate, Mrs. Ivanoff would know the truth. Venable did not understand the supreme confidence which he felt in that woman with the poised eyes; he did not understand why Gerin’s mention of her had swung him around to the poet’s viewpoint.
He messed with Garrity, but had no chance for a word alone, as the entire passenger-list also messed with the officers. Marie alone was not at the table, and Venable wondered what manner of woman she might be. She had been practically invisible when she came aboard.
THE meal over, Venable went direct to his own cabin. Here, inside of five minutes, Terence Garrity joined him, blue eyes twinkling shrewdly, tangled red mop of hair flying wild.
“Divil take it, it’s a wild mob we’re travelin’ with!” exclaimed the engineer when the door was shut.
“Gerin talked with you?” asked Venable.
“He did that.”
“What did you think of his yarn?”
Garrity pushed stubby fingers through his hair.
“To be honest with ye, Parson, I thought both this way an’ that way about him. None the less, it struck me that the bird was playin’ on the level with the both of us. His tale was one o’ them things that it’s hard to believe, but if ye don’t believe it, ye’ll be out o’ luck.”
Venable nodded. “I agree with you. What’s your verdict, then?”
“Faith, that’s up to you! I’d say, offhand, that if Mrs. Ivanoff wants to throw in with Gerin, well an’ good; if not, the same. In other words, I’m for the lady!”
“Whatever she says, goes with us,” stated Venable. “That suits me, Garrity. We’ll leave the decision up to her and take her orders. Gerin is to arrange for me to see her soon.”
“It’ll have to be soon, I’m thinkin’,” said Garrity. “That divil Boris Kryalpin was down messin’ around me this mornin’, and hard work I had to keep me two hands off’m him, the dirty scut! But Gerin chased him away, praise be. Well, bein’s everything is settled, I’m off to pass the time o’ day with the lady standin’ guard at Mrs. Ivanoff’s door. A glimpse of her I had, and I’ll stake me oath that she’s no hard-spoken female.”
“Oh!” exclaimed Venable. “That must be the woman Marie—the one Gerin spoke of.”
“More’n like,” assented the engineer, at the door.
Venable, his pipe alight, presently went out to the deck. He passed aft, not wishing to seek Mr. Jason’s company on the bridge, and came within sight of Mrs. Ivanoff’s cabin. There he was brought to an abrupt halt.
Twenty feet distant stood Garrity; and the man looked like one thunderstruck—mouth agape, position awkwardly fixed, face deathly white. Against the cabin door stood the woman Marie, staring at him. One hand was raised, as though in protest against his coming closer, and stupefaction sat in her eyes.
Venable, pausing, wondered at the wordless scene there before him. He was a little surprised by the aspect of Marie—a firm character sat in her face, and goodness. He had thought to find some wild termagant, some man-woman bred of the revolution. Then he reflected that Abe Gerin was not a shallow man, and would love deeply; besides, this woman Marie seemed to have served ideals all her life, and now that her ideals had been destroyed, she was not a participant in the wild, selfish scramble which had engulfed the others.
He saw Garrity say something in a low voice, and Marie shake her head. Then she answered, and the wind brought the words to Venable, carried her rich, womanly voice to his ears:
“Not now—not now! Later, perhaps. I—I cannot understand it—please leave me!”
Garrity turned, like a man suddenly stricken, and groped his way across the deck to where the tall, gaunt figure of Venable loomed. He looked up at his friend, his blue eyes stark and wide; then he brushed a hand across his brow.
“Divil take it!” he ejaculated, gripping the rail, amazement filling his voice.
“What’s the matter, man?” queried Venable, alarmed at his aspect.
Garrity blinked at him against the sun.
“D’ye mind, Parson, me tellin’ ye about the girl I married an’ never saw afterward—”
“Well, that’s her.”
Garrity jerked his head toward the figure of Marie, who stood watching them.