“Think!” he said; “why, I think what his companion thinks, that we have been listening to the ravings of a half-drunken man. The fellow stunk of brandy.”
“Nonsense, Dick! you saw how the other tried to stop his tongue.”
“Of course he did. He didn’t want his friend to make a fool of himself before strangers. Maybe the short one is a lunatic, and the other his private keeper. It’s quite possible.”
“O, Dick, Dick,” I cried, “how can you be so blind! Don’t you see that every word confirmed our previous suspicion?”
“Humbug, man!” said Dick; “you’re working yourself into a state of nervous excitement. Why, what the devil do you make of all that nonsense about a mysterious agent which would signal our whereabouts?”
“I’ll tell you what he meant, Dick,” I said, bending forward and grasping my friend’s arm. “He meant a sudden glare and a flash seen far out at sea by some lonely fisherman off the American coast. That’s what he meant.”
“I didn’t think you were such a fool, Hammond,” said Dick Merton testily. “If you try to fix a literal meaning on the twaddle that every drunken man talks, you will come to some queer conclusions. Let us follow their example, and go on deck. You need fresh air, I think. Depend upon it, your liver is out of order. A sea-voyage will do you a world of good.”
“If ever I see the end of this one,” I groaned, “I’ll promise never to venture on another. They are laying the cloth, so it’s hardly worth while my going up. I’ll stay below and unpack my things.”
“I hope dinner will find you in a more pleasant state of mind,” said Dick; and he went out, leaving me to my thoughts until the clang of the great gong summoned us to the saloon.
My appetite, I need hardly say, had not been improved by the incidents which had occurred during the day. I sat down, however, mechanically at the table, and listened to the talk which was going on around me. There were nearly a hundred first-class passengers, and as the wine began to circulate, their voices combined with the clash of the dishes to form a perfect Babel. I found myself seated between a very stout and nervous old lady and a prim little clergyman; and as neither made any advances I retired into my shell, and spent my time in observing the appearance of my fellow-voyagers. I could see Dick in the dim distance dividing his attentions between a jointless fowl in front of him and a self-possessed young lady at his side. Captain Dowie was doing the honours at my end, while the surgeon of the vessel was seated at the other. I was glad to notice that Flannigan was placed almost opposite to me. As long as I had him before my eyes I knew that, for the time at least, we were safe. He was sitting with what was meant to be a sociable smile on his grim face. It did not escape me that he drank largely of wine—so largely that even before the dessert appeared his voice had become decidedly husky. His friend Muller was seated a few places lower down. He ate little, and appeared to be nervous and restless.
“Now, ladies,” said our genial Captain, “I trust that you will consider yourselves at home aboard my vessel. I have no fears for the gentlemen. A bottle of champagne, steward. Here’s to a fresh breeze and a quick passage! I trust our friends in America will hear of our safe arrival in eight days, or in nine at the very latest.”
I looked up. Quick as was the glance which passed between Flannigan and his confederate, I was able to intercept it. There was an evil smile upon the former’s thin lips.
The conversation rippled on. Politics, the sea, amusements, religion, each was in turn discussed. I remained a silent though an interested listener. It struck me that no harm could be done by introducing the subject which was ever in my mind. It could be managed in an off-hand way, and would at least have the effect of turning the Captain’s thoughts in that direction. I could watch, too, what effect it would have upon the faces of the conspirators.
There was a sudden lull in the conversation. The ordinary subjects of interest appeared to be exhausted. The opportunity was a favourable one.
“May I ask, Captain,” I said, bending forward and speaking very distinctly, “what you think of Fenian manifestos?”
The Captain’s ruddy face became a shade darker from honest indignation.
“They are poor cowardly things,” he said, “as silly as they are wicked.”
“The impotent threats of a set of anonymous scoundrels,” said a pompous-looking old gentleman beside him.
“O Captain!” said the fat lady at my side, “you don’t really think they would blow up a ship?”
“I have no doubt they would if they could. But I am very sure they shall never blow up mine.”
“May I ask what precautions are taken against them?” asked an elderly man at the end of the table.
“All goods sent aboard the ship are strictly examined,” said Captain Dowie.
“But suppose a man brought explosives aboard with him?” I suggested.
“They are too cowardly to risk their own lives in that way.”
During this conversation Flannigan had not betrayed the slightest interest in what was going on. He raised his head now and looked at the Captain.
“Don’t you think you are rather underrating them?” he said. “Every secret society has produced desperate men—why shouldn’t the Fenians have them too? Many men think it a privilege to die in the service of a cause which seems right in their eyes, though others may think it wrong.”
“Indiscriminate murder cannot be fight in anybody’s eyes,” said the little clergyman.
“The bombardment of Paris was nothing else,” said Flannigan; “yet the whole civilised world agreed to look on with folded arms, and change the ugly word ‘murder’ into the more euphonious one of ‘war.’ It seemed right enough to German eyes; why shouldn’t dynamite seem so to the Fenian?”
“At any rate their empty vapourings have led to nothing as yet,” said the Captain.
“Excuse me,” returned Flannigan, “but is there not some room for doubt yet as to the fate of the Dotterel? I have met men in America who asserted from their own personal knowledge that there was a coal torpedo aboard that vessel.”
“Then they lied,” said the Captain. “It was proved conclusively at the court-martial to have arisen from an explosion of coal-gas—but we had better change the subject, or we may cause the ladies to have a restless night;” and the conversation once more drifted back into its original channel.
During this little discussion Flannigan had argued his point with a gentlemanly deference and a quiet power for which I had not given him credit. I could not help admiring a man who, on the eve of a desperate enterprise, could courteously argue upon a point which must touch him so nearly. He had, as I have already mentioned, partaken of a considerable quantity of wine; but though there was a slight flush upon his pale cheek, his manner was as reserved as ever. He did not join in the conversation again, but seemed to be lost in thought.
A whirl of conflicting ideas was battling in my own mind. What was I to do? Should I stand up now and denounce them before both passengers and Captain? Should I demand a few minutes’ conversation with the latter in his own cabin, and reveal it all? For an instant I was half resolved to do it, but then the old constitutional timidity came back with redoubled force. After all there might be some mistake. Dick had heard the evidence and had refused to believe in it. I determined to let things go on their course. A strange reckless feeling came over me. Why should I help men who were blind to their own danger? Surely it was the duty of the officers to protect us, not ours to give warning to them. I drank off a couple of glasses of wine, and staggered up on deck with the determination of keeping my secret locked in my own bosom.
It was a glorious evening. Even in my excited state of mind I could not help leaning against the bulwarks and enjoying the refreshing breeze. Away to the westward a solitary sail stood out as a dark speck against the great sheet of flame left by the setting sun. I shuddered as I looked at it. It was grand but appalling. A single star was twinkling faintly above our mainmast, but a thousand seemed to gleam in the water below with every stroke of our propeller. The only blot in the fair scene was the great trail of smoke which stretched away behind us like a black slash upon a crimson curtain. It was hard to believe that the great peace which hung over all Nature could be marred by a poor miserable mortal.
“After all,” I thought, as I gazed into the blue depths beneath me, “if the worst comes to the worst, it is better to die here than to linger in agony upon a sickbed on land.” A man’s life seems a very paltry thing amid the great forces of Nature. All my philosophy could not prevent my shuddering, however, when I turned my head and saw two shadowy figures at the other side of the deck, which I had no difficulty in recognising. They seemed to be conversing earnestly, but I had no opportunity of overhearing what was said; so I contented myself with pacing up and down, and keeping a vigilant watch upon their movements.
It was a relief to me when Dick came on deck. Even an incredulous confidant is better than none at all.