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XXVI. The Binnacle

It would have been ungrateful (Lanyard reflected over his breakfast) to complain of a life so replete with experiences of piquant contrast.

It happened to one to lie for hours in a cubicle of blinding night, hearkening to a voice like that of some nightmare weirdly become articulate, a ghostly mutter that rose and fell and droned, broken by sighs, grunts, stifled oaths, mean chuckles, with intervals of husky whispering and lapses filled with a noise of wheezing respiration, all wheedling and cajoling, lying, intimating and evading, complaining, snarling, rambling, threatening, protesting, promising, and in the end proposing an unholy compact for treachery and evil-doing--a voice that might have issued out of some damned soul escaped for a little space of time from the Pits of Torment, so utterly inhuman it sounded, so completely discarnate and divorced from all relationship to any mortal personality that even that reek of whiskey in the air, even that one contact with a hard, hot hand, could not make it seem real.

And then it ceased and was no more but as a thing of dream that had passed. And one came awake to a light and wholesome world furnished with such solidly comforting facts as soaps and razors and hot and cold saltwater taps; and subsequently one left one's stateroom to see, at the breakfast table, leaden-eyed and flushed of countenance, an amorphous lump of humid flesh in shapeless garments of soiled white duck, the author of that mutter in the dark; who, lounging over a plate of broken food and lifting a coffee cup in the tremulous hand of an alcoholic, looked up with lacklustre gaze, gave a surly nod, and mumbled the customary matutinal greeting:

"'Morning, Monseer Delorme."

It was all too weird....

To add to this, the chief engineer paid Lanyard no further heed at all, though they were alone at table, and having noisily consumed his coffee, rubbed his stubbled lips and chin with an egg-stained napkin, rose, and without word or glance rolled heavily up the companionway.

The conduct of a careful man, accustomed to mind his eye. And indisputably correct. One never knew who might be watching, what slightest sign of secret understanding might not be seized upon and read. Furthermore, Mr. Mussey had not stilled his mutter in the night until their joint and individual lines of action had been elaborately mapped out and agreed upon down to the smallest detail. It now remained only for Lanyard to fill in somehow the waste time that lay between breakfast and the hour appointed, then take due advantage of the opportunity promised him.

He found the day making good Mr. Mussey's forecast. Under a dull, thick sky the sea ran in heavy swells, greasy and grey. The wind was in the south, and light and shifty. The horizon was vague. Captain Monk, encountered on the quarterdeck, had an uneasy eye, and cursed the weather roundly when Lanyard made civil enquiry as to the outlook. Ca va bien!

Lanyard killed an hour or two in the chartroom, acquainting himself with the coast they were approaching and tracing the Sybarite's probable course toward the spot selected from the smuggling transaction. His notion of the precise location of the owner's estate was rather indefinite; he had gathered from gossip that it was on the Connecticut shore of Long Island Sound, between New London and New Haven, where a group of small islands--also the property of Mister Whitaker Monk--provided fair anchorage between Sound and shore as well as a good screen from offshore observation.

It was not vital to know more: Lanyard had neither hope nor fear of ever seeing that harbour. It was the approach alone that interested him; and when he had puzzled out that there were only two practicable courses for the Sybarite to take--both bearing in a general north-westerly direction from Nantucket Shoals Light Vessel, one entering Block Island Sound from the east, between Point Judith and Block Island, the other entering the same body of water from the south, between Block Island and Montauk Point--and had satisfied himself that manifold perils to navigation hedged about both courses, more especially their prolongation into Long Island Sound by way of The Race: Lanyard told himself it would be strange indeed if his plans miscarried ... always providing that Mr. Mussey could be trusted to hold to his overnight agreement.

But as to that, one entertained few fears. One felt quite sure that Mr. Mussey would perform duly to the letter of his covenant. It had required only an hour of weighing and analysing with a clear head his overtures and utterances as a whole, to persuade Lanyard that he himself, no less than the chief engineer, in the phrase of the latter's boast, "knew something."

It seemed unbelievably stupid and childish, what he imagined was behind the gratuitous intermeddling of Mr. Mussey; but then, he reminded himself, if there is anything more stupid than to plot a criminal act, it is to permit oneself to be influenced by that criminal stupidity whose other name is jealousy.

Well, whether he were right or wrong, the night would declare it; and in any event there was no excuse whatever for refusing to profit by the stupidity of men whose minds are bent on vicious mischief....

The weather thickened as the day grew older. Towards noon the wind, as if weary and discouraged with vain endeavour to make up its mind to blow from this quarter or that, died away altogether. At the same time the horizon appeared to close in perceptibly; what little definition it had had in earlier hours was erased; and the Sybarite, shearing the oily and lifeless waters of a dead calm, seemed less to make progress than to struggle sullenly in a pool of quicksilver at the bottom of a slowly revolving sphere of clouded glass, mutinously aware that all her labouring wrought no sort of gain.

After an hour of this, Captain Monk, on the bridge with Mr. Swain, arrived at a decision of exasperation. Through the engine-room ventilators a long jingle of the telegraph was heard; and directly the Sybarite's pulses began to beat in quicker tempo, while darker volutes of smoke rolled in dense volume from her funnel and streamed away astern, resting low and preserving their individuality as long as visible, like a streak of oxidization on a field of frosted silver. For the first time since she had left the harbour of Cherbourg the yacht was doing herself something like justice in the matter of speed--and this contrary to all ethics of seamanship, on such a day.

At the luncheon table, Phinuit ventured a light-headed comment on this dangerous procedure; whereupon Monk turned on him in a cold fury.

"As long as I'm master of this vessel, sir, I'll sail her according to the counsels of my own discretion--and thank you to keep your animadversions to yourself!"

"Animadversions!" Phinuit echoed, and made round, shocked eyes. "Oh, I never! At least, I didn't mean anything naughty, skipper dear."

Monk snorted, and grumbled over his food throughout the remainder of the meal; but later, coming upon a group composed of Liane Delorme, Lanyard and Phinuit, in the saloon, he paused, looked this way and that to make sure none of the stewards was within eavesdropping distance, and graciously unbent a little.

"I'm making the best time we can while we can see at all," he volunteered. "No telling when this misbegotten fog will close in and force us to slow down to half-speed or less--in crowded waters, too!"

"And very sensible, I'm sure," Phinuit agreed heartily. "Whatever happens, we musn't be late for our date with Friend Boss, must we?"

"We'll keep it," Monk promised grimly, "if we have to feel every inch of our way in with the lead. I don't mind telling you, this fog may save our skins at that. Wireless has been picking up chatter all morning between a regular school of revenue cutters patrolling this coast on the lookout for just such idiots as we are. So we'll carry on and trust to luck till we make Monk Harbour or break our fool necks."

Liane Delorme gave a start of dismay.

"There is danger, then?"

"Only if we run afoul of a cutter, Liane." Monk tried to speak reassuringly. "And that's not likely in this weather. As for the fog, it's a dirty nuisance to any navigator but, as I said, may quite possibly prove our salvation. I know these waters like a book, I've sailed them ever since I was old enough to tell a tiller from a mainsheet. I can smell my way in, if it comes to that, through the blindest fog the Atlantic ever brewed."

"Then you do things with your nostrils, too?" Phinuit enquired innocently. "I've often wondered if all the intellect was located in the eyebrows."

Monk glared, growled, and hastily sought the air of the deck. Liane Delorme eyed Phinuit with amused reproach.

"Really, my young friend!"

"I can't help it, mademoiselle," Phinuit asserted sulkily. "Too much is enough. I've watched him making faces with the top of his head so long I dream of geometrical diagrams laid out in eyebrows--and wake up screaming. And they call this a pleasure craft!"

With an aggrieved air he sucked at his pipe for a few minutes. "Besides," he added suddenly, "somebody's got to be comic relief, and I don't notice anybody else in a sweat to be the Life and Soul of the ship."

He favoured Lanyard with a morose stare. "Why don't you ever put your shoulder to the wheel, Lanyard? Why leave it all to me? Come on; be a sport, cut a caper, crack a wheeze, do something to get a giggle!"

"But I am by no means sure you do not laugh at me too much, as it is."

"Rot!... Tell you what." Phinuit sat up with a gleaming eye of inspiration. "You can entertain mademoiselle and me no end, if you like. Spill the glad tidings."

"Glad tidings?"

"Now don't monkey with the eyebrows--please! It gives me the willies... I merely mean to point out, to-day's the day you promised to come through with the awful decision. And there's no use waiting for Monk to join us; he's too much worried about his nice little ship. Tell mademoiselle and me now."

Lanyard shook his head, smiling. "But the time I set was when we made our landfall."

"Well, what's the matter with Martha's Vineyard over there? You could see if it was a clear day."

"But it is not a clear day."

"Suppose it gets thicker, a sure-enough fog? We may not see land before midnight."

"Then till midnight we must wait. No, Monsieur Phinuit, I will not be hurried. I have been thinking, I am still thinking, and there is still much to be said before I can come to any decision that will be fair to you, mademoiselle, the captain on the one hand, myself on the other."

"But at midnight, if the skipper's promise holds good, we'll be going ashore."

"The objection is well taken. My answer will be communicated when we see land or at eleven o'clock to-night, whichever is the earlier event."

Some further effort at either persuasion or impudence--nobody but Phinuit ever knew which--was drowned out by the first heart-broken bellow of the whistle sounding the fog signal.

Liane Delorme bounded out of her chair, clapping hands to ears, and uttered an unheard cry of protest; and when, the noise suspending temporarily, she learned that it was to be repeated at intervals of two minutes as long as the fog lasted and the yacht was under way, she flung up piteous hands to an uncompassionate heaven and fled to her stateroom, slamming the door as if she thought thereby to shut out the offending din.

One fancied something inhumanly derisive in the prolonged hoot which replied.

Rather than languish under the burden of Mr. Phinuit's spirited conversation for the rest of the afternoon, Lanyard imitated Liane's example, and wasted the next hour and a half flat on his bed, with eyes closed but mind very much alive. Now and again he consulted his watch, as one might with an important appointment to keep. At two minutes to four he left his stateroom, and as the first stroke of eight bells rang out--in one of the measured intervals between blasts of the whistle--ending the afternoon watch, he stepped out on deck, and paused for a survey of the weather conditions.

There was no perceptible motion in the air, witnessing that the wind had come in from astern, that is to say approximately from the southeast, and was blowing at about the speed made by the yacht itself. The fog clung about the vessel, Lanyard thought, like dull grey cotton wool. Yet, if the shuddering of her fabric were fair criterion, the pace of the Sybarite was unabated, she was ploughing headlong through that dense obscurity using the utmost power of her engines. From time to time, when the whistle was still, the calls of seamen operating the sounding machine could be heard; but their reports were monotonously uniform, the waters were not yet shoal enough for the lead to find bottom at that pace.

The watch was being changed as Lanyard started forward, with the tail of an eye on the bridge. Mr. Collison relieved Mr. Swain, and the latter came down the companion-ladder just in time to save Lanyard a nasty spill as his feet slipped on planking greasy with globules of fog. There's no telling how bad a fall he might not have suffered had not Mr. Swain been there for him to catch at; and for a moment or two Lanyard was, as Mr. Swain put it with great good-nature, all over him, clinging to the first officer in a most demonstrative manner; and it was with some difficulty that he at length recovered his equilibrium. Then, however, he laid hold of the rail for insurance against further mishaps, thanked Mr. Swain heartily, added his apologies, and the two parted with expressions of mutual esteem.

The incident seemed to have dampened Lanyard's ardour for exercise. He made a rather gingerly way back to the quarterdeck, loafed restlessly in a deck-chair for a little while, then went below once more.

Some time after, supine again upon his bed, he heard Mr. Swain in the saloon querulously interrogating one of the stewards. It appeared that Mr. Swain had unaccountably mislaid his keys, and he wanted to know if the steward had seen anything of them. The steward hadn't, he said; and Lanyard for one knew that he spake sooth, since at that moment the missing keys were resting on the bottom of the sea several miles astern--all but one.

There was no dressing for dinner that night. Liane Delorme, her nerves rasped almost beyond endurance by the relentless fog signal, preferred the seclusion of her stateroom. Lanyard wasn't really sorry; the bosom of a white shirt is calculated to make some impression upon the human retina even on the darkest night; whereas his plain lounge suit of blue serge was sure to prove entirely inconspicuous. So, if he missed the feminine influence at table, he bore up with good fortitude.

And after dinner he segregated himself as usual in his favourite chair near the taffrail. The fog, if anything denser than before, manufactured an early dusk of a peculiarly depressing violet shade. Nevertheless, evenings are long in that season of the year, and to Lanyard it seemed that the twilight would never quite fade out completely, true night would never come.

Long before it did, speed was slackened: the yacht was at last in soundings; the calls of the leadsmen were as monotonous as the whistle blasts, and almost as frequent. Lanyard could have done without both, if the ship could not. He remarked a steadily intensified exacerbation of nerves, and told himself he was growing old and no mistake. He could remember the time when he could have endured a strain of waiting comparable to that which he must suffer now, and have turned never a hair.

How long ago it seemed!...

Another sign that the Sybarite had entered what are technically classified as inland waters, where special rules of the road apply, was to be remarked in the fact that the fog signal was now roaring once each minute, whereas Lanyard had grown accustomed to timing the intervals between the sounding of the ship's bell, upon which all his interest hung, at the rate of fifteen blasts to the half hour.

If you asked him, once a minute seemed rather too much of a good thing, even in busy lanes of sea traffic. Still, it was better perhaps than unpremeditated disaster; one was not keen about having the Sybarite ground on a sandbank, pile up on a rock, or dash her brains out against the bulk of another vessel--before eleven o'clock at earliest.

In retrospect he counted those two hours between dinner and ten-thirty longer than the fortnight which had prefaced them. So is the heart of man ever impatient when the journey's-end draws near, though that end be but the beginning, as well, of that longer journey which men call Death.

Lest he betray his impatience by keeping the tips of his cigarette too bright (one never knows when one is not watched) he smoked sparingly. But on the twenty-eighth blare of the whistle after the ringing of four bells, he drew out his cigarette case and, as the thirtieth raved out, synchronous with two double strokes and a single on brazen metal, he placed a cigarette between his lips.

At the same time he saw Captain Monk, who had been on the bridge with the officer of the watch for several hours, come aft with weary shoulders sagging, and go below by the saloon companionway. And Lanyard smiled knowingly and assured himself that went well--ca va bien!--his star held still in the ascendant.

There remained on the bridge only Mr. Collison and the man at the wheel.

At the fourth blast after five bells Lanyard put a match to his cigarette. But he did not puff more than to get the tobacco well alight. He even held his breath, and felt his body shaken by the pulsations of his anxious heart precisely as the body of the Sybarite was shaken by the pulsations of her engines.

With the next succeeding fog signal darkness absolute descended upon the vessel, shrouding it from stem to stern like a vast blanket of blackness.

Mr. Mussey had not failed to keep his pact of treachery.

Lanyard was out of his chair before the first call of excited remonstrance rang out on deck--to be echoed in clamour. His cigarette stopped behind, on the taffrail, carefully placed at precisely the height of his head, its little glowing tip the only spot of light on the decks. No matter whether or not it were noted; no precaution is too insignificant to be important when life and death are at issue.

There was nothing of that afternoon's unsureness of foot in the way Lanyard moved forward. Passing the engine-room ventilators he heard the telegraph give a single stroke; Mr. Collison had only then recovered from, his astonishment sufficiently to signal to slow down. A squeal of the speaking-tube whistle followed instantly; and Lanyard set foot upon the bridge in time to hear Mr. Collison demanding to know what the sanguinary hades had happened down there. Whatever reply he got seemed to exasperate him into incoherence. He stuttered with rage, gasped, and addressed the man at the wheel.

"I've got a flash-lamp in my cabin. That'll show us the compass card at least. Stand by while I run down and get it."

The man mumbled an "Aye, aye, sir." Retreating footsteps were just audible.

Neither speaker had been visible to Lanyard. By putting out a hand he could have touched the helmsman, but his body made not even the shadow of a silhouette against the sky. The fog was rendering the night the simple and unqualified negation of light.

And in that time of Stygian gloom violence was done swiftly, surely, and without mercy; with pity, yes, and with regret. Lanyard was sorry for the man at the wheel. But what was to be done could not be done in any other way.

The surprise aided him, for the fellow offered barely a show of opposition. His astounded faculties had no more than recognised the call for resistance when he was powerless in Lanyard's hands. Swung bodily away from the wheel, he went over the rail to the forward deck like a bag of sugar. Immediately Lanyard turned to the binnacle.

Sensitive fingers located the key-hole in the pedestal, the one key saved from the ring which Mr. Swain had so unfortunately and unaccountably lost opened the door--the key, of course, that Mr. Swain had used under Lanyard's eyes when demonstrating the functions of the binnacle to Liane Delorme.

Thrusting a hand into the opening, Lanyard groped for the adjustable magnets in their racks, and one by one removed and dropped them to the grating at the foot of the binnacle.

He worked with hands amazingly nimble and sure, and was closing and relocking the door when Mr. Collison tumbled up the ladder with his flash-light. So when the second mate arrived upon the bridge, Lanyard was waiting for him; and in consequence of a second act of deplorable violence, Mr. Collison returned to the deck backwards and lay quite still while Lanyard returned to the wheel.

Collecting the abstracted magnets he carried them to the rail, cast them into the sea and threw in the key to the little door to keep them company. Then, back at the binnacle, he unscrewed the brass caps of the cylindrical brass tube which housed the Flinders bar, removed that also, replaced the caps, and consigned the bar to the sea in its turn.

By choice he would have made a good job of it and abolished the quadrantal correctors as well; but he judged he had done mischief enough to secure his ends, as it was. The compass ought now to be just as constant to the magnetic pole as a humming-bird to one especial rose.

Guiding himself by a hand that lightly touched the rail, Lanyard regained his chair, carefully composing himself in the position in which he had been resting when the lights went out. His cigarette was still aglow; good Turkish has this virtue among many others, that left to itself it will burn on to the end of its roll.

The next instant, however, he was on his feet again. A beam of light had swept across the saloon skylight, coming from below, the beam of a portable electric torch. It might have been the signal for the first piercing scream of Liane Delorme. A pistol shot with a vicious accent cut short the scream. After a brief pause several more shots rippled in the saloon. A man shouted angrily. Then the torch-light found and steadied upon the mouth of the companionway. Against that glare, a burly figure was instantaneously relieved, running up to the deck. As it gained the topmost step a final report sounded in the saloon, and the figure checked, revolved slowly on a heel, tottered, and plunged headforemost down the steps again.

A moment later (incredible that the stipulated ten minutes should have passed so swiftly!) the lights came on, and with a still-fuming stump of cigarette between his fingers Lanyard went below.

His bewildered gaze discovered first Liane Delorme, drawn up rigidly--she seemed for some reason to be standing tiptoe--against the starboard partition, near her stateroom door. Her fingers were clawing her cheeks, her eyes widely dilate with horror and fright, her mouth was agape, and from it issued, as by some mechanical impulse, shriek upon hollow shriek--cries wholly flat and meaningless, having no character of any sort, mere automatic reflexes of hysteria.

On the opposite side of the saloon, not far from the door to his own quarters, Monk lay semi-prone with a purple face and protruding eyeballs, far gone toward death through strangulation. Phinuit, on his knees, was removing a silk handkerchief that had been twisted about that scrawney throat.

At the foot of the companionway steps, Popinot, no phantom but the veritable Apache himself, was writhing and heaving convulsively; and even as Lanyard looked, the huge body of the creature lifted from the floor in one last, heroic spasm, then collapsed, and moved no more.

Viewing this hideous tableau, appreciating what it meant--that Popinot, forearmed with advice from a trusted quarter, had stationed himself outside the door to Monk's stateroom, to waylay and garotte the man whom he expected to emerge therefrom laden with the plunder of Monk's safe--Lanyard appreciated further that he had done Mr. Mussey a great wrong.

For he had all the time believed that the chief engineer was laying a trap for him on behalf of his ancient shipmate, that unhappy victim of groundless jealousy, Captain Whitaker Monk.

Louis Joseph Vance