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THE Laughing Lass
The falling of dusk on June the 3d found tired eyes aboard the Wolverine. Every officer in her complement had kept a private and personal lookout all day for some explanation of the previous night's phenomenon. All that rewarded them were a sky filmed with lofty clouds, and the holiday parade of the epauletted waves.
Nor did evening bring a repetition of that strange glow. Midnight found the late stayers still deep in the discussion.
"One thing is certain," said Ives. "It wasn't volcanic."
"Why so?" asked the paymaster.
"Because volcanoes are mostly stationary, and we headed due for that light."
"Yes; but did we keep headed?" said Barnett, who was navigating officer as well as ordnance officer, in a queer voice.
"What do you mean, sir?" asked Edwards eagerly.
"After the light disappeared the compass kept on varying. The stars were hidden. There is no telling just where we were headed for some time."
"Then we might be fifty miles from the spot we aimed at."
"Hardly that," said the navigator. "We could guide her to some extent by the direction of wind and waves. If it was volcanic we ought certainly to have sighted it by now."
"Always some electricity in volcanic eruptions," said Trendon. "Makes compass cut didoes. Seen it before."
"Where?" queried Carter.
"Off Martinique. Pelée eruption. Needle chased its tail like a kitten."
"Are there many volcanoes hereabouts?" somebody asked.
"We're in 162 west, 31 north, about," said Barnett. "No telling whether there are or not. There weren't at last accounts, but that's no evidence that there aren't some since. They come up in the night, these volcanic islands."
"Just cast an eye on the charts," said Billy Edwards. "Full of E. D.'s and P. D.'s all over the shop. Every one of 'em volcanic."
"E. D.'s and P. D.'s?" queried the paymaster.
"Existence doubtful, and position doubtful," explained the ensign. "Every time the skipper of one of these wandering trade ships gets a speck in his eye, he reports an island. If he really does bump into a rock he cuts in an arithmetic book for his latitude and longitude and lets it go at that. That's how the chart makers make a living, getting out new editions every few months."
"But it's a fact that these seas are constantly changing," said Barnett. "They're so little travelled that no one happens to be around to see an island born. I don't suppose there's a part on the earth's surface more liable to seismic disturbances than this region."
"Seismic!" cried Billy Edwards, "I should say it was seismic! Why, when a native of one of these island groups sets his heart on a particular loaf of bread up his bread-fruit tree, he doesn't bother to climb after it. Just waits for some earthquake to happen along and shake it down to him."
"Good boy, Billy," said Dr. Trendon, approvingly. "Do another."
"It's a fact," said the ensign, heatedly. "Why, a couple of years back there was a trader here stocked up with a lot of belly-mixture in bottles. Thought he was going to make his pile because there'd been a colic epidemic in the islands the season before. Bottles were labelled 'Do not shake.' That settled his business. Might as well have marked 'em 'Keep frozen' in this part of the world. Fellow went broke."
"In any case," said Barnett, "such a glow as that we sighted last night I've never seen from any volcano."
"Nor I," said Trendon. "Don't prove it mightn't have been."
"I'll just bet the best dinner in San Francisco that it isn't," said Edwards.
"You're on," said Carter.
"Let me in," suggested Ives.
"And I'll take one of it," said McGuire.
"Come one, come all," said Edwards cheerily. "I'll live high on the collective bad judgment of this outfit."
"To-night isn't likely to settle it, anyhow," said Ives. "I move we turn in."
Expectant minds do not lend themselves to sound slumber. All night the officers of the Wolverine slept on the verge of waking, but it was not until dawn that the cry of "Sail-ho!" sent them all hurrying to their clothes. Ordinarily officers of the U.S. Navy do not scuttle on deck like a crowd of curious schoolgirls, but all hands had been keyed to a high pitch over the elusive light, and the bet with Edwards now served as an excuse for the betrayal of unusual eagerness. Hence the quarter-deck was soon alive with men who were wont to be deep in dreams at that hour.
They found Carter, whose watch on deck it was, reprimanding the lookout.
"No, sir," the man was insisting, "she didn't show no light, sir. I'd 'a' sighted her an hour ago, sir, if she had."
"We shall see," said Carter grimly. "Who's your relief?"
"Let him take your place. Go aloft, Sennett."
As the lookout, crestfallen and surly, went below, Barnett said in subdued tones:
"Upon my word, I shouldn't be surprised if the man were right. Certainly there's something queer about that hooker. Look how she handles herself."
The vessel was some three miles to windward. She was a schooner of the common two-masted Pacific type, but she was comporting herself in a manner uncommon on the Pacific, or any other ocean. Even as Barnett spoke, she heeled well over, and came rushing up into the wind, where she stood with all sails shaking. Slowly she paid off again, bearing away from them. Now she gathered full headway, yet edged little by little to windward again.
"Mighty queer tactics," muttered Edwards. "I think she's steering herself."
"Good thing she carries a weather helm," commented Ives, who was an expert on sailing rigs. "Most of that type do. Otherwise she'd have jibed her masts out, running loose that way."
Captain Parkinson appeared on deck and turned his glasses for a full minute on the strange schooner.
"Aloft there," he hailed the crow's-nest. "Do you make out anyone aboard?"
"No, sir," came the answer.
"Mr. Carter, have the chief quartermaster report on deck with the signal flags."
"Aren't we going to run up to her?" asked McGuire, turning in surprise to Edwards.
"And take the risk of getting a hole punched in our pretty paint, with her running amuck that way? Not much!"
Up came the signal quartermaster to get his orders, and there ensued a one-sided conversation in the pregnant language of the sea.
"What ship is that?"
"Are you in trouble?" asked the cruiser, and waited. The schooner showed a bare and silent main-peak.
"Heave to." Now Uncle Sam was giving orders.
But the other paid no heed.
"We'll make that a little more emphatic," said Captain Parkinson. A moment later there was the sharp crash of a gun and a shot went across the bows of the sailing vessel. Hastened by a flaw of wind that veered from the normal direction of the breeze the stranger made sharply to windward, as if to obey.
"Ah, there she comes," ran the comment along the cruiser's quarter-deck.
But the schooner, after standing for a moment, all flapping, answered another flaw, and went wide about on the opposite tack.
"Derelict," remarked Captain Parkinson. "She seems to be in good shape, too, Dr. Trendon!"
"Yes, sir." The surgeon went to the captain, and the others could hear his deep, abrupt utterance in reply to some question too low for their ears.
"Might be, sir. Beri-beri, maybe. More likely smallpox if anything of that kind. But some of 'em would be on deck."
"Whew! A plague ship!" said Billy Edwards. "Just my luck to be ordered to board her." He shivered slightly.
"Scared, Billy?" said Ives. Edwards had a record for daring which made this joke obvious enough to be safe.
"I wouldn't want to have my peculiar style of beauty spoiled by smallpox marks," said the ensign, with a smile on his homely, winning face. "And I've a hunch that that ship is not a lucky find for this ship."
"Then I've a hunch that your hunch is a wrong one," said Ives. "How long would you guess that craft to be?"
They were now within a mile of the schooner. Edwards scrutinised her calculatingly.
"Eighty to ninety feet."
"Say 150 tons. And she's a two-masted schooner, isn't she?" continued Ives, insinuatingly.
"She certainly is."
"Well, I've a hunch that that ship is a lucky find for any ship, but particularly for this ship."
"Great Caesar!" cried the ensign excitedly. "Do you think it's her?"
A buzz of electric interest went around the group. Every glass was raised; every eye strained toward her stern to read the name as she veered into the wind again. About she came. A sharp sigh of excited disappointment exhaled from the spectators. The name had been painted out.
"No go," breathed Edwards. "But I'll bet another dinner----"
"Mr. Edwards," called the captain. "You will take the second cutter, board that schooner, and make a full investigation."
"Take your time. Don't come alongside until she is in the wind. Leave enough men aboard to handle her."
The cruiser steamed to within half a mile of the aimless traveller, and the small boat put out. Not one of his fellows but envied the young ensign as he left the ship, steered by Timmins, a veteran bo's'n's mate, wise in all the ins and outs of sea ways. They saw him board, neatly running the small boat under the schooner's counter; they saw the foresheet eased off and the ship run up into the wind; then the foresail dropped and the wheel lashed so that she would stand so. They awaited the reappearance of Edwards and the bo's'n's mate when they had vanished below decks, and with an intensity of eagerness they followed the return of the small boat.
Billy Edwards's face as he came on deck was a study. It was alight with excitement; yet between the eyes two deep wrinkles of puzzlement quivered. Such a face the mathematician bends above his paper when some obstructive factor arises between him and his solution.
"Well, sir?" There was a hint of effort at restraint in the captain's voice.
"She's the Laughing Lass, sir. Everything ship-shape, but not a soul aboard."
"Come below, Mr. Edwards," said the captain. And they went, leaving behind them a boiling cauldron of theory and conjecture.
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