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When Barnett come on deck very early in the morning of June 7th, he found Dr. Trendon already up and staring moodily out at the Laughing Lass. As the night was calm the tow had made fair time toward their port in the Hawaiian group. The surgeon was muttering something which seemed to Barnett to be in a foreign tongue.
"Thought out any clue, doctor?" asked the first officer.
"Petit Chel--Pshaw! Jolie Celimene! No," muttered Trendon. "Marie--Marie--I've got it! The Marie Celeste."
"Got what? What about her?"
"Parallel case," said Trendon. "Sailed from New York back in the seventies. Seven weeks out was found derelict. Everything in perfect order. Captain's wife's hem on the machine. Boats all accounted for. No sign of struggle. Log written to within forty-eight hours."
"What became of the crew?"
"Wish I could tell you. Might help to unravel our tangle." He shook his head in sudden, unwonted passion.
"Evidently there's something criminal in her record," said Barnett, frowning at the fusty schooner astern. "Otherwise the name wouldn't be painted out."
"Painted out long ago. See how rusty it is. Schermerhorn's work maybe," replied Trendon. "Secret expedition, remember."
"In the name of wonders, why should he do it?"
"Secret expedition, wasn't it?"
"Um-ah; that's true," said the other thoughtfully. "It's quite possible."
"Captain wishes to see both of you gentlemen in the ward room, if you please," came a message.
Below they found all the officers gathered. Captain Parkinson was pacing up and down in ill-controlled agitation.
"Gentlemen," he said, "we are facing a problem which, so far as I know, is without parallel. It is my intention to bring the schooner which we have in tow to port at Honolulu. In the present unsettled weather we cannot continue to tow her. I wish two officers to take charge. Under the circumstances I shall issue no orders. The duty must be voluntary."
Instantly every man, from the veteran Trendon to the youthful paymaster, volunteered.
"That is what I expected," said Captain Parkinson quietly. "But I have still a word to say. I make no doubt in my own mind that the schooner has twice been beset by the gravest of perils. Nothing less would have driven Mr. Edwards from his post. All of us who know him will appreciate that. Nor can I free myself from the darkest forebodings as to his fate and that of his companions. But as to the nature of the peril I am unable to make any conjecture worthy of consideration. Has anyone a theory to offer?"
There was a dead silence.
"Mr. Barnett? Dr. Trendon? Mr. Ives?"
"Is there not possibly some connection between the unexplained light which we have twice seen, and the double desertion of the ship?" suggested the first officer, after a pause.
"I have asked myself that over and over. Whatever the source of the light and however near to it the schooner may have been, she is evidently unharmed."
"Yes, sir," said Barnett. "That seems to vitiate that explanation."
"I thank you, gentlemen, for the promptitude of your offers," continued the captain. "In this respect you make my duty the more difficult. I shall accept Mr. Ives because of his familiarity with sailing craft and with these seas." His eyes ranged the group.
"I beg your pardon, Captain Parkinson," eagerly put in the paymaster, "but I've handled a schooner yacht for several years and I'd appreciate the chance of----"
"Very well, Mr. McGuire, you shall be the second in command."
"Thank you, sir."
"You gentlemen will pick a volunteer crew and go aboard at once. Spare no effort to find records of the schooner's cruise. Keep in company and watch for signals. Report at once any discovery or unusual incident, however slight."
Not so easily was a crew obtained. Having in mind the excusable superstition of the men, Captain Parkinson was unwilling to compel any of them to the duty. Awed by the mystery of their mates' disappearance, the sailors hung back. Finally by temptation of extra prize money, a complement was made up.
At ten o'clock of a puffy, mist-laden morning a new and strong crew of nine men boarded the Laughing Lass. There were no farewells among the officers. Forebodings weighed too heavy for such open expression.
All the fates of weather seemed to combine to part the schooner from her convoy. As before, the fog fell, only to be succeeded by squally rain-showers that cut out the vista into a checkerboard pattern of visible sea and impenetrable greyness. Before evening the Laughing Lass, making slow way through the mists, had become separated by a league of waves from the cruiser. One glimpse of her between mist areas the Wolverines caught at sunset. Then wind and rain descended in furious volume from the southeast. The cruiser immediately headed about, following the probable course of her charge, which would be beaten far down to leeward. It was a gloomy mess on the warship. In his cabin, Captain Parkinson was frankly sea-sick: a condition which nothing but the extreme of nervous depression ever induced in him.
For several hours the rain fell and the gale howled. Then the sky swiftly cleared, and with the clearing there rose a great cry of amaze from stem to stern of the Wolverine. For far toward the western horizon appeared such a prodigy as the eye of no man aboard that ship had ever beheld. From a belt of marvellous, glowing gold, rich and splendid streamers of light spiralled up into the blackness of the heavens.
In all the colours of the spectrum they rose and fell; blazing orange, silken, wonderful, translucent blues, and shimmering reds. Below, a broad band of paler hue, like sheet lightning fixed to rigidity, wavered and rippled. All the auroras of the northland blended in one could but have paled away before the splendour of that terrific celestial apparition.
On board the cruiser all hands stood petrified, bound in a stricture of speechless wonder. After the first cry, silence lay leaden over the ship. It was broken by a scream of terror from forward. The quartermaster who had been at the wheel came clambering down the ladder and ran along the deck, his fingers splayed and stiffened before him in the intensity of his panic.
"The needle! The compass!" he shrieked.
Barnett ran to the wheel house with Trendon at his heels. The others followed. The needle was swaying like a cobra's head. And as a cobra's head spits venom, it spat forth a thin, steel-blue stream of lucent fire. Then so swiftly it whirled that the sparks scattered from it in a tiny shower. It stopped, quivered, and curved itself upward until it rattled like a fairy drum upon the glass shield. Barnett looked at Trendon.
"Volcanic?" he said.
"'Mine eyes have seen the coming of the glory of the Lord,'" muttered the surgeon in his deep bass, as he looked forth upon the streaming, radiant heavens. "It's like nothing else."
In the west the splendour and the terror shot to the zenith. Barnett whirled the wheel. The ship responded perfectly.
"I though she might be bewitched, too," he murmured.
"You may heal her for the light, Mr. Barnett," said Captain Parkinson calmly. He had come from his cabin, all his nervous depression gone in the face of an imminent and visible danger.
Slowly the great mass of steel swung to the unknown. For an hour the unknown guided her. Then fell blackness, sudden, complete. After that radiance the dazzled eye could make out no stars, but the look-out's keen vision discerned something else.
"Ship afire," he shouted hoarsely.
"Two points to leeward, near where the light was, sir."
They turned their eyes to the direction indicated, and beheld a majestic rolling volume of purple light. Suddenly a fiercer red shot it through.
"That's no ship afire," said Trendon. "Volcano in eruption."
"And the other?" asked the captain.
"No volcano, sir."
"Poor Billy Edwards wins his bet," said Forsythe, in a low voice.
"God grant he's on earth to collect it," replied Barnett solemnly.
No one turned in that night. When the sun of June 8th rose, it showed an ocean bare of prospect except that on the far horizon where the chart showed no land there rose a smudge of dirty rolling smoke. Of the schooner there was neither sign nor trace.
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