Claimed!, by Francis Stevens

Chapter X.

Outward Bound

Of actual facts transpiring through the remainder of that day, Dr. Vanaman had afterward only a confused and indefinite memory. Perhaps lack of sleep had told on him more heavily than it would have done under normal conditions. Or perhaps his fear of the morning had not been wholly unfounded, and that which drove two such commonplace individuals as Blair and Lutz to offer up pagan sacrifice was beginning to set its deadly seal on him also.

Certain it is that all through the long afternoon, busy enough for others, but dreamily idle for the green casket’s faithful guardsman, he was scarcely aware nor thinking of what went on about him, and dared he but close his eyes for an instant strange, fleeting visions flashed up behind the lids.

He had made his choice, where for him there was no choice. Let the truth be what it might, the mad voyage Robinson proposed would bring about the very thing Vanaman had urged in vain. Leilah would not desert her uncle, but the latter was leaving her, and on those terms Vanaman was ready if not exactly eager to accompany the green box and its owner to the devil, if need be.

Though he followed so little of what went on, that was a lively and exciting afternoon for many people. When Robinson chose to have things done in a hurry, as a rule they were done, for the old hawk’s executive ability and knack of extracting from people efforts which surprised themselves, but not him, were marked as his stubbornness and indifference to the will or pleasure of any one but Jesse J. Robinson.

The Nagaina, fortunately for his sudden resolve, was already coaled, fully manned, and partly provisioned. She was a small but sturdy steamer, designed to fight through the perilous, ice-infested seas of the extreme north. Formerly used for the transportation of freight and passengers in the waters of northern Canada, she had been chartered from that service by an ambitious and wealthy young man, who had outfitted for an expedition.

The young man’s sudden demise in a railroad accident had left the Nagaina’s charter a useless asset of his estate, and the trustees had been delighted to receive Robinson’s unexpected offer. The terms on which he relieved them of their white elephant included a haste in transfer that rather took their breath away; but the old millionaire had done an eccentric thing or so before in his life, and knew how to put this one through.

His own lawyers, well trained to execute any sort of sudden and complicated commands, met the trustees and wrestled with them. The will had not gone to probate, but a more or less legal loophole was discovered by which the trustees might act in this emergency. They found themselves shoved through it, a line of reasoning to use with the probate judge bestowed gratuitously upon them, the charter transferred, and Robinson’s certified check in their hands, almost before it occurred to them that they might demand an extra bonus for such unseemly speed.

Almost, not quite. Robinson paid heavily for this particular eccentricity, but as they knew he could afford it his lawyers were not worried over that. Triumphant, they flung themselves into a taxi, motored straight to their employer’s residence, and there spent a somewhat longer time in receiving his very precise instructions as to the handling of affairs in his absence, and particularly in case of his non-return. They may have wondered deeply as the rest of the world over the freak that was sending Robinson on so sudden a “pleasure voyage” — he termed it that — and on such a vessel as the Nagaina. But if so, they kept their wonder to themselves. Had they not been wise enough to refrain from superfluous questioning, they would not have been attorneys to Jesse J. Robinson.

Down at the docks, meantime, a burly sea-captain swore, and still burlier stevedores sweated. The order to complete the Nagaina’s provisioning and make her ready for immediate clearance had been received by Captain Porter with annoyance and dismay.

“A yacht!” he growled disgustedly to his second. “They’ve made it a bloomin’ yacht. We’re to take a bloomin’ millionaire on a pleasure voyage! It’ll be, ‘Captain, put in at Bar Harbor,’ and ‘Captain, I’ve changed my mind, we’ll make the Bahamas instead,’ and ‘Captain, spread an awning on quarter-deck; I want to take my bloomin’ siesta there.’

“I know ’em! I was second mate once on a Bermuda passenger boat, and there’s no pleasin’ ’em. I’m going ashore to buy some pink and blue ribbon, Mr. Crosby, and when I come back you can tie it around her funnels before our new charterer thinks to order it done. Maybe that’ll please him. Hell!”

To all of which Crosby listened with a wide grin, not sharing the bitter sentiments of his superior. A pleasure voyage, even with the most exacting of millionaires aboard, appealed to him as preferable to the rough hardships of the frozen north.

At six o’clock Captain Porter’s anticipated trials began. A boat put off from the city wharf bringing a man who introduced himself as Robinson’s valet, who demanded to be shown the cabin his master would occupy, and proceeded to rearrange and embellish it in a manner which completed Porter’s disgust, and filled the steward, who helped, with amazed awe. The fellow had brought off a boat-load of “silly, womanish junk,” as Porter characterized the soft mattresses, silken quilts, fine linen, and other luxuries with which the bare, dingy little stateroom presently incongruously blossomed. A complete Sevres dining service and silver appropriate thereto was the final straw. Porter clumped sadly up the companion ladder.

“Why didn’t he charter a bloomin’ yacht?” he mourned to his still grinning second. “Why did he pick on me? Why didn’t he charter a bloomin’ yacht, all pretty mahogany and brasses? That’s what I want to know!”

Nearly eight o’clock, and Robinson entered the room where Dr. Vanaman brooded alone over his charge.

“We’re leaving,” he said briefly. “Are you ready?”

As the doctor made no reply, he approached, clutched his shoulder and shook him. “What’s ailing ye? Asleep?”

Vanaman stumbled to his feet.

“I’m tired,” he said heavily. “But I’m ready to go.”

The millionaire cast him a sharp, almost troubled glance, but made no comment, and the two passed out to the car, waiting ready in the porte-cochere. As they went Vanaman was vaguely conscious of something wrong or missing in this departure. It was not the green box. He was carrying that in the leather handbag. His hat? No; that was on his head. And his personal luggage had been packed earlier and taken down with Robinson’s things. What, then? He could not think, and for sheer weariness ceased trying.

The chauffeur was holding open the door of the closed car, and as Robinson pushed his companion ahead he stumbled clumsily in and almost fell into the rear seat.

“What is it, Dr. Vanaman? Are you ill?”

That low, drawling sweet voice. Now he knew what had been wrong; whom he had missed. Leilah had not said good-bye to them, and no wonder! The old hawk had tricked him. He had never meant to leave the woman behind. For an instant, under stimulus of indignation, the stupor lifted, and he was all angry protest.

“You here, Miss Robinson! But you are not going with us! You’re not! I— I forbid it —”

“That’ll do, son,” snarled Robinson. He stepped in and took his seat; the chauffeur, who already had his directions, closed the door, and in another moment they were rolling down the Drive.

“Leilah wanted to come,” continued the old man composedly, “and I don’t just reckon it’s for you to forbid or command my gal from doin’ anything she and me choose for her to do. Understand?”

“I— guess so.”

Numb weariness was on him again, and it was pleasant to lean back in soft cushions, and feel the warm, delicately fragrant nearness of — of some woman he had once known, pitied, and adored. But that, of course, had all been a very long time ago.

“Fog!” snarled a voice. “Cuss it, we’ll have to lay in the river till she clears. Might just as well have stayed to home!” Again roused for a moment, Vanaman saw that the car windows were blanketed with thick white mist, through which the lights of shops and street lamps glowed in hazy, shifting change. They were in the lower part of the city now, and nearing the docks.

Presently the car had rolled through an open gateway and part way down the long reach of a public wharf. It came to a stand, and the chauffeur appeared at the door.

“Will you get out here, Sir?”

“How in time do I know?” snapped his employer. “Ain’t ye got any sense at all, Murphy? They’s four or five stairways on this wharf. Walk along and find which one the Nagaina’s launch is waiting at. I give orders,” he added as the man moved off on his mission, “that the launch was to meet us here round 9 o’clock. It’s 8:45 now, and she ought to be on hand — somewheres. Cuss the fog! Can’t hardly see ten foot through it down here.”

Murphy returned and climbed back in the car.

“A little further along, Mr. Robinson,” he informed over his shoulder, as they started.

A few seconds later and they had halted again. The tall, dim figure of a man loomed grayly beside the door. He opened it without waiting for the chauffeur.

“This is Mr. Robinson? We are ready for you, Sir.”

The voice was low, deep, and well modulated, though the fog lent it a muffled and far-away sound.

“Help me out, can’t ye?” came Robinson’s eternal snarl. “That’s better. Durn ye, ain’t ye got any sense to grab my arm that way? Ye durn near broke it!

“I beg your pardon, Sir.”

The dim figure relaxed its overpowerful grip and stood back a pace or so. Leilah, who was nearest the door on this side, stepped lightly out and turned.

“Dr. Vanaman! Uncle Jesse, I believe the doctor is ill! He hasn’t moved nor spoken a word since we left the house.”

“Nonsense! Jest asleep again, I reckon. Hey, doctor, wake up!”

He leaned in and shook at Vanaman’s knee.

“I’m coming.”

He had heard every word spoken, but because of the heavy drowsiness that was on him had preferred to sit quiet. Something was wanted of him now, it appeared. He managed to stumble out on the wharf and stand there stupidly quiescent.

“Where’s that bag? Why, ye left it on the seat! Humph! Well, so long as you’re too durn sleepy to know what you’re about, I reckon I’ll keep charge of it myself. That’s all, Murphy. Take the car home and mind! Don’t ye dasst use up my gasoline joy-riding round while I’m gone.”

“No, sir.”

Murphy had touched his cap and was slowly backing along the comparatively narrow wharf. The head-lamps cast funnel shaped cones of light through the slowly drifting strata of river mist, and one of these cones rested for a long moment on the dim figure that had met the car. The head was bare, the face heavily bearded, and the man seemed to be wrapped in a long, gray cloak. Then his deep, muffled tones were speaking again:

“Will you come aboard now, sir? Everything has been prepared, and we are ready to sail with the outgoing tide.”

“Sail?” repeated Robinson. “The Nagaina’s a steamer, ain’t she?”

“Oh, yes. The Nagaina is a steamer. But I have been long — very long — associated with sailing vessels, and the word comes easily to my lips. Pray, pardon it.”

“Humph! Officer, be ye?”

“I have the honor to be captain, sir.”

“Captain Porter, eh? Why didn’t ye say so, straight off? Think ye can make it down-river in this dirty fog?”

“The fog will not interfere with our sailing, sir. If you will kindly accompany me down these steps, I will help you into the small boat that is waiting.”

“Well, then! Ye don’t need to be so durn ceremonious over it,” grumbled Robinson. “Doctor — consarn the fool! I believe he’s asleep again! Hey, doctor, wake up!”

Vanaman straightened with a start, and this time actually roused enough to offer Leilah his assistance in descending the dozen wooden steps that led to a small floating platform at water-level. The small boat referred to was drawn up alongside. It was not the gasoline launch Robinson had expected, however, but an oar-propelled craft. Three oarsmen could be faintly discerned occupying its thwarts, and a forth waited on the platform, holding a lantern.

Without at all thinking about it, Vanaman observed that the lantern was not the common ship’s type, but of cubical shape with ornamental wrought-iron framework forming a lattice tracery over side panels that might have been made of old-fashioned horn, not glass, so dim and yellow was the light transmitted from within.

“If you take your seat on that forward thwart, sir —”

“Ladies first,” snapped Robinson fussily. “Git in, Leilah.”

The tall captain made a sudden gesture, almost as though to prevent the woman from obeying. But Leilah was quick and deft in her motions, and already she had stepped in and taken the place indicated. The old hawk handed her the leather bag that contained his prey, and a moment later was seated beside his niece. When Vanaman would have followed, however, the captain caught his arm in that overpowerful grip of which Robinson had complained.

“I am sorry, sir,” he said firmly. “The boat will not carry so many, Mr. Robinson. When we have put yourself and the young lady aboard, there will be time enough to return for this gentleman. I understand you are in great haste to reach the sea. But so small a delay will matter little, and moreover, once started we shall sail very swiftly, for the tide will carry us along — the outflowing tide.”

“The outflowing tide,” gravely echoed the man with the lantern.

And as if in sentiment confirmation of the words, the dark waters that raced gurgling and seething past the piers jerked strongly at the prow of the boat, so that it swung suddenly outward. The man with the lantern stepped aboard in haste and dropped to the fourth oarsman’s seat. The tall captain gave Vanaman a push that sent him stumbling back against the steps, and himself made a flying leap across the half-dozen feet of racing water that already intervened between boat and platform.

He landed neatly, standing in the stern sheets. Vanaman, staggering up, had a momentary glimpse of him as a tall, gray figure, outlined vaguely against the dim lantern-glow and very wraithlike because of the fog that swirled between. The muffled but unmistakable cry of a frightened woman drifted back to him.

And then he was alone in the dark on a little platform, beneath which unseen water seethed and raced. The tide — the outflowing tide —

Like a riven veil, or as if with the passing of the green casket some evil charm had been lifted from his brain, the stupid daze which had for hours possessed Vanaman cleared and was gone.

“Leilah! Oh — Leilah!”

Springing to the platform edge, he shouted her name again and again. There returned to him no responding cry, but close at hand, just behind him, in fact, he heard a noise as of smothered laughter. Wheeling, he collided with the person who had found cause for mirth in his fear stricken shouts. His hands closed on lean shoulders.

“Sheer off there, matey! I ain’t huntin’ trouble.”

“Blair!” gasped Vanaman. Though he had heard the man’s voice only once before, that once had been under conditions to impress its tones on his memory. He dropped one hand, but slid the other down to the fellow’s upper arm where he held him firmly.

“You, Blair!” he choked. “In some cursed way or other you are behind all that’s happened! What are you doing here? Why did the Nagaina’s boat take those two and leave me? Answer, or — or, by heaven, I’ll strangle an answer out of you!”

In the dark his free hand found the other’s throat and closed on it convincingly. The man struggled, but with so feeble a resistance that even in his overwrought state Vanaman was suddenly ashamed, and his grasp relaxed.

At the same time, the put-put of a rapidly nearing motor throbbed through the fog. Mingled with it came the sound of an aggrieved and mournful voice.

“Shut her off, Mr. Crosby. The bloomin’ wharf’s dead ahead. And now I suppose we can wait an hour or so till our millionaire charterer shows up. I know ’em! Always an hour or so behind time. But maybe it will please him that I came after him myself and then had to wait an hour.

“Hell!”

An intolerable suspicion stirred in Vanaman. As the shape of the small launch materialized through the fog, red and green lamps a-glitter, he greeted it in a hoarse question.

“From the Nagaina?”

“My boat,” resignedly acquiesced the voice. “Are you Mr. Robinson? Or is there a Mr. Robinson waiting up on the wharf? Because if there is, tell him his dunnage is all aboard, and Captain Porter has come ashore in person to do the proper honors and fandangos expected of a yacht captain. And that ought to please him,” he added sotto voce to his second, who was already scrambling out on the platform, lantern in hand.

But on Vanaman, the icy fingers of dismay had closed more tightly.

“For God’s sake, get back there!”

He fairly thrust the Nagaina’s astonished second officer back into the launch and himself followed, dragging Blair along.

“Mr. Robinson and his niece have been stolen — kidnapped!” he announced between his teeth. “Another boat was here — another man who called himself Captain Porter. I was purposely left behind, and those two taken. Get out on the river — quickly! Somewhere out there is either a small boat or a ship that means to go down-river with the tide!”

http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/s/stevens/francis/claimed/chapter10.html

Last updated Wednesday, March 5, 2014 at 22:30