Claimed!, by Francis Stevens

Chapter XIII.

In Pursuit of the Flying Dutchman

It was near midnight when Captain Porter expressed his bulldog resolve to “hold on.” Dawn found the Nagaina waddling, still at half-speed, across the shifting, fog-obscured hills and valleys of the open Atlantic, well out from the Jersey coast. By his own request, the pilot had been dropped at Lewes, Delaware, and Captain Porter was again in personal command.

Those hours between midnight and dawn had been not without their own peculiar excitement. The destroyer Shelby was by no means the last vessel to sight Red Dolphin, as the stranger had been christened pro tempore. At intervals all night long the Nagaina’s wireless apparatus had snapped and crackled acknowledgement of news, advice, and encouragement, some of it regrettably satirical, from fellow craft which had picked up earlier signals, and were many of them keeping in touch for mere gratification of the sporting instinct.

Unless some of these latter were also indulging a perverted sense of humor and sending in false reports, Red Dolphin had pursued her extraordinary course straight outward from Delaware Bay. A tramp steamer reported hailing a coastwise lumber schooner and receiving word of the stranger as a “cursed fool running without lights and just missed taking our bo’sprit with her.”

The tug, Boston Beau, had also narrowly escaped collision with “something big and black going at racing-boat clip. Not a light about her. Think saw red dolphin figurehead. Not sure. Too dark, going too fast.”

The revenue boat Kelpie not only sighted the stranger, but was now in irritated pursuit of her. The Shelby had been under orders, bound for Hampton Roads, but no such restriction hampered the revenue boat. Quite aside from Captain Porter’s grievance, the Kelpie joined the chase as of a vessel recklessly breaking that ordinance which forbids any craft to careen through heavy fog, full speed, without lights, and silent.

In the consensus of all reports, one perhaps rather odd fact was noticeable. Wherever Red Dolphin had been encountered collision was escaped by a narrow margin; in each case she had flashed by, always crossing the other vessel’s bow and always so close on that one or several persons aboard the endangered craft obtained at least a dim glimpse of her distinguishing characteristic, the scarlet, outcurving figurehead.

Had the stranger been intentionally bent on marking her course for pursuers, she could hardly have done better.

Another thing which Captain Porter noted with encouragement was an apparent slackening of that really incredible speed indicated by the earlier messages. Where by report the Nagaina had at one period been hours behind her quarry, at 3 A. M. Greenwich time the difference had abruptly lessened, and by the last report pursuer and pursued were separated by no more than twenty marine miles.

Dr. Vanaman stood at the rail, peering outward with eyes that strove in vain to penetrate more than a rod or so through the blinding mist that still enveloped the steamer. From sheer necessity he had slept a couple of hours, flinging himself fully dressed on a cushioned transom in the saloon cabin. The rest had strengthened him, but his young, boyish face appeared unnaturally haggard as he strained his vision where the trained eyes of the lookouts were practically blinded.

Day was breaking and the fog had taken on a sulfurous, sickly hue. Mingling with it the black smoke from the Nagaina’s funnels hung like a somber, writhing shadow above her wake, and all around her, so far as discernible, the waters appeared dark and ugly, as if a plowed field should be endowed with restless motion.

Despite the recent encouraging news, imparted to him by the wireless man, Vanaman felt wearily, bitterly depressed. Presently his hand sought an inner coat pocket and brought forth a bulky envelope. From it he drew the folded sheets of what seemed a considerable manuscript.

It was, in fact, a very voluminous letter, written in the fine, careful hand of his eminent and scholarly acquaintance, Bowers Shelbach. The missive reached him the previous afternoon, but due to the peculiar stupor which had afflicted him all that day, he had then thrust it into his pocket without reading. Half an hour ago, awakening refreshed in the cabin, he had by mere chance discovered what was in his possession and perused with eager interest what might add a very important detail to his knowledge of the green casket. After reading, however, the eagerness had subsided to gloom.

Now he ran through the letter again, though with meager attention, for most of Shelbach’s bulky epistle dealt with archaic linguistics in a technical manner not excessively interesting to a layman. It began with disquisition on certain analogies to the Aramaic or so-called “Chaldee” in which portions of the Old Testament were originally written, and archaic Phoenician.

Dr. Vanaman skipped with regrettable haste through not only this, but the equally careful and comparative analysis of each separate character in the traced inscription as submitted by the doctor. There followed a general summing-up from which one gathered that the characters represented either an erratic, mongrel dialect combining a Semitic root with Phoenician idiom, or — and here Shelbach became palpably earnest and enthusiastic — they might possibly represent a phonetically written language predating the known forms of Semitic, Phoenician and hieratic Egyptian.

To be certain, Professor Shelbach desired further data — very much desired them. In the sacred name of archeology he demanded to know whence Vanaman had obtained this inadequate fragment of ancient writing, and if there were more of it in existence why he had not copied the entire Inscription and submitted that with full information as to the source from which he had derived it.

At the end Shelbach became almost accusatory over his friend’s assumed neglect, urged him immediately to forward complete data, and signed his eminent name with an emphatic flourish. Not anywhere in the letter had he given the intelligible translation so much wished by Vanaman, but down in a corner of the last sheet, added as a considerate afterthought, the doctor found a pencil-scribbled postscript.

It consisted of two short phrases set in quotation-marks, and Vanaman judged they were meant for alternative translations of the inscription.

Moodily, he folded the letter and thrust it back in his pocket.

“To the great deep. To the abyss.”

Shelbach had been wrong in terming the inscription a “fragment.” It was a complete, and — should he allow himself to so consider it — an ominous dedication. Unwillingly he canvassed in memory those qualities of the green casket which, quite aside from the “dreams” it brought, had made it an enigmatic mystery.

There was the fact that no scratch nor mar nor finger-mark was retained by its lucent surface through one single instant after the experimenter’s glance ceased to observe it. He had several times tested and proved that past even his materialistic doubts.

There was the occasional illusion of great depth beneath the clouded surface. Had the effect been invariable it would have seemed less troublesome to explain. But it was not invariable. There were times when one might turn the box as one would, trying all angles and degrees of light, and still see only a polished, blue-green surface. Other times when one’s glance was caught unaware and drawn, sickened and entrapped, through an infinite green abyss.

There was the scarlet inscription itself, that consistently refused to remain in evidence, yet only sank or somehow translated itself to the bottom when the method of its queer maneuver could not be observed.

Summed up, Vanaman regretfully admitted that none of these eccentricities followed the known laws of material phenomena as applied to a solid object.

Water will endure the marks of no wounds nor fingerprints. The green sea is at times translucent and again blank, enigmatic surface. That which is laid across it may float there, or sink through the lucent depths beneath.

“To the great deep. To the abyss.”

Must he believe with the over daring old tyrant who called the box his that its other dread claimant had an actual and sentient being? That the ocean possessed intelligent spirit, and could claim its dedicated own?

In any case, what might not the past night have meant to his maid of the moonlight hair? At the very best, she had been all these hours at the mercy of men God alone knew how unscrupulous. At the worst — Vanaman shuddered and turned from the rail. God alone knows just what strange powers He permits to exist behind the veil of palpable materiality that for most mortals seems the real and only world.

“That you, doctor? Bloomin’ pea soup of a morning, eh? Come up here with me if you like. When the weather thins there’s a chance that our Flying Dutchman may find us unpleasantly close.”

Porter was speaking over the bridge rail, and the doctor slowly ascended a nearby flight of wooden steps and joined him.

“Haven’t heard from the Kelpie in quite a while,” continued Porter. “Their operator’s asleep, maybe. Or she’s dropped the trail.”

“The fog seems thinning a bit.”

Vanaman’s tone held a note of suddenly renewed hope and courage. Porter’s blunt, powerful personality seemed to delete all weirdness from the chase; the Nagaina’s master distinctly represented the sane, the solid, and the resolute. His ship was driving through the ghost-land, cleaving phantom mists that writhed to spectral forms in the wind of her passage; but Porter himself was a common, honest man, who hunted down other common men, not so honest. Though he spoke of Red Dolphin as the Flying Dutchman, that was purely in jest. Unlike the doctor, he had no faintest doubts of her solid, sane materiality of being.

And it was true that all around and above them the fog’s impenetrable quality now stood further off, like close walls that withdrew themselves.

The Nagaina seemed moving at the center of a semi-globular clear space that moved with her; as if in a world of otherwise universal cloud one clear cavity existed and traveled as an immense air bubble might travel through water. On all sides the yellowish mist rose in an unbroken but continually shifting wall, that curved upward to a dome-shape and was thinner there, so that the light of a presumably clouded sky gleamed through it greyly. And beneath, dark as green-black ink, heaved the naked sea.

Came an abrupt shout from one of the lookouts forward.

Down in the engine-room a signal shrilled, and the stout old steamer shuddered from stem to stern as her reversed propellers churned the water to leaping geysers of foam. But the Nagaina was no light, easily controlled craft to stop or turn in her own length. Her clumsy bulk had plowed forward a good three hundred yards or more before coming at last to a quivering and reluctant halt.

Though Dr. Vanaman had not seen what Porter’s alert eyes had discerned even before the lookout’s warning cry, he judged instantly that their quarry or some vessel resembling it had been sighted. Nowhere about them now, however, was there even a shadow in the mist to betray the presence of another ship.

Crosby had come running open-mouthed up the bridge-ladder, and giving no heed to the doctor’s excited questions Porter shot a rapid order at his second and himself fairly plunged to the deck below, with a barked “Come along!” over his shoulder that brought Vanaman plunging after him. The latter had but a confused idea of what might have happened or was about to be done; but prospect of any sort of action spurred his energies to eager life.

In the rush of haste which Porter seemed to consider necessary, it was not until several minutes later that the doctor acquired any definite knowledge of what they were about.

They were then aboard the Nagaina’s launch, which had been filled with men, dropped to the water with man-of-war’sman speed and sent flying back along the steamer’s still frothing wake.

“Red Dolphin is back along here somewhere, and she isn’t moving. She’s laid to!”

Porter made the announcement with a kind of fierce triumph that promised ill for the abductors of his charterer.

“Engine trouble, likely — and there isn’t a breath of breeze for her sails. Before the Lord, doc, we’ve got her!”

The little party of eight men who had tumbled into the launch under their captain’s hasty orders formed by no means so inadequate an attacking force as might have been expected from a peaceful vessel like the Nagaina.

Among the supplies put aboard by her first charterer had been a number of heavy caliber sealing rifles, intended for use against the large game of the north. Early in the pursuit, Porter had ordered these weapons broken from their cases, and had distributed them with ammunition among those of his crew whom be considered most reliable and cool-headed. There had been time nor opportunity for practise, but these eight men at least knew how to operate and fire the guns, and even in unpractised hands a sealing rifle is a formidable weapon.

Captain Porter, however, hardly anticipated an actual battle. He felt nearly sure that when the scoundrels aboard Red Dolphin found themselves facing a band of resolute, armed men, they would surrender, preferring a jail term to possible death by a soft-nose bullet.

Porter himself was armed only with the pistol he usually carried, and Dr. Vanaman was not armed at all. The latter, however, had a motive even more powerful and aggressive than Porter’s for wishing to come up with Red Dolphin, and was in a mood which made him probably the most dangerous man of the party.

As the launch sped onward, the seething rush of her passage across the dark, foam-laced swells, the throb of her engine and the hoarse hooting of the Nagaina’s fog-siren behind them were the only sounds to be heard. If Red Dolphin were actually lying to near by, as the captain claimed, she was in no way advertising her position.

Except in heavy weather, a steamer’s wake will lie like a frothing white path for a considerable time after her passage. As the most direct line back to that point from which Red Dolphin had been sighted, Porter headed straight by that path till he was certain he had overshot his mark. Then he began to circle. If, as he hoped, the quarry was lying helpless through engine trouble, sooner or later the agile, swift little launch must nose out her misty hiding place.

The air, heavy with moisture, was also very warm and breathlessly still. Several times Vanaman observed the captain glance upward and about him with a slight frown as of some trouble other than his anxiety to discover the kidnapper’s vessel.

“Queer weather,” he muttered once. “Bloomin’ queer!” And presently he added loud, addressing the doctor:—

“Ever since we left the bay, we’ve been running through a low-pressure area. Now it’s tightening up. Something’s due to break soon, and I’ll be hanged if I know exactly what. If we were in lower latitudes I’d say we were in for a bloomin’ typhoon, but up here, and with this queer, warm fog —”

The sentence was abruptly cut in two by a shout from one of the men. “Sail, ‘o! Ship on the starboard bow, sir!”

The effect as of a semi-globular bubble of clear space which had surrounded the steamer, moved also with the launch. Looking where the man pointed, all saw a vague, enormous black bulk, looming, shadowlike, through the denser mist a hundred yards off to the left.

At a wave of Porter’s hand, the steersman flung over the little wheel, and the launch swung sharply round toward the shadow.

The circular space of clear vision swung with her. The looming shadow, magnified by the mist, seemed to condense; at once growing smaller and more definite.

An instant later Porter again flung up his hand, this time with a cry in which amazement mingled with some emotion very like shocked terror.

“Stop her!” he shouted. “Stop! For God’s sake, what is this we’ve been chasing?”

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