Claimed!, by Francis Stevens

Chapter XV.

Claimed!

It is rarely indeed that the mind of any man is exposed to the full shock of a great event or catastrophe. Fear is necessarily limited by the powers of perception and imagination. In the face of an event too monstrous, imagination grows numb, perception halts, and the mind is shut in, as it were, by a protecting cyst of sheer incomprehension.

The crew of the Nagaina’s launch had been afraid of the rotting black ship and the inexplicable vision that followed their discovery of it. When the woman was flung from its deck and Captain Porter issued an order — as he promptly did — that the launch go to her rescue, the men realized only that whatever or whoever had fallen into the water had been jettisoned by a craft for which they entertained the liveliest superstitious horror.

They wanted nothing to do with Red Dolphin’s castaway, and when their commander would have himself started the launch in that direction, they turned on him to a man. Porter’s type of courage being other than theirs, he insisted, using his fists for argument, and so started a fight much hampered by the cramped space it took place in and which ended within forty seconds of its beginning.

It ended because at that point the affair of the green casket approached its really terrible climax, and the cause for fear became so actual and great that the capacity for that emotion was numbed — paralyzed, as by a heavy blow.

When the launch spun about and shot off with the vortex current, Porter flung himself on the motor controls unhindered. He was again captain, and the men obeyed what orders he chose to yell at them without a thought of rebellion.

Besides Captain Porter and Vanaman two other persons had retained their sense of responsibility and powers of independent action. One of these stood on the steamer’s bridge, where more by instinct than accurate knowledge of the danger, ere the waterspout had half-formed, Mr. Crosby had rung for full speed astern, and set the steamer ponderously back.

The other was James Blair. Perhaps through familiarity with terror, the latter retained presence of mind enough to unfasten and throw a life-preserver toward the drowning pair in the water. He was standing by the rail well forward, and the gale helped carry not only his voice, but the cork-jacket. So it was that Vanaman heard him shout and almost simultaneously was stunned by a missile meant to save his life, not destroy it.

Fortunately, as he went helplessly under, still gripping Leilah with one arm, he flung the other upward, and when the launch reached them not only the cork-jacket, but a limp hand tangled in its lacing-cords was still at the rushing flood’s surface.

Danger from the waterspout was already over. Though it had formed so perilously near, in its full shape the cyclonic monster had swept off on Red Dolphin’s track, leaving the steamer, launch, and swimmer to the ordinary perils of wind and wave.

Some hours passed, however, storm and waterspout were but memories, and the Nagaina well on her homeward course before Vanaman learned how it came about that he or any of those who set out to capture Red Dolphin had survived the attempt.

On first recovering consciousness his sole concern had been for his woman of the moonlight hair. Finding himself alive and snugly abed in one of the steamer’s stateroom’s, he had refused to accept the steward’s assurance that Miss Robinson also was safe aboard and had, in fact, regained consciousness long before he did. The only terms on which he could believe her alive after the terrific ordeal of that morning were those of actually seeing her and hearing her speak.

Against all protest he rose, dressed, and staggeringly, with the steward’s shoulder to lean on, made exit from his stateroom.

Half-way across the saloon cabin he met the object of his solicitude, who had also risen, dressed, and come out, as he discovered afterward, bound on an errand remarkably similar to his own. The steward was a discreet and sympathetic man. Deciding that Dr. Vanaman’s need of his aid and support was ended, he retired, closing the door behind him.

Leilah made no effort to withdraw her frail little hands from the strong ones that gripped them both. She was rather pale, the slate-gray eyes were very large and dark, but otherwise she appeared her usual quiet, well-controlled self. Till she tried to speak.

“They told me — what you did,” came a tremulous whisper. “It was — like you!”

And then Vanaman realized that for all her self-contained appearance, the woman was swaying, as she stood, with weakness and too-hardly repressed emotion.

Quite naturally his arms went about her and half-carried her to the cushioned transom near by. He sat down by her, and also quite naturally, her moonlight crowned head somehow found its way to his shoulder, and Leilah, the brave and self-possessed, gave way to a fit of crying that probably saved her reason.

She had been at too-close quarters with fear. Loyal faithfulness had involved her in an adventure too appalling. After a time she sobbed out parts of the story in fragmentary sentences, but neither then nor later did Vanaman learn all its details, nor did he wish to. A story like that is better forgotten as an evil dream than testified to in detail.

From the relation, however, broken as it was, he gathered that after leaving the wharf at Tremont, Leilah had been frightened — so frightened that though she tried to answer Vanaman who was calling her name through the fog, she had been able to make no sound above a whisper. This fright, however, seemed to have been purely instinctive. She had no true mental appreciation of its cause till the boat came alongside Red Dolphin.

“They carried us aboard that terrible old ship,” she sobbed. “Uncle seemed to understand better than I what was happening.

“He said to me once: ‘He’s got us a way I didn’t expect, Leilah, but hold steady.’ And I tried to. Oh, I tried!”

“You would,” commented the doctor softly. “But don’t tire yourself telling me any more now.”

“I must! You must know everything, and help me decide what to do. I am not hurt — only frightened a little — but Uncle Jesse is still on that dreadful ship!”

Vanaman started, and an unpleasant chill crept down his spinal column. His own object in eagerly pursuing Red Dolphin had been achieved. Leilah safe, he had somehow taken it for granted that the uncanny vessel and the green casket and the tyrannical old hawk who had for once dared too much were all done with, so far as he and the woman were concerned.

Her words acted as an awakening shock. She loved that cruel, selfish old man, or at least had a loyal affection for him. If her Uncle Jesse was still living, or if there was any chance that he might be, Leilah would never rest till his rescue had been accomplished.

Clearly, then, the pursuit of Red Dolphin was not ended. The thought was far from pleasant, but Vanaman strove nobly to drag himself up to the Robinson ideal of never under any circumstances quitting.

“Tell me everything,” he said grimly, “and if there’s any way to do it I’ll get him back for you.”

The story rambled on, sketchy and hard to follow, but convincing the doctor more firmly each moment that if he was to keep his word and attempt renewing Red Dolphin’s acquaintance the adventure would involve more heroism than he had ever needed for any other act in his life.

She told of being escorted to an unlighted cabin in the dark of a ship that after the tender’s return carried not a light in all its length. The cabin, as she and her uncle ascertained by feeling about, was bare of furnishings, and its walls, door, and floor had a strange, damp, soft feeling.

“All wet and spongy,” Leilah emphasized. “I hated even to stand on it. And it smelled of old seaweed.”

For an unmeasured period they were left shut in this black hole. The ship rocked slightly from time to time. There was a steady, muffled roar as of rushing waters cloven at incredible speed. Then this noise lessened, ceased, and the rocking changed to a long, easy heave, as if the vessel had reached open sea and was either moving very slowly or lying at rest there.

Presently the cabin door opened and closed again. They knew that some one had entered, though the place being pitch black it was impossible for them to guess what sort of being was visiting them.

When the silent suspense grew intolerable, old Robinson flung a question into the dark.

It was answered by a voice which Leilah at first believed to be that of the tall man who had called himself captain. Later she was not so sure. Some of the time, she asserted, it seemed to be a human voice speaking in clear, resonant English; then again it would trail off into sounds that were not human.

“Murmurings,” she said, “and long, liquid, rhythmic noises, like waves sweeping in over flat beaches. They would begin very low, and grow louder, and fall away again, and then merge back into the voice speaking. All the while one knew that what spoke in words and what caused the flowing noises was — was one — person.

“It was very terrible, there in the dark. I can’t remember everything the — person told us. At first there was a good deal I couldn’t understand. The words were all clear, and spoken in English, but the meaning seemed to pass through one’s mind and leave hardly a memory. I think it was something about a world where there was no land, but only the green ocean rolling — from pole to pole. And how the land was born of the sea, and life came to it from the sea — I recall one sentence. ‘Because I am older than life — because all the life that is was created within me — I in my own being am also alive.’

“Uncle and I stood over against the far wall, listening. Once I tried to take his hand. He had them both clasped tight around the bag that held the green box. He whispered: ‘Hold steady, girl. Stick by me, and hold steady!’”

The voice continued, growing more comprehensible and telling of lands that rose, were molded by fire and water, and taken again by the sea: “Till one great land being risen from the abyss, men were born thereon and knew me as their father and worshiped me with obedience and sacrifice.”

The land was divided by the sea into ten great islands, each a kingdom, and the ten kings thereof called themselves sons of the sea and “were as gods above their fellows.”

So passed many long ages. Other lands arose and other races were born, but “they, my earliest children, still ruled all. They had much wisdom of me; they builded them palaces of scarlet stone and of the red metal called orichalcum that was in no other place but the ten kingdoms. Wisdom went out then, enriching the world. They had art of letters, of the building of ships and of war. Greatest of all they possessed knowledge whereby every other race in the world was subject to and enslaved by them. Not alone the races of men, but the races of elemental spiritual beings who existed in chaos before life took its fleshly form. The powers of the air were their servants, and those vast demon forces that dwell in earth’s fiery heart.

“And all this they had from me, because they were my children, and I loved them.”

The highest secrets were inscribed upon tablets of the scarlet orichalcum and kept in a sacred receptacle, — “which also they had from me, as a pledge of my love. Fire might not harm it, nor might it in any way be destroyed. Thus the secret knowledge was kept by the ten kings, descendants of my first sons, who only had access to it. Till drinking too deep of power and ease and wealth, they grew drunken and presumptuous. Content no more to name themselves sons of a god, they forgot their mortality of flesh and believed themselves gods indeed.

“They disclaimed their debt of love. They turned against me and would have enslaved me also by the secret words of power I had taught them. Then I knew that I had done wrong, for men are small and foolish, not worthy of so great power nor fitted to wield it. In my anger I rocked the earth. It opened beneath their cities. The eternal fires were disturbed and burst forth from the mountains.

“The greatest of the kings in that day was named Azaes. In his keeping were the written words of power which he and his brethren would have used to subject me.

“Perceiving the evil that presumption had brought on the kingdoms, he offered atonement and worship. But I was angry. The repentance and the sacrifice were vain. He cursed me then, and flung back my gift of high secrets. It was well. Men are small and of mortal flesh, They are not fitted to wield the power of the gods.

“The ten kingdoms ceased to be. My white horses ran where the heights of their mountains had lifted. I was weary of men, and slept. Till stirring in a dream it came to me that the sacred thing flung away by Azaes was again in the hands of a mortal. Give it me now, that I may rest and once more forget your race and its ingratitudes.”

Here the voice subsided again into murmurous wave noises, and from that to silence. For a long time there was no sound in the cabin save the breathing of the two human beings prisoned there and the beating of their hearts. The voice at last spoke again.

“You have shielded yourself against me with a strong shield — the devotion of two souls greater and purer than yours. But only one of them stands beside you now, and that one may not avail. Nor shall the noble be sacrificed with the ignoble. Presently you shall stand alone against me, and thereafter — your lone will against mine!”

The doors opened and closed, and the two humans were once more alone.

“And Uncle Jesse wouldn’t say anything, except to tell me again that I must help him by holding steady, and that he was nearly sure even yet that he couldn’t take the box nor do any violence to us unless we weakened. But he was wrong,” sobbed Leilah. “After a while the tall man — the captain — came and opened the door. It was daylight outside. I could see him. I knew that he was not the one who had come and talked to us in the dark, but he looked so strange — like a — like a dead man.”

“No more!” pleaded Vanaman.

“I must finish. He didn’t touch my uncle, but he took hold of me and dragged me away. Uncle Jesse just stood there, swearing, and holding the thing be wouldn’t give up.

“I was carried up a flight of steps to a kind of high deck. Everywhere the wood of the ship looked as it had felt in the cabin. It was slimy, black-soft-looking. When I struggled free for a minute, my feet sank into the deck as if it was rotten with age. I looked down into the ship. There was a kind of narrow platform along the center. On each side of it were three rows of seats one above the other. The shafts of the oars thrust in over them, and there was one man at each oar. I call them men — they seemed to be alive — but their faces — I never saw a drowned body, but I’ve heard that one has been in the water a few days its face —”

“Forget that part!” insisted Vanaman almost fiercely. “You mustn’t dwell on such memories. Try to think of them as a bad dream, and forget.”

“I’ll try,” she conceded. “At the time I wasn’t so much afraid of the ship or crew, as I was of being taken, away from Uncle Jesse. I knew he needed me, and in the struggle I had grown too excited to be much afraid. Then I saw the steamer lying a little way off, and screamed, thinking help might be sent to us. I fought hard to get back to uncle, but the captain picked me up and — and threw me overboard, I suppose. After he lifted me from the deck I don’t remember any more till I woke up in the stateroom that had been made ready for poor Uncle Jesse aboard here. And now, what are we going to do?”

“Save your uncle, if he can be saved. I’ve ceased trying to explain the affair on any grounds. But if we caught Red Dolphin once we can probably do it again, and if you were brave enough to fight against being dropped off that ship, I guess I’ve got the courage to go aboard it. I’ll find Porter now and lay the case before him.”

“You are — good!”

They had both risen and stood facing one another. For some reason, the Robinson millions seemed very small, far away, and unimportant just then. Looking into that lovely, upturned face, Vanaman came perilously near forgetting the millions and explaining to their probable heir just exactly why he would risk his life, or his soul, or any other trifle in his possession to rescue a man he despised from a fate he had brought on himself.

By a great effort, he overcame the impulse and turned away with only a word or so, advising her to lie down and rest while he interviewed the captain.

Porter seemed rather surprised to see him on his feet again so soon, but was also glad of the chance to talk over recent events with a man who at least knew more of their causes than he did.

The two repaired to the chart-room’s convenient privacy, and there the doctor frankly and fully laid bare all those facts concerning the green box with which Porter was not already familiar.

“The only thing to be done,” he said in conclusion, “is to try and trace Red Dolphin as we did before — by wireless.”

Porter’s weather-beaten face had remained gravely inscrutable throughout the narrative. Now a flash of some emotion flickered across it. “Wait here a minute.”

He paused outside and was back shortly, carrying something that he flung down on the table. Then he wiped his hands, as if from some distasteful contact.

“By that,” he said slowly, “I judge it won’t be worth while to attempt any further tracing of Red Dolphin.”

The thing he had flung down was a fragment of wood, or what had once been wood. There were some rotted indications of carving on it. Sponge-soft, slimy, and water-soaked, it might have been riven from some ancient wreck, lain lost for ages in the black ooze at sea-bottom.

“Don’t ask me how wood in the condition of that stuff could float,” Porter continued. “All I know is, it’s a bit off Red Dolphin’s stem, and there were a lot of other scraps like it drifting around when the storm blew over. I picked this one up just to make sure what it was, and kept it to show you. Now I’ve shown it to you, it’s going overboard. Believe me, doctor, I’ve had enough of Red Dolphin, whole or in pieces. As for my charterer and his precious green box, I say this:

“If that story you’ve told me is true — I believe it — then I admire Mr. Robinson’s nerve, but I can’t admire his judgement. He set himself against a power just step lower than that of the Almighty. What? Oh, yes, I can believe that the big fellow out there” — he waved his hand in a sweeping, significant gesture — “has a life and will of his own. If you’d spent most of your life in his company, like Blair and me, you wouldn’t be so slow to believe it yourself, doctor. Come out on deck. I’d sooner keep a drowned body aboard than this bit of his ship.”

Gingerly he again raised the rotted fragment and the doctor followed him in silence to the taffrail. Flung far out, the fragment was instantly lost in the boiling wake.

“I like Robinson’s nerve!” repeated Porter solemnly.

Astern the foaming wake stretched eastward across a field of lucent green, where a clear sun struck the following host of wave-crests to dazzling whiteness.

“At least,” the doctor said abruptly, “we are no pagan worshipers to sacrifice white horses to Poseidon. If the secrets of lost Atlantis were enshrined in that casket —”

“It was God’s will that they be returned to the abyss,” finished Porter.

The doctor made no reply. His mind had strayed from the weary mystery that had kept him in torment for a week to wonder exactly how this final news of her avuncular relative would affect Leilah — and himself. The old hawk was dead now, and his niece presumably a very wealthy woman in her own right.

Fortune-hunter! Wasn’t it after all a kind of quitter’s cowardice to place dread of the world’s empty opinion above the most sacred and beautiful happiness a man may win to?

Suddenly, savagely he smote the rail with his fist.

“‘What I want I get, and what I get I keep!’”

“Eh?” cried Porter, startled.

The doctor turned on him, his brown eyes very bright and resolute.

“That was old Robinson’s motto,” he explained. “It carried him too far and to his grave. But, believe me, Captain Porter, applied in the right way, it’s a motto worth having! I’ll take it as my legacy from a man who surely owed me one. I’m going below. See you later.”

A straight, fine-looking, good and resolute man, he swung off toward the main companionway. Like the dread being who had recovered the green casket, he meant to claim his own.

This web edition published by:

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University of Adelaide
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http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/s/stevens/francis/claimed/chapter15.html

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