CHAPTER III   THE SHADOW AND THE FIRE

It was the fourth day of the long calm. An awning had been rigged up on the poop for the passengers, and under it sat Lestrange, trying to read, and the children trying to play. The heat and monotony had reduced even Dicky to just a surly mass, languid in movement as a grub. As for Emmeline, she seemed dazed. The rag-doll lay a yard away from her on the poop deck, unnursed; even the wretched box and its whereabouts she seemed to have quite forgotten.

"Daddy!" suddenly cried Dick, who had clambered up, and was looking over the after-rail.

"What?"

"Fish!"

Lestrange rose to his feet, came aft and looked over the rail.

Down in the vague green of the water something moved, something pale and long--a ghastly form. It vanished; and yet another came, neared the surface, and displayed itself more fully. Lestrange saw its eyes, he saw the dark fin, and the whole hideous length of the creature; a shudder ran through him as he clasped Dicky.

"Ain't he fine?" said the child. "I guess, daddy, I'd pull him aboard if I had a hook. Why haven't I a hook, daddy? Why haven't I a hook, daddy?-- Ow, you're squeezin' me!"

Something plucked at Lestrange's coat: it was Emmeline--she also wanted to look. He lifted her up in his arms; her little pale face peeped over the rail, but there was nothing to see: the forms of terror had vanished, leaving the green depths untroubled and unstained.

"What's they called, daddy?" persisted Dick, as his father took him down from the rail, and led him back to the chair.

"Sharks," said Lestrange, whose face was covered with perspiration. He picked up the book he had been reading--it was a volume of Tennyson--and he sat with it on his knees staring at the white sunlit main-deck barred with the white shadows of the standing rigging.

The sea had disclosed to him a vision. Poetry, Philosophy, Beauty, Art, the love and joy of life--was it possible that these should exist in the same world as those?

He glanced at the book upon his knees, and contrasted the beautiful things in it which he remembered with the terrible things he had just seen, the things that were waiting for their food under the keel of the ship.

It was three bells--half-past three in the afternoon--and the ship's bell had just rung out. The stewardess appeared to take the children below; and as they vanished down the saloon companionway, Captain Le Farge came aft, on to the poop, and stood for a moment looking over the sea on the port side, where a bank of fog had suddenly appeared like the spectre of a country.

"The sun has dimmed a bit," said he; "I can a'most look at it. Glass steady enough--there's a fog coming up--ever seen a Pacific fog?"

"No, never."

"Well, you won't want to see another," replied the mariner, shading his eyes and fixing them upon the sea-line. The sea-line away to starboard had lost somewhat its distinctness, and over the day an almost imperceptible shade had crept.

The captain suddenly turned from his contemplation of the sea and sky, raised his head and sniffed.

"Something is burning somewhere--smell it? Seems to me like an old mat or summat. It's that swab of a steward, maybe; if he isn't breaking glass, he's upsetting lamps and burning holes in the carpet. Bless my soul, I'd sooner have a dozen Mary Anns an' their dustpans round the place than one tomfool steward like Jenkins." He went to the saloon hatch. "Below there!"

"Ay, ay, sir."

"What are you burning?"

"I an't burnin' northen, sir."

"Tell you, I smell it!"

"There's northen burnin' here, sir."

"Neither is there; it's all on deck. Something in the galley, maybe-- rags, most likely, they've thrown on the fire."

"Captain!" said Lestrange.

"Ay, ay."

"Come here, please."

Le Farge climbed on to the poop.

"I don't know whether it's my weakness that's affecting my eyes, but there seems to me something strange about the mainmast."

The main-mast near where it entered the deck, and for some distance up, seemed in motion--a corkscrew movement most strange to watch from the shelter of the awning.

This apparent movement was caused by a spiral haze of smoke so vague that one could only tell of its existence from the mirage-like tremor of the mast round which it curled.

"My God!" cried Le Farge, as he sprang from the poop and rushed forward.

Lestrange followed him slowly, stopping every moment to clutch the bulwark rail and pant for breath. He heard the shrill bird-like notes of the bosun's pipe. He saw the hands emerging from the forecastle, like bees out of a hive; he watched them surrounding the main-hatch. He watched the tarpaulin and locking-bars removed. He saw the hatch opened, and a burst of smoke--black, villainous smoke- ascend to the sky, solid as a plume in the windless air.

Lestrange was a man of a highly nervous temperament, and it is just this sort of man who keeps his head in an emergency, whilst your level-headed, phlegmatic individual loses his balance. His first thought was of the children, his second of the boats.

In the battering off Cape Horn the *Northumberland* lost several of her boats. There were left the long-boat, a quarter-boat, and the dinghy. He heard Le Farge's voice ordering the hatch to be closed and the pumps manned, so as to flood the hold; and, knowing that he could do nothing on deck, he made as swiftly as he could for the saloon companionway.

Mrs. Stannard was just coming out of the children's cabin.

"Are the children lying down, Mrs. Stannard?" asked Lestrange, almost breathless from the excitement and exertion of the last few minutes.

The woman glanced at him with frightened eyes. He looked like the very herald of disaster.

"For if they are, and you have undressed them, then you must put their clothes on again. The ship is on fire, Mrs. Stannard."

"Good God, sir!"

"Listen!" said Lestrange.

From a distance, thin, and dreary as the crying of sea-gulls on a desolate beach, came the clanking of the pumps.


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