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In fact, Crouch was a man to whom adventure was as the very breath of his nostrils; the spirit of adventure flowed in the blood of his veins. He sought perilous enterprises because his idea of life was danger, because he understood that in this world the main duty of man was to accomplish. And Crouch accomplished much. He was one of the pioneers of civilization, one of those who go before the flag that trade is said to follow. He was as much out of his element in a comfortable armchair before a winter's fireside, as a backwoodsman in a boudoir. He belonged to the life of the open air, of the free and rolling sea. Indeed, it may even be said that his little, shrunk and wizened figure was a kind of stormy petrel: his very presence was a certain signal that danger and adventure were at hand.
And thus, it is hardly likely, on the face of things, that at the outbreak of the Great War such a man would remain idle for long. Even had he not sought employment of his own free will, there were those who knew of him by reputation, who were only too eager to enlist his services.
He had been found in London, at the Explorers' Club in Bond Street, which is a great place of a winter's evening, where you may hear tales which are as wonderful as they are true. He had been asked to leave at once for New York, on a certain dangerous mission. He had been given five minutes in which to make up his mind; and that was exactly four minutes and fifty-nine seconds longer than he required.
He arrived in New York in a sailor's jacket, with brass buttons which would have been none the worse for a polish. He wore a flaming red tie, and gum boots such as seamen wear when the decks are running with salt water and the funnels white with foam. His face was as wrinkled as a date, the colour of tan, beaten for years by sun and wind and rain. His nose was large, and hooked like an eagle's. He had a small moustache, and beneath his underlip a little imperial beard, which he was wont to tug whenever he was vexed or deep in thought. As he entered the spacious offices of Jason, Stileman and May, he carried in his right hand a seaman's kit-bag, and in the other, a small mahogany box about six inches long.
He was greeted by Peggy Wade.
"Captain Crouch?" she asked.
"Miss," said he, "the same."
"Mr. Jason is expecting you," said Peggy. "Will you be so good as to wait?"
Crouch regarded Peggy. The girl-whose own custom it was to look people straight in the face-found the penetrating and unflinching stare of Captain Crouch a somewhat trying ordeal.
"You're a well-spoken lass," said he, at last, "and well looking, too. Come, stay there a bit," he added, seeing that Peggy made as if to go; "stay there a bit, my girl. I'll polish up the glass eye, and have a better look at you."
And at that, to Peggy's horror and consternation, Crouch slipped out his glass eye, threw it up in the air and caught it, as though it had been a marble, and then proceeded to polish it violently on the shiny sleeve of his coat.
That done, he put it back again in the socket, and looked at Peggy even harder than before.
"Seems fair," said he."You're a lass after my own heart; neat, trim and ship-shape. I've half a mind to adopt you."
Peggy could not restrain a smile.
"I don't know," she said, "that I ever exactly wished to be adopted."
Crouch looked thoroughly amazed.
"Why, my girl," said he, quite slowly, shaking his head in a doleful manner, "you've no right notion what kind of man I am. I could tell you stories that would make that curly hair of yours stand right up on end, like the bristles on the neck of a pig. And maybe, some day, p'raps, you'd learn to love me-like a father."
To speak the truth, Peggy was by now a little frightened. In all of her somewhat limited experience, she had never come across such an extraordinary and eccentric individual. She knew nothing then of Crouch's iron will and dauntless courage; she knew nothing of his deeds upon the Congo or Aruwimi. She had more than a suspicion that the little sea-captain was not quite right in the head.
"I think," she said, "I had better tell Mr. Jason you are here."
"No haste," said Crouch. "My cargo won't be aboard till daybreak to-morrow morning, and I reckon all he has got to say to me won't take above ten minutes."
None the less, Peggy thought it advisable to announce the little sea-captain's arrival to Mr. Jason, Junior, the New York agent, and a nephew of the senior partner of the firm. Mr. Jason, who just then was busy at the telephone, replied that he would see Captain Crouch in a minute, and Peggy returned to the waiting-room.
The following incident-though of little value in itself-goes a long way to prove that Captain Crouch was both an observant man upon whom little or nothing was lost, whose single eye was as good as most men's two, and one who was by no means devoid of sentiment and consideration for others.
"My lass," said he, the moment Peggy entered, "a halved sixpence is a lover's token. Who gave it you?"
At first, Peggy was inclined to resent this blunt allusion, which she regarded as a little too personal. Only the night before, she had bade farewell to Jimmy, and even then tears were not so far from her eyes. She had hung her half of the lucky sixpence around her neck on a little chain; and she saw no reason why she should confide her innermost feelings to Captain Crouch, who, after all, was a stranger.
Now, this-as we have said-to the everlasting credit of the little, wizened captain: somewhere beneath his hardened visage, his rough manners and his almost violent way of talking, there was a heart as soft as a woman's. He saw, at once, that Peggy's feelings had been hurt, that he had touched a tender chord, and he did his best to make amends. When he spoke again, it was in a voice quite different, much softer and full of sympathy.
"I've no wish, my lass," said he, "to pry into your secrets. I only asked, because I took a kind of fancy to you, the moment I saw you; and that, as a general rule, is not my way with women. I'm a single man. I've never married for two reasons: first, no one wanted to marry me; second, I never wanted to. I can only remember two women in my life with whom-as I might say-I was ever on speaking terms. One was my landlady in Pimlico, who thought she knew more about cooking than I did; and the other was an old negress, black as a lump of charcoal, who did my washing at Sierra Leone. She weighed seventeen stone, and was about as broad as an oil-tank steamer in the Bosphorus. So if I've hurt your feelings, miss, you must forgive a rough sea-faring man, who has had his port-light put out by a poisoned arrow, and who doesn't know any better."
And at that, he held out a hand so eagerly and frankly that Peggy could not refrain from taking it.
She experienced then, for the first time, what manner of a man was Captain Crouch-if a shake of the hand counts for anything, as it is generally thought to do. Indeed, he gripped her hand so tightly that she was obliged to wince; and noticing that, he forthwith apologized, by telling her once again that he was an old sea-dog more used to marling-spikes than lassies.
"I'm sorry," said Peggy, "I was so foolish as to think you too inquisitive."
"Say no more," said Crouch.
"But, I will," she took him up. "There's no reason why you shouldn't know, for this sixpence once belonged to a sailor."
"I know the breed," said Crouch, "and just because he was a sailor, I guarantee he never kept it long."
Peggy laughed aloud, and shook her head.
"He kept it many years," she answered, "for this lucky sixpence once saved his life. You can see for yourself," she went on, "it is dented and covered with lead from a bullet. It belonged to an Admiral, whose name was 'Swiftsure Burke.'"
Captain Crouch drove the fist of one hand into the palm of the other.
"Known throughout the Navy," he exclaimed, "and to every right-thinking sailor that ever sailed the ocean who takes a pride in the job! Admiral 'Swiftsure Burke' of Sebastopol. Lass, you've got a jewel in that lucky sixpence that I wouldn't exchange for a diamond as big as a monkey-nut. Stick to it, and you'll come to no harm. It's what, in a manner of speaking, you might call a talisman. It'll protect you from fire, shipwreck, sudden death and the Income Tax. You're in luck's way, my girl."
Now Captain Crouch was a man who knew that God alone could give good fortune, or permit evil to fall upon one, but he had all a sailor's superstition and belief in omens and talismans, and was quite sincere in what he said to Peggy.
It was then that the door of the inner office was thrown open, and Mr. Jason, Junior, entered the room. He was a man who could not have been more than thirty-four years of age, clean-shaven and a little prematurely bald. He was immaculately dressed, a small orchid in his buttonhole and a pair of exceedingly shiny patent leather boots making him look as if he had just come out of a bandbox.
"Captain Crouch," said he, coming forward, and holding out a hand, "I'm delighted to see you. I have a very important matter to discuss. Miss Wade," he added, turning to Peggy, "if any one else calls, you will say I am engaged."
At that, he conducted Captain Crouch into his office, and was careful to close the door.
Crouch seated himself in a comfortable chair. As for Mr. Jason, he walked backwards and forwards from the hearthrug to the writing-desk, with the restless activity of a man who has something on his mind.
"Captain Crouch," he repeated, speaking abruptly, "I can scarcely exaggerate the extremely perilous nature of the task I have undertaken. I sent for you, because I know no other man to whom I would care to entrust so great a responsibility."
Crouch yawned, and thrusting a hand into one of his coat pockets, produced a tobacco-pouch, made of snake-skin, and about as large as a letter-case.
"Mr. Jason," said he, "with your permission, I'll light a pipe. Maybe, you've no objection to Bull's Eye Shag. There's some people that don't hold with it, but I don't suppose that would apply to you."
Now, Mr. Jason knew Crouch's tobacco of old, and he knew that it was powerful and pungent enough to fumigate anything from an isolation hospital to a greenhouse. It was a brand of tobacco-if the truth be told-for which there was no great demand, since he who smoked it required the digestive organs of an ostrich. Its aroma would cling to a bare room for days. The path of Captain Crouch through this populous and sinful world was strewn with dead flies, wasps and beetles which had been poisoned by the fumes of his tobacco.
Accordingly, Mr. Jason-though he gave Crouch full permission to light his pipe-took the double precaution of opening the window and lighting one of his strongest cigars. Then, still pacing the room, he fired at the little sea-captain a series of questions in a quick, nervous voice.
"When will the 'Harlech' be loaded?"
"To-night, sir. Soon after nine."
"With what kind of cargo?"
"You should know that as well as I," said Crouch. "There's a few tons of oats, a certain amount of machinery, and several cases of rifles."
"Ah," said Mr. Jason.
"I said so," said the other, looking hard at the agent, whose conduct was rather strange. Mr. Jason repeated over and over again, as if to himself, the one word "rifles," and was then silent for more than a minute, puffing vigorously at his cigar.
"I suppose you've heard," said he, at last, "that several German cruisers and commerce destroyers are abroad on the Atlantic?"
"I've heard tell of it," said Crouch, quite unmoved.
"Exactly. There is the 'Kronprinz Wilhelm' and the 'K?nigsberg,' and moreover, the 'Karlsruhe' and the 'Dresden.' Also-as, perhaps, you know-the English Channel and the Irish Sea are said to be swarming with enemy submarines, sent out from Wilhelmshaven and Kiel. You realize all that, of course?"
"Seems fair," said Crouch. "I'm ready to take my chance."
"You'll take a greater chance than you think," said Mr. Jason.
"How so, sir?"
"The fact is," said the agent, drawing nearer to the captain, and speaking in a voice that was little above a whisper; "the fact is, that although the cases are not marked, there is some reason to suppose that German agents in New York suspect that the 'Harlech' has a cargo of small-arms for the British Government."
Crouch whistled softly to himself.
"You mean," said he, "there's a chance that the secret has leaked out. This place teems with spies."
"I can say no more," said Mr. Jason, "than that we suspect; but, these times, we can be sure of nothing. It is quite possible that the German commerce destroyers may be warned, and you will be run down in mid-ocean. There may even be spies on board."
"If I find one," said Crouch, "I'll know how to deal with him."
"That's not the point," said the other. "Are you willing to take the risk?"
Captain Crouch got to his feet, carefully knocked out his pipe in the fire-grate, and then thrust his peaked sailor's cap on to the side of his head.
"Why not?" said he, at last.
Mr. Jason smiled.
"I thought you wouldn't hesitate."
"Why not?" repeated Crouch. "If those are my orders, I'll do my best to carry them out, and I'll sight the Needles and take on a pilot in the Solent, if a sound knowledge of navigation and steam coal can do it."
Mr. Jason held out a hand.
"I'm glad I sent for you," said he. "You will start to-night?"
"We'll be under way," said Crouch, "before eleven, at the latest."
"Then, good-bye-and the best of fortune."
A few minutes later, Captain Crouch, who had just taken an almost affectionate farewell of Peggy Wade, was stumping on his cork foot along the Fifth Avenue as if he owned New York.
CHAPTER VII-In the Hold
We know already that Crouch went on board that night, shortly before ten o'clock, and took over the command of the "Harlech" from Mr. Dawes, the Chief Officer-a blunt, plain-spoken Yorkshireman, who had run away to sea at the age of fourteen, and who, like Crouch himself, had worked his way from the forecastle to the bridge.
Now, Captain Crouch encircled by the atrocious perfume of his famous Bull's Eye Shag, holding forth upon the subject of his experiences in various parts of the world, and Captain Crouch upon the bridge or in the chart-room of the ship that he commanded, were two very different men. Once he set foot upon the main deck-even the very moment he grasped the gangway hand-rope-Crouch took upon himself the character of a martinet. In the very tones of his voice, one was led to understand that his word was law.
In most things-and in the art of seamanship most of all-Crouch relied upon no one but himself. He knew his job, and expected others to know theirs. He maintained an iron discipline, exacting the maximum of work from every ship's officer and member of the crew, from the cook's mate (who was not sufficiently intelligent to be trusted with anything else but the peeling of potatoes) to Mr. Dawes himself.
The first signs of daybreak were faintly visible in the east when the "Harlech" struck the ocean, where the great billows came rolling westward across three thousand miles of water, to break in clouds of foam upon the low-lying shore that extends for miles to the south of Sandy Hook. Immediately, she took on that well-known corkscrew motion-which is part roll, part pitch-that finds out the land-lubber soon enough, and often tests the sea legs of even an old, weather-beaten sailor.
Now, when a ship does this, he who has ever known the true and inward meaning of mal de mer-which is a polite word for sea-sickness-will be well advised to keep himself amidships and on deck. And Jimmy Burke was neither one nor the other.
With the hatchway closed and the engine-room adjacent, the hold had become quite hot and stuffy. When the bows dipped in the waves and the white spray flew wide above the forecastle-peak, the poop rose like a hunter at a five-bar gate, to fall again quite suddenly, as if descending to the nether regions. Moreover, when the stern part of the ship was clear of the water, even for a moment, the screw raced as if demented, shaking the old tramp so violently that it seemed as if every bolt and bar and rivet must sooner or later be jangled out of place.
Three hours of this, and poor Jimmy Burke believed, indeed, that his last hour had come. He had long since consumed his loaf of bread; and no doubt the pangs of hunger, added to the constant darkness and the stifling atmosphere in which he was forced to remain, did much to augment the symptoms of an illness from which surely the grandson of "Swiftsure Burke" should never have suffered. However, we record plain facts, and the whole truth must out: the boy was incontestably sea-sick.
For all that, he would not accept defeat. Though he yearned for a breath of fresh air, though he felt that he could stand no longer this intolerable, impenetrable darkness, he would not climb the iron ladder leading to the hatch and cry out for help. As he knew well enough, the ship was not yet so far away from the coast; and Crouch might put about and set the stowaway ashore at some forsaken port where the boy would be stranded and even further from his goal than on the day he left New York.
In this life, there is a maxim above all others to remember: that Providence helps only those that help themselves. Each man works out his own position. God has given to all of us, to some freely, to others sparingly, talents and attainments. It is for us to be always true to ourselves, to make the best use of what abilities we have, and continually to strive. And then, often, when a fainter heart would have ceased to hope, we find ourselves on a sudden face to face with the realization of our dreams.
So was it now with Jimmy Burke, sea-sick and disconsolate. He was resolute by nature. Right or wrong, he had made up his mind; he had chosen his own course after due deliberation. He was sorely tried-as, no doubt, he deserved to be-but he meant to go through with it, cost him what it might. As we shall see, all that follows hangs upon the fact that he remained until that night in the silence and darkness of the after-hold. Had he become faint-hearted, had he made known his presence on the ship, the fate of a certain German submarine-the U93-would never have been sealed in such a manner as it was. And thus, we see how in this world all happenings are strung together in what may be called a "chain of circumstance," wherein each link, or separate component part, is quite unlike its fellows.
When night fell, the ship was far out at sea. And this was the third night that Jimmy had spent on board. He had no way of telling the hour, except that during the night-time he could hear neither footsteps on the well-deck above nor the moving of chains and hawsers. The ship's bell was forward, and could not be heard in the hold so long as the hatch was closed.
The ship still rolled considerably. The storm showed no sign of abating. There is nothing more exhausting than sea-sickness; and during these three interminable days the boy experienced little difficulty either in falling asleep or remaining asleep for hours.
How long he slept in the earlier part of the night he was never afterwards able to say. He was conscious of waking with a start, and sat bolt upright, listening, not knowing what he expected to hear.
Suddenly, with alarming clearness, three strokes of a bell smote upon the silence of the night.
Jimmy was more than a little surprised. He had heard nothing during the whole term of his self-imposed imprisonment but the constant creaking of the ship, the throbbing of the engines, the persistent gnawing sound of rats, and the periodical groaning of the steam steering-gear. Never before had the ship's bell been audible in the depths of the after-hold. The conclusion was obvious: one of the after-hatchways had been opened. Also, it was three bells of the middle watch, or-in other words-half-past one in the morning.
The boy got stealthily to his feet, and peered over an enormous packing-case, behind which he had been sleeping. Immediately, it was as if he was blinded by the bright light of a lantern, not ten yards from where he stood.
It took some time for his eyes to become accustomed to the glare; and then he was able to perceive the figure of a man who, holding the lantern in his hand, was slowly descending the iron ladder into the hold.
Jimmy felt his heart thumping against his ribs. He was in danger of being discovered. He even feared that in some way or other his presence on the ship had already become known, and this man had been sent to fish him out, as a salmon is landed in a net. Though he knew that the time was bound to come when he would find himself face to face with Captain Crouch, and would have to explain who he was, he dreaded it, none the less.
At the foot of the ladder the man paused and looked up, remaining for as long as a minute in an attentive attitude, as if he were listening. Then he placed the lantern on the top of a pile of boxes, and thrusting a hand into his coat pocket, produced a large chisel and a hammer.
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