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With these, to Jimmy's infinite alarm, he approached the very packing-case behind which the boy was hiding, and without waste of time set to work in a manner that was at once business-like and guilty. With a series of smart taps of the hammer, he drove in the chisel in several places under the lid, which he then proceeded to prise open. It took him five minutes or more to complete his task. He seemed anxious to do the job as silently as he could; but he appeared in no hurry, for he paused frequently to listen, and did not continue with his work until he was assured that no one was on deck.
All this time Jimmy was crouching low behind the packing-case, which the man was opening from the other side. Though they were hidden from view of one another, they could not have been more than two yards apart. It was a situation which might have been comical, had it not been fraught with danger.
The lid of the box opened with that peculiar squeaking noise which invariably accompanies the drawing of nails from out of soft, new wood. Apparently the man removed from the top of the box a certain amount of brown paper and waterproof sheeting; and then, on seeing its contents, he gave vent to a loud exclamation, which might have been anything from an expression of satisfaction to an oath.
A moment after, he turned upon his heel, and went back for his lantern; and then it was that Jimmy seized the opportunity to gratify the curiosity which by now had taken the place of alarm in his somewhat heated brain. There was a wide crack in the lid of the box through which it was possible to see; and placing his eye to this, he found himself looking down into a box that was filled with, at least, two dozen Lee-Metford rifles.
He crouched down again, as the man drew near once more. He had still no desire to be caught. He had not yet had time to think matters out; it was all too much of a mystery. He could not associate three facts: his own presence in the hold, the box full of rifles, and the man who had come like a thief, who now closed the lid, hammering in the nails as quietly as he could, and who then, without the slightest warning, swinging his lantern in his hand, stepped round the box-and came face to face with Jimmy.
The boy jumped to his feet. He had no thought of escape; and even had that been so, his case was hopeless, for he was seized immediately by the lapel of his coat.
"By James!" let out the sailor. "And who are you?"
Jimmy Burke was altogether speechless; for, looking up, in the bright light of the lantern, he found himself confronted by the seamed and heavy features of Rudolf Stork.
CHAPTER VIII-A False Witness
It was the face of Rudolf Stork. It was the same face that Jimmy had seen on that other occasion when he had been discovered hiding in the cupboard in Rosencrantz's office-with this difference, Stork had now grown a beard.
It was a black beard-coal black, and short and crisp-that made the man look more villainous than ever.Though it hid the cruel wrinkles about his mouth, it made it seem as if his lower jaw protruded like a gorilla's. Before, Stork had looked both fierce and cunning; he now gave one the impression of being akin to a savage beast.
"It's you!" cried Stork, and repeated the words several times as if unable to believe the evidence of his eyes. "It's you! By thunder, what's the game?"
"A stowaway," said Jimmy.
"A stowaway!" said the man. "I don't need telling that when I find you skulking here at dead of night, and the ship two days from port."
"Take me to the captain," said the boy. "I am ready to take the penalty for what I have done."
"You are?" said Stork. Then he must have remembered something, for thrusting his tongue into his cheek, he rolled his eyes. "Easy now," said he. "These cards must be carefully played. A stowaway!" he cried. "I'll not believe it."
"I have not denied it," answered Jimmy.
"Because you're something worse," let out the other.
"Yes, worse. We're on the high seas, where a man can speak his mind without fear of contradiction; and if I choose to lay a charge who's to gainsay me? Answer me that."
"I don't understand," said Jimmy Burke.
"Ye don't, and small credit to your wits. Here's me, Rudolf Stork, a ship's carpenter, and an honest man, who goes into the hold on right and lawful business. And there what do I find prying among the cargo, like a muzzled ferret in a ditch, but a brat of a German spy, caught red-handed at his work."
Stork pointed at the packing-case upon which he had laid his chisel and hammer.
"But these tools are yours!" cried Jimmy, who now felt his cheeks burning in indignation.
"Just so," said Stork. "I left them here this morning."
Jimmy gasped. It was not easy to believe that such outrageous perfidy were possible. Indeed, it took him some little time to realize the full meaning of the man's words. But the more he thought of it the more apparent it became that he would find it extremely difficult to prove his innocence. How was he to convince Captain Crouch of the truth-that it was Stork himself who was a spy? The captain would laugh in his face. Such a retort is the common experience of fools. The cry of "You're another!" is the wit of the gutter-snipe that can never carry conviction. Jimmy recognized, with a growing sense of alarm, that in all probability he would shortly find himself in the position of an accused man who had no evidence to call on his own behalf.
"Do you mean to say," he exclaimed, "that you intend to accuse me of the very crime of which you yourself are guilty?"
"I'm here," said Stork, quite calmly, "to bandy words with no one. If I say you're guilty, then guilty you are, unless you can prove contrariwise. Which isn't likely so far as I can see."
Upon the man's face there was an expression of half-amused contempt. He had the appearance of being wholly confident and quite unperturbed. A sort of half-smile played about his lips. This augured ill for Jimmy, who realized that in Rudolf Stork he had an opponent who was both without a sense of honour and well practised in the art of deceiving others.
The man picked up his lantern, which, whilst speaking to Jimmy, he had set down upon the ground, and then turned to go. It was then that the boy made a quick movement forward in the direction of the iron ladder that led to the deck above.
"We'll go together," he cried. "Your story and mine are not likely to agree."
At that, Stork whipped round with a kind of snarl, and without a word of warning, and clenching his fist, he dealt the boy a swinging blow in the face that sent him reeling backward.
Jimmy staggered, stumbled and fell. For a moment he was half dazed. He could still see-but indistinctly, as if through a gauze screen-the flare of Stork's lantern which swung up and down, as the ship rolled from side to side.
By the time the boy had recovered his senses sufficiently to scramble to his feet he was again in utter darkness. The great boxes and bales of cargo were only just discernible in the dim light that came through the opened hatchway above. There, he could see a few stars, appearing at odd moments, to vanish almost immediately behind the narrow, long-drawn clouds that streaked a wind-blown sky. He could hear the waves, one after the other, beating violently against the sides of the ship, the water washing over the decks and along the scuttles, the rigging creaking, and the long chain of the steam steering-gear jolting, from time to time, as the great strain of a heavy sea was brought to bear upon the rudder. And then four bells rang out; it was two o'clock in the morning.
Jimmy, crossing the hold, reached the iron ladder, and set foot upon the bottom rung. The very moment he did so the figures of two men appeared upon the well-deck above, one of whom Jimmy recognized at once as Stork.
"He's in there?" asked a voice.
"Aye, aye, sir," answered Stork. "I found him at work among the cargo like a half-starved rat."
"Get down," said Captain Crouch, for the other voice was his; "go down and fish him out."
Stork was not slow to obey the captain's orders; and a moment later the stowaway found himself upon the deck, standing ankle-deep in running water, face to face with a man who was not so tall as the boy himself, and who was clothed in a suit of bright red pyjamas, the trousers of which were rolled up to his knees, so that the lower part of his legs was bare.
"Bring him along to my cabin," said Crouch. "I'll not stand talking here; it's a trifle too cold, I'm thinking, for a man who has spent a good slice of his life in the equatorial parts."
The captain led the way to the main-deck. As he ran up the companion-ladder on the starboard side, Jimmy noticed how extremely agile he was in all his movements. Though at this time of his life Captain Crouch must have been approaching fifty years of age, he was as active as a young man; and, indeed, had it not been for his cork foot, he would have been prepared to back himself in a hundred yards race against any man of not less than half his years.
On board the "Harlech" the captain's cabin was situated at the forward end of the main-deck, immediately under the bridge and next to the chart-room. Here an oil lamp was burning which Crouch turned up so high that the chimney smoked. He then picked up his pipe, filled it with his terrible and strange tobacco, and seating himself upon a plush-covered divan, proceeded to fill the room with smoke.
Stork, holding Jimmy by the sleeve of his coat, in much the same manner as a policeman takes his charge to the nearest station, led the boy into the room, and then closed the door.
"Now," said Crouch, "where's your evidence?"
Jimmy interposed. Thrusting forward both hands, in the attitude of one who begs for mercy, he implored to be allowed to speak. But Crouch, by describing a series of imaginary circles in the air with the stem of his pipe, intimated that he desired Jimmy to remain silent.
"One thing at a time," said he, "as my friend, Ned Harden, observed, when he shot a crocodile with one barrel and a rhino with the other. That was with an old-fashioned shot-and-ball gun that he got from a trader at Lokoja, in the days when there weren't above ten white men on the Upper Niger. I hear the evidence for the prosecution first, which-to the best of my belief-is in accordance with the law. Afterwards, my lad, you'll have full opportunity to speak. And now, then, what's the charge?"
Rudolf Stork told his story with simplicity, and a kind of easy tolerance, as if he was really a little bored; and though he was cleverly cross-examined by Captain Crouch, never once did he contradict his former statements. Had his evidence been given on oath, he would have perjured himself with no less assurance and without hesitation. His manner, no less than the directness of his narrative, would have deceived any jury in the world. And in any case, Captain Crouch-one who knew more than his fair share of the tricks of rogues and the ways of evil men-was led to a firm conviction that the boy was really guilty.
Stork lied his soul away-or what can remain of a soul in a man who has sunk to such great depths of infamy. He swore that he had been working in the hold that very morning, and had gone back to fetch his chisel and hammer. He had found the stowaway in the very act of opening one of the packing-cases, which he had discovered were filled with new short service-rifles for the British Army.
Crouch, when he heard this, made a wry face, and looked at Jimmy. He had not forgotten that Mr. Jason had warned him that he might find German spies on board; and though there was no direct proof, the evidence, as given by Rudolf Stork, was very black against the boy. He had no reason to doubt Stork's word. The man had been engaged at New York with a good character, and he seemed a capable ship's carpenter, who understood his work.
"Speak up, my lad," said Crouch-the expression upon whose thin, wizened face had hardened-"speak up, and say nothing but the truth."
Now, in those who are at all sensitive, indignation is one of the most deep-seated emotions that exist. Smarting with a sense of injured innocence, the boy's cheeks were already burning; and now, something rose in his throat as if to choke him, so that he found it difficult to speak. When words came, at last, they did so in a flood, and were only half coherent. Small wonder that Captain Crouch took all this as a sure sign that the boy was unquestionably guilty!
"I'll speak the truth, sir," poor Jimmy blurted out. "I know for a fact that it is this man, and not myself, who is a German spy. He is in the pay of the Prussian Secret Service, and was engaged in New York by a certain Baron von Essling, as he himself knows quite well. As for me, I came on board this ship as a stowaway, because I wanted to go to England. I wished to serve my country."
Crouch sprang suddenly to his feet.
"Enough of this!" he roared. "Do I look like a man who would swallow a yarn like that? My word, they're not over-squeamish when they take on a boy like you to do their dirty work. I've heard tell of women spies, but I never guessed they would employ mere children for the game."
"Sir," cried Jimmy, "I swear, I speak the truth."
"I'll hear no more!" Crouch almost shouted. "You know well enough that the penalty for a spy in time of war is death. I'm not quite certain whether I should be acting according to the law, if I strung you up to the yard-arm like a dead crow in a cornfield. And then, there's the cat-o'-nine-tails. Maybe, you've heard of that? If you had proved to be no more than a simple stowaway, I should have had a sort of kindred feeling; for, I ran away to sea myself, and so did Dawes, and many another sailor who's worth the salt he eats. When I was a boy, the 'cat' was not unheard of; but, nowadays, I doubt if I'd be within my rights in using it upon the likes of you."
It was then, at last, that poor Jimmy Burke broke down. He could suppress neither the sobs that were surging in his breast nor the tears that he felt rushing to his eyes. Falling into a chair that stood vacant at his elbow, he buried his face in his hands.
For a full minute his shoulders shook and trembled; and when he looked up, his face was all streamed and marked with tears. He saw that Crouch's lips were pressed tight together; there was an expression of settled and immovable resolution upon the face of the little captain. But, the bitterest blow of all was that Rudolf Stork was laughing, his white teeth visible in the blackness of his beard.
"I'm innocent!" let out the boy.
"You can prove that in Court," said Crouch. "The very moment we are tied up in Portsmouth Harbour, I hand you over to the police. You shall have a fair trial, with a proper judge in a wig and all the rest of it; and if you're not a dead man at the end of it, this here foot's not cork."
By way of illustration of this last remark, Crouch thrust forward his cork foot which-as was quite apparent-was fastened to his bare leg by means of several straps.
"And as for the voyage," he added, "you'll work on board this ship like a galley-slave. For every knot of your journey to the Solent, you shall pay in honest labour. You can polish brasses, swab decks, wash paint, and peel potatoes, and do ought else that you can lay a hand to. Moreover, you'll report yourself every hour, from eight bells in the morning to the end of the second dog-watch, to the officer on the bridge. You'll sleep in the forecastle, and under observation. I'll not trust you out of sight. You say you're an Englishman, perhaps you may be; if so, the more disgrace to England. But, it's my belief you're a Yankee, English born, who has sold his immortal soul to the German Empire. There's many such in the States; in my thinking, they are all Germans-every mother's son of them; and I tell you frankly, I abominate them all without discrimination. And so, my lad, you've heard my mind, and you know what I think of you and those you serve. One last word of advice: as long as you're on board this ship, steer clear of me. I'm not a man who jumps rashly to conclusions, but I've sized you up according to the lights you show; and it's not probable I'll change my mind. And now," he added, turning to Stork, "take him to the fo'c'sle."
Side by side, without a word, Stork and Jimmy crossed the forward well-deck. Jimmy walked as in a dream. During the last hour so many things had happened that he found it difficult to realize that he had, indeed, been found guilty of being a German spy. In this world are traps and opportunities for tripping us all, in the most unexpected places.
For the rest of that night, poor Jimmy lay sleepless, heartbroken and disconsolate, upon a hard forecastle bunk. Things had not happened as he had either hoped or feared. He was in the very depths of despair. He had acted rashly, he knew, in endeavouring to leave America as a stowaway on board a merchant ship. But he had acted with the best of motives, from a fitting sense of patriotism. He had dreamed of the Great War, or as much of it as he had been able to imagine from the pictures he had seen in the illustrated papers. He had dreamed of flying Uhlans, captured trenches, charging hussars and cuirassiers-and now, he had been threatened with the "cat." Assuredly, there are pitfalls for us all!
CHAPTER IX-The "Dresden"
Captain Crouch was a man who seldom-if ever-made up his mind in a hurry. It was his custom to consider every aspect of a question before he came to any definite decision; but, when once his opinions had been formed, he was not disposed to alter them. He was a hard man in many ways-one who, having had everything against him from the start, had had to make his own way in a world that is not so charitable as some may think. That Captain Crouch had made a great success of life, there can be no shadow of doubt; and it is equally certain that he was never indebted to any one throughout the whole course of his career-except later on (as we shall see) to Jimmy Burke himself.
In this particular case, he had made up his mind that Jimmy was a German spy. He had heard both sides of the question, and saw no reason to doubt the word of Rudolf Stork. In consequence, for more reasons than one, he was determined to have nothing to do with Jimmy. Not only did he hand over the stowaway for safe custody to Mr. Dawes the chief officer, but he gave strict injunctions that Jimmy was to keep out of his way-as far as that could be possible on a ship of not five thousand tons.
Life in the forecastle of an ocean tramp has little or no joys to one who has been brought up, if not in luxury, at least in decency and comfort. For the first week, the weather continued to be rough; it was bitterly cold, and they saw little of the sun. The boy had no friends on board; for the members of the crew-who laughed and joked together on the forward well-deck after working hours-following the example of the captain and the ship's officers, believed in their hearts that the boy was, indeed, a German spy, and treated him with undisguised and due contempt. From dawn to sunset, Jimmy went about his work practically ignored. No one spoke to him, except to give him orders; and these he received, not only from the chief officer and Stork, but also from any one else who happened to require assistance.
In these circumstances-as may easily be imagined-the boy was utterly miserable and almost broken-hearted. There were nights when he found it impossible to sleep, but lay awake, hour upon hour, writhing under the great wrong that had been done him.
He soon learnt to give up all hope of ever explaining matters to Captain Crouch. He could not fail to see that he must bear his wrongs as bravely as he might. Nor could he find any sympathizer amongst the crew; one and all, they were loyal Britishers-with the sole exception of Rudolf Stork-and as such were heartily against him. Had he been subjected to physical cruelty, had he been thrashed and kicked and beaten, his lot would have been easier to bear. He thought it all out, time and again, in the darkness of the night, while the ship was ploughing her way eastward across the great Atlantic, and always came to the same sorrowful conclusion: that there was nothing he could do, but find courage in the knowledge of his own innocence, and keep an eye upon Stork.
He knew Stork to be a spy. That no one else was likely to believe it made it none the less true that, to the boy's certain knowledge, the man's services had been engaged by Rosencrantz and the Baron von Essling. Stork, beyond doubt, was on his way to England on some secret business. It was quite possible that the man had in his possession incriminating documents and papers. Jimmy realized that, if he could but find this out for certain, he would be able to convince Crouch not only of his own innocence, but of Stork's indubitable guilt.
It was this vague hope that buoyed Jimmy's spirits during the first five or six days of the voyage. By then, they had reached mid-ocean, where the presence of the Gulf Stream, and a welcome change of weather, had raised the temperature by, at least, twenty degrees. Jimmy had already discovered that Stork kept a sea-chest under his bunk in the forecastle-a strong chest, iron-bound and made of oak, fastened both by an ordinary lock and a padlock, the keys of which Stork kept on a chain, along with a jack-knife and a whistle.
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