The Ocean Wireless Boys on the Atlantic
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Nobody was in sight. Jack’s safety lay in his own heels, a fact he recognized with a quick gasp of dismay.
IN THE HOSPITAL
As he doubled the nearest corner, like a hare with the hounds close upon it, Jack uttered a wild shout for help. He hoped that somebody might hear it.
But there was no result from his appeal for aid. Were there no policemen in New York?
The street he had blindly doubled into was lined on each side by tall, dark, silent warehouses. The blank walls echoed back the sound of his flying feet and the heavy footfalls of those in pursuit.
Jack realized, with a thrill of dismay, that they were gaining on him. He heard the heavy exhalation and intake of the runners’ breaths.
Suddenly one of his pursuers whipped out a revolver and fired.
The audacity of the deed sent Jack’s heart racing faster than before. A man who would dare to fire a revolver on a New York street, dark and deserted though it was, would hardly stick at any act of violence.
“If I can’t throw them off, it’s all up with me,” thought the boy.
Another report echoed back from the shadowy walls on either side. This time the bullet came close, but it was only a random shot, for at the pace they were running nobody could take careful aim.
The effect of the closely singing bullet was to make Jack lose his nerve utterly. Blindly he plunged forward, not hearing the distant screaming of police whistles and the thunder of nightsticks as they were rapped on the pavements.
The sound of the revolver shots had aroused the police at last. From every direction they came running; but Jack, in a perfect frenzy of fear, knew nothing of all this. He did see, though, that he was coming into a better lighted quarter. A few stores and residences blossomed with lights, and help lay ahead if he could only make it in time.
Behind him he could hear only one set of footfalls now. Two of his pursuers had dropped out of the chase. The boy put forth a supreme effort, but in the very act he met with disaster. He had been running with his head down, and suddenly, just as he gave a last desperate sprint to gain the lighted quarter, he collided, crashingly, with an iron lamp-post. The boy went down as if he had been struck with a club. Fire blazed before his eyes; his senses swam, and then all became black.
It was just at this moment that a big black auto came whirling through the street. In the tonneau sat a stout, prosperous-looking man who, as he saw the sudden accident, started up and ordered his chauffeur to stop. Master and man got out and went over to the recumbent figure, and, as they did so, a hulking form glided off in the shadowy region toward the waterfront.
“The kid’s broke his head without botherin’ me to do it for him,” the man muttered as he slunk off.
“Now then, Marshall,” said the prosperous-looking man, “give me a hand to pick this boy up.Lucky for him that we were coming this way home from Staten Island or he might have lain here all night.”
They stooped over the lad and picked him up. As they did so, the light of a street lamp fell on the pale face. The owner of the car gave a sudden sharp exclamation:
“Gracious goodness! It’s young Ready! How in the world did he come here?”
“He’s got a precious bad crack on his head, sir, and by the looks of him won’t be able to answer that question for some time to come. My advice, Mr. Jukes, is to take him to the hospital.”
“You are right, Marshall. I’m afraid the poor lad has a bad injury. Help me put him in the tonneau and then make a quick run for the nearest hospital.”
By a strange fate it was Mr. Jukes’ car that had approached Jack as he fell senseless to the street. The shipping magnate was returning home, as he had said, from a dinner party on Staten Island. Finding the streets by the South Ferry torn up, he had ordered his chauffeur to proceed along West Street and then cut through the village to Fifth Avenue. Thus it came about that his employer it was who had picked up poor Jack.
Straight to the Greenwich Hospital drove the chauffeur, and in less than half an hour Jack lay tucked in a private bed, with orders that he was to be given every care; and Mr. Jukes was speeding uptown, wondering greatly how the young wireless operator happened to be in that part of the city at that hour of the night.
The next morning Jack awakened in his bed at the hospital with the impression that a boiler shop had taken up a temporary abode in his head. For a few minutes he thought he was in his bunk on the Ajax, then he shifted to the Venus and at last, as he blinkingly regarded the ceiling, memory came rushing back in a full flood.
The dark, deserted streets, the rough, brutal men, the mad run for life, and then a sudden crash and darkness. What had happened? Had they struck him down? Jack put his hand to his throbbing head. It was bandaged. So they had struck him. But he was uninjured otherwise seemingly, so something must have happened to stop the savage fury of the firemen before they had time to wreck their full vengeance on his defenseless body.
He turned his head and saw a young woman smilingly regarding him. She wore a blue dress and a neat white apron and cap.
“A nurse,” thought Jack, and then aloud, “is this the hospital?”
“Yes,” was the reply, “but you must not talk till the doctor has seen you.”
“But what has happened? How did I come here?” persisted Jack.
“If you will promise not to ask any more questions till after the doctor has been here, I will tell you.”
“Very well. I’ll promise.”
“You were brought here in Mr. Jukes’ automobile.”
Jack tried to sit up in bed. What sort of a wild dream was this? His last recollection was of a dark street, revolver shots and a stunning blow, and now, suddenly, Mr. Jukes, his employer, was brought into the matter.
“Mr. Jukes!” he exclaimed. “Why, how – ”
“Hush! Remember your promise.”
Jack, perforce, lay back to wait, with what patience he could, the visit of the doctor, after which he hoped he might be allowed to talk. It was all too perplexing. Then, too, he recollected, with a pang of dismay, that the Ajax sailed the next day. What if she sailed without him? He would lose his berth. The lad fairly ground his teeth.
“Just one question, ma’am,” he begged; “when can I get out of here?”
“Not for two or three days, at any rate,” was the reply.
Poor Jack groaned aloud and buried his face in his hands.
JACK HAS VISITORS
The doctor had come and gone, confirming the verdict that Jack had dreaded to hear. In the meantime, by the kind offices of the hospital authorities, a message had been despatched to his uncle informing him of the lad’s plight.
The nurse had told the boy all she knew of the matter and added an admiring eulogy on Mr. Jukes, who, she said, had promised to call that day and had ordered that no expense was to be spared in caring for Jack in the meantime.
But all this fell on ears that were deaf. The one bitter fact that the boy’s brain drummed over and over to the exclusion of all else was that his ship would sail without him and his accident might cost him his berth.
“Isn’t there any way I can be patched up so as to get out to-morrow?” he begged.
The nurse shook her head.
“The doctor wouldn’t hear of it. You must lie here two days, at least.”
“You might as well make it a year,” moaned Jack.
After a while he dozed off, but was awakened by the nurse, who, in tones of suppressed excitement, informed him that Mr. Jukes had arrived to see him. Jack, who had been expecting his uncle, felt disappointed, but still, he reasoned, Mr. Jukes might be able to throw some light on the dark hours through which Jack had passed.
With Mr. Jukes, when he entered, was a tall, delicate-looking lad of about Jack’s age. He shrank rather shyly behind his father as he gazed at the sunbrowned, bandaged lad on the bed.
“Well, my lad, how do you feel this morning?” asked Mr. Jukes in his brisk, close-lipped way as he took the chair offered him by the nurse.
“Much better, sir, thank you,” rejoined Jack. “I – I want to rejoin the ship, sir.”
“Impossible. They tell me you cannot get out for two days, at least,” was the decisive reply. “But I must say you are a hard lad to kill. When you struck that lamp-post – ”
“That lamp-post!” exclaimed Jack.
“Yes, down in Greenwich Village. You were running along like one possessed. All of a sudden I saw you strike the post like a runaway locomotive, and then down you came. Now, my boy, it’s up to you to explain what you were doing in that part of town at that time of night.”
Mr. Jukes compressed his lips and looked rather severe, but as Jack launched into his story, the magnate’s brow grew black.
“The rascals! The infernal rascals! I’ll offer a big reward this very day for their apprehension.”
“I’m afraid there’s not much chance of getting them, sir,” said Jack. “But it was fortunate indeed for me that you arrived on the scene, although I cannot understand how it happened.”
This was soon explained, and then Mr. Jukes, turning to the frail-looking youth, said:
“This is my son, Tom. Tom, this, as you know, is the lad who saved your sister from drowning.”
“How d’ye do!” said Jack, gripping the other’s slim white fingers in a grasp that made the lad wince, for, sick as he was, Jack’s grip had lost none of its strength.
“Tom’s not very strong, but he’s crazy about wireless and the sea. Now I’ve got to be off. Big meeting downtown. Tom, I’ll be back and get you for lunch. In the meantime, stay here and get young Ready to tell you all he knows about wireless.”
“That won’t take very long,” laughed Jack, which remark brought from Mr. Jukes a repetition of the observation that it would be “hard to kill” the young wireless man.
Mr. Jukes rushed out of the room as if there was not an instant to be lost.
“That’s his way,” laughed Tom Jukes, as his father vanished, “always in a rush. But he’s got the best heart in the world. Tell me all about your trouble with those firemen and your life on the Ajax. I wish dad would let me follow the sea. I’d soon get strong again.”
Jack, in the interest of having someone to talk to, forgot about his damaged head. He gave a lively, sketchy account of life on the big tanker, not forgetting the surgical operation performed by wireless, and wound up with the story of the night raid on the tobacco smugglers and his encounter of the night before with the revengeful firemen.
When he finished, Tom Jukes sighed.
“Gracious! That’s interesting, though! I wish I had adventures like that. But they are doing their best to make a regular molly-coddle out of me. The yacht and Bar Harbor in the summer, Florida in the winter and a private tutor and a man-servant! It makes me sick!”
The lad shot out these last words with surprising vehemence. “I know a lot of fellows who’d change with you,” said Jack.
“You do! They must be sap-heads,” said the rich man’s son; and then suddenly, “How would you like to try the life for a time?”
“Me? Oh, I’ve never thought about it,” said Jack.
“Because if you would – but I forgot. I’m not to say anything about that. That’s dad’s plan, and he’ll have to talk to you about it.”
THE REJECTED OFFER
Jack was much mystified, but Tom adroitly dodged further questioning by turning the subject. He told the young wireless man of his trips to Florida and California in search of health, and all about his father’s fine yacht, the Halcyon, on which he had made many trips.
“But it’s all rot,” he concluded. “If they’d let me live the life any ordinary kid does, I’ll bet I’d be as sound – as sound as you are before very long.”
About noon Mr. Jukes came back. He burst into the room with his customary bustle and hurry, and it was plain that he had something on his mind to deliver in his usual blunt way.
Without any preliminaries he broke out:
“Ready, I’ve decided that you will make an excellent companion for Tom. He needs the companionship of an active, cheery lad of his own age.
“I like you and I know he will. It’s a great chance for you. Stay here till you feel all right, and then I’ll send you and Tom on a cruise to Florida on the yacht. Life at sea is a dog’s life at the best. I’ll pick out a different career for you and give you a desk in my office when Tom is on his feet again. Come now, what do you say?”
While the magnate had been volleying out these rapid-fire orders, – for that is what they amounted to, – Jack’s tired brain had been performing an eccentric whirl. At first he had hardly understood, but now the full meaning of it burst upon him.
Mr. Jukes wanted him to leave the sea, to drop his beloved wireless work and take a desk in his office! He was also to act, it seemed, as a sort of companion for Tom. It was a life of ease and offered a future which few boys would have had the courage to decline.
Jack knew that every round of the ladder he had elected to climb could only be won by stern fighting and keeping the faith like a man. On the other hand, if he chose to give in to Mr. Jukes’ wishes or commands, he was on the road to a life of ease and luxury and one that was as far from the hardships and adventures of the sea as could be imagined.
Mr. Jukes eyed the boy as he hesitated with rising impatience. He was not at all used to having his wishes disobeyed. Men jumped to carry out his commands; and yet it appeared that this stubborn young sailor lad of the ocean wireless wavered.
“What are you hesitating about, Ready?” he asked impatiently.
“I’m not hesitating, sir,” was the astonishing reply, “I’m trying to find the best way to tell you that I can’t accept your offer.”
Mr. Jukes was as astonished as on the night when Jack had refused his check. He flushed red and his cheeks swelled.
“Don’t talk like an idiot, lad,” he exclaimed, choking down his wrathful amazement. “Of course you can do as I wish. It will be the making of Tom and of you.”
“I’d like to do it if I could, Mr. Jukes,” said Jack, wondering why he seemed to be doomed always to run afoul of this man who appeared bent on doing him a kindness. “It’s a great offer. Please don’t think I do not appreciate it.”
“Then why in the name of heaven don’t you accept it?” thundered Mr. Jukes with rising wrath.
“Because I cannot, sir,” rejoined Jack bravely; while he thought to himself, “This means I’ll have to look for another job.”
“Cannot! Why, of all the crass idiocy! What ails you, boy! Cannot, indeed! Why?”
“Because I have chosen my own way of life, sir, and I must follow it out,” replied Jack, as firmly as he could in spite of the bitter feeling that filled him that he was killing his own chances with the Titan Line.
Tom Jukes tried to interpose, but his father angrily choked him off.
“Not a word!” he exclaimed. And then, to Jack, with an air of finality:
“I’ve no more time to dally words with an ungrateful boy. Is it yes or no?”
“It must be no, sir,” said Jack, setting his teeth, “but, if you would let me explain, I – ”
“Say no more! say no more!” exclaimed Mr. Jukes, jamming on his hat. “Come, Tom. As for you, Ready, I wash my hands of you. I’ve no desire to interfere with your prospects on the line. You retain your job, but expect no favors from me. You must work out your own salvation.”
“That is just what I want to do, sir,” was Jack’s quiet rejoinder, as Mr. Jukes bounced out of the room, dragging Tom, who looked wistfully back.
“The boy is mad! Stark, staring mad, by Jove!” exclaimed the angry magnate as he stamped his way out of the hospital.
“I suppose anyone would think me a fool for what I’ve done,” thought Jack, as he lay back on the pillows after the frantic Mr. Jukes’ departure, “but I couldn’t help it. I’m not going to be a rich man’s pawn if I know it. What was it he said? Work out my own salvation? Well, I’ll do it, and maybe I’ll astonish some folks before long. Too bad, though I’m not such a chump as not to know what powerful friends and influence can do in the world, and now, through no fault of my own, I’ve had to chuck away both. But if grit and determination will help any, I’ll get up the ladder yet.”
Not long after that Uncle Toby arrived with cheering news. The Ajax was docked in the Erie Basin and would not sail for three days more, owing to a defective boiler which would have to be repaired.
“So I can join her, after all,” thought Jack, cheered vastly by the news. “Well, that’s a streak of fat to put alongside the lean!”
A WHISPER OF DANGER
Jack made his second eastward trip on the Ajax under smiling skies and seas almost as smooth as glass. Nothing out of the routine happened, and in due course the Ajax, once more in ballast, cleared from Antwerp for the home run. Jack had heard nothing more from Mr. Jukes and deemed that the magnate had utterly cast him off.
Before he left the hospital, he had had visits from Captain Dennis and his daughter and from Tom Jukes, who came secretly and brought the information that, although his father was furious with the young wireless man for rejecting what he deemed a magnificent offer, he would yet pay Jack’s hospital bill.
“He’ll do nothing of the sort,” Jack had flared up, and when he left the institution, it was the lad himself who footed the bill.
It ate quite a hole in the check that was his reward for his share in the detection of the tobacco smugglers, but it would have choked him to think of accepting Mr. Jukes’ charity after the scene at his bedside the morning after he had received his injury.
But the disfavor with which he was regarded by Mr. Jukes was the only cloud on Jack’s horizon. Since that night in New York, Captain Braceworth’s manner toward the young wireless boy had changed. He was still austere and silent, but now and then, as he swung past the wireless room on his way forward or to his cabin, he would exchange a word or two with the lad. Perhaps he never guessed how much this encouraged the boy who, on his first voyage, had set down the skipper of the Ajax as a cruel, harsh despot.
Knot after knot the steadily revolving engines of the Ajax brought her closer to home. The weather continued fine until one day, when Jack was half wishing something would happen, the curtain began to draw up on what was to prove a drama of the deep, destined to test every man on board the big tanker.
A fog, dense, swirling and moist as a wet sponge, shut down all about the Ajax that morning soon after breakfast. The captain donned his oil-skins and took up his position on the bridge, to stay there, as was his custom, till the fog should lift and everything be secure again.
The chief engineer was sent for and instructed to keep his force in the grimy regions below, keyed up for instant obedience to orders from the bridge, for the Ajax was on the Atlantic lane, a well-traveled, crowded ocean track.
Like a blind man, the big tanker felt her way along, now starting forward and now almost stopping with an air of fright, as some fancied obstruction loomed in her path.
Through the weary day and the long night that followed, the Ajax groped her way through the fog blanket that hung like a dense mist-shroud over the sullenly heaving sea. It was a marine game of touch and go, with possibly death and disaster for the stakes.
The engine-room telegraph spun in a weary succession of “Come ahead” – “Slow” – “Ahead” – “Slow” – “Stop her” – and “Come ahead, slow” again.
When daylight came, it shone on the fog walls that bound the Ajax prisoner. The wan light showed Jack the figures of the captain and his first officer on the bridge. He knew that through the long night they had kept their weary vigil. But so dense was the fog that it was not always possible to see the bridge from the after superstructure.
Only when light and vagrant breezes sent the fog-wreaths fluttering and writhing, like ghosts, could a blurred view of the forward part of the ship be obtained.
Jack, too, had been on duty all night and he felt dull and wretched. Through the fog had come calls from other ships, and vague whisperings and chatterings, all fraught with fear and caution.
So far as those on the Ajax knew, there was no ship closer to them than the Plutonia of the Smithson Lines. Jack had been busy through the night, running back and forth with messages. Now, as he came to the door of his cabin for a breath of the fog-laden air, he was musing to himself on the anxious look on the captain’s furrowed face.
It was not the fog. Jack had seen the captain guide his ship through even denser smothers than the present one. He had always been his calm, collected, even cold, self.
But now the very air appeared to be vibrant with some vague apprehension which the boy could not name or even guess at. But it was something that lay outside the fog. Some overshadowing peril of more than ordinary imminence.
As the steamer crawled forward, the mournful hooting of her siren sounding like the very spirit of the mist, Jack revolved all these things in his mind. He felt vaguely troubled.
It was no small thing that could worry the stalwart skipper of the Ajax, as he palpably was worried. Fog was dangerous, yes, but what with the wireless and the extraordinary caution observed, the peril was reduced to a minimum.
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