It was nine o'clock on a Wednesday morning. The good ship Spartan was
lying off Boston Quay with her cargo under hatches, her passengers
shipped, and everything prepared for a start. The warning whistle had been
sounded twice; the final bell had been rung. Her bowsprit was turned
towards England, and the hiss of escaping steam showed that all was ready
for her run of three thousand miles. She strained at the warps that held
her like a greyhound at its leash,
I have the misfortune to be a very nervous man. A sedentary literary
life has helped to increase the morbid love of solitude which, even in my
boyhood, was one of my distinguishing characteristics. As I stood upon the
quarter-deck of the Transatlantic steamer, I bitterly cursed the necessity
which drove me back to the land of my forefathers. The shouts of the
sailors, the rattle of the cordage, the farewells of my fellow-passengers,
and the cheers of the mob, each and all jarred upon my sensitive nature. I
felt sad too. An indescribable feeling, as of some impending calamity,
seemed to haunt me. The sea was calm, and the breeze light. There was
nothing to disturb the equanimity of the most confirmed of landsmen, yet I
felt as if I stood upon the verge of a great though indefinable danger. I
have noticed that such presentiments occur often in men of my peculiar
temperament, and that they are not uncommonly fulfilled. There is a theory
that it arises from a species of second-sight, a subtle spiritual
communication with the future. I well remember that Herr Raumer, the
eminent spiritualist, remarked on one occasion that I was the most
sensitive subject as regards supernatural phenomena that he had ever
encountered in the whole of his wide experience. Be that as it may, I
certainly felt far from happy as I threaded my way among the weeping,
cheering groups which dotted the white decks of the good ship Spartan. Had
I known the experience which awaited me in the course of the next twelve
hours I should even then at the last moment have sprung upon the shore,
and made my escape from the accursed vessel.
"Time's up!" said the captain, closing his chronometer with a snap,
and replacing it in his pocket. "Time's up!" said the mate. There was a
last wail from the whistle, a rush of friends and relatives upon the land.
One warp was loosened, the gangway was being pushed away, when there was a
shout from the bridge, and two men appeared, running rapidly down the
quay. They were waving their hands and making frantic gestures, apparently
with the intention of stopping the ship. "Look sharp!" shouted the crowd.
"Hold hard!" cried the captain. "Ease her! stop her! Up with the
gangway!" and the two men sprang aboard just as the second warp parted,
and a convulsive throb of the engine shot us clear of the shore. There was
a cheer from the deck, another from the quay, a mighty fluttering of
handkerchiefs, and the great vessel ploughed its way out of the harbour,
and steamed grandly away across the placid bay.
We were fairly started upon our fortnight's voyage. There was a
general dive among the passengers in quest of berths and luggage, while a
popping of corks in the saloon proved that more than one bereaved
traveller was adopting artificial means for drowning the pangs of
separation. I glanced round the deck and took a running inventory of my
compagnons de voyage. They presented the usual types met with upon these
occasions. There was no striking face among them. I speak as a
connoisseur, for faces are a specialty of mine. I pounce upon a
characteristic feature as a botanist does on a flower, and bear it away
with me to analyse at my leisure, and classify and label it in my little
anthropological museum. There was nothing worthy of me here. Twenty types
of young America going to "Yurrup," a few respectable middle-aged couples
as an antidote, a sprinkling of clergymen and professional men, young
ladies, bagmen, British exclusives, and all the olla podrida of an
ocean-going steamer. I turned away from them and gazed back at the
receding shores of America, and, as a cloud of remembrances rose before
me, my heart warmed towards the land of my adoption. A pile of
portmanteaus and luggage chanced to be lying on one side of the deck,
awaiting their turn to be taken below. With my usual love for solitude I
walked behind these, and sitting on a coil of rope between them and the
vessel's side, I indulged in a melancholy reverie.
I was aroused from this by a whisper behind me. "Here's a quiet
place," said the voice. "Sit down, and we can talk it over in safety."
Glancing through a chink between two colossal chests, I saw that the
passengers who had joined us at the last moment were standing at the other
side of the pile. They had evidently failed to see me as I crouched in the
shadow of the boxes. The one who had spoken was a tall and very thin man
with a blue-black beard and a colourless face. His manner was nervous and
excited. His companion was a short plethoric little fellow, with a brisk
and resolute air. He had a cigar in his mouth, and a large ulster slung
over his left arm. They both glanced round uneasily, as if to ascertain
whether they were alone. "This is just the place," I heard the other say.
They sat down on a bale of goods with their backs turned towards me, and I
found myself, much against my will, playing the unpleasant part of
eavesdropper to their conversation.
"Well, Muller," said the taller of the two, "we've got it aboard
"Yes," assented the man whom he had addressed as Muller, "it's safe
"It was rather a near go."
"It was that, Flannigan."
"It wouldn't have done to have missed the ship."
"No, it would have put our plans out."
"Ruined them entirely," said the little man, and puffed furiously at
his cigar for some minutes.
"I've got it here," he said at last.
"Let me see it."
"Is no one looking?"
"No, they are nearly all below."
"We can't be too careful where so much is at stake," said Muller, as
he uncoiled the ulster which hung over his arm, and disclosed a dark
object which he laid upon the deck. One glance at it was enough to cause
me to spring to my feet with an exclamation of horror. Luckily they were
so engrossed in the matter on hand that neither of them observed me. Had
they turned their heads they would infallibly have seen my pale face
glaring at them over the pile of boxes.
From the first moment of their conversation a horrible misgiving had
come over me. It seemed more than confirmed as I gazed at what lay before
me. It was a little square box made of some dark wood, and ribbed with
brass. I suppose it was about the size of a cubic foot. It reminded me of
a pistol-case, only it was decidedly higher. There was an appendage to it,
however, on which my eyes were riveted, and which suggested the pistol
itself rather than its receptacle. This was a trigger-like arrangement
upon the lid, to which a coil of string was attached. Beside this trigger
there was a small square aperture through the wood. The tall man,
Flannigan, as his companion called him, applied his eye to this, and
peered in for several minutes with an expression of intense anxiety upon
"It seems right enough," he said at last.
"I tried not to shake it," said his companion.
"Such delicate things need delicate treatment. Put in some of the
The shorter man fumbled in his pocket for some time, and then
produced a small paper packet. He opened this, and took out of it half a
handful of whitish granules, which he poured down through the hole. A
curious clicking noise followed from the inside of the box, and both the
men smiled in a satisfied way.
"Nothing much wrong there," said Flannigan.
"Right as a trivet," answered his companion.
"Look out! here's some one coming. Take it down to our berth. It
wouldn't do to have any one suspecting what our game is, or, worse still,
have them fumbling with it, and letting it off by mistake."
"Well, it would come to the same, whoever let it off," said Muller.
"They'd be rather astonished if they pulled the trigger," said the
taller, with a sinister laugh. "Ha, ha! fancy their faces! It's not a bad
bit of workmanship, I flatter myself."
"No," said Muller. "I hear it is your own design, every bit of it,
"Yes, the spring and the sliding shutter are my own."
"We should take out a patent."
And the two men laughed again with a cold harsh laugh, as they took
up the little brass-bound package, and concealed it in Muller's voluminous
"Come down, and we'll stow it in our berth," said Flannigan. "We
won't need it until to-night, and it will be safe there."
His companion assented, and the two went arm-in-arm along the deck
and disappeared down the hatchway, bearing the mysterious little box away
with them. The last words I heard were a muttered injunction from
Flannigan to carry it carefully, and avoid knocking it against the
How long I remained sitting on that coil of rope I shall never know.
The horror of the conversation I had just overheard was aggravated by the
first sinking qualms of sea-sickness. The long roll of the Atlantic was
beginning to assert itself over both ship and passengers. I felt
prostrated in mind and in body, and fell into a state of collapse, from
which I was finally aroused by the hearty voice of our worthy
"Do you mind moving out of that, sir?" he said. "We want to get this
lumber cleared off the deck."
His bluff manner and ruddy healthy face seemed to be a positive
insult to me in my present condition. Had I been a courageous or a
muscular man I could have struck him. As it was, I treated the honest
sailor to a melodramatic scowl which seemed to cause him no small
astonishment, and strode past him to the other side of the deck. Solitude
was what I wanted--solitude in which I could brood over the frightful
crime which was being hatched before my very eyes. One of the
quarter-boats was hanging rather low down upon the davits. An idea struck
me, and climbing on the bulwarks, I stepped into the empty boat and lay
down in the bottom of it. Stretched on my back, with nothing but the blue
sky above me, and an occasional view of the mizen as the vessel rolled, I
was at least alone with my sickness and my thoughts.
I tried to recall the words which had been spoken in the terrible
dialogue I had overheard. Would they admit of any construction but the one
which stared me in the face? My reason forced me to confess that they
would not. I endeavoured to array the various facts which formed the chain
of circumstantial evidence, and to find a flaw in it; but no, not a link
was missing. There was the strange way in which our passengers had come
aboard, enabling them to evade any examination of their luggage. The very
name of "Flannigan" smacked of Fenianism, while "Muller" suggested nothing
but socialism and murder. Then their mysterious manner; their remark that
their plans would have been ruined had they missed the ship; their fear of
being observed; last, but not least, the clenching evidence in the
production of the little square box with the trigger, and their grim joke
about the face of the man who should let it off by mistake--could these
facts lead to any conclusion other than that they were the desperate
emissaries of some body, political or otherwise, who intended to sacrifice
themselves, their fellow-passengers, and the ship, in one great holocaust?
The whitish granules which I had seen one of them pour into the box formed
no doubt a fuse or train for exploding it. I had myself heard a sound come
from it which might have emanated from some delicate piece of machinery.
But what did they mean by their allusion to to-night? Could it be that
they contemplated putting their horrible design into execution on the very
first evening of our voyage? The mere thought of it sent a cold shudder
over me, and made me for a moment superior even to the agonies of
I have remarked that I am a physical coward. I am a moral one also.
It is seldom that the two defects are united to such a degree in the one
character. I have known many men who were most sensitive to bodily danger,
and yet were distinguished for the independence and strength of their
minds. In my own case, however, I regret to say that my quiet and retiring
habits had fostered a nervous dread of doing anything remarkable or making
myself conspicuous, which exceeded, if possible, my fear of personal
peril. An ordinary mortal placed under the circumstances in which I now
found myself would have gone at once to the Captain, confessed his fears,
and put the matter into his hands. To me, however, constituted as I am,
the idea was most repugnant. The thought of becoming the observed of all
observers, cross-questioned by a stranger, and confronted with two
desperate conspirators in the character of a denouncer, was hateful to me.
Might it not by some remote possibility prove that I was mistaken? What
would be my feelings if there should turn out to be no grounds for my
accusation? No, I would procrastinate; I would keep my eye on the two
desperadoes and dog them at every turn. Anything was better than the
possibility of being wrong.
Then it struck me that even at that moment some new phase of the
conspiracy might be developing itself. The nervous excitement seemed to
have driven away my incipient attack of sickness, for I was able to stand
up and lower myself from the boat without experiencing any return of it. I
staggered along the deck with the intention of descending into the cabin
and finding how my acquaintances of the morning were occupying themselves.
Just as I had my hand on the companion-rail, I was astonished by receiving
a hearty slap on the back, which nearly shot me down the steps with more
haste than dignity.
"Is that you, Hammond?" said a voice which I seemed to recognise.
"God bless me," I said, as I turned round, "it can't be Dick Merton!
Why, how are you, old man?"
This was an unexpected piece of luck in the midst of my perplexities.
Dick was just the man I wanted; kindly and shrewd in his nature, and
prompt in his actions, I should have no difficulty in telling him my
suspicions, and could rely upon his sound sense to point out the best
course to pursue. Since I was a little lad in the second form at Harrow,
Dick had been my adviser and protector. He saw at a glance that something
had gone wrong with me.
"Hullo!" he said, in his kindly way, "what's put you about, Hammond?
You look as white as a sheet. Mal de mer, eh?"
"No, not that altogether," said I. "Walk up and down with me, Dick; I
want to speak to you. Give me your arm."
Supporting myself on Dick's stalwart frame, I tottered along by his
side; but it was some time before I could muster resolution to speak.
"Have a cigar," said he, breaking the silence.
"No, thanks," said I. "Dick, we shall be all corpses to-night."
"That's no reason against your having a cigar now," said Dick, in his
cool way, but looking hard at me from under his shaggy eyebrows as he
spoke. He evidently thought that my intellect was a little gone.
"No," I continued, "it's no laughing matter; and I speak in sober
earnest, I assure you. I have discovered an infamous conspiracy, Dick, to
destroy this ship and every soul that is in her; "and I then proceeded
systematically, and in order, to lay before him the chain of evidence
which I had collected. "There, Dick," I said, as I concluded, "what do you
think of that? and, above all, what am I to do?"
To my astonishment he burst into a hearty fit of laughter.
"I'd be frightened," he said, "if any fellow but you had told me as
much. You always had a way, Hammond, of discovering mares' nests. I like
to see the old traits breaking out again. Do you remember at school how
you swore there was a ghost in the long room, and how it turned out to be
your own reflection in the mirror. Why, man," he continued, "what object
would any one have in destroying this ship? We have no great political
guns aboard. On the contrary, the majority of the passengers are
Americans. Besides, in this sober nineteenth century, the most wholesale
murderers stop at including themselves among their victims. Depend upon
it, you have misunderstood them, and have mistaken a photographic camera,
or something equally innocent, for an infernal machine."
"Nothing of the sort, sir," said I, rather touchily "You will learn
to your cost, I fear, that I have neither exaggerated nor misinterpreted a
word. As to the box, I have certainly never before seen one like it. It
contained delicate machinery; of that I am convinced, from the way in
which the men handled it and spoke of it."
"You'd make out every packet of perishable goods to be a torpedo,"
said Dick, "if that is to be your only test."
"The man's name was Flannigan," I continued.
"I don't think that would go very far in a court of law," said Dick;
"but come, I have finished my cigar. Suppose we go down together and split
a bottle of claret. You can point out these two Orsinis to me if they are
still in the cabin."
"All right," I answered; "I am determined not to lose sight of them
all day. Don't look hard at them, though, for I don't want them to think
that they are being watched."
"Trust me," said Dick; "I'll look as unconscious and guileless as a
lamb;" and with that we passed down the companion and into the saloon.
A good many passengers were scattered about the great central table,
some wrestling with refractory carpet bags and rug-straps, some having
their luncheon, and a few reading and otherwise amusing themselves. The
objects of our quest were not there. We passed down the room and peered
into every berth, but there was no sign of them. "Heavens!" thought I,
"perhaps at this very moment they are beneath our feet, in the hold or
engine-room, preparing their diabolical contrivance!" It was better to
know the worst than to remain in such suspense.
"Steward," said Dick, "are there any other gentlemen about?"
"There's two in the smoking-room, sir," answered the steward.
The smoking-room was a little snuggery, luxuriously fitted up, and
adjoining the pantry. We pushed the door open and entered. A sigh of
relief escaped from my bosom. The very first object on which my eye rested
was the cadaverous face of Flannigan, with its hard-set mouth and
unwinking eye. His companion sat opposite to him. They were both drinking,
and a pile of cards lay upon the table. They were engaged in playing as we
entered. I nudged Dick to show him that we had found our quarry, and we
sat down beside them with as unconcerned an air as possible. The two
conspirators seemed to take little notice of our presence. I watched them
both narrowly. The game at which they were playing was "Napoleon." Both
were adepts at it, and I could not help admiring the consummate nerve of
men who, with such a secret at their hearts, could devote their minds to
the manipulating of a long suit or the finessing of a queen. Money changed
hands rapidly; but the run of luck seemed to be all against the taller of
the two players. At last he threw down his cards on the table with an
oath, and refused to go on.
"No, I'm hanged if I do," he said; "I haven't had more than two of a
suit for five hands."
"Never mind," said his comrade, as he gathered up his winnings; "a
few dollars one way or the other won't go very far after to-night's work."
I was astonished at the rascal's audacity, but took care to keep my
eyes fixed abstractedly upon the ceiling, and drank my wine in as
unconscious a manner as possible. I felt that Flannigan was looking
towards me with his wolfish eyes to see if I had noticed the allusion. He
whispered something to his companion which I failed to catch. It was a
caution, I suppose, for the other answered rather angrily--
"Nonsense! Why shouldn't I say what I like? Over-caution is just what
would ruin us."
"I believe you want it not to come off," said Flannigan.
"You believe nothing of the sort," said the other, speaking rapidly
and loudly. "You know as well as I do that when I play for a stake I like
to win it. But I won't have my words criticised and cut short by you or
any other man. I have as much interest in our success as you have--more, I
He was quite hot about it, and puffed furiously at his cigar for some
minutes. The eyes of the other ruffian wandered alternately from Dick
Merton to myself. I knew that I was in the presence of a desperate man,
that a quiver of my lip might be the signal for him to plunge a weapon
into my heart, but I betrayed more self-command than I should have given
myself credit for under such trying circumstances. As to Dick, he was as
immovable and apparently as unconscious as the Egyptian Sphinx.
There was silence for some time in the smoking-room, broken only by
the crisp rattle of the cards, as the man Muller shuffled them up before
replacing them in his pocket. He still seemed to be somewhat flushed and
irritable. Throwing the end of his cigar into the spittoon, he glanced
defiantly at his companion and turned towards me.
"Can you tell me, sir," he said, "when this ship will be heard of
They were both looking at me; but though my face may have turned a
trifle paler, my voice was as steady as ever as I answered--
"I presume, sir, that it will be heard of first when it enters
"Ha, ha!" laughed the angry little man, "I knew you would say that.
Don't you kick me under the table, Flannigan, I won't stand it. I know
what I am doing. You are wrong, sir," he continued, turning to me,
"Some passing ship, perhaps," suggested Dick.
"No, nor that either."
"The weather is fine," I said; "why should we not be heard of at our
"I didn't say we shouldn't be heard of at our destination. Possibly
we may not, and in any case that is not where we shall be heard of first."
"Where then?" asked Dick.
"That you shall never know. Suffice it that a rapid and mysterious
agency will signal our whereabouts, and that before the day is out. Ha,
ha!" and he chuckled once again.
"Come on deck!" growled his comrade; "you have drunk too much of that
confounded brandy-and-water. It has loosened your tongue. Come away!" and
taking him by the arm he half led him, half forced him out of the
smoking-room, and we heard them stumbling up the companion together, and
on to the deck.
"Well, what do you think now?" I gasped, as I turned towards Dick. He
was as imperturbable as ever.
"Think!" he said; "why, I think what his companion thinks, that we
have been listening to the ravings of a half-drunken man. The fellow stunk
"Nonsense, Dick I you saw how the other tried to stop his tongue."
"Of course he did. He didn't want his friend to make a fool of
himself before strangers. Maybe the short one is a lunatic, and the other
his private keeper. It's quite possible."
"O Dick, Dick," I cried, "how can you be so blind! Don't you see that
every word confirmed our previous suspicion?"
"Humbug, man!" said Dick; "you're working yourself into a state of
nervous excitement. Why, what the devil do you make of all that nonsense
about a mysterious agent which would signal our whereabouts?"
"I'll tell you what he meant, Dick," I said, bending forward and
grasping my friend's arm. "He meant a sudden glare and a flash seen far
out at sea by some lonely fisherman off the American coast. That's what he
"I didn't think you were such a fool, Hammond," said Dick Merton
testily. "If you try to fix a literal meaning on the twaddle that every
drunken man talks, you will come to some queer conclusions. Let us follow
their example, and go on deck. You need fresh air, I think. Depend upon
it, your liver is out of order. A sea-voyage will do you a world of good."
"If ever I see the end of this one," I groaned, "I'll promise never
to venture on another. They are laying the cloth, so it's hardly worth
while my going up. I'll stay below and unpack my things."
"I hope dinner will find you in a more pleasant state of mind," said
Dick; and he went out, leaving me to my thoughts until the clang of the
great gong summoned us to the saloon.
My appetite, I need hardly say, had not been improved by the
incidents which had occurred during the day. I sat down, however,
mechanically at the table, and listened to the talk which was going on
around me. There were nearly a hundred first-class passengers, and as the
wine began to circulate, their voices combined with the clash of the
dishes to form a perfect Babel. I found myself seated between a very stout
and nervous old lady and a prim little clergyman; and as neither made any
advances I retired into my shell, and spent my time in observing the
appearance of my fellow-voyagers. I could see Dick in the dim distance
dividing his attentions between a jointless fowl in front of him and a
self-possessed young lady at his side. Captain Dowie was doing the honours
at my end, while the surgeon of the vessel was seated at the other. I was
glad to notice that Flannigan was placed almost opposite to me. As long as
I had him before my eyes I knew that, for the time at least, we were safe.
He was sitting with what was meant to be a sociable smile on his grim
face. It did not escape me that he drank largely of wine--so largely that
even before the dessert appeared his voice had become decidedly husky. His
friend Muller was seated a few places lower down. He ate little, and
appeared to be nervous and restless.
"Now, ladies," said our genial Captain, "I trust that you will
consider yourselves at home aboard my vessel. I have no fears for the
gentlemen. A bottle of champagne, steward. Here's to a fresh breeze and a
quick passage! I trust our friends in America will hear of our safe
arrival in eight days, or in nine at the very latest."
I looked up. Quick as was the glance which passed between Flannigan
and his confederate, I was able to intercept it. There was an evil smile
upon the former's thin lips.
The conversation rippled on. Politics, the sea, amusements, religion,
each was in turn discussed. I remained a silent though an interested
listener. It struck me that no harm could be done by introducing the
subject which was ever in my mind. It could be managed in an off-hand way,
and would at least have the effect of turning the Captain's thoughts in
that direction. I could watch, too, what effect it would have upon the
faces of the conspirators.
There was a sudden lull in the conversation. The ordinary subjects of
interest appeared to be exhausted. The opportunity was a favourable one.
"May I ask, Captain," I said, bending forward and speaking very
distinctly, "what you think of Fenian manifestoes?"
The Captain's ruddy face became a shade darker from honest
"They are poor cowardly things," he said, "as silly as they are
"The impotent threats of a set of anonymous scoundrels," said a
pompous-looking old gentleman beside him.
"O Captain!" said the fat lady at my side, "you don't really think
they would blow up a ship?"
"I have no doubt they would if they could. But I am very sure they
shall never blow up mine."
"May I ask what precautions are taken against them?" asked an elderly
man at the end of the table.
"All goods sent aboard the ship are strictly examined," said Captain
"But suppose a man brought explosives aboard with him?" I suggested.
"They are too cowardly to risk their own lives in that way."
During this conversation Flannigan had not betrayed the slightest
interest in what was going on. He raised his head now and looked at the
"Don't you think you are rather underrating them?" he said. "Every
secret society has produced desperate men--why shouldn't the Fenians have
them too? Many men think it a privilege to die in the service of a cause
which seems right in their eyes, though others may think it wrong"
"Indiscriminate murder cannot be right in anybody's eyes," said the
"The bombardment of Paris was nothing else," said Flannigan; "yet the
whole civilised world agreed to look on with folded arms, and change the
ugly word `murder' into the more euphonious one of `war.' It seemed right
enough to German eyes; why shouldn't dynamite seem so to the Fenian?"
"At any rate their empty vapourings have led to nothing as yet," said
"Excuse me," returned Flannigan, "but is there not some room for
doubt yet as to the fate of the Dotterel? I have met men in America who
asserted from their own personal knowledge that there was a coal torpedo
aboard that vessel."
"Then they lied," said the Captain. "It was proved conclusively at
the court-martial to have arisen from an explosion of coal-gas--but we had
better change the subject, or we may cause the ladies to have a restless
night;" and the conversation once more drifted back into its original
During this little discussion Flannigan had argued his point with a
gentlemanly deference and a quiet power for which I had not given him
credit. I could not help admiring a man who, on the eve of a desperate
enterprise, could courteously argue upon a point which must touch him so
nearly. He had, as I have already mentioned, partaken of a considerable
quantity of wine; but though there was a slight flush upon his pale cheek,
his manner was as reserved as ever. He did not join in the conversation
again, but seemed to be lost in thought.
A whirl of conflicting ideas was battling in my own mind. What was I
to do? Should I stand up now and denounce them before both passengers and
Captain? Should I demand a few minutes' conversation with the latter in
his own cabin, and reveal it all? For an instant I was half resolved to do
it, but then the old constitutional timidity came back with redoubled
force. After all there might be some mistake. Dick had heard the evidence
and had refused to believe in it. I determined to let things go on their
course. A strange reckless feeling came over me. Why should I help men who
were blind to their own danger? Surely it was the duty of the officers to
protect us, not ours to give warning to them. I drank off a couple of
glasses of wine, and staggered upon deck with the determination of keeping
my secret locked in my own bosom.
It was a glorious evening. Even in my excited state of mind I could
not help leaning against the bulwarks and enjoying the refreshing breeze.
Away to the westward a solitary sail stood out as a dark speck against the
great sheet of flame left by the setting sun. I shuddered as I looked at
it. It was grand but appalling. A single star was twinkling faintly above
our mainmast, but a thousand seemed to gleam in the water below with every
stroke of our propeller. The only blot in the fair scene was the great
trail of smoke which stretched away behind us like a black slash upon a
crimson curtain. It was hard to believe that the great peace which hung
over all Nature could be marred by a poor miserable mortal.
"After all," I thought, as I gazed into the blue depths beneath me,
"if the worst comes to the worst, it is better to die here than to linger
in agony upon a sick-bed on land." A man's life seems a very paltry thing
amid the great forces of Nature. All my philosophy could not prevent my
shuddering, however, when I turned my head and saw two shadowy figures at
the other side of the deck, which I had no difficulty in recognising. They
seemed to be conversing earnestly, but I had no opportunity of overhearing
what was said; so I contented myself with pacing up and down, and keeping
a vigilant watch upon their movements.
It was a relief to me when Dick came on deck. Even an incredulous
confidant is better than none at all.
"Well, old man," he said, giving me a facetious dig in the ribs,
"we've not been blown up yet."
"No, not yet," said I; "but that's no proof that we are not going to
"Nonsense, man!" said Dick; "I can't conceive what has put this
extraordinary idea into your head. I have been talking to one of your
supposed assassins, and he seems a pleasant fellow enough; quite a
sporting character, I should think, from the way he speaks."
"Dick," I said, "I am as certain that those men have an infernal
machine, and that we are on the verge of eternity, as if I saw them
putting the match to the fuse."
"Well, if you really think so," said Dick, half awed for the moment
by the earnestness of my manner, "it is your duty to let the Captain know
of your suspicions."
"You are right," I said; "I will. My absurd timidity has prevented my
doing so sooner. I believe our lives can only be saved by laying the whole
matter before him."
"Well, go and do it now," said Dick; "but for goodness' sake don't
mix me up in the matter."
"I'll speak to him when he comes off the bridge," I answered; "and in
the meantime I don't mean to lose sight of them."
"Let me know of the result," said my companion; and with a nod he
strolled away in search, I fancy, of his partner at the dinner-table.
Left to myself, I bethought me of my retreat of the morning, and
climbing on the bulwark I mounted into the quarter-boat, and lay down
there. In it I could reconsider my course of action, and by raising my
head I was able at any time to get a view of my disagreeable neighbours.
An hour passed, and the Captain was still on the bridge. He was
talking to one of the passengers, a retired naval officer, and the two
were deep in debate concerning some abstruse point in navigation. I could
see the red tips of their cigars from where I lay. It was dark now, so
dark that I could hardly make out the figures of Flannigan and his
accomplice. They were still standing in the position which they had taken
up after dinner. A few of the passengers were scattered about the deck,
but many had gone below. A strange stillness seemed to pervade the air.
The voices of the watch and the rattle of the wheel were the only sounds
which broke the silence.
Another half-hour passed. The Captain was still upon the bridge. It
seemed as if he would never come down. My nerves were in a state of
unnatural tension, so much so that the sound of two steps upon the deck
made me start up in a quiver of excitement. I peered over the edge of the
boat, and saw that our suspicious passengers had crossed from the other
side, and were standing almost directly beneath me. The light of a
binnacle fell full upon the ghastly face of the ruffian Flannigan. Even in
that short glance I saw that Muller had the ulster, whose use I knew so
well, slung loosely over his arm. I sank back with a groan. It seemed that
my fatal procrastination had sacrificed two hundred innocent lives.
I had read of the fiendish vengeance which awaited a spy. I knew that
men with their lives in their hands would stick at nothing. All I could do
was to cower at the bottom of the boat and listen silently to their
whispered talk below.
"This place will do," said a voice.
"Yes, the leeward side is best."
"I wonder if the trigger will act?"
"I am sure it will."
"We were to let it off at ten, were we not?"
"Yes, at ten sharp. We have eight minutes yet." There was a pause.
Then the voice began again--
"They'll hear the drop of the trigger, won't they?"
"It doesn't matter. It will be too late for any one to prevent its
"That's true. There will be some excitement among those we have left
behind, won't there?"
"Rather. How long do you reckon it will be before they hear of us?"
"The first news will get in at about midnight at earliest."
"That will be my doing."
"Ha, ha! we'll settle that."
There was a pause here. Then I heard Muller's voice in a ghastly
whisper, "There's only five minutes more."
How slowly the moments seemed to pass! I could count them by the
throbbing of my heart.
"It'll make a sensation on land," said a voice.
"Yes, it will make a noise in the newspapers."
I raised my head and peered over the side of the boat. There seemed
no hope, no help. Death stared me in the face, whether I did or did not
give the alarm. The Captain had at last left the bridge. The deck was
deserted, save for those two dark figures crouching in the shadow of the
Flannigan had a watch lying open in his hand.
"Three minutes more," he said. "Put it down upon the deck."
"No, put it here on the bulwarks."
It was the little square box. I knew by the sound that they had
placed it near the davit, and almost exactly under my head.
I looked over again. Flannigan was pouring something out of a paper
into his hand. It was white and granular--the same that I had seen him use
in the morning. It was meant as a fuse, no doubt, for he shovelled it into
the little box, and I heard the strange noise which had previously
arrested my attention.
"A minute and a half more," he said. "Shall you or I pull the
"I will pull it," said Muller.
He was kneeling down and holding the end in his hand. Flannigan stood
behind with his arms folded, and an air of grim resolution upon his face.
I could stand it no longer. My nervous system seemed to give way in a
"Stop!" I screamed, springing to my feet. "Stop misguided and
They both staggered backwards. I fancy they thought I was a spirit,
with the moonlight streaming down upon my pale face.
I was brave enough now. I had gone too far to retreat.
"Cain was damned," I cried, "and he slew but one; would you have the
blood of two hundred upon your souis?"
"He's mad!" said Flannigan. "Time's up. Let it off, Muller." I sprang
down upon the deck.
"You shan't do it!" I said.
"By what right do you prevent us?"
"By every right, human and divine."
"It's no business of yours. Clear out of this."
"Never!" said I.
"Confound the fellow! There's too much at stake to stand on ceremony.
I'll hold him, Muller, while you pull the trigger."
Next moment I was struggling in the herculean grasp of the Irishman.
Resistance was useless; I was a child in his hands.
He pinned me up against the side of the vessel, and held me there.
"Now," he said, "look sharp. He can't prevent us."
I felt that I was standing on the verge of eternity. Half-strangled
in the arms of the taller ruffian, I saw the other approach the fatal box.
He stooped over it and seized the string. I breathed one prayer when I saw
his grasp tighten upon it. Then came a sharp snap, a strange rasping
noise. The trigger had fallen, the side of the box flew out, and let
off--TWO GREY CARRIER PIGEONS!
Little more need be said. It is not a subject on which I care to
dwell. The whole thing is too utterly disgusting and absurd. Perhaps the
best thing I can do is to retire gracefully from the scene, and let the
sporting correspondent of the New York Herald fill my unworthy place. Here
is an extract clipped from its columns shortly after our departure from
"Pigeon-flying Extraordinary.--A novel match has been brought off
last week between the birds of John H. Flannigan, of Boston, and Jeremiah
Muller, a well-known citizen of Lowell. Both men have devoted much time
and attention to an improved breed of bird, and the challenge is an
old-standing one. The pigeons were backed to a large amount, and there was
considerable local interest in the result. The start was from the deck of
the Transatlantic steamship Spartan, at ten o'clock on the evening of the
day of starting, the vessel being then reckoned to be about a hundred
miles from the land. The bird which reached home first was to be declared
the winner. Considerable caution had, we believe, to be observed, as some
captains have a prejudice against the bringing off of sporting events
aboard their vessels. In spite of some little difficulty at the last
moment, the trap was sprung almost exactly at ten o'clock.
Muller's bird arrived in Lowell in an extreme state of exhaustion on
the following morning, while Flannigan's has not been heard of. The
backers of the latter have the satisfaction of knowing, however, that the
whole affair has been characterised by extreme fairness. The pigeons were
confined in a specially invented trap, which could only be opened by the
spring. It was thus possible to feed them through an aperture in the top,
but any tampering with their wings was quite out of the question. A few
such matches would go far towards popularising pigeon-flying in America,
and form an agreeable variety to the morbid exhibitions of human endurance
which have assumed such proportions during the last few years."