Chapter VIII. A Narrow Escape
 

"Here, come back! You can't go past here!"

"But I've got to go! I tell you I must go! It's important!"

The first speaker was one of the ship's officers, and the other was Tom Swift, who, accompanied by his chum, was trying to get past a rope that had been hastily stretched in front of the hold where the smoke was rolling up in ever-thickening clouds.

"It's important that you stay where you are," insisted the officer. "Look here young man, do you want to start a panic? You know what that is on board ship. Keep cool, we'll get the fire out all right."

"I am cool," responded Tom, and, though he did look a bit excited, he was calm enough to know what he was doing.

"Then keep back!" insisted the officer.

A crowd was gathering and there were ominous whispers sent back and forth. Some hysterical women were beginning to scream, and there were anxious looks on all faces.

"I tell you it's important that I go down there," insisted Tom. "I want to get a box--"

"We'll look after the baggage of the passengers," declared the officer. "You don't need to worry, young man."

"But I tell you I do!" and Tom's voice was loud now. "It isn't so much on my account, as--" and then, stepping quickly to the side of the officer he whispered something.

"What!" cried the officer. "You don't tell me? That was a risk! I guess I'll have to help you get it out. Here, Mr. Simm," he called to one of the mates, "stand guard here. I'm going down into the hold with this young man."

"Shall I come?" cried Ned.

"No, you go stay with Mr. Damon and Eradicate," answered Tom. "Tell them everything is all right. And for cats' sake keep Rad cool. Don't let him get excited and start a panic. I'll be back in a minute."

With that Tom and the officer disappeared from view, and Ned, after wondering what it was all about, hastened to reassure Mr. Damon and the colored man that there was no danger, though from the manner in which Tom had acted his chum was convinced that something was wrong.

Meanwhile our hero, accompanied by the officer, was groping his way through the thick smoke in the compartment. The officer had switched on the electric lights, and they shone with a yellow haze through the clouds of choking vapor.

"Can you see it?" asked the officer anxiously.

"I had it put where I could easily get at it," answered Tom with a cough, for some of the smoke had got down his throat. "I had an idea I might need it in a hurry. Here it is!" and he pointed to a large box, marked with his initials in red paint. "Give me a hand and we'll get it out."

"Yes, and send it on deck. See, there's the fire!" and the officer pointed to where a glow could be seen amid some bales of cotton. "It will be slow burning, that's one good thing, and by turning steam into this compartment we can soon put it out."

"It's pretty close to my box," commented Tom, "but there isn't as much danger as I thought."

It did not take him and the officer long to move the box away from its proximity to the fire, for the case was not heavy, though it was of good size, and then the officer having called up an order to some of his fellow seamen on deck, a rope was let down, and the box hoisted up.

"Whew! That was a narrow escape!" exclaimed Tom as he saw his case go up on deck. "I suppose I shouldn't have had that stored here. But there were so many things to think of that I forgot."

"Yes, it was a risk," commented the officer. "But what are you going to do with that sort of stuff, anyhow?"

"I may need it when we get among the wild tribes of South American Indians," answered Tom non-commitally. "I'm much obliged for your help."

"Oh, that's nothing. Anything to save the ship."

At that moment there were confused cries, and a series of shouts and commands up on deck.

"We'd better hurry out of here," said the officer.

"Why?"

"The captain has just ordered steam turned in here. I hope there isn't anything of yours that will be damaged by it."

"No, everything else is in waterproof coverings. Come on, we'll climb out."

They hurried from the compartment and, a little later clouds of quenching steam were poured in from a hose run from the boiler room. The hatch was battened down, and then the smoke ceased to come up.

"The danger is practically over," the captain assured the frightened passengers. "The fire will be all out by morning. You may go to your staterooms in perfect safety."

Some did, and others, disbelieving, hung around the hatch-cover, sniffing and peering to discover traces of smoke. But the sailors had done their work well, and a stranger would not have known that a fire was in the hold.

The captain had spoken truly, and in the morning the fire was completely out, a few charred bales of cotton being the only things damaged. They were hauled up and dumped into the sea, while Tom, making a hasty inspection of his other goods placed in that compartment saw, to his relief, that beyond one case of trinkets, designed for barter with the natives, nothing had been damaged, and even the trinkets could be used on a pinch.

"But what was in that box?" asked Ned, that night as they got ready to retire, the excitement having calmed down.

"Hush! Not so loud," cautioned Tom, for Mr. Damon was in the next stateroom, while Eradicate had one across the corridor. "I'll tell you, Ned, but don't breathe a word of it to Rad or Mr. Damon. They might not intend to give it away, but I'm afraid they would, if they knew, and I depend on the things in that box to give the native giants the surprise of their lives in case we--well, in case we come to close quarters."

"Close quarters?"

"Yes, have a fight, you know, or in case they get so fond of us that they won't hear of letting us go--in other words if they make us captives."

"Great Scott, Tom! You don't think they'll do that, do you?"

"No telling, but if they do, Ned, I've got some things in that box that will make them wish they hadn't. It's got--" and Tom leaned forward and whispered, as though he feared even the walls would hear.

"Good!" cried his chum! "That's the stuff! No wonder you thought the ship might be damaged if the fire got to that!"

It seemed that the slight fire was about all the excitement destined to take place aboard the Calaban, for, after the blaze was so effectually quenched, the ship slipped along through the calm seas, and it was actually an effort to kill time on the part of the passengers. As they progressed further south the weather became more and more warm, until, as they approached the equator, every one put on the lightest garments obtainable.

"Crossing the line," was the signal for the usual "stunts" among the sailors. "Neptune" came aboard, with his usual sea-green whiskers made from long rope ends, and with his trident much in evidence; and there was plenty of horseplay which the passengers very much enjoyed.

Then, as the tropical region was left behind, the weather became more bearable. There were one or two storms, but they were of no consequence and the steamer weathered them easily.

Torn and his friends had several talks with the "Reverend Josiah Blinderpool," as the pretended clergyman still called himself. But he did not obtrude his company on them, and though he asked many questions as to where Tom and his party were going, the young inventor, with his usual caution in talking to strangers, rather evaded them.

"Hang it all! He's as close-mouthed as a clam," complained "Mr. Blinderpool" to himself one day, after an attempt to worm something from Tom, "I'll just have to stick close to him and his chum to get a line on where they're heading for. And I must find out, or Waydell will think I'm throwing the game."

As for Tom and the others, they gave the seeming clergyman little thought--that is until one day when something happened. Ned had been down in the engine room, having had permission to inspect the wonderful machinery, and, on his way back he passed the smoking cabin. He was rather surprised to see Mr. Blinderpool in there, puffing on a big black cigar, and with him were some men whom Ned recognized as personages who had vainly endeavored to get a number of passengers into a card game with them. And, unless Ned's eyes deceived him, the seeming clergyman was about to indulge in a game himself.

"That's mighty queer," mused Ned. "Guess I'll tell Tom about this. I never saw a minister play cards in public before, and this Mr. Blinderpool has been trying to get thick with Tom, of late. Maybe he's a gambler in disguise."

Filled with this thought Ned hastened off to warn his chum.