A Woman Intervenes by Robert Barr
Most of the passengers awoke next morning with a bewildering feeling of vague apprehension. The absence of all motion in the ship, the unusual and intense silence, had a depressing effect. The engines had not yet started; that at least was evident. Kenyon was one of the first on deck. He noticed that the pumps were still working at their full speed, and that the steamer had still the unexplained list to port. Happily, the weather continued good, so far as the quietness of the sea was concerned. A slight drizzle of rain had set in, and the horizon was not many miles from the ship. There would not be much chance of sighting another liner while such weather continued.
Before Kenyon had been many minutes on deck, Edith Longworth came up the companion-way. She approached him with a smile on her face.
'Well,' he said, 'you, at least, do not seem to be suffering any anxiety because of our situation.'
'Really,' she replied, 'I was not thinking of that at all, but about something else. Can you not guess what it is?'
'No,' he answered hesitatingly. 'What is it?'
'Have you forgotten that this is Sunday morning?'
'Is it? Of course it is. So far as I am concerned, time seemed to stop when the engines broke down. But I do not understand why Sunday morning means anything in particular.'
'Don't you? Well, for a person who has been thinking for the last two or three days very earnestly on one particular subject, I am astonished at you. Sunday morning and no land in sight! Reflect for a moment.'
Kenyon's face brightened.
'Ah,' he cried, 'I see what you mean now! Miss Brewster's cable message will not appear in this morning's New York Argus.'
'Of course it will not; and don't you see, also, that when we do arrive you will have an equal chance in the race. If we get in before next Sunday, your telegram to the London people will go as quickly as her cable despatch to New York; thus you will be saved the humiliation of seeing the substance of your report in the London papers before the directors see the report itself. It is not much, to be sure, but, still, it puts you on equal terms; while if we had got into Queenstown last night that would have been impossible.'
'Well,' he said, 'for such a result the cause is rather tremendous, isn't it? It is something like burning down the house to roast the pig!'
Shortly after ten o'clock the atmosphere cleared, and showed in the distance a steamer, westward bound. The vessel evidently belonged to one of the great ocean lines. The moment it was sighted there fluttered up to the masthead a number of signal-flags, and people crowded to the side of the ship to watch the effect on the outgoing vessel. Minute after minute passed, but there was no response from the other liner. People watched her with breathless anxiety, as though their fate depended on her noticing their signals. Of course, everybody thought she must see them, but still she steamed westward. A cloud of black smoke came out of her funnel, and then a long dark trail, like the tail of a comet, floated out behind; but no notice was taken of the fluttering flags at the masthead. For more than an hour the steamer was in sight. Then she gradually faded away into the west, and finally disappeared.
This incident had a depressing effect on the passengers of the disabled ship. Although every officer had maintained there was no danger, yet the floating away of that steamer seemed somehow to leave them alone; and people, after gazing toward the west until not a vestige of her remained in the horizon, went back to their deck-chairs, feeling more despondent than ever.
Fleming, however, maintained that if people had to drown, it was just as well to drown jolly as mournful, and so he invited everybody to take a drink at his expense--a generous offer, taken instant advantage of by all the smoking-room frequenters.
'My idea is this,' said Fleming, as he sipped the cocktail which was brought to him, 'if anything happens, let it happen; if nothing happens, why, then let nothing happen. There is no use worrying about anything, especially something we cannot help. Here we are on the ocean in a disabled vessel--very good; we cannot do anything about it, and so long as the bar remains open, gentlemen, here's to you!'
And with this cheerful philosophy the New York politician swallowed the liquor he had paid for.
Still the swish of water from the pumps could be heard, but the metallic clanking of steel on steel no longer came up from the engine-room. This in itself was ominous to those who knew. It showed that the engineer had given up all hope of repairing the damage, whatever it was, and the real cause of the disaster was as much a mystery as ever. Shortly before lunch it became evident to people on board the ship that something was about to be done. The sailors undid the fastenings of one of the large boats, and swung it out on the davits until it hung over the sea.
Gradually rumour took form, and it became known that one of the officers and certain of the crew were about to make an attempt to reach the coast of Ireland and telegraph to Queenstown for tugs to bring the steamer in. The captain still asserted that there was no danger whatever, and it was only to prevent delay that this expedient was about to be tried.
'Do you know what they are going to do?' cried Edith Longworth, in a state of great excitement, to John Kenyon.
Kenyon had been walking the deck with Wentworth, who now had gone below.
'I have heard,' said Kenyon, 'that they intend trying to reach the coast.'
'Exactly. Now, why should you not send a telegram to your people in London, and have the reports forwarded at once? The chances are that Miss Brewster will never think of sending her cablegram with the officer who is going to make the trip; then you will be a clear day or two ahead of her, and everything will be all right. In fact, when she understands what has been done, she probably will not send her own message at all.'
'By George!' cried Kenyon, 'that is a good idea. I will see the mate at once, and find out whether he will take a telegram.'
He went accordingly, and spoke to the mate about sending a message with him. The officer said that any passenger who wished to send a telegraphic message would be at liberty to do so. He would take charge of the telegrams very gladly. Kenyon went down to his state-room and told Wentworth what was going to be done. For the first time in several days George Wentworth exhibited something like energy. He went to the steward and bought the stamps to put on the telegram, while John Kenyon wrote it.
The message was given to the officer, who put it into his inside pocket, and then Kenyon thought all was safe. But Edith Longworth was not so sure of that. Jennie Brewster sat in her deck-chair calmly reading her usual paper-covered novel. She apparently knew nothing of what was going on, and Edith Longworth, nervous with suppressed excitement, sat near her, watching her narrowly, while preparations for launching the boat were being completed. Suddenly, to Edith's horror, the deck-steward appeared, and in a loud voice cried:
'Ladies and gentlemen, anyone wishing to send telegrams to friends has a few minutes now to write them. The mate will take them ashore with him, and will send them from the first office that he reaches. No letters can be taken, only telegrams.'
Miss Brewster looked up languidly from her book during the first part of this recital. Then she sprang suddenly to her feet, and threw the book on the deck.
'Who is it will take the telegrams?' she asked the steward.
'The mate, miss. There he is standing yonder, miss.'
She made her way quickly to that official.
'Will you take a cable despatch to be sent to New York?'
'Yes, miss. Is it a very long one?' he asked.
'Yes, it is a very long one.'
'Well, miss,' was the answer, 'you haven't much time to write it. We leave now in a very few minutes.'
'It is all written out; I have only to add a few words to it.'
Miss Brewster at once flew to her state-room. The telegram about the mine was soon before her with the words counted, and the silver and gold that were to pay for it piled on the table. She resolved to run no risk of delay by having the message sent 'to collect.' Then she dashed off, as quickly as she could, a brief and very graphic account of the disaster which had overtaken the Caloric. If this account was slightly exaggerated, Miss Brewster had no time to tone it down. Picturesque and dramatic description was what she aimed at. Her pen flew over the paper with great rapidity, and she looked up every now and then, through her state-room window, to see dangling from the ropes the boat that was to make the attempt to reach the Irish coast. As she could thus see how the preparations for the departure were going forward, she lingered longer than she might otherwise have done, and added line after line to the despatch which told of the disaster. At last she saw the men take their places in the longboat. She hurriedly counted the words in the new despatch she had written, and quickly from her purse piled the gold that was necessary to pay for their transmission. Then she sealed the two despatches in an envelope, put the two piles of gold into one after rapidly counting them again, cast a quick look up at the still motionless boat, grasped the gold in one hand, the envelope in the other, and sprang to her feet; but, as she did so, she gave a shriek and took a step backwards.
Standing with her back to the door was Edith Longworth. When she had entered the state-room, Miss Brewster did not know, but her heart beat wildly as she saw the girl standing silently there, as if she had risen up through the floor.
'What are you doing here?' she demanded.
'I am here,' said Miss Longworth, 'because I wish to talk with you.'
'Stand aside; I have no time to talk to you just now. I told you I didn't want to see you again. Stand aside, I tell you.'
'I shall not stand aside.'
'What do you mean?'
'I mean that I shall not stand aside.'
'Then I will ring the bell and have you thrust out of here for your impudence.'
'You shall not ring the bell,' said Edith calmly, putting her hand over the white china plaque that held in its centre the black electric button.
'Do you mean to tell me that you intend to keep me from leaving my own state-room?'
'I mean to tell you exactly that.'
'Do you know that you can be imprisoned for attempting such a thing?'
'I don't care.'
'Stand aside, you vixen, or I will strike you!'
For a moment the two girls stood there, the one flushed and excited, the other apparently calm, with her back against the door and her hand over the electric button. A glance through the window showed Miss Brewster that the mate had got into the boat, and that they were steadily lowering away.
'Let me pass, you--you wretch!'
'All in good time,' replied Edith Longworth, whose gaze was also upon the boat swinging in mid-air.
Jennie Brewster saw at once that, if it came to a hand-to-hand encounter, she would have no chance whatever against the English girl, who was in every way her physical superior. She had her envelope in one hand and the gold in the other. She thrust both of them into her pocket, which, after some fumbling, she found. Then she raised her voice in one of the shrillest screams which Edith Longworth had ever heard. As if in answer to that ear-piercing sound, there rose from the steamer a loud and ringing cheer. Both glanced up to see where the boat was, but it was not in sight. Several ropes were dangling down past the porthole. Miss Brewster sprang up on the sofa, and with her small hands turned round the screw which held the window closed.
Edith Longworth looked at her without making any attempt to prevent the unfastening of the window.
Jennie Brewster flung open the heavy brass circle which held the thick green glass, and again she screamed at the top of her voice, crying 'Help!' and 'Murder!'
The other did not move from her position. In the silence that followed, the steady splash of oars could be heard, and again a rousing cheer rang out from those who were left upon the motionless steamer. Edith Longworth raised herself on tiptoe and looked out of the open window. On the crest of a wave, five hundred yards away from the vessel, she saw the boat for a moment appear, showing the white glitter of her six dripping oars; then it vanished down the other side of the wave into the trough of the sea.
'Now, Miss Brewster', she said, 'you are at liberty to go.'