A Rock in the Baltic by Robert Barr
Chapter VII. "A Way They Have in the Navy"
Captain and Mrs. Kempt with Sabina had resided a week in the Matterhorn Hotel before the two girls arrived there. They had gone direct to New York, and it required the seven days to find a flat that suited them, of which they were to take possession on the first of October. Then there were the lawyers to see; a great many business details to settle, and an architect to consult. After leaving New York the girls spent a day at Haverstock, where Dorothy Amhurst bought a piece of land as shrewdly as if she had been in the real estate business all her life. After this transaction the girls drove to the station on the line connecting with the inclined railway, and so, as Katherine remarked, were "wafted to the skies on flowery beds of ease," which she explained to her shocked companion was all right, because it was a quotation from a hymn. When at last they reached their hotel, Katherine was in ecstasies.
"Isn't this heavenly?" she cried, "and, indeed, it ought to be, for I understand we are three thousand feet higher than we were in New York, and even the sky-scrapers can't compete with such an altitude."
The broad valley of the Hudson lay spread beneath them, stretching as far as the eye could see, shimmering in the thin, bluish veil of a summer evening, and miles away the river itself could be traced like a silver ribbon.
The gallant Captain, who had been energetically browbeaten by his younger daughter, and threatened with divers pains and penalties should he fail to pay attention and take heed to instructions, had acquitted himself with eclat in the selection of rooms for Dorothy and his daughter. The suite was situated in one corner of the huge caravansary, a large parlor occupying the angle, with windows on one side looking into the forest, and on the other giving an extended view across the valley. The front room adjoining the parlor was to be Dorothy's very own, and the end room belonged to Katherine, he said, as long as she behaved herself. If Dorothy ever wished to evict her strenuous neighbor, all she had to do was to call upon the Captain, and he would lend his aid, at which proffer of assistance Katherine tossed her head, and said she would try the room for a week, and, if she didn't like it, out Dorothy would have to go.
There followed days and nights of revelry. Hops, concerts, entertainments of all sorts, with a more pretentious ball on Saturday night, when the week-tired man from New York arrived in the afternoon to find temperature twenty degrees lower, and the altitude very much higher than was the case in his busy office in the city. Katherine revelled in this round of excitement, and indeed, so, in a milder way, did Dorothy. After the functions were over the girls enjoyed a comforting chat with one another in their drawing room; all windows open, and the moon a-shining down over the luminous valley, which it seemed to fill with mother-o'-pearl dust.
Young Mr. J. K. Henderson of New York, having danced repeatedly with Katherine on Saturday night, unexpectedly turned up for the hop on the following Wednesday, when he again danced repeatedly with the same joyous girl. It being somewhat unusual for a keen business man to take a four hours' journey during an afternoon in the middle of the week, and, as a consequence, arrive late at his office next morning, Dorothy began to wonder if a concrete formation, associated with the name of Prince Ivan Lermontoff of Russia, was strong enough to stand an energetic assault of this nature, supposing it were to be constantly repeated. It was after midnight on Wednesday when the two reached the corner parlor. Dorothy sat in a cane armchair, while Katherine threw herself into a rocking-chair, laced her fingers behind her head, and gazed through the open window at the misty infinity beyond.
"Well," sighed Katherine, "this has been the most enjoyable evening I ever spent!"
"Are you quite sure?" inquired her friend.
"Certainly. Shouldn't I know?"
"He dances well, then?"
"Better than Jack Lamont?"
"Well, now you mention him I must confess Jack danced very creditably."
"I didn't know but you might have forgotten the Prince."
"No, I haven't exactly forgotten him, but-- I do think he might have written to me."
"Oh, that's it, is it? Did he ask your permission to write?"
"Good gracious, no. We never talked of writing. Old red sandstone, rather, was our topic of conversation. Still, he might have acknowledged receipt of the book."
"But the book was given to him in return for the one he presented to you."
"Yes, I suppose it was. I hadn't thought of that."
"Then again, Kate, Russian notions regarding writing to young ladies may differ from ours, or he may have fallen overboard, or touched a live wire."
"Yes, there are many possibilities," murmured Katherine dreamily.
"It seems rather strange that Mr. Henderson should have time to come up here in the middle of the week."
"Why is it strange?" asked Katherine. "Mr. Henderson is not a clerk bound down to office hours. He's an official high up in one of the big insurance companies, and gets a simply tremendous salary."
"Really? Does he talk as well as Jack Lamont did?"
"He talks less like the Troy Technical Institute, and more like the 'Home Journal' than poor Prince Jack did, and then he has a much greater sense of humor. When I told him that the oath of an insurance man should be 'bet your life!' he laughed. Now, Jack would never have seen the point of that. Anyhow, the hour is too late, and I am too sleepy, to worry about young men, or jokes either. Good-night!"
Next morning's mail brought Dorothy a bulky letter decorated with English stamps. She locked the door, tore open the envelope, and found many sheets of thin paper bearing the heading of the Bluewater Club, Pall Mall.
"I am reminded of an old adage," she read, "to the effect that one should never cross a bridge before arriving at it. Since I bade good-by to you, up to this very evening, I have been plodding over a bridge that didn't exist, much to my own discomfort. You were with me when I received the message ordering me home to England, and I don't know whether or not I succeeded in suppressing all signs of my own perturbation, but we have in the Navy now a man who does not hesitate to overturn a court martial, and so I feared a re-opening of the Rock in the Baltic question, which might have meant the wrecking of my career. I had quite made up my mind, if the worst came to the worst, to go out West and become a cow-boy, but a passenger with whom I became acquainted on the 'Enthusiana' informed me, to my regret, that the cow-boy is largely a being of the past, to be met with only in the writings of Stewart Edward White, Owen Wister, and several other famous men whom he named. So you see, I went across the ocean tolerably depressed, finding my present occupation threatened, and my future uncertain.
"When I arrived in London I took a room at this Club, of which I have been a member for some years, and reported immediately at the Admiralty. But there, in spite of all diligence on my part, I was quite unable to learn what was wanted of me. Of course, I could have gone to my Uncle, who is in the government, and perhaps he might have enlightened me, although he has nothing to do with the Navy, but I rather like to avoid Uncle Metgurne. He brought me up since I was a small boy, and seems unnecessarily ashamed of the result. It is his son who is the attache' in St. Petersburg that I spoke to you about."
Dorothy ceased reading for a moment.
"Metgurne, Metgurne," she said to herself. "Surely I know that name?"
She laid down the letter, pressed the electric button, and unlocked the door. When the servant came, she said:
"Will you ask at the office if they have any biographical book of reference relating to Great Britain, and if so, please bring it to me."
The servant appeared shortly after with a red book which proved to be an English "Who's Who" dated two years back. Turning the pages she came to Metgurne.
"Metgurne, twelfth Duke of, created 1681, Herbert George Alan." Here followed a number of other titles, the information that the son and heir was Marquis of Thaxted, and belonged to the Diplomatic Service, that Lord Metgurne was H. M. Secretary of State for Royal Dependencies; finally a list of residences and clubs. She put down the book and resumed the letter.
"I think I ought to have told you that when I reach St. Petersburg I shall be as anxious to avoid my cousin Thaxted as I am to steer clear of his father in London. So I sat in my club, and read the papers. Dear me, this is evidently going to be a very long letter. I hope you won't mind. I think perhaps you may be interested in learning how they do things over here.
"After two or three days of anxious waiting there came a crushing communication from the Admiralty which confirmed my worst fears and set me at crossing the bridge again. I was ordered to report next morning at eleven, at Committee Room 5, in the Admiralty, and bring with me full particulars pertaining to the firing of gun number so-and-so of the 'Consternation's' equipment on such a date. I wonder since that I did not take to drink. We have every facility for that sort of thing in this club. However, at eleven next day, I presented myself at the Committee Room and found in session the grimmest looking five men I have ever yet been called upon to face. Collectively they were about ten times worse in appearance than the court-martial I had previously encountered. Four of the men I did not know, but the fifth I recognized at once, having often seen his portrait. He is Admiral Sir John Pendergest, popularly known in the service as 'Old Grouch,' a blue terror who knows absolutely nothing of mercy. The lads in the service say he looks so disagreeable because he is sorry he wasn't born a hanging judge. Picture a face as cleanly cut as that of some severe old Roman Senator; a face as hard as marble, quite as cold, and nearly as white, rescued from the appearance of a death mask by a pair of piercing eyes that glitter like steel. When looking at him it is quite impossible to believe that such a personage has ever been a boy who played pranks on his masters. Indeed, Admiral Sir John Pendergest seems to have sprung, fully uniformed and forbidding, from the earth, like those soldiers of mythology. I was so taken aback at confronting such a man that I never noticed my old friend, Billy Richardson, seated at the table as one of the minor officials of the Committee. Billy tells me I looked rather white about the lips when I realized what was ahead of me, and I daresay he was right. My consolation is that I didn't get red, as is my disconcerting habit. I was accommodated with a chair, and then a ferrety-faced little man began asking me questions, consulting every now and then a foolscap sheet of paper which was before him. Others were ready to note down the answers.
"'When did you fire the new gun from the "Consternation" in the Baltic?'
"Dear Miss Amhurst, I have confessed to you that I am not brilliant, and, indeed, such confession was quite unnecessary, for you must speedily have recognized the fact, but here let me boast for a line or two of my one accomplishment, which is mathematical accuracy. When I make experiments I don't note the result by rule of thumb. My answer to the ferret-faced man was prompt and complete.
"'At twenty-three minutes, seventeen seconds past ten, A.M., on May the third of this year,' was my reply.
"The five high officials remained perfectly impassive, but the two stenographers seemed somewhat taken by surprise, and one of them whispered, 'Did you say fifteen seconds, sir?'
"'He said seventeen,' growled Sir John Pendergest, in a voice that seemed to come out of a sepulchre.
"'Who sighted the gun?'
"'I did, sir.'
"'Why did not the regular gunner do that?'
"'He did, sir, but I also took observations, and raised the muzzle .000327 of an inch.'
"'Was your gunner inaccurate, then, to that extent?'
"'No, sir, but I had weighed the ammunition, and found it short by two ounces and thirty-seven grains.'
"I must not bore you with all the questions and answers. I merely give these as samples. They questioned me about the recoil, the action of the gun, the state of this, that and the other after firing, and luckily I was able to answer to a dot every query put to me. At the finish one of the judges asked me to give in my own words my opinion of the gun. Admiral Sir John glared at him as he put this question, for of course to any expert the answers I had furnished, all taken together, gave an accurate verdict on the gun, assuming my statements to have been correct, which I maintain they were. However, as Sir John made no verbal comment, I offered my opinion as tersely as I could.
"'Thank you, Lieutenant Drummond,' rumbled Sir John in his deep voice, as if he were pronouncing sentence, and, my testimony completed, the Committee rose.
"I was out in the street before Billy Richardson overtook me, and then he called himself to my attention by a resounding slap on the shoulder.
"'Alan, my boy,' he cried, 'you have done yourself proud. Your fortune's made.'
"'As how?' I asked, shaking him by the hand.
"'Why, we've been for weeks holding an inquiry on this blessed gun, and the question is whether or not a lot more of them are to be made. You know what an opinionated beast Old Grouch is. Well, my boy, you have corroborated his opinion of the gun in every detail. He is such a brow-beating, tyrannical brute that the rest of the Committee would rather like to go against him if they dared, but you have put a spoke in their wheel. Why, Sir John never said "thank you" to a human being since he was born until twenty-seven minutes and fifteen seconds after eleven this morning, as you would have put it,' and at the time of writing this letter this surmise of Billy's appears to be justified, for the tape in the club just now announced that the Committee has unanimously decided in favor of the gun, and adds that this is regarded as a triumph for the chairman, Admiral Sir John Pendergest, with various letters after his name.
"Dear Miss Amhurst, this letter, as I feared, has turned out intolerably long, and like our first conversation, it is all about myself. But then, you see, you are the only one on the other side of the water to whom I have confided my selfish worries, and I believe you to be so kind-hearted that I am sure you will not censure me for this once exceeding the limits of friendly correspondence. Having been deeply depressed during all the previous long days, the sudden reaction urges me to go out into Pall Mall, fling my cap in the air, and whoop, which action is quite evidently a remnant of my former cow-boy aspirations. Truth to tell, the Russian business seems already forgotten, except by my stout old Captain on the 'Consternation,' or my Uncle. The strenuous Sir John has had me haled across the ocean merely to give testimony, lasting about thirty-five minutes, when with a little patience he might have waited till the 'Consternation' herself arrived, or else have cabled for us to try the gun at Bar Harbor. I suppose, however, that after my unfortunate contretemps with Russia our government was afraid I'd chip a corner off the United States, and that they'd have to pay for it. So perhaps after all it was greater economy to bring me across on the liner 'Enthusiana.'
"By the way, I learned yesterday that the 'Consternation' has been ordered home, and so I expect to see Jack Lamont before many days are past. The ship will be paid off at Portsmouth, and then I suppose he and I will have our freedom for six months. I am rather looking forward to Jack's cooking me some weird but tasteful Russian dishes when we reach his blacksmith's shop in St. Petersburg. If I get on in Russia as I hope and expect, I shall spend the rest of my leave over in the States. I saw very little indeed of that great country, and am extremely anxious to see more. When one is on duty aboard ship one can only take very short excursions ashore. I should like to visit Niagara. It seems ridiculous that one should have been all along the American coast from Canada to New York, and never have got far enough inland to view the great Falls.
"Russia is rather dilatory in her methods, but I surely should know within two or three weeks whether I am going to succeed or not. If not, then there is no use in waiting there. I shall try to persuade the Prince to accompany me to America. During the weeks I am waiting in St. Petersburg I shall continually impress upon him the utter futility of a life which has not investigated the great electrical power plant at Niagara Falls. And then he is interested in the educational system of the United States. While we were going to the station early that morning he told me that the United States educational system must be the most wonderful in the world, because he found that your friend, Miss Katherine Kempt, knew more about electricity, metallurgy, natural philosophy and a great number of other things he is interested in, than all the ladies he has met in Europe put together. He thinks that's the right sort of education for girls, and all this rather astonished me, because, although your friend was most charming, she said nothing during my very short acquaintance with her to lead me to suspect that she had received a scientific training.
"Dear Miss Amhurst, I am looking every day for a letter from you, but none has yet been received by the Admiralty, who, when they get one, will forward it to whatever part of the world I happen to be in."