Chapter VIII. The Bearded Man

Travel to Tom and Mr. Damon presented no novelties. They had been on too many voyages over the sea, under the sea and even in the air above the sea to find anything unusual in merely taking a trip on a steamer.

Mr. Titus, though he admitted he had never been in a submarine or airship, had done considerable traveling about the world in his time, and had visited many countries, either for business or pleasure, so he was an old hand at it.

But to Koku, who, since he had been brought from the land where Tom Swift had been made captive, had gone about but little, everything was novel, and he did not know at what to look first.

The giant was interested in the ship, in the water, in the passengers, in the crew and in the sights to be seen as they progressed down the harbor.

And the big man himself was a source of wonder to all save his own party. Everywhere he went about the decks, or below, he was followed by a staring but respectful crowd. Koku took it all good-naturedly, however, and even consented to show his great strength by lifting heavy weights. Once when several sailors were shifting one of the smaller anchors (a sufficiently heavy one for all that) Koku pushed them aside with a sweep of his big arm, and, picking up the big "hook," turned to the second mate and asked:

"Where you want him?"

"Good land, man!" cried the astonished officer. "You'll kill yourself!"

But Koku carried the anchor where it ought to go, and from then on he was looked up to with awe and admiration by the sailors.

From San Francisco to Callao, Peru (the latter city being the seaport of Lima, which is situated inland), is approximately nine hundred miles. But as the Bellaconda was a coasting steamer, and would make several stops on her trip, it would be more than a week before our friends would land at Callao, then to proceed to Lima, where they expected to remain a day or so before striking into the interior to where the tunnel was being bored through the mountain.

The first day was spent in getting settled, becoming used to their new surroundings, finding their places and neighbors at table, and in making acquaintances. There were some interesting men and women aboard the Bellaconda, and Tom Swift, Mr. Damon and Mr. Titus soon made friends with them. This usually came about through the medium of Koku, the giant. Persons seeing him would inquire about him, and when they learned he was Tom Swift's helper it was an easy topic with which to open conversation.

Tom told, modestly enough, how he had come to get Koku in his escape from captivity, but Mr. Damon was not so simple in describing Tom's feats, so that before many days had passed our hero found himself regarded as a personage of considerable importance, which was not at all to his liking.

"But bless my fountain pen!" cried Mr. Damon, When Tom objected to so much notoriety. "You did it all; didn't you?"

"Yes, I know. But these people won't believe it."

"Oh, yes they will!" said the odd man. "I'll take good care that they believe it."

"If any one say it not so, you tell me!" broke Koku, shaking his huge fist.

"No, I guess I'd better keep still," said Tom, with a laugh.

The weather was pleasant, if we except a shower or two, and as the vessel proceeded south, tropical clothing became the order of the day, while all who could, spent most of their time on deck under the shade of awnings.

"Did you ever hear anything more of that fellow, Waddington?" asked Tom of Mr. Titus one day.

"Not a thing. He seems to have dropped out of sight."

"And are your rivals, Blakeson & Grinder, making any trouble?"

"Not that I've heard of. Though just what the situation may be down in Peru I don't know. I fancy everything isn't going just right or my brother would not be so anxious for me to come on in such a hurry."

"Do you anticipate any real trouble?"

Mr. Titus paused a moment before answering.

"Well, yes," he said, finally, "I do!"

"What sort?" asked Tom.

"That I can't say. I'll be perfectly frank with you, Tom. You know I told you at the time that we were in for difficulties. I didn't want you to go into this thing blindly."

"Oh, I'm not afraid of trouble," Tom hastened to assure his friend. "I've had more or less of it in my life, and I'm willing to meet it again. Only I like to know what kind it is."

"Well, I can't tell you--exactly," went an the tunnel contractor. "Those rivals of ours, Blakeson & Grinder, are unscrupulous fellows. They feel very bitter about not getting the contract, I hear. And they would be only too glad to have us fail in the work. That would mean that they, as the next lowest bidders, would be given the job. And we would have to make up the difference out of our pockets, as well as lose all the work we have, so far, put on the tunnel."

"And you don't want that to happen!"

"I guess not, my boy! Well, it won't happen if we get there in time with this new explosive of yours. That will do the business I'm sure."

"I hope so," murmured Tom. "Well, we'll soon see. And now I think I'll go and write a few letters. We are going to put in at Panama, and I can mail them there."

Tom started for his stateroom, and rapidly put his hand in the inner pocket of his coat. He drew out a bundle of letters and papers, and, as he looked at them, a cry of astonishment came from his lips.

"What's the matter?" asked Mr. Titus.

"Matter!" cried Tom. "Why here's a letter from Mary--from Mr. Nestor," he went on, as he scanned the familiar handwriting. "I never opened it! Let's see--when did I get that?"

His memory went back to the day of his departure from Shopton when he had sent Mary the gift, and he recalled that the letter had arrived just as he was getting into the automobile.

"I stuck it in my pocket with some other mail," he mused, "and I never thought of it again until just now. But this is the first time I've worn this coat since that day. A letter from Mr. Nestor! Probably Mary wrote, thanking me for the box, and her father addressed the envelope for her. Well, let's see what it says."

Tom retired to the privacy of his stateroom to read the note, but he had not glanced over more than the first half of it before he cried out:

"Dynamite! Great Scott! What does this mean? 'Gross carelessness! Poor idea of a joke! No person with your idea of responsibility will ever be my son-in-law!' Box labeled 'open with care!' Why--why--what does it all mean?"

Tom read the letter over again, and his murmurs of astonishment were so loud that Mr. Damon, in the next room, called out:

"What's the matter, Tom?" Get bad news?"

"Bad news? I should say so! Mary--her father--he forbids me to see her again. Says I tried to dynamite them all--or at least scare them into believing I was going to. I can't understand it!"

"Tell me about it, Tom," suggested Mr. Damon, coming into Tom's stateroom. "Bless my gunpowder keg! what does it mean?"

Thereupon Tom told of having purchased the gift for Mary, and of having, at the last minute, told Eradicate to put it in a box and deliver it at the Nestor home.

"Which he evidently did," Tom went on, "but when it got there Mary's present was in a box labeled 'Dynamite. Handle with care.' I never sent that."

Mr. Damon read over Mr. Nestor's letter which had lain so long in Tom's pocket unopened.

"I think I see how it happened," said the old man. "Eradicate can't read; can he, Tom?"

"No, but he pretends he can."

"And did you have any empty boxes marked dynamite in your laboratory?"

"Why yes, I believe I did. I used dynamite as one of the ingredients of my new explosive."

"Well then, it's as clear as daylight. Eradicate, being unable to read, took one of the empty dynamite boxes in which to pack Mary's present. That's how it happened."

Tom thought for a moment. Then he burst into a laugh.

"That's it," he said, a bit ruefully. "That's the explanation. No wonder Mr. Nestor was roiled. He thought I was playing a joke. I'll have to explain. But how?"

"By letter," said Mr. Damon.

"Too slow. I'll send a wireless," decided Tom, and he began the composition of a message that cost him considerable in tolls before he had hit on the explanation that suited him.

"That ought to clear the atmosphere," he said when the wireless had shot his message into the ether. "Whew! And to think, all this while, Mary and her folks have believed that I tried to play a miserable joke on them! My! My! I wonder if they'll ever forgive me. When I get hold of Eradicate--"

"Better teach him to read if he's going to do up love packages," interrupted Mr. Damon, dryly.

"I will," decided the young inventor.

The Bellaconda stopped at Panama and then kept on her way south. Soon after that she ran into a severe tropical storm, and for a time there was some excitement among the passengers. The more timid of them put on life preservers, though the captain and his officers assured them there was no danger.

Tom and Mr. Titus, descending from the deck, whence they had been warned by one of the mates, were on their way to their stateroom, walking with some difficulty owing to the roll of the ship.

As they approached their quarters the door of a stateroom farther up the passage opened, and a head was thrust out.

"Will you send a steward to me?" a man requested. "I am feeling very ill, and need assistance."

"Certainly," Tom answered, and at that moment he heard Mr. Titus utter an exclamation.

"What is it?" asked Tom, for the man who had appealed for help, had withdrawn his head.

"That--that man!" exclaimed the contractor. "That was Waddington, the tool of our rivals."

"Waddington!" repeated Tom, with a look at the now closed door. "Why, the bearded man has that stateroom--the bearded man who so nearly lost the steamer. He isn't Waddington!"

"And I tell you Waddington is in that room!" insisted the contractor. "I only saw the upper part of his face, but I'd know his eyes anywhere. Waddington is spying on us!"