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34: The Last of the Nine

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Author Topic: 34: The Last of the Nine  (Read 227 times)
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« on: June 25, 2023, 08:45:52 am »

TO a calm sea, to a dawn all pearl and rose, the crew of the Maria Braganza woke. In the night, the speed of the warship had been accelerated until she was moving at her top speed, and two columns of black smoke belched from her great funnels. The two men who came on deck at the same moment did not speak one to the other. Baggin was pale; there were dark circles about his eyes; he looked like a man who had not slept. But Count Poltavo was unperturbed.

Clear-eyed, shaven, not unusually pallid, he woke as from a pleasant dream, and appeared on deck immaculate from point of shoe to fingernail.

All the morning preparations were going on. Ammunition came up from the magazine, dilatory quartermasters swung out guns; on the masthead was an under-officer armed with a telescope.

He was the principal object of interest to the men on the quarter-deck. Every few minutes their eyes would go sweeping aloft.

Beyond the curtest salutations, neither the captain, Baggin, nor the calm Poltavo spoke. In Baggin's heart grew a new terror, and he avoided the count.

The sun beat down on the stretch of awning that protected the privileged three, but, for some reason, Baggin did not feel the heat.

He had a something on his mind; a question to ask; and at last he summoned his resolution to put it. He walked over to where the count sat reading.

"Ivan," he said---he had never so addressed him before---"is the end near?"

The count had raised his clear eyes when the other had come toward him; he smiled.

"Which variety of end?" he asked.

"There is only one variety," said Baggin steadily. "There is only one thing in the world that counts, and that is life."

"Not money?" asked the Russian, with a faint, ironical smile.

"Not money," repeated Baggin. "Least of all, money---but life!"

Poltavo arose. He had seen the flutter of a white skirt at the far end of the promenade-deck.

"Life," he said, with soft deliberateness, "is the least of all gifts, my friend. It is of no more consequence than the crystal of snow which is lost in the foul mud beneath our feet, or the drop of dew which is burned up by the ardent rays of the sun." He turned upon his heel.

The American plucked at his sleeve. "Then, what counts?" he demanded hoarsely.

"Nothing!" There was a certain mysticism in the count's gentle smile. "We are bewildered guests. Listen to the words of one of your own great countrymen." He quoted in a musical voice, looking out across the water:

   "'I was not asked if I should like to come,
    I have not seen my host here since I came,
    Or had a word of welcome in his name.
    Some say that we shall never see him, and some
    That we shall see him elsewhere, and then know
    Why we were bid.'

"For myself"---he shrugged his shoulders with an expressive gesture---"it does not matter. I have been well amused." He strolled forward.

Doris, dressed all in white, was leaning against the rail. She drank in the fresh morning air eagerly. The wind had brought a faint tinge of colour to her cheeks, and the blue ribbon which she had bound about her hair to protect it from the ravages of the wind lent her an air almost of gaiety, which the count was not slow to observe.

"It is a glorious day," he said cheerfully. "And your father is better. I can read the good news in your face."

He ranged himself beside her, his back against the rail, so that his eyes took in every aspect of her face and figure.

"He is asleep," she returned in a low voice, "and so I ventured out for a breath of fresh air. He was---delirious---through the night."

He looked at her reproachfully. "And you watched with him all night?"

She nodded.

"You might, at least, have permitted me to divide the time with you."

The girl was silent.

"Is he alone---now?" he asked abruptly.

A certain quality in his tones made her glance up swiftly.

"I---I think so," she faltered. "There is---danger?"

"It is just as well to have a guard," he said drily. "In case the---ah!---delirium should return." He beckoned to one of the sailors, and spoke to him in Spanish.

As the man retreated, she turned to him, her blue eyes swimming in a bright mist of tears.

"You are very good!" she murmured.

"It is nothing," he said simply. "Will you come up on the hurricane-deck? I have a desire for wide sweeps---great distances to-day."

She hesitated.

"Your father is safe," he urged. "I have set two men at his door. And I have something to say to you."

"I also have something to say to you," she answered, with a queer little laugh.

They did not speak again until he had placed her in a luxurious steamer-chair, protected from the rays of the sun by a gay striped awning, and seated himself beside her.

Doris folded her hands in her lap, and gazed across the shimmering water. Slowly her eyes came back, and rested upon the figure beside her. She drew from about her neck a slender gold chain, from which depended a locket, and a ring, set quaintly with a ruby.

"Count Poltavo," she said, in a low, clear tone, "do you remember giving me this ring?"

"Yes." His face had paled slightly, and a light came into his eyes.

"And---and the pledge which I made you then?"

"I recall no pledge, dear lady."

She gave him a wide, deep look.

"I bound myself to answer any question you should wish to ask---if you should save my father from Mr. Baggin. Yesterday, that came to pass. During a lucid interval in the night, my father"---her voice quivered on the word---"spoke of you, but brokenly, and I did not completely understand until you set the guard about his door."

The count made as if to speak, but she raised a protesting hand. "So now you have fulfilled your pledge to me, and I"---she lifted her head proudly---"stand ready to redeem mine."

He looked at her strangely. "You would marry me?"

"Yes."

Her lips articulated the word with difficulty. Her eyes were upon her hands, and her hands plaited nervously a fold of her white gown.

"Doris!" He laid a hand over the slim white fingers. She shrank back, and then suffered her hand to lie in his, passively.

"Look up, child," he urged gently. "Let me see your eyes."

She closed them tightly. A warm tear splashed upon his hand.

Count Poltavo was very white, but he smiled.

"Do you weep," he said softly, "because you have given yourself to me? Or because you do not love me?"

The tears fell faster.

He took both her hands. "Dear lady," he said, "let our hearts speak only true words to-day. You have already chosen a mate---is it not true?"

She sat mute, but a burning flush betrayed her.

The count rose suddenly to his feet, and made his way blindly to the rail. When he returned, a few moments later, his face was tranquil and serene. "I have put my question," he said lightly, "and you have answered it---with a blush! Let us drop the poor unfortunate subject into oblivion."

She took a long deep breath, as if throwing off the weight of a weary burden. "I am free?" she whispered.

He laughed somewhat harshly. "As free as a bird," he retorted, "to fly whither you will."

She did not answer, but unthreaded the ring, with trembling fingers, and handed it to him without a word.

He drew back, shaking his head. "Will you honour me by keeping it as a memento of your---ah!---freedom? To think upon, in happier days?"

"I will keep it," she said softly, "in memory of a man whom I could wish to love!"

A silence fell between them, which the girl presently broke.

"You also had something to tell me?" she said.

He roused himself. "It is true---I had almost forgot!" He stopped and looked about them, as if to reassure himself that they were quite alone. "Your father is very ill," he began, "too ill to receive proper attention aboard this ship. I have decided, therefore,"---he lowered his voice to a whisper,---"to transfer him, as soon as he is able, to the first steamer we meet. It can be arranged, quite simply, with assumed names. You will take him to some quiet place, and, when he is quite restored, return with him to America."

The light of a great hope shone in her eyes.

Impulsively, she bent down, and touched his hand with her lips. "I can never, never repay you!" she murmured.

He rose smiling. From where he stood, the man in the mainmast was visible. He was shouting to somebody on the bridge, and pointing northward.

The count deftly interposed himself between the girl and the sea.

"You can repay me," he said slowly, "by returning at once with me to your father's stateroom, and promising to remain there until I come or send some one for you."

She looked up at him, startled, and the blood ebbed from her cheeks, leaving them ashen, but she asked no question, and he escorted her gravely to her father's cabin.

When he came again on deck, Baggin pointed triumphantly toward the north. "We make our final appeal to the world!" he cried.

It came reluctantly into view, a big grey-painted steamer with red-and-black funnels, a great, lumbering ocean beast.

Through their glasses the three men watched her, a puzzled frown upon the captain's face.

"I do not recognise her," he said, "but she looks like a gigantic cargo steamer."

"Her decks are crowded with passengers," said Baggin. "I can see women's hats and men in white; what is that structure forward?" He indicated a long superstructure before the steamer's bridge.

"There goes her flag."

A little ball crept up to the mainmast.

"We will show her ours," said the captain pleasantly, and pushed a button.

Instantly, with a crash that shook the ship, the forward gun of the Maria Braganza sent a shell whizzing through the air.

It fell short and wide of the steamer.

The captain turned to Poltavo, as for instructions.

"Sink her," said the count briefly.

But the steamer was never sunk.

The little ball that hung at the main suddenly broke, and out to the breeze there floated not the red ensign of the merchant service, but the Stars and Stripes of America---more, on the little flagstaff at the bow of the ship fluttered a tiny blue flag spangled with stars.

Livid of face, Captain Lombrosa sprang to the wheel.

"It's a Yankee man-o'-war!" he cried, and his voice was cracked. "We've----"

As he spoke the superstructure on the "intermediate," which had excited the count's curiosity, fell apart like a house of canvas---as it was---and the long slim barrel of a nine-inch gun swung round.

"Bang!"

The shell carried away a boat and a part of the wireless cabin.

"Every gun!" yelled Lombrosa, frantically pressing the buttons on the bridge before him. "We must run for it!"

Instantly, with an ear-splitting succession of crashes, the guns of the Maria Braganza came into action.

To the last, fortune was with the Nine, for the second or third shot sent the American over with a list to starboard.

Round swung the Maria Braganza like a frightened hare; the water foamed under her bows as, running under every ounce of steam, she made her retreat.

"We must drop all idea of picking up Zillier," said Baggin, white to the lips; "this damned warship is probably in wireless communication with a fleet; can you tap her messages?"

Poltavo shook his head.

"The first shell smashed our apparatus," he said. "What is that ahead?"

Lombrosa, with his telescope glued to his eye, was scanning the horizon.

"It looks like a sea fog."

But the captain made no reply.

Over the edge of the ocean hung a thin red haze. He put the glass down, and turned a troubled face to the two men.

"In other latitudes I should say that it was a gathering typhoon," he said. He took another long look, put down the telescope, closed it mechanically, and hung it in the rack.

"Smoke," he said briefly. "We are running into a fleet."

He brought the Maria Braganza's bows northward, but the smoke haze was there, too.

East, north, south, west, a great circle of smoke and the Maria Braganza trapped in the very centre.

Out of the smoke haze grey shadowy shapes, dirty grey hulls, white hulls, hulls black as pitch, loomed into view.

The captain rang his engines to "stop."

"We are caught," he said.

He opened a locker on the bridge leisurely, and took out a revolver.

"I have no regrets," he said---it was a challenge to fate.

Then he shot himself and fell dead at the feet of the two. Baggin sprang forward, but too late.

"You coward!" he screamed. He shook his fist in the dead man's face, then he turned like a wild beast on Poltavo. "This is the end of it! This is the end of your scheme! Curse you! Curse you!"

He leapt at the Russian's throat.

For a moment they swayed and struggled, then suddenly Baggin released his hold, dropped his head like a tired man, and slid to the deck.

Count Poltavo flung the knife overboard, and lit a cigarette with a hand that did not tremble.

---

One last expiring effort the Maria Braganza made; you could almost follow Poltavo, as he sped from one side of the ship to the other, by the spasmodic shots that came from the doomed ship.

Then four men-of-war detached themselves from the encircling fleets and steamed in toward the Brazilian. Shell after shell beat upon the steel hull of the "Mad Battleship," a great hole gaped in her side, her funnels were shot away, her foremast hung limply.

A white flag waved feebly from her bridge, and a British destroyer came with a swift run across the smoky seas.

Up the companion-ladder came a rush of marines; and, after them, a revolver in his hand, T. B. Smith, a prosaic Assistant-Commissioner from Scotland Yard, and Van Ingen.

T. B. came upon the count standing with his back to a bulkhead, grimy---bloodstained, but with the butt of a cigarette still glowing in the corner of his mouth.

"You are Count Ivan Poltavo," said T. B., and snapped a pair of handcuffs on his wrists. "I shall take you into custody on a charge of wilful murder, and I caution you that what you now say may be used in evidence against you at your trial."

The count laughed, though faintly.

"You come, as ever, a bit late, my friend."

He flung overboard a tiny phial, which he had held concealed in his hand. He turned to Van Ingen.

"You will find Miss Grayson in the cabin with her father, who is dying. For him, also, Mr. Smith comes a trifle too late."

He staggered backward.

Van Ingen and the detective sprang to his support.

The marines had gathered about in an awe-struck circle.

A slight foam gathered upon the count's lips. He opened his eyes.

"It grows dark," he whispered. "Good-night, gentlemen!"

He stiffened himself suddenly, and stood boldly erect, gazing past the circle of men.

"Vive Poltavo!" he cried, in a loud, clear voice, and fell backward into their arms.

THE END
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