Dead Men Tell No Tales
2. The Mysterious Cargo
"Wake up, Cole! The ship's on fire!"
It was young Ready's hollow voice, as cool, however, as though he were telling
me I was late for breakfast. I started up and sought him wildly in the darkness.
"You're joking," was my first thought and utterance; for now he was lighting my
candle, and blowing out the match with a care that seemed in itself a
"I wish I were," he answered. "Listen to that!"
He pointed to my cabin ceiling; it quivered and creaked; and all at once I was as
a deaf man healed.
One gets inured to noise at sea, but to this day it passes me how even I could
have slept an instant in the abnormal din which I now heard raging above my
head. Sea-boots stamped; bare feet pattered; men bawled; women shrieked;
shouts of terror drowned the roar of command.
"Have we long to last?" I asked, as I leaped for my clothes.
"Long enough for you to dress comfortably. Steady, old man! It's only just been
discovered; they may get it under. The panic's the worst part at present, and
we're out of that."
But was Eva Denison? Breathlessly I put the question; his answer was
reassuring. Miss Denison was with her step-father on the poop. "And both of 'em
as cool as cucumbers," added Ready.
They could not have been cooler than this young man, with death at the bottom
of his bright and sunken eyes. He was of the type which is all muscle and no
constitution; athletes one year, dead men the next; but until this moment the
athlete had been to me a mere and incredible tradition. In the afternoon I had
seen his lean knees totter under the captain's fire. Now, at midnight - the exact
time by my watch - it was as if his shrunken limbs had expanded in his clothes;
he seemed hardly to know his own flushed face, as he caught sight of it in my
"By Jove!" said he, "this has put me in a fine old fever; but I don't know when I felt
in better fettle. If only they get it under! I've not looked like this all the voyage."
And he admired himself while I dressed in hot haste: a fine young fellow; not at
all the natural egotist, but cast for death by the doctors, and keenly incredulous in
his bag of skin. It revived one's confidence to hear him talk. But he forgot himself
in an instant, and gave me a lead through the saloon with a boyish eagerness
that made me actually suspicious as I ran. We were nearing the Line. I recalled
the excesses of my last crossing, and I prepared for some vast hoax at the last
moment. It was only when we plunged upon the crowded quarter-deck, and my
own eyes read lust of life and dread of death in the starting eyes of others, that
such lust and such dread consumed me in my turn, so that my veins seemed
filled with fire and ice.
To be fair to those others, I think that the first wild panic was subsiding even
then; at least there was a lull, and even a reaction in the right direction on the
part of the males in the second class and steerage. A huge Irishman at their