I was astonished at the rascal’s audacity, but took care to keep my eyes fixed abstractedly upon the ceiling, and drank my wine in as unconscious a manner as possible. I felt that Flannigan was looking towards me with his wolfish eyes to see if I had noticed the allusion. He whispered something to his companion which I failed to catch. It was a caution, I suppose, for the other answered rather angrily–
“Nonsense! Why shouldn’t I say what I like? Over-caution is just what would ruin us.”
“I believe you want it not to come off,” said Flannigan.
“You believe nothing of the sort,” said the other, speaking rapidly and loudly. “You know as well as I do that when I play for a stake I like to win it. But I won’t have my words criticised and cut short by you or any other man. I have as much interest in our success as you have–more, I hope.”
He was quite hot about it, and puffed furiously at his cigar for some minutes. The eyes of the other ruffian wandered alternately from Dick Merton to myself. I knew that I was in the presence of a desperate man, that a quiver of my lip might be the signal for him to plunge a weapon into my heart, but I betrayed more self-command than I should have given myself credit for under such trying circumstances. As to Dick, he was as immovable and apparently as unconscious as the Egyptian Sphinx.
There was silence for some time in the smoking-room, broken only by the crisp rattle of the cards, as the man Muller shuffled them up before replacing them in his pocket. He still seemed to be somewhat flushed and irritable. Throwing the end of his cigar into the spittoon, he glanced defiantly at his companion and turned towards me.
“Can you tell me, sir,” he said, “when this ship will be heard of again?”
They were both looking at me; but though my face may have turned a trifle paler, my voice was as steady as ever as I answered–
“I presume, sir, that it will be heard of first when it enters Queenstown Harbour.”
“Ha, ha!” laughed the angry little man, “I knew you would say that. Don’t you kick me under the table, Flannigan, I won’t stand it. I know what I am doing. You are wrong, sir,” he continued, turning to me, “utterly wrong.”
“Some passing ship, perhaps,” suggested Dick.
“No, nor that either.”
“The weather is fine,” I said; “why should we not be heard of at our destination?”
“I didn’t say we shouldn’t be heard of at our destination. Possibly we may not, and in any case that is not where we shall be heard of first.”
“Where, then?” asked Dick.
“That you shall never know. Suffice it that a rapid and mysterious agency will signal our whereabouts, and that before the day is out. Ha, ha!” and he chuckled once again.
“Come on deck!” growled his comrade; “you have drunk too much of that confounded brandy-and-water. It has loosened your tongue. Come away!” and taking him by the arm he half led him, half forced him out of the smoking-room, and we heard them stumbling up the companion together, and on to the deck.
“Well, what do you think now?” I gasped, as I turned towards Dick. He was as imperturbable as ever.
“Think!” he said; “why, I think what his companion thinks, that we have been listening to the ravings of a half-drunken man. The fellow stunk of brandy.”
“Nonsense, Dick! you saw how the other tried to stop his tongue.”
“Of course he did. He didn’t want his friend to make a fool of himself before strangers. Maybe the short one is a lunatic, and the other his private keeper. It’s quite possible.”
“O, Dick, Dick,” I cried, “how can you be so blind! Don’t you see that every word confirmed our previous suspicion?”
“Humbug, man!” said Dick; “you’re working yourself into a state of nervous excitement. Why, what the devil do _you_ make of all that nonsense about a mysterious agent which would signal our whereabouts?”
“I’ll tell you what he meant, Dick,” I said, bending forward and grasping my friend’s arm. “He meant a sudden glare and a flash seen far out at sea by some lonely fisherman off the American coast. That’s what he meant.”
“I didn’t think you were such a fool, Hammond,” said Dick Merton testily. “If you try to fix a literal meaning on the twaddle that every drunken man talks, you will come to some queer conclusions. Let us follow their example, and go on deck. You need fresh air, I think. Depend upon it, your liver is out of order. A sea-voyage will do you a world of good.”