“Then they lied,” said the Captain. “It was proved conclusively at the court-martial to have arisen from an explosion of coal-gas–but we had better change the subject, or we may cause the ladies to have a restless night;” and the conversation once more drifted back into its original channel.
During this little discussion Flannigan had argued his point with a gentlemanly deference and a quiet power for which I had not given him credit. I could not help admiring a man who, on the eve of a desperate enterprise, could courteously argue upon a point which must touch him so nearly. He had, as I have already mentioned, partaken of a considerable quantity of wine; but though there was a slight flush upon his pale cheek, his manner was as reserved as ever. He did not join in the conversation again, but seemed to be lost in thought.
A whirl of conflicting ideas was battling in my own mind. What was I to do? Should I stand up now and denounce them before both passengers and Captain? Should I demand a few minutes’ conversation with the latter in his own cabin, and reveal it all? For an instant I was half resolved to do it, but then the old constitutional timidity came back with redoubled force. After all there might be some mistake. Dick had heard the evidence and had refused to believe in it. I determined to let things go on their course. A strange reckless feeling came over me. Why should I help men who were blind to their own danger? Surely it was the duty of the officers to protect us, not ours to give warning to them. I drank off a couple of glasses of wine, and staggered up on deck with the determination of keeping my secret locked in my own bosom.
It was a glorious evening. Even in my excited state of mind I could not help leaning against the bulwarks and enjoying the refreshing breeze. Away to the westward a solitary sail stood out as a dark speck against the great sheet of flame left by the setting sun. I shuddered as I looked at it. It was grand but appalling. A single star was twinkling faintly above our mainmast, but a thousand seemed to gleam in the water below with every stroke of our propeller. The only blot in the fair scene was the great trail of smoke which stretched away behind us like a black slash upon a crimson curtain. It was hard to believe that the great peace which hung over all Nature could be marred by a poor miserable mortal.
“After all,” I thought, as I gazed into the blue depths beneath me, “if the worst comes to the worst, it is better to die here than to linger in agony upon a sickbed on land.” A man’s life seems a very paltry thing amid the great forces of Nature. All my philosophy could not prevent my shuddering, however, when I turned my head and saw two shadowy figures at the other side of the deck, which I had no difficulty in recognising. They seemed to be conversing earnestly, but I had no opportunity of overhearing what was said; so I contented myself with pacing up and down, and keeping a vigilant watch upon their movements.
It was a relief to me when Dick came on deck. Even an incredulous confidant is better than none at all.
“Well, old man,” he said, giving me a facetious dig in the ribs, “we’ve not been blown up yet.”
“No, not yet,” said I; “but that’s no proof that we are not going to be.”
“Nonsense, man!” said Dick; “I can’t conceive what has put this extraordinary idea into your head. I have been talking to one of your supposed assassins, and he seems a pleasant fellow enough; quite a sporting character, I should think, from the way he speaks.”
“Dick,” I said, “I am as certain that those men have an infernal machine, and that we are on the verge of eternity, as if I saw them putting the match to the fuse.”
“Well, if you really think so,” said Dick, half awed for the moment by the earnestness of my manner, “it is your duty to let the Captain know of your suspicions.”
“You are right,” I said; “I will. My absurd timidity has prevented my doing so sooner. I believe our lives can only be saved by laying the whole matter before him.”
“Well, go and do it now,” said Dick; “but for goodness’ sake don’t mix me up in the matter.”
“I’ll speak to him when he comes off the bridge,” I answered; “and in the meantime I don’t mean to lose sight of them.”