Read CHAPTER XV - THE MISSING COAL of Brandon of the Engineers , free online book, by Harold Bindloss, on ReadCentral.com.

Early next morning Dick stood in front of the Hotel Magellan, where he had slept for a few hours after his return, and was somewhat surprised to see that Jake had got up before him and was talking to a pretty, dark-skinned girl.  She carried a large bunch of flowers and a basket of fruit stood close by, while Jake seemed to be persuading her to part with some.

Dick stopped and watched them, for the glow of color held his eye.  Jake’s white duck caught the strong sunlight, while the girl’s dark hair and eyes were relieved by the brilliant lemon-tinted wall and the mass of crimson bloom.  Her attitude was coquettish, and Jake regarded her with an ingratiating smile.  After a few moments, however, Dick went down the street and presently heard his comrade following him.  When the lad came up, he saw that he had a basket of dark green fruit and a bunch of the red flowers.

“I thought you were asleep.  Early rising is not a weakness of yours,” he said.

“As it happens, I didn’t sleep at all,” Jake replied.  “Steering that unhandy coal-scow rather got upon my nerves and when she took the awkward sheer as we came through the reef the tiller knocked Maccario down and nearly broke my ribs.  I had to stop the helm going the wrong way somehow.”

Dick nodded.  It was obvious that the lad had been quick and cool at a critical time, but his twinkling smile showed that he was now in a different mood.

“You seem to have recovered.  But why couldn’t you leave the girl alone?”

“I’m not sure she’d have liked that,” Jake replied.  “It’s a pity you have no artistic taste, or you might have seen what a picture she made.”

“As a matter of fact, I did see it, but she has, no doubt, a half-breed lover who’d seriously misunderstand your admiration, which might lead to your getting stabbed some night.  Anyhow, why did you buy the flowers?”

“For one thing, she was taking them to the Magellan, and I couldn’t stand for seeing that blaze of color wasted on the guzzling crowd you generally find in a hotel dining-room.”

“That doesn’t apply to the fruit.  You can’t eat those things.  They preserve them.”

“Eat them!” Jake exclaimed with a pitying look.  “Well, I suppose it’s the only use you have for fruit.”  He took a stalk fringed with rich red bloom and laid it across the dark green fruit, which was packed among glossy leaves.  “Now, perhaps, you’ll see why I bought it.  I rather think it makes a dainty offering.”

“Ah!” said Dick.  “To whom do you propose to offer it?”

“Miss Kenwardine,” Jake replied with a twinkle; “though of course her proper color’s Madonna blue.”

Dick said nothing, but walked on, and when Jake asked where he was going, answered shortly:  “To the telephone.”

“Well,” said Jake, “knowing you as I do, I suspected something of the kind.  With the romance of the South all round you, you can’t rise above concrete and coal.”

He followed Dick to the public telephone office and sat down in the box with the flowers in his hands.  A line had recently been run along the coast, and although the service was bad, Dick, after some trouble, got connected with a port official at Arenas.

“Did a tug and three coal barges put into your harbor last night?” he asked.

“No, senor,” was the answer, and Dick asked for the coal wharf at Adexe.

“Why didn’t you call them first?” Jake inquired.

“I had a reason.  The tug was standing to leeward when she left us, but if her skipper meant to come back to Santa Brigida, he’d have to put into Arenas, where he’d find shelter.”

“Then you’re not sure he meant to come back?”

“I’ve some doubts,” Dick answered dryly, and was told that he was connected with the Adexe wharf.

“What about the coal for the Fuller irrigation works?” he asked.

“The tug and four lighters left last night,” somebody answered in Castilian, and Dick imagined from the harshness of the voice that one of the wharf-hands was speaking.

“That is so,” he said.  “Has she returned yet?”

“No, senor,” said the man.  “The tug ­”

He broke off, and there was silence for some moments, after which a different voice took up the conversation in English.

“Sorry it may be a day or two before we can send more of your coal.  The tug’s engines ­”

“Has she got back?” Dick demanded sharply.

“Speak louder; I cannot hear.”

Dick did so, but the other did not seem to understand.

“In two or three days.  You have one lighter.”

“We have.  I want to know if the tug ­”

“The damage is not serious,” the other broke in.

“Then I’m to understand she’s back in port?”

A broken murmur answered, but by and by Dick caught the words, “Not longer than two days.”

Then he rang off, and pushing Jake’s chair out of the way, shut the door.

“It’s plain that they don’t mean to tell me what I want to know,” he remarked.  “The first man might have told the truth, if they had let him, but somebody pulled him away.  My opinion is that the tug’s not at Adexe and didn’t go there.”

They went back to the hotel, and Dick sat down on a bench in the patio and lighted his pipe.

“There’s something very curious about the matter,” he said.

“When the tug left us she seemed to be heading farther off shore than was necessary,” Jake agreed.  “Still, the broken water wouldn’t matter so much when she had the wind astern.”

“Her skipper wouldn’t run off his course and lengthen the distance because the wind was fair.”

“No, I don’t suppose he would.”

“Well,” said Dick, “my impression is that he didn’t mean to start at all, and wouldn’t have done so if I hadn’t turned him out.”

Jake laughed.  “After all, there’s no use in making a mystery out of nothing.  The people offered us the coal, and you don’t suspect a dark plot to stop the works.  What would they gain by that?”

“Nothing that I can see.  I don’t think they meant to stop the works; but they wanted the coal.  It’s not at Adexe, and there’s no other port the tug could reach.  Where has it gone?”

“It doesn’t seem to matter, so long as we get a supply before our stock runs out.”

“Try to look at the thing as I do,” Dick insisted with a frown.  “I forced the skipper to go to sea, and as soon as he had a good excuse his tow-rope parted, besides which the last barge went adrift from the rest.  Her hawser, however, wasn’t broken.  It was slipped from the craft she was made fast to.  Then, though the tug’s engines were out of order, she steamed to leeward very fast and, I firmly believe, hasn’t gone back to Adexe.”

“I expect there’s a very simple explanation,” Jake replied.  “The truth is you have a rather senseless suspicion of Kenwardine.”

“I’ll own I don’t trust him,” Dick answered quietly.

Jake made an impatient gesture.  “Let’s see if we can get breakfast, because I’m going to his house afterwards.”

“They won’t have got up yet.”

“It’s curious that you don’t know more about their habits after living there.  Miss Kenwardine goes out with Lucille before the sun gets hot, and her father’s about as early as you are.”

“What does he do in the morning?”

“I haven’t inquired, but I’ve found him in the room he calls his office.  You’re misled by the idea that his occupation is gambling.”

Dick did not reply, and was silent during breakfast.  He understood Jake’s liking for Kenwardine because there was no doubt the man had charm.  His careless, genial air set one at one’s ease; he had a pleasant smile, and a surface frankness that inspired confidence.  Dick admitted that if he had not lost the plans at his house, he would have found it difficult to suspect him.  But Jake was right on one point; Kenwardine might play for high stakes, but gambling was not his main occupation.  He had some more important business.  The theft of the plans, however, offered no clue to this.  Kenwardine was an adventurer and might have thought he could sell the drawings, but since he had left England shortly afterwards, it was evident that he was not a regular foreign spy.  It was some relief to think so, and although there was a mystery about the coal, which Dick meant to fathom if he could, nothing indicated that Kenwardine’s trickery had any political aim.

Dick dismissed the matter and remembered with half-jealous uneasiness that Jake seemed to know a good deal about Kenwardine’s household.  The lad, of course, had gone to make inquiries when he was ill, and had probably been well received.  He was very little younger than Clare, and Fuller was known to be rich.  It would suit Kenwardine if Jake fell in love with the girl, and if not, his extravagance might be exploited.  For all that, Dick determined that his comrade should not be victimized.

When breakfast was over they left the hotel and presently met Clare, who was followed by Lucille carrying a basket.  She looked very fresh and cool in her white dress.  On the whole, Dick would sooner have avoided the meeting, but Jake stopped and Clare included Dick in her smile of greeting.

“I have been to the market with Lucille,” she said.  “The fruit and the curious things they have upon the stalls are worth seeing.  But you seem to have been there, though I did not notice you.”

“No,” said Jake, indicating the flowers and fruit he carried.  “I got these at the hotel.  The colors matched so well that I felt I couldn’t let them go, and then it struck me that you might like them.  Dick warned me that the things are not eatable in their present state, which is a pretty good example of his utilitarian point of view.”

Clare laughed as she thanked him, and he resumed:  “Lucille has enough to carry, and I’d better bring the basket along.”

“Very well,” said Clare.  “My father was getting up when I left.”

Dick said nothing, and stood a yard or two away.  The girl had met him without embarrassment, but it was Jake she had addressed.  He felt that he was, so to speak, being left out.

“Then I’ll come and talk to him for a while,” said Jake.  “I don’t know a nicer place on a hot morning than your patio.”

“But what about your work?  Are you not needed at the dam?”

“My work can wait.  I find from experience that it will keep for quite a long time without shriveling away, though often it gets very stale.  Anyhow, after being engaged on the company’s business for the most part of last night, I’m entitled to a rest.  My partner, of course, doesn’t look at things like that.  He’s going back as fast as he can.”

Dick hid his annoyance at the hint.  It was impossible to prevent the lad from going to Kenwardine’s when Clare was there to hear his objections, and he had no doubt that Jake enjoyed his embarrassment.  Turning away, he tried to forget the matter by thinking about the coal.  Since Kenwardine was at home, it was improbable that he had been at Adexe during the night.  If Clare had a part in her father’s plots, she might, of course, have made the statement about his getting up with an object, but Dick would not admit this.  She had helped the man once, but this was an exception, and she must have yielded to some very strong pressure.  For all that, Dick hoped his comrade would not tell Kenwardine much about their trip in the launch.

As a matter of fact, Jake handled the subject with some judgment when Kenwardine, who had just finished his breakfast, gave him coffee in the patio.  They sat beneath the purple creeper while the sunshine crept down the opposite wall.  The air was fresh and the murmur of the surf came languidly across the flat roofs.

“Aren’t you in town unusually early?” Kenwardine asked.

“Well,” said Jake with a twinkle, “you see we got here late.”

“Then Brandon was with you.  This makes it obvious that you spent a perfectly sober night.”

Jake laughed.  He liked Kenwardine and meant to stick to him, but although rash and extravagant, he was sometimes shrewd, and admitted that there might perhaps be some ground for Dick’s suspicions.  He was entitled to lose his own money, but he must run no risk of injuring his father’s business.  However, since Kenwardine had a share in the coaling wharf, he would learn that they had been to Adexe, and to try to hide this would show that they distrusted him.

“Our occupation was innocent but rather arduous,” he said.  “We went to Adexe in the launch to see when our coal was coming.”

“Did you get it?  The manager told me something about the tug’s engines needing repairs.”

“We got one scow that broke adrift off the Tajada reef.  They had to turn back with the others.”

“Then perhaps I’d better telephone to find out what they mean to do,” Kenwardine suggested.

Jake wondered whether he wished to learn if they had already made inquiries, and thought frankness was best.

“Brandon called up the wharf as soon as the office was open, but didn’t get much information.  Something seemed to be wrong with the wire.”

“I suppose he wanted to know when the coal would leave?”

“Yes,” said Jake.  “But he began by asking if the tug had come back safe, and got no further, because the other fellow couldn’t hear.”

“Why was he anxious about the tug?”

Kenwardine’s manner was careless, but Jake imagined he felt more interest than he showed.

“It was blowing pretty fresh when she left us, and if the scows had broken adrift again, there’d have been some risk of losing them.  This would delay the delivery of the coal, and we’re getting very short of fuel.”

“I see,” said Kenwardine.  “Well, if anything of the kind had happened, I would have heard of it.  You needn’t be afraid of not getting a supply.”

Jake waited.  He thought it might look significant if he showed any eagerness to change the subject, but when Kenwardine began to talk about something else he followed his lead.  Half an hour later he left the house, feeling that he had used commendable tact, but determined not to tell Brandon about the interview.  Dick had a habit of exaggerating the importance of things, and since he already distrusted Kenwardine, Jake thought it better not to give him fresh ground for suspicion.  There was no use in supplying his comrade with another reason for preventing his going to the house.