Read CHAPTER XXII - THE OFFICIAL MIND of Brandon of the Engineers , free online book, by Harold Bindloss, on ReadCentral.com.

On the evening after Clare’s refusal, Dick entered the principal cafe at Santa Brigida.  The large, open-fronted room was crowded, for, owing to the duty, newspapers were not generally bought by the citizens, who preferred to read them at the cafes, and the Diario had just come in.  The eagerness to secure a copy indicated that something important had happened, and after listening to the readers’ remarks, Dick gathered that the French liner had sunk and a number of her passengers were drowned.  This, however, did not seem to account for the angry excitement some of the men showed, and Dick waited until a polite half-breed handed him the newspaper.

A ship’s lifeboat, filled with exhausted passengers, had reached a bay some distance along the coast, and it appeared from their stories that the liner was steaming across a smooth sea in the dark when a large vessel, which carried no lights, emerged from a belt of haze and came towards her.  The French captain steered for the land, hoping to reach territorial waters, where he would be safe, but the stranger was faster and opened fire with a heavy gun.  The liner held on, although she was twice hit, but after a time there was an explosion below and her colored firemen ran up on deck.  Then the ship stopped, boats were hoisted out, and it was believed that several got safely away, though only one had so far reached the coast.  This boat was forced to pass the attacking vessel rather close, and an officer declared that she looked like one of the Spanish liners and her funnel was black.

Dick gave the newspaper to the next man and sat still with knitted brows, for his suspicions were suddenly confirmed.  The raider had a black funnel, and was no doubt the ship he had seen steering for Adexe.  An enemy commerce-destroyer was lurking about the coast, and she could not be allowed to continue her deadly work, which her resemblance to the Spanish vessels would make easier.  For all that, Dick saw that anything he might do would cost him much, since Clare had said that she and Kenwardine must stand together.  This was true, in a sense, because if Kenwardine got into trouble, she would share his disgrace and perhaps his punishment.  Moreover, she might think he had been unjustly treated and blame Dick for helping to persecute him.  Things were getting badly entangled, and Dick, leaning back in his chair, vacantly looked about.

The men had gathered in groups round the tables, their dark faces showing keen excitement as they argued with dramatic gestures about international law.  For the most part, they looked indignant, but Dick understood that they did not expect much from their Government.  One said the English would send a cruiser and something might be done by the Americans; another explained the Monroe Doctrine in a high-pitched voice.  Dick, however, tried not to listen, because difficulties he had for some time seen approaching must now be faced.

He had been forced to leave England in disgrace, and his offense would be remembered if he returned.  Indeed, he had come to regard America as his home, but patriotic feelings he had thought dead had awakened and would not be denied.  He might still be able to serve his country and meant to do so, though it was plain that this would demand a sacrifice.  Love and duty clashed, but he must do his best and leave the rest to luck.  Getting up with sudden resolution, he left the cafe and went to the British consulate.

When he stopped outside the building, to which the royal arms were fixed, he remarked that two péons were lounging near, but, without troubling about them, knocked at the door.  There was only a Vice-Consul at Santa Brigida, and the post, as sometimes happens, was held by a merchant, who had, so a clerk stated, already gone home.  Dick, however, knew where he lived and determined to seek him at his house.  He looked round once or twice on his way there, without seeing anybody who seemed to be following him, but when he reached the iron gate he thought a dark figure stopped in the gloom across the street.  Still, it might only be a citizen going into his house, and Dick rang the bell.

He was shown on to a balcony where the Vice-Consul sat with his Spanish wife and daughter at a table laid with wine and fruit.  He did not look pleased at being disturbed, but told Dick to sit down when the ladies withdrew.

“Now,” he said, “you can state your business, but I have an appointment in a quarter of an hour.”

Dick related his suspicions about the coaling company, and described what he had seen at Adexe and the visit of the black-funnel boat, but before he had gone far, realized that he was wasting his time.  The Vice-Consul’s attitude was politely indulgent.

“This is a rather extraordinary tale,” he remarked when Dick stopped.

“I have told you what I saw and what I think it implies,” Dick answered with some heat.

“Just so.  I do not doubt your honesty, but it is difficult to follow your arguments.”

“It oughtn’t to be difficult.  You have heard that the French liner was sunk by a black-funnel boat.”

“Black funnels are common.  Why do you imagine the vessel you saw was an auxiliary cruiser?”

“Because her crew looked like navy men.  They were unusually numerous and were busy at drill.”

“Boat or fire drill probably.  They often exercise them at it on board passenger ships.  Besides, I think you stated that it was dark.”

Dick pondered for a few moments.  He had heard that Government officials were hard to move, and knew that, in hot countries, Englishmen who marry native wives sometimes grow apathetic and succumb to the climatic lethargy.  But this was not all:  he had to contend against the official dislike of anything informal and unusual.  Had he been in the navy, his warning would have received attention, but as he was a humble civilian he had, so to speak, no business to know anything about such matters.

“Well,” he said, “you can make inquiries and see if my conclusions are right.”

The Vice-Consul smiled.  “That is not so.  You can pry into the coaling company’s affairs and, if you are caught, it would be looked upon as an individual impertinence.  If I did anything of the kind, it would reflect upon the Foreign Office and compromise our relations with a friendly state.  The Adexe wharf is registered according to the laws of this country as being owned by a native company.”

“Then go to the authorities and tell them what you know.”

“The difficulty is that I know nothing except that you have told me a somewhat improbable tale.”

“But you surely don’t mean to let the raider do what she likes?  Her next victim may be a British vessel.”

“I imagine the British admiralty will attend to that, and I have already sent a cablegram announcing the loss of the French boat.”

Dick saw that he was doubted and feared that argument would be useless, but he would not give in.

“A raider must have coal and it’s not easy to get upon this coast,” he resumed.  “You could render her harmless by cutting off supplies.”

“Do you know much about international law and how far it prohibits a neutral country from selling coal to a belligerent?”

“I don’t know anything about it; but if our Foreign Office is any good, they ought to be able to stop the thing,” Dick answered doggedly.

“Then let me try to show you how matters stand.  We will suppose that your suspicions were correct and I thought fit to make representations to the Government of this country.  What do you think would happen?”

“They’d be forced to investigate your statements.”

“Exactly.  The head of a department would be asked to report.  You probably know that every official whose business brings him into touch with it is in the coaling company’s pay; I imagine there is not a foreign trader here who does not get small favors in return for bribes.  Bearing this in mind, it is easy to understand what the report would be.  I should have shown that we suspected the good faith of a friendly country, and there would be nothing gained.”

“Still, you can’t let the matter drop,” Dick insisted.

“Although you have given me no proof of your statements, which seem to be founded on conjectures, I have not said that I intend to let it drop.  In the meantime I am entitled to ask for some information about yourself.  You look like an Englishman and have not been here long.  Did you leave home after the war broke out?”

“Yes,” said Dick, who saw where he was leading, “very shortly afterwards.”

“Why?  Men like you are needed for the army.”

Dick colored, but looked his questioner steadily in the face.

“I was in the army.  They turned me out.”

The Vice-Consul made a gesture.  “I have nothing to do with the reason for this; but you can see my difficulty.  You urge me to meddle with things that require very delicate handling and with which my interference would have to be justified.  No doubt, you can imagine the feelings of my superiors when I admitted that I acted upon hints given me by a stranger in the employ of Americans, who owned to having been dismissed from the British army.”

Dick got up, with his face firmly set.

“Very well.  There’s no more to be said.  I won’t trouble you again.”

Leaving the house, he walked moodily back to the end of the line.  The Vice-Consul was a merchant and thought first of his business, which might suffer if he gained the ill-will of corrupt officials.  He would, no doubt, move if he were forced, but he would demand incontestable proof, which Dick feared he could not find.  Well, he had done his best and been rebuffed, and now the temptation to let the matter drop was strong.  To go on would bring him into conflict with Kenwardine, and perhaps end in his losing Clare, but he must go on.  For all that, he would leave the Vice-Consul alone and trust to getting some help from his employer’s countrymen.  If it could be shown that the enemy was establishing a secret base for naval operations at Adexe, he thought the Americans would protest.  The Vice-Consul, however, had been of some service by teaching him the weakness of his position.  He must strengthen it by carefully watching what went on, and not interfere until he could do so with effect.  Finding the locomotive waiting, he returned to his shack and with an effort fixed his mind upon the plans of some work that he must superintend in the morning.

For the next few days he was busily occupied.  A drum of the traveling crane broke and as it could not be replaced for a time, Dick put up an iron derrick of Bethune’s design to lower the concrete blocks into place.  They were forced to use such material as they could find, and the gang of péons who handled the chain-tackle made a poor substitute for a steam engine.  In consequence, the work progressed slowly and Stuyvesant ordered it to be carried on into the night.  Jake and Bethune grumbled, but Dick found the longer hours and extra strain something of a relief.  He had now no leisure to indulge in painful thoughts; besides, while he was busy at the dam he could not watch Kenwardine, and his duty to his employer justified his putting off an unpleasant task.

One hot night he stood, soaked with perspiration and dressed in soiled duck clothes, some distance beneath the top of the dam, which broke down to a lower level at the spot.  There was no moon, but a row of blast-lamps that grew dimmer as they receded picked out the tall embankment with jets of pulsating flame.  Glimmering silvery gray in the light, it cut against the gloom in long sweeping lines, with a molded rib that added a touch of grace where the slope got steeper towards its top.  This was Dick’s innovation.  He had fought hard for it and when Jake supported him Stuyvesant had written to Fuller, who sanctioned the extra cost.  The rib marked the fine contour of the structure and fixed its bold curve upon the eye.

Where the upper surface broke off, two gangs of men stood beside the tackles that trailed away from the foot of the derrick.  The flame that leaped with a roar from a lamp on a tripod picked out some of the figures with harsh distinctness, but left the rest dim and blurred.  Dick stood eight or nine feet below, with the end of the line, along which the blocks were brought, directly above his head.  A piece of rail had been clamped across the metals to prevent the truck running over the edge.  Jake stood close by on the downward slope of the dam.  Everything was ready for the lowering of the next block, but they had a few minutes to wait.

“That rib’s a great idea,” Jake remarked.  “Tones up the whole work; it’s curious what you can do with a flowing line, but it must be run just right.  Make it the least too flat and you get harshness, too full and the effect’s vulgarly pretty or voluptuous.  Beauty’s severely chaste and I allow, as far as form goes, this dam’s a looker.”  He paused and indicated the indigo sky, flaring lights, and sweep of pearly stone.  “Then if you want color, you can revel in silver, orange, and blue.”

Dick, who nodded, shared Jake’s admiration.  He had helped to build the dam and, in a sense, had come to love it.  Any defacement or injury to it would hurt him.  Just then a bright, blinking spot emerged from the dark at the other end of the line and increased in radiance as it came forward, flickering along the slope of stone.  It was the head-lamp of the locomotive that pushed the massive concrete block they waited for.  The block cut off the light immediately in front of and below it, and when the engine, snorting harshly, approached the edge of the gap somebody shouted and steam was cut off.  The truck stopped just short of the rail fastened across the line, and Dick looked up.

The blast-lamp flung its glare upon the engine and the rays of the powerful head-light drove horizontally into the dark, but the space beyond the broken end of the dam was kept in shadow by the block, and the glitter above dazzled his eyes.

“Swing the derrick-boom and tell the engineer to come on a yard or two,” he said.

There was a patter of feet, a rattle of chains, and somebody called:  “Adelante locomotura!

The engine snorted, the wheels ground through the fragments of concrete scattered about the line, and the big dark mass rolled slowly forward.  It seemed to Dick to be going farther than it ought, but he had ascertained that the guard-rail was securely fastened.  As he watched the front of the truck, Jake, who stood a few feet to one side, leaned out and seized his shoulder.

“Jump!” he cried, pulling him forward.

Dick made an awkward leap, and alighting on the steep front of the dam, fell heavily on his side.  As he clutched the stones to save himself from sliding down, a black mass plunged from the line above and there was a deafening crash as it struck the spot he had left.  Then a shower of fragments fell upon him and he choked amidst a cloud of dust.  Hoarse shouts broke out above, and he heard men running about the dam as he got up, half dazed.

“Are you all right, Jake?” he asked.

“Not a scratch,” was the answer; and Dick, scrambling up the bank, called for a lamp.

It was brought by a big mulatto, and Dick held up the light.  The last-fitted block of the ribbed course was split in two, and the one that had fallen was scattered about in massive broken lumps.  Amidst these lay the guard-rail, and the front wheels of the truck hung across the gap above.  There was other damage, and Dick frowned as he looked about.

“We’ll be lucky if we get the broken molding out in a day, and I expect we’ll have to replace two of the lower blocks,” he said.  “It’s going to be an awkward and expensive job now that the cement has set.”

“Is that all?” Jake asked with a forced grin.

“It’s enough,” said Dick.  “However, we’ll be better able to judge in the daylight.”

Then he turned to the engineer, who was standing beside the truck, surrounded by excited péons.  “How did it happen?”

“I had my hand on the throttle when I got the order to go ahead, and let her make a stroke or two, reckoning the guard-rail would snub up the car.  I heard the wheels clip and slammed the link-gear over, because it looked as if she wasn’t going to stop.  When she reversed, the couplings held the car and the block slipped off.”

“Are you sure you didn’t give her too much steam?”

“No, sir.  I’ve been doing this job quite a while, and know just how smart a push she wants.  It was the guard-rail slipping that made the trouble.”

“I can’t understand why it did slip.  The fastening clamps were firm when I looked at them.”

“Well,” remarked the engineer, “the guard’s certainly in the pit, and I felt her give as soon as the car-wheels bit.”

Dick looked hard at him and thought he spoke the truth.  He was a steady fellow and a good driver.

“Put your engine in the house and take down the feed-pump you were complaining about.  We won’t want her to-morrow,” he said, and dismissing the men, returned to his shack, where he sat down rather limply on the veranda.

“I don’t understand the thing,” he said to Jake.  “The guard-rail’s heavy and I watched the smith make the clamps we fixed it with.  One claw went over the rail, the other under the flange of the metal that formed the track, and sudden pressure would jamb the guard down.  Then, not long before the accident, I hardened up the clamp.”

“You hit it on the back?”

“Of course.  I’d have loosened the thing by hitting the front.”

“That’s so,” Jake agreed, somewhat dryly.  “We’ll look for the clamps in the morning.  But you didn’t seem very anxious to get out of the way.”

“I expect I forgot to thank you for warning me.  Anyhow, you know ­”

“Yes, I know,” said Jake.  “You didn’t think about it; your mind was on your job.  Still, I suppose you see that if you’d been a moment later you’d have been smashed pretty flat?”

Dick gave him a quick glance.  There was something curious about Jake’s tone, but Dick knew he did not mean to emphasize the value of his warning.  It was plain that he had had a very narrow escape, but since one must be prepared for accidents in heavy engineering work, he did not see why this should jar his nerves.  Yet they were jarred.  The danger he had scarcely heeded had now a disturbing effect.  He could imagine what would have happened had he delayed his leap.  However, he was tired, and perhaps rather highly strung, and he got up.

“It’s late, and we had better go to bed,” he said.