Read CHAPTER XXV - THE WATER-PIPE of Brandon of the Engineers , free online book, by Harold Bindloss, on ReadCentral.com.

Dick sat down and knitted his brows as he studied his companion.  Don Sebastian was a Peninsular Spaniard and in consequence of a finer type than the majority of the inhabitants of Santa Brigida.  Dick, who thought he could confide in him, needed help, but the matter was delicate.  In the meantime, the other waited with a smile that implied that he guessed his thoughts, until Dick, leaning forward with sudden resolution, picked up the telegram, which was written in cipher.

“This is probably a warning to somebody that the vessel will not call at the ports in the advertised order,” he said.

“I imagine so.  You guessed the captain’s plan from what you heard outside the room?”

“Not altogether, but it gave me a hint.  It looks as if you recognized me when I was standing near the lifeboat.”

“I did,” said Don Sebastian meaningly.  “I think I showed my confidence in you.”

Dick nodded, because it was plain that the other had enabled him to go away without being questioned.

“Very well; I’ll tell you what I know,” he said, and related how he had found the man with the flute loitering about the purser’s door.  As he finished, Don Sebastian got up.

“You made one mistake; you should have given your note to an Englishman and not a young Creole lad.  However, we must see if the steamer can be stopped.”

He led the way up a staircase to the flat roof, where Dick ran to the parapet.  Looking across the town, he saw in the distance a dim white light and a long smear of smoke that trailed across the glittering sea.  He frowned as he watched it, for the ship was English and he felt himself responsible for the safety of all on board her.  He had done his best, when there was no time to pause and think, but perhaps he had blundered.  Suppose the Creole boy had lost his note or sent it to somebody ashore?

“We are too late again,” Don Sebastian remarked as he sat down on the parapet.  “Well, one must be philosophical.  Things do not always go as one would wish.”

“Why didn’t you warn the captain that his plan was found out, instead of jumping into the launch?” Dick asked angrily.

Don Sebastian smiled.  “Because I did not know.  I saw a man steal down the ladder and thought he might be a spy, but could not tell how much he had learned.  If he had learned nothing, it would have been dangerous for the captain to change his plan again and keep to the sailing list.”

“That’s true,” Dick agreed shortly.  His chin was thrust forward and his head slightly tilted back.  He looked very English and aggressive as he resumed:  “But I want to know what your interest in the matter is.”

“Then I must tell you.  To begin with, I am employed by the Government and am in the President’s confidence.  The country is poor and depends for its development on foreign capital, while it is important that we should have the support and friendship of Great Britain and the United States.  Perhaps you know the latter’s jealousy about European interference in American affairs?”

Dick nodded.  “You feel you have to be careful.  But how far can a country go in harboring a belligerent’s agents and supplying her fighting ships, without losing its neutrality?”

“That is a difficult question,” Don Sebastian replied.  “I imagine the answer depends upon the temper of the interested country’s diplomatic representatives; but the President means to run no risks.  We cannot, for example, have it claimed that we allowed a foreign power to buy a coaling station and use it as a base for raids on merchant ships.”

“Have the Germans bought the Adexe wharf?”

Don Sebastian shrugged. “Quién sabe? The principal has not a German name.”

“Isn’t Richter German?”

“Richter has gone.  It is possible that he has done his work.  His friend, however, is the head of the coaling company.”

“Do you think Kenwardine was his partner?  If so, it’s hard to understand why he let you come to his house.  He’s not a fool.”

The Spaniard’s dark eyes twinkled.  “Senor Kenwardine is a clever man, and it is not always safer to keep your antagonist in the dark when you play an intricate game.  Senor Kenwardine knew it would have been a mistake to show he thought I suspected him and that he had something to conceal.  We were both very frank, to a point, and now and then talked about the complications that might spring from the coaling business.  Because we value our trade with England and wish to attract British capital, he knew we would not interfere with him unless we had urgent grounds, and wished to learn how far we would let him go.  It must be owned that in this country official suspicion can often be disarmed.”

“By a bribe?  I don’t think Kenwardine is rich,” Dick objected.

“Then it is curious that he is able to spend so much at Adexe.”

Dick frowned, for he saw what the other implied.  If Kenwardine had to be supplied with money, where did it come from?  It was not his business to defend the man and he must do what he could to protect British shipping, but Kenwardine was Clare’s father, and he was not going to expose him until he was sure of his guilt.

“But if he was plotting anything that would get your President into trouble, he must have known he would be found out.”

“Certainly.  But suppose he imagined he might not be found out until he had done what he came to do?  It would not matter then.”

Dick said nothing.  He knew he was no match for the Spaniard in subtlety, but he would not be forced into helping him.  He set his lips, and Don Sebastian watched him with amusement.

“Well,” said the latter, “you have my sympathy.  The senorita’s eyes are bright.”

“I cannot have Miss Kenwardine mentioned,” Dick rejoined.  “She has nothing to do with the matter.”

“That is agreed,” Don Sebastian answered, and leaned forward as he added in a meaning tone:  “You are English and your life has been threatened by men who plot against your country.  I might urge that they may try again and I could protect you; but you must see what their thinking you dangerous means.  Now I want your help.”

Dick’s face was very resolute as he looked at him.  “If any harm comes to the liner, I’ll do all I can.  But I’ll do nothing until I know.  In the meantime, can you warn the captain?”

Don Sebastian bowed.  “I must be satisfied with your promise.  We may find the key to the telegram, and must try to get into communication with the steamer.”

They went down stairs together, but the Spaniard did not leave the office with Dick, who went out alone and found Bethune and Jake waiting at the end of the line.  They bantered him about his leaving them on board the ship, but although he thought Jake looked at him curiously, he told them nothing.

When work stopped on the Saturday evening, Jake and Dick went to dine with Bethune.  It was getting dark when they reached a break in the dam, where a gap had been left open while a sluice was being built.  A half-finished tower rose on the other side and a rope ladder hung down for the convenience of anybody who wished to cross.  A large iron pipe that carried water to a turbine, however, spanned the chasm, and the sure-footed péons often used it as a bridge.  This required some agility and nerve, but it saved an awkward scramble across the sluice and up the concrete.

“There’s just light enough,” Jake remarked, and balancing himself carefully, walked out upon the pipe.

Dick followed and getting across safely, stopped at the foot of the tower and looked down at the rough blocks and unfinished ironwork in the bottom of the gap.

“The men have been told to use the ladder, but as they seldom do so, it would be safer to run a wire across for a hand-rail,” he said.  “Anybody who slipped would get a dangerous fall.”

They went on to Bethune’s iron shack, where Stuyvesant joined them, and after dinner sat outside, talking and smoking.  A carafe of Spanish wine and some glasses stood on a table close by.

“I’ve fired Jose’s and Pancho’s gangs; they’ve been asking for it for some time,” Stuyvesant remarked.  “In fact, I’d clear out most of the shovel boys if I could replace them.  They’ve been saving money and are getting slack.”

The others agreed that it might be advisable.  The half-breeds from the hills, attracted by good wages, worked well when first engaged, but generally found steady labor irksome and got discontented when they had earned a sum that would enable them to enjoy a change.

“I don’t think you’d get boys enough in this neighborhood,” Bethune said.

“That’s so.  Anyhow, I’d rather hire a less sophisticated crowd; the half-civilized Meztiso is worse than the other sort, but I don’t see why we shouldn’t look for some further along the coast.  Do you feel like taking the launch, Brandon, and trying what you can do?”

“I’d enjoy the trip,” Dick answered with some hesitation.  “But I’d probably have to go beyond Coronal, and it might take a week.”

“That won’t matter; stay as long as it’s necessary,” Stuyvesant said, for he had noticed a slackness in Dick’s movements and his tired look.  “Things are going pretty well just now, and you have stuck close to your work.  The change will brace you up.  Anyhow, I want fresh boys and Bethune’s needed here, but you can take Jake along if you want company.”

Jake declared that he would go, but Dick agreed with reluctance.  He felt jaded and depressed, for the double strain he had borne was beginning to tell.  His work, carried on in scorching heat, demanded continuous effort, and when it stopped at night he had private troubles to grapple with.  Though he had been half-prepared for Clare’s refusal, it had hit him hard, and he could find no means of exposing Kenwardine’s plots without involving her in his ruin.  It would be a relief to get away, but he might be needed at Santa Brigida.

Bethune began to talk about the alterations a contractor wished to make, and by and by there was a patter of feet and a hum of voices in the dark.  The voices grew louder and sounded angry as the steps approached the house, and Stuyvesant pushed back his chair.

“It’s Jose’s or Pancho’s breeds come to claim that their time is wrong.  I suppose one couldn’t expect that kind of crowd to understand figures, but although Francois’ accounts are seldom very plain, he’s not a grafter.”

Then a native servant entered hurriedly.

“They all come, senor,” he announced.  “Pig tief say Fransoy rob him and he go casser office window.”  He turned and waved his hand threateningly as a big man in ragged white clothes came into the light. “Fuera, puerco ladrón!

The man took off a large palm-leaf hat and flourished it with ironical courtesy.

“Here is gran escandolo, senores. La belle chose, verdad! Me I have trent’ dollar; the grand tief me pay ­”

Stuyvesant signed to the servant.  “Take them round to the back corral; we can’t have them on the veranda.”  Then he turned to Dick.  “You and Bethune must convince them that the time-sheets are right; you know more about the thing than I do.  Haven’t you been helping Francois, Fuller?”

“I’m not a linguist,” Jake answered with a grin.  “When they talk French and Spanish at once it knocks me right off my height, as Francois sometimes declares.”

They all went round to the back of the house, where Bethune and Dick argued with the men.  The latter had been dismissed and while ready to go wanted a grievance, though some honestly failed to understand the deductions from their wages.  They had drawn small sums in advance, taken goods out of store, and laid off now and then on an unusually hot day, but the amount charged against them was larger than they thought.  For all that, Bethune using patience and firmness pacified them, and after a time they went away satisfied while the others returned to the veranda.

“Arguing in languages you don’t know well is thirsty work, and we’d better have a drink,” Bethune remarked.

He pushed the carafe across the table, but Dick picked up his glass, which he had left about half full.  He was hot and it was a light Spanish wine that one could drink freely, but when he had tasted it he emptied what was left over the veranda rails.

Bethune looked surprised, but laughed.  “The wine isn’t very good, but the others seem able to stand for it.  I once laid out a mine ditch in a neighborhood where you’d have wanted some courage to throw away a drink the boys had given you.”

“It was very bad manners,” Dick answered awkwardly.  “Still, I didn’t like the taste ­”

He stopped, noticing that Jake gave him a keen glance, but Stuyvesant filled his glass and drank.

“What’s the matter with the wine?” he asked.

Dick hesitated.  He wanted to let the matter drop, but he had treated Bethune rudely and saw that the others were curious.

“It didn’t taste as it did when I left it.  Of course this may have been imagination.”

“But you don’t think so?” Stuyvesant rejoined.  “In fact, you suspect the wine was doped after we went out?”

“No,” said Dick with a puzzled frown; “I imagine any doping stuff would make it sour.  The curious thing is that it tasted better than usual but stronger.”

Stuyvesant picked up the glass and smelt it, for a little of the liquor remained in the bottom.

“It’s a pity you threw it out, because there’s a scent mine hasn’t got.  Like bad brandy or what the Spaniards call madre de vino and use for bringing light wine up to strength.”

Then Bethune took the glass from him and drained the last drops.  “I think it is madre de vino.  Pretty heady stuff and that glass would hold a lot.”

Stuyvesant nodded, for it was not a wineglass but a small tumbler.

“Doping’s not an unusual trick, but I can’t see why anybody should want to make Brandon drunk.”

“It isn’t very plain and I may have made a fuss about nothing,” Dick replied, and began to talk about something else with Jake’s support.

The others indulged them, and after a time the party broke up.  The moon had risen when Dick and Jake walked back along the dam, but the latter stopped when they reached the gap.

“We’ll climb down and cross by the sluice instead of the pipe,” he said.

“Why?” Dick asked.  “The light is better than when we came.”

Jake gave him a curious look.  “Your nerve’s pretty good, but do you want to defy your enemies and show them you have found out their trick?”

“But I haven’t found it out; that is, I don’t know the object of it yet.”

“Well,” said Jake rather grimly, “what do you think would happen if a drunken man tried to walk along that pipe?”

Then a light dawned on Dick and he sat down, feeling limp.  He was abstemious, and a large dose of strong spirit would, no doubt, have unsteadied him.  His companions would notice this, but with the obstinacy that often marks a half-drunk man he would probably have insisted on trying to cross the pipe.  Then a slip or hesitation would have precipitated him upon the unfinished ironwork below, and since an obvious explanation of his fall had been supplied, nobody’s suspicions would have been aroused.  The subtlety of the plot was unnerving.  Somebody who knew all about him had chosen the moment well.

“It’s so devilishly clever!” he said with hoarse anger after a moment or two.

Jake nodded.  “They’re smart.  They knew the boys were coming to make a row and Stuyvesant wouldn’t have them on the veranda.  Then the wine was on the table, and anybody who’d noticed where we sat could tell your glass.  It would have been easy to creep up to the shack before the moon rose.”

“Who are they?”

“If I knew, I could tell you what to do about it, but I don’t.  It’s possible there was only one man, but if so, he’s dangerous.  Anyhow, it’s obvious that Kenwardine has no part in the matter.”

“He’s not in this,” Dick agreed.  “Have you a cigarette?  I think I’d like a smoke.  It doesn’t follow that I’d have been killed, if I had fallen.”

“Then you’d certainly have got hurt enough to keep you quiet for some time, which would probably satisfy the other fellow.  But I don’t think we’ll stop here talking; there may be somebody about.”

They climbed down by the foot of the tower and crossing the sluice went up the ladder.  When they reached their shack Dick sat down and lighted the cigarette Jake had given him, but he said nothing and his face was sternly set.  Soon afterwards he went to bed.