Colonel Odminton by Herbert Ward


The Colonel paced his cabin alone. The new expression which success models was becoming intensified from day to day upon his face. He had outwitted the greatest nation in the world; he had defied the best detective service of modern times; he was rich beyond his dizziest dreams; he could aspire to any position; he would be an eastern prince perhaps, and drowsy-looking girls should wave peacock fans and soothe his memory to rest with crooning songs. What a delicious future he saw rising before him! His consummate stroke of piracy should purchase him a life of lotus ease.

The Colonel, had at last achieved; and, as is too often the case with extraordinary success, his stupendous act had robbed him of vitality and invention. Already he felt and acknowledged a dismemberment of his will. But a few days before, he was of all men, the most alert, the most ingenious, the most courageous, the most ambitious; while now, he lived in dreams, which he evoked as persistently as the witch of Endor evoked the ghost of Saul. His nature had undergone a revolution, in which he gloried. Had he been poor, he would not have accepted his sudden enervation without a struggle. But he was rich—thank God! rich—and rejoiced that he was to gratify his new-born languor.

His son alone had access to his luxurious cabin. That boy, who had been the ready and ignorant accomplice of his father's picturesque villainy, had already begun to grow thin with shame. He saw his father transformed from a virile into a sleek man. He himself had changed during the few days of his knowledge of the secret from a pliant boy into a silent accusation. The Colonel could not look his son straight in the eyes. This was the first warning to his diseased mind that he was not the greatest man of his age.

The Colonel had moreover a sense of security that unapprehended malefactors cannot feel. The pledge of the United States Government had been solemnly given. He could not be punished. His freedom was assured. Whenever he paced the deck, he filled his lungs with the pure, salt air, and allowed them to expand without stint. There was nothing contracted on his horizon. True, he had lost his country—but he had gained wealth. He felt sure of admiration, and of some applause. He remembered that an unextradited bank-robber had purchased a barony from the King of Würtemburg, and had lived there much respected. What position might he not buy with his American gold?

Still, he was haunted by a feeling of mingled dissatisfaction and unrest that marred the pride he felt in his own achievement. Was it due to his son's speechless denunciation? Or did it come from the fact that his authority seemed to be impaired? There was no insubordination nor mutiny among the sailors. It had not gone so far as that, with the well-paid and well-fed men. Perhaps it never would. But men do not easily obey a scoundrel or an outlaw except when it is understood that they are felons themselves.

In a certain sense the crew of the "Lightning" rejoiced in their master's superb feat. The venom of piracy had entered their veins. They firmly believed that Colonel Odminton would soon cast off his mask, and turn the most wonderful product of marine architecture into an irresistible pirate craft.

They dreamed of an inaccessible island—of confused wealth, of many vices, and unrestricted carousals. Therefore they still obeyed readily, but with an air of abandon that puzzled their commander. But Colonel Odminton did not suspect these natural speculations, for he was looking forward to a life of great respectability as well as of unrivalled luxury.

For ten days or so, the "Lightning" danced over the Atlantic. Of course, it must come to shore somewhere. People cannot live on gold. They must eat. The superb electric vessel had ice-making machines; and retorts for distilling the salt water into fresh; but no electrodes were there, to reduce wood to sugar or coal to beef. The Colonel felt his cheek sting with the excitement of coming to land. At the same time he felt a reluctance to do so. He dreaded to meet men. He could not expel the consciousness that is common to all culprits,—namely, the feeling that he would be the centre of observation. He could not be apprehended; but supposing that he were not well received?

On the other hand, when the crew learned of the decision to make for land, they were almost riotous with joy. They were mad for the long-delayed chance to spend their high wages in vice and drink. If nations would conspire to pass an international law to prohibit women and rum at every port, what a magnificent stride to uninterrupted manhood all sailors would be forced to take!

But Captain Hans Christian shook his head as the "Lightning" forged toward the land.

There were some traits that Rupert did not inherit. His limpid heart understood the disgrace of his position. He pined for freedom and gradually wasted away. With feverish eyes he watched for the English coast. It is possible that he had, bereft of an honest father, meditated desertion at his first opportunity.

Now, at last, they sighted land. The vessel that was swifter than all other ships afloat, was undisguised. The Colonel had no thought of converting her into the "Mary Jane" again. No flight, no concealment was now necessary. It was just past sunrise when the "Lightning" glided into the troubled harbor of Penzance.

The inhabitants of Land's End are no stay-a-beds, and when the oil-skinned fishermen, who were ready to push their boats off in the rising tide, lifted up their eyes and beheld the graceful monster mysteriously undulating in, with no help of sails or steam, they called to each other, they uttered direful exclamations, and they assembled in ever increasing groups upon the sands. One ran to the public house and brought back to the throng a greasy proclamation, upon which the picture of a vessel was stamped.

Upon the cliffs, red-coats pointed to the stranger, and shook their heads ominously.

Before the "Lightning" had dropped her anchor, the whole population of Penzance was out, gesticulating, pointing, execrating.

"That's she, sure enough. That's her sheer in the pictur'. Them's the di-mensions given. Blast the pirates! Old England hain't no place for them."

"'Ere, Bill! you get the Colonel down. We'll send 'em buzzin' to Davy Jones' locker if they ventur' ashore here!"

The "Lightning" had come to anchor without colors at her stern. As she had no mast, there was no opportunity to fly a signal at her head, or the Union Jack at her peak. After the manner of steam yachts she had a pole that could be fitted in a raking position aft.

"As it isn't eight bells, we need no flags," explained Colonel Odminton.

"Shall we fly the Union Jack, then?" asked Captain Hans Christian.

The Colonel changed color. "Fly?" he snarled, "By ——! Fly nothing!"

The men on board had noticed the confusion on the shore. They thought little of it.

When they had escaped down the Potomac with the ransom, they forgot that a hundred cameras were trained upon them. Even their stupendous speed could not outstride the sensitive plate that can catch a perfect likeness in one two-thousandth part of a second. The duplex shutter is craftier than the criminal. The camera can outwit the cannon ball.

It did not occur to the Colonel that the United States Government would send proclamations to every friendly nation in the world, begging each to distribute them broadcast to every port; and that these contained a reproduced picture of Colonel Odminton's venture, with a description of himself; calling upon the nations to do him no harm, but to grant him no hospitality whatever. While the Colonel was dawdling across the water, the telegraph and the swift "Liners," had alarmed the world.

There was neither admiration nor mercy in the hearts of the millions who were watching for the "Lightning's" appearance. For once, there were no sentimental women waiting to cosset the bandit. He had held the President's wife his prisoner. At last the soft heart of womanhood was turned to stone.

In short, Colonel Odminton and his crew were declared outcasts from the world; and even the most abandoned nations sprang to the appeal of the United States, and stood ready to enforce the decree.

Colonel Odminton watched his launch approaching the beach. He had not allowed his son to go, and the two stood together facing the enraged town. Already the coast guards were drawn up, awaiting the launch. When it had come within fifty yards of the pier, the man in command, cried:—"Stop her!" in a loud voice.

Captain Christian obeyed quickly. He and his crew were near enough to see that the hand of every inhabitant had grasped a stone, ready to hurl. Hate distorted the faces of the honest Englishmen, who traditionally loathed a pirate worse than a papist.

"We will give you half an hour to leave the harbor!" bawled the Captain at the launch. "My orders are to fire upon every one of you who attempts to land. There is no landing for pirates on England's shores. Get out!"

"D—— ye, get out!" The refrain was caught up from throat to throat and hurled at the frightened sailors. The shouts reached to the vessel, until the Colonel easily understood their import. But neither he nor his, as yet, knew that the sight of this beautiful vessel would raise a similar howl of hate, a like demonstration of hostility, in every port from China, westward to San Francisco.

Hastily he gave orders to trip the anchor: in ten minutes he picked up his men, who were cursing civilization. With the pale skin cramped upon his face, with trembling hands and blinded eyes he guided the "Lightning" out of the inhospitable harbor.

In an hour the world knew what had happened at Penzance. The smallest harbor on the English and French coast thrilled with the excitement of the novel sport, while Colonel Odminton sat in his cabin alone, bereft of his complacency, and beginning to be touched with the terrors that the hunted fox feels when it sights the first hound.

"Where now?" Captain Christian had been knocking gently, and now opened his commander's door for orders. The Captain was a cautious man, and was the only one on board, who by reason of his temperament, felt the serious position to the full.

Colonel Odminton turned his head moodily, and scowled at his Captain.

"To hell with you!" he ejaculated.

"Yes, sir," said Captain Christian respectfully, "but we cannot get provisions there."

It was deepest night when a gurgling thud, a splash of returning waters, a rustling of chain, told that another anchor had been dropped, and that another vessel had found rest in the harbor of Brest. Her side lights were quickly extinguished, and a white light at her bow as she swung to the tide, told curious eyes, if there were any, that the stranger was snug for the night. Four bells tinkled here and tinkled there, nor did the new-comer omit the resonant salutation to Father Time.

To starboard and to port, great hulls, not many hundred feet away, could be distinguished by the sharpest eyes, rising blacker than the night. The Mediterranean squadron of France had but made port the day before, and were due in Cherbourg on the morrow. The last patient launch had brought the last gay officer aboard, and peace commanded the formidable fleet.

Through the port-holes, veiled with silk, a light glimmered from the unconscious vessel that had just dipped anchor. Colonel Odminton, at that moment, was parting the curtains from his son's bed, and was regarding him with conflicting expressions. The lad slept restlessly, and under his father's eyes began to toss and mutter. Fearing to waken him, the unhappy man withdrew softly to his own cabin. There he poured himself out a full glass of brandy and began to pace the floor furiously.

It was a changed face that looked apprehensively at the door every time the timbers creaked in the chop of the sea. He was no longer the elegant, complacent, and successful criminal; he was the bandit at bay. He was distrustful, suspicious, ready for revenge. If he had only had Gatling guns aboard, he would have taught the inhabitants of Penzance a costly lesson for their threats and curses. Now, for the first time he rebelled against his lineage, and hated Englishmen and England with a virulent abhorrence.

But France was different. Tolerant blood ran in her veins. Here he felt secure from insult. The nation that had died in ecstasy under the nod of Napoleon, could not be otherwise than liberal to him. Colonel Odminton did not exactly expect a reception by the President of the Republic; but he did look forward to a respectful and harmless curiosity that would titillate his pride and remove the memory of his indignities.

His face began to assume a more benevolent expression, and the cowering, snarling look which comes to those who find themselves detested for good reasons, and thrust out, gave way to one of hope, such as comes to the convict when his term of imprisonment is nearly over.

Soothed by such imaginations, the Colonel smiled with disdain, snapped his finger at all the world, furtively examined his secret safe, and went to bed.

It did not seem to him that he had been slumbering as many minutes as he had hours, when he was startled by a violent tramping upon the deck above him, by the clanking revolutions of the machinery that hoisted the anchor, and then, before he had mastered his laggard senses, by imperative knocks at his door. Colonel Odminton pulled the spring, and his Captain bounded in. Terror was engraved on every line of that usually calm and observant face.

"For God's sake!" he cried in broken English and Danish, "we are to be blown up in ten minutes!" His jaws chattered without saying any more. He was stiff with fear.

With inconceivable rapidity Colonel Odminton thrust himself into his clothes and rushed upon deck. He had not time to put on his cap, and as he emerged in the rosy light of the breaking sun, his bare head was seen in all its now notorious characteristics. A cry greeted him.

Encompassed about by the huge mastiffs of war, more formidable than anything the vaunted navy of the United States could boast, the toy terrier shivered.

At the earliest dawn, the look-out upon the "Formidable" had discerned the stranger, and had reported the suspicious-looking vessel to his superior officer.

The French Republic, so friendly to the Government of the United States, had eagerly distributed placards describing the nefarious Colonel and his yacht. But yesterday, copies had been delivered into the hands of the officers of the squadron with orders to keep a sharp watch for the outlaw. He was not to be harmed, but to be driven away from France, if necessary, at the torpedoes breath.

The Admiral gave quick orders, which were enthusiastically obeyed. A fleet of launches were now untethered upon the "Lightning."

"No masts! No steam! Propelled by electricity! It is she!" Such exclamations mixed with oaths were exchanged by the Frenchmen as they surrounded Colonel Odminton's venture.

"Ahoy there!" cried an officer.

The sleepy Scandinavian in the Colonel's pay made no answer. He scowled at France vindictively.

"I know you. I give you ten minutes to depart. Va t'en! Sacre Nom de Dieu, if you ever appear on ze coast of France again, pouf! sink!"

By this time the Colonel had appeared on deck. The French natives, a hundred of them, within less than a biscuit's throw of the most eminent malefactor of the age, gazed at him curiously, and then burst into a medley of curses.

As these envenomed oaths struck Colonel Odminton, he staggered as if he had been slapped in the face. Carbines were levelled at him threateningly; but the French officers imperiously gave orders for all weapons to be laid aside.

By this time, Captain Hans had the anchor raised. Although this was done by electricity, still the men worked furiously. These embryonic pirates tottered like their commander with an overwhelming fear.

This terrible, this unexpected, this deadly persecution—how far did it extend? What was its origin? Was it a chance indignation that had fomented in England, and had leaped the channel, or was it a decree of outlawry that was passed by all the world?

It was enough to scatter the Colonel's pride, to tear out of him his complacency. The proud Southerner now knew, like the prisoner at Chillon, what it was to feel the hair turn white. An arch traitor may lose his own country, and get a footing in a foreign land, however contemptible his position may be: but Colonel Odminton and his crew had no country whatever to turn to. Civilization had with one accord arisen against him. The islands of the sea were three thousand leagues away.

Unsteadily he touched the lever and his ill-omened craft forged ahead. As it did so, it grazed the side of a boat. With a final curse, one of the men in the launch stood up, wadded a piece of paper in his hands and flung it at the Colonel. It struck the malefactor full in the face. The paper itself did not hurt him, but that malicious act was as fatal to him as if he had been hit in the groin by a French bullet.

Amid derisive shrieks and whistles the "Lightning" sped out of the harbor. The men upon its decks shook their fists at France, and cast sinister looks at their employer.

As the Colonel went below, his face white as the silver poplar, his hands trembling like leaves in a storm, he mechanically turned at the companionway and picked up the wad of paper that had rolled to the sill. It was a copy of the Proclamation warning every nation not to grant him hospitality; in the name of the American Republic.

Two hours later, the Colonel and his Captain sat opposite each other, talking in low tones. The Proclamation lay open on the table between them.

"It is impossible then to provision her at all," said the Captain slowly; "there is no hope for us, but to surrender or starve: disguise is impossible."

The Colonel nodded wearily.

"We have food for twenty men for three days; we have power left to go three thousand knots at ten knots an hour. The men are murmuring; where can we renew our power? The yacht is useless in two weeks."

"It is lucky," continued Captain Hans, after a pregnant pause, "that none of the men picked up this paper; you would have been knifed before night."

If it is possible, Colonel Odminton turned a shade paler, but he did not say anything. The smallest child could see that he was a broken man.

What a trap had he sprung for himself!

"The case is desperate, sir," began the Captain again. "What do you propose?"

The Colonel shook his head vacantly.

"We can take the launch, the men, and the gold, abandon her here, and land on the coast. We might escape clear."

The Colonel shook his head vigorously. He was ready to give up his life, but not his venture.

"Then we will go, sir. Pay us, give us the launch, and we will go. We cannot stay to be starved and tossed upon the sea with not even a jury-mast and a handkerchief."

"Let them go, father!" Rupert had entered from his own room, and stood pleadingly before the criminal.

The unhappy man looked at his son: back at his Captain; and nodded assent.

"Then we will go now," said the Captain decidedly. "We are within ten miles of the coast. The launch will carry us easily. Will you give us a hundred thousand in gold? You may keep the rest, you and the boy and the three niggers."

The Colonel mechanically went to an inner room, unlocked a secret safe, took out a heavy weight of gold and threw it upon the table before the Captain with a clang.

The stolen money was newly coined, and the gold glistened in the port-hole light. The Captain tied the bag, and held out his hand as he arose. He was honest after his kind, though a masterful man; but the Proclamation had thrown him upon his self-interest. Still, he felt sorry for the man whom the Proclamation had shrivelled.

One of the Colonel's faithful colored sailors was sent to the wheel. For a half an hour there was a bustle of chests and men. There was a counting of gold, and a commanding and warning voice. Finally there was a splash, as the powerful launch dipped into the water from its davits. There was a bounding of many feet, and a cry to shove her off.

"Good-bye, Colonel!" one man shouted; but the rest kept a silence. They knew that many dangers were before them.

Then the launch became a speck against a gray coast.

"Where now, father?" asked Rupert timidly.

For the first time since the conception of his infamous deed, the man looked his son straight between the eyes. Both faces were furrowed, and worn, and prematurely aged; the eyes of both were sunken and rigid.

"Home, my son—home," said the Colonel gently.

"Oh, father!" cried the lad.

"Kiss me, my son, if you care to, and now leave me."

The United States had been plunged into a war with Patagonia. The How of it was a disgrace to the Great Republic. Jingoism had done the deed, and the mischief of the matter was that the Patagonian cruisers outnumbered our own.

There was scurry in the navy yards, especially within that upon the Potomac. Old, disabled monitors were galvanized into the delusion of life: guns were hurried to bombard an inhospitable coast thousands of miles away.

Officials at their desks were telegraphing cipher dispatches to England to furnish vessels of war on hire, which she politely refused to do. Congress was passing an unrestricted maritime bill.

During this hubbub a very unusual thing happened to increase the confusion of the Navy Department at Washington.

About nine o'clock in the morning, while several ships of war were making ready for sea, a foreign torpedo boat was seen to ricochet up the river, passing by hidden torpedoes as if she were inspired, and then suddenly, with a swirl, coming to a dead halt before one of the largest of the formidable vessels.

In alarm, the crew of the American flagship was drummed to arms, and the gunners were called to their ports. Evidently the virulent torpedo-boat was a foe, bent to suicide after she had destroyed. The fact that she carried no flag, no masts, nothing but a bare hull, made her alarming in the extreme. It was an apparition of death. The American fleet trembled. At what invincible vessel would the bolt be launched? Officers paled and swore. At this terrible display of audacity, a paralysis had overtaken them.

Only a boy was visible on the stern of the ominous stranger. He pulled out a handkerchief and waved it. He seemed to touch a button, and the anchor rattled to its length. Captain and gunners breathed relief. By this time the murmur of the arrival had spread, and thousands of quaking men lined the wharves to inspect the mystery.

At last someone thought of sending a boat to board her. Twenty men manned a launch and steamed out cautiously.

"Ahoy, there! Where do you belong?" demanded the officer in charge of the launch.

"I have a letter to the President of the United States," answered the boy with quivering lips.

"Whose vessel is this? Let down the gangway."

Two black sailors sprang from the hold of the mysterious vessel to obey.

"She belongs to the United States," replied the boy. "Please let me take the letter. You can take the boat."

Astounded beyond measure, the officer leaped on board. No name was visible.

"What is her name?" he asked eagerly.

"She has none. The President can name her. She was called the 'Lightning,'" said the boy steadily.

"By ——! I might have known," cried the officer. "Where is He? Who are you?"

"He is not here. The letter tells, sir. I am his son."

Rupert put both hands upon the spokes of the wheel, and held his head up straight. He faced the officer who had ordered the chase when the "Lightning" escaped with his country's gold.

What thoughts went through the lad's mind? Did he regret this last and most quixotic step? Did he long to "up the anchor," and give the signal to fly ahead? Did he regret freedom and lawlessness? Or was his heart that was broken by disgrace, healed by the atonement?

"Let me have the letter." The officer spoke after a long look at the son of America's most execrated malefactor. His voice was not harsh, for he divined how the boy's loyalty to his father and his country really blended into an emotion which men call honor.

Rupert put his hand to his breast:—

"My orders are to deliver the letter to the President with my own hand."

"You shall do so. The President is there."

The officer pointed to a high, white monster of distinction. "He is aboard there. He is watching you this minute. Jump in!"

The boy paled. For only a moment his courage deserted him, and he almost tumbled into the launch.

A great crowd of witnesses had gathered about the President, as if to protect him.

The word "assassin," was whispered from man to man. Even the officer could not command an avenue to the Chief Executive.

"Let him be brought," said the President authoritatively. With a marine glass he had watched the motions of the vessel, the boy, and the officer.

"I know him. Give way there! Let him come alone."

Then the men formed a living circle with the President in its midst, and Rupert stood alone with him in it, with head bared, and with a letter in his shaking hand.

"You are Rupert Odminton," said the President distinctly, after a long searching gaze. "You have come with a noble purpose. What is it?"

Without answer, with blood beating a wild tattoo, the boy bowed his head in acquiescence. He handed the President the letter. This the President took, and opened and read. Then he did what the people will not soon forget. He drew the son of his captor towards him, put his left hand protectingly upon the lad's head, and with a ringing voice read the letter aloud.

"Mr. President, and people of the United States:—I thought myself a god, and know myself a felon. I, who meant to instruct the people, have learned a lesson such as even death cannot teach. I render to you my account. My son will show you in what secret safe in the vessel is preserved the gold that I stole from the Treasury. It belongs to the Country. There lack a hundred and twenty thousand dollars. I hereby bequeath the boat to the United States in payment for the balance I owe. It cost much more, and is the fastest vessel in the world. Re-christened, it may be of service in the approaching war; and the stain upon it, which my soul tells me is indelible, may fade. I give my son to you as hostage of my good faith.

"Mr. President, I am without a country. I have no citizenship in the world. I beg you, if your kindness prompts you, to offer me pardon, that my bones may rest upon the soil I love. My son will guide such a messenger of forgiveness to me. Let him be sent soon, if at all, for my crime scourges me so that I cannot live.


"He was no common man," said the Secretary of State, in a voice of great feeling. "Mr. President, I suggest that the pardon be sent immediately. I think he has suffered enough."

The President smiled benignly.

"Mr. Secretary," he said, turning to the head of the navy, "shall we accept the yacht? I think the Treasury will find room for the gold. Can the navy find room for Colonel Odminton's atonement?"

The eyes of the Secretary of the Navy glistened.

"With that vessel fixed into a torpedo boat, we can whip the world! I shall put the youngster as middy aboard of her; he understands her better than any one else. With your permission, Mr. President, the boy is enrolled, and his commission will be made out at once."

The Secretary bowed deferentially.

"Do you wish to enter the United States navy?" The great head of the nation bent to the lad as he would have to his own son.

"Oh, sir! But my father," cried Rupert, broken by pride and shame and filial love.

"You will bear the pardon to-morrow," said the President kindly.

"I would rather go now. I think he needs it," whispered Rupert timidly. Then the boy, keyed so high, fell and was borne away.

Who does not love the Everglades when he knows them? The adorer of the warm woods had rather put his arm about a palmetto, and his cheek against its rough surface, than be softly met by the tenderest of women. Oh, the witchery of the moss-waving Everglades!

"Father! Father!"

A longing treble cut the languorous air.

The hidden hut behind the hidden bay was empty.

The boy and the officer searched hastily and fearfully.

"He is in the woods. Oh, you know—come!"

Behind the terror-stricken son the officer plunged into the thicket. Gloomy shades surrounded him. Warm breaths and new odors caressed him. Almost lifted out of the body by these new sensations, he followed with speeding feet.

"Help! Quick!" The shrill voice recalled him. Before the officer knew it, he was upon a figure kneeling beside a body under a great tree.

"Father! Father! He has forgiven you. It is all right!"

But the pleading voice of the lad faltered into an awful silence. The soldier put his hand upon the penitent's head. It was warm. The dead man's arms were outstretched upon the great tree. His body was upon the huge roots. His lips were as if he had but just kissed the bark.

Did his sin at the last restrain him, that he dared not to touch the soil of America, and fondle it as his own?

He had died unpardoned: it was to be, that he should be tortured to the end. But as to when he died, they could not tell—for his strong limbs were set; the swarming Southern ants had not desecrated him, and the moaning tree seemed to be explaining that she had kept him warm upon her lap.

He was buried beneath the sod to which, with the home-sickness of the true Southerner, he had crawled back to die. They laid the pardon in his folded hands.

The officer walked out of the Everglades, with bared head. He could not understand his own emotion. But the weeping lad followed slowly. He heard a cadence above the grave. Rupert understood it. It was the dirge of the Live Oak.