That Little Square Box by A. Conan Doyle
"All aboard?" said the captain.
"All aboard, sir!" said the mate.
"Then stand by to let her go."
It was nine o'clock on a Wednesday morning.
The good ship Spartan was lying off Boston Quay
with her cargo under hatches, her passengers
shipped, and everything prepared for a start. The
warning whistle had been sounded twice, the final
bell had been rung. Her bowsprit was turned
towards England, and the hiss of escaping steam
showed that all was ready for her run of three
thousand miles. She strained at the warps that
held her like a greyhound at its leash.
I have the misfortune to be a very nervous man.
A sedentary literary life has helped to increase the
morbid love of solitude which, even in my boyhood,
was one of my distinguishing characteristics.
As I stood upon the quarter-deck of the Transatlantic
steamer, I bitterly cursed the necessity
which drove me back to the land of my forefathers.
The shouts of the sailors, the rattle of the cordage,
the farewells of my fellow-passengers, and the
cheers of the mob, each and all jarred upon my
sensitive nature. I felt sad too. An indescribable
feeling, as of some impending calamity, seemed to
haunt me. The sea was calm, and the breeze
light. There was nothing to disturb the equanimity
of the most confirmed of landsmen, yet I
felt as if I stood upon the verge of a great though
indefinable danger. I have noticed that such
presentiments occur often in men of my peculiar
temperament, and that they are not uncommonly
fulfilled. There is a theory that it arises from a
species of second-sight—a subtle spiritual communication
with the future. I well remember that
Herr Raumer, the eminent spiritualist, remarked
on one occasion that I was the most sensitive
subject as regards supernatural phenomena that he
had ever encountered in the whole of his wide
experience. Be that as it may, I certainly felt
far from happy as I threaded my way among the
weeping, cheering groups which dotted the white
decks of the good ship Spartan. Had I known
the experience which awaited me in the course of
the next twelve hours, I would even then at the
last moment have sprung upon the shore, and
made my escape from the accursed vessel.
"Time's up!" said the captain, closing his
chronometer with a snap, and replacing it in his
pocket. "Time's up!" said the mate. There was
a last wail from the whistle, a rush of friends and
relatives upon the land. One warp was loosened,
the gangway was being pushed away, when there
was a shout from the bridge, and two men appeared
running rapidly down the quay. They were waving
their hands and making frantic gestures, apparently
with the intention of stopping the ship. "Look
sharp!" shouted the crowd. "Hold hard!" cried
the captain. "Ease her! stop her! Up with the
gangway!" and the two men sprang aboard just as
the second warp parted, and a convulsive throb of
the engine shot us clear of the shore. There was a
cheer from the deck, another from the quay, a
mighty fluttering of handkerchiefs, and the great
vessel ploughed its way out of the harbour,
and steamed grandly away across the placid
We were fairly started upon our fortnight's
voyage. There was a general dive among the
passengers in quest of berths and luggage, while a
popping of corks in the saloon proved that more
than one bereaved traveller was adopting artificial
means for drowning the pangs of separation. I
glanced round the deck and took a running inventory
of my compagnons de voyage. They
presented the usual types met with upon these
occasions. There was no striking face among
them. I speak as a connoisseur, for faces are a
specialty of mine. I pounce upon a characteristic
feature as a botanist does on a flower, and bear it
away with me to analyse at my leisure, and classify
and label it in my little anthropological museum.
There was nothing worthy of me here. Twenty
types of young America going to "Yurrup," a few
respectable middle-aged couples as an antidote,
a sprinkling of clergymen and professional men,
young ladies, bagmen, British exclusives, and all
the olla podrida of an ocean-going steamer. I
turned away from them and gazed back at the
receding shores of America, and, as a cloud of
remembrances rose before me, my heart warmed
towards the land of my adoption. A pile of
portmanteaus and luggage chanced to be lying on
one side of the deck, awaiting their turn to be
taken below. With my usual love for solitude I
walked behind these, and sitting on a coil of rope
between them and the vessel's side, I indulged in a
I was aroused from this by a whisper behind
me. "Here's a quiet place," said the voice. "Sit
down, and we can talk it over in safety."
Glancing through a chink between two colossal
chests, I saw that the passengers who had joined
us at the last moment were standing at the other
side of the pile. They had evidently failed to see
me as I crouched in the shadow of the boxes.
The one who had spoken was a tall and very thin
man with a blue-black beard and a colourless face.
His manner was nervous and excited. His companion
was a short, plethoric little fellow, with a
brisk and resolute air. He had a cigar in his
mouth, and a large ulster slung over his left arm.
They both glanced round uneasily, as if to ascertain
whether they were alone. "This is just the place,"
I heard the other say. They sat down on a bale
of goods with their backs turned towards me, and
I found myself, much against my will, playing the
unpleasant part of eavesdropper to their conversation.
"Well, Muller," said the taller of the two, "we've
got it aboard right enough."
"Yes," assented the man whom he had addressed
as Muller; "it's safe aboard."
"It was rather a near go."
"It was that, Flannigan."
"It wouldn't have done to have missed the ship."
"No; it would have put our plans out."
"Ruined them entirely," said the little man, and
puffed furiously at his cigar for some minutes.
"I've got it here," he said at last.
"Let me see it."
"Is no one looking?"
"No; they are nearly all below."
"We can't be too careful where so much is at
stake," said Muller, as he uncoiled the ulster which
hung over his arm, and disclosed a dark object
which he laid upon the deck. One glance at it
was enough to cause me to spring to my feet with
an exclamation of horror. Luckily they were so
engrossed in the matter on hand that neither of
them observed me. Had they turned their heads
they would infallibly have seen my pale face
glaring at them over the pile of boxes.
From the first moment of their conversation a
horrible misgiving had come over me. It seemed
more than confirmed as I gazed at what lay before
me. It was a little square box made of some dark
wood, and ribbed with brass. I suppose it was
about the size of a cubic foot. It reminded me of
a pistol-case, only it was decidedly higher. There
was an appendage to it, however, on which my
eyes were riveted, and which suggested the pistol
itself rather than its receptacle. This was a trigger-like
arrangement upon the lid, to which a coil of
string was attached. Beside this trigger there was
a small square aperture through the wood. The
tall man, Flannigan, as his companion called him,
applied his eye to this and peered in for several
minutes with an expression of intense anxiety upon
"It seems right enough," he said at last.
"I tried not to shake it," said his companion.
"Such delicate things need delicate treatment.
Put in some of the needful, Muller."
The shorter man fumbled in his pocket for some
time, and then produced a small paper packet.
He opened this, and took out of it half a handful
of whitish granules, which he poured down through
the hole. A curious clicking noise followed from
the inside of the box, and both the men smiled in
a satisfied way.
"Nothing much wrong there," said Flannigan.
"Right as a trivet," answered his companion.
"Look out! here's some one coming. Take it
down to our berth. It wouldn't do to have any
one suspecting what our game is, or, worse still,
have them fumbling with it, and letting it off by
"Well, it would come to the same, whoever let
it off," said Muller.
"They'd be rather astonished if they pulled the
trigger," said the taller, with a sinister laugh.
"Ha, ha! fancy their faces! It's not a bad bit
of workmanship, I flatter myself."
"No," said Muller. "I hear it is your own
design, every bit of it, isn't it?"
"Yes, the spring and the sliding shutter are my
"We should take out a patent."
And the two men laughed again with a cold,
harsh laugh, as they took up the little brass-bound
package and concealed it in Muller's voluminous
"Come down, and we'll stow it in our berth,"
said Flannigan. "We won't need it until to-night,
and it will be safe there."
His companion assented, and the two went arm-in-arm
along the deck and disappeared down the
hatchway, bearing the mysterious little box away
with them. The last words I heard were a
muttered injunction from Flannigan to carry it
carefully, and avoid knocking it against the bulwarks.
How long I remained sitting on that coil of rope
I shall never know. The horror of the conversation
I had just overheard was aggravated by the
first sinking qualms of sea-sickness. The long roll
of the Atlantic was beginning to assert itself over
both ship and passengers. I felt prostrated in
mind and in body, and fell into a state of collapse,
from which I was finally aroused by the hearty
voice of our worthy quartermaster.
"Do you mind moving out of that, sir?" he
said. "We want to get this lumber cleared off
His bluff manner and ruddy, healthy face seemed
to be a positive insult to me in my present condition.
Had I been a courageous or a muscular
man I could have struck him. As it was, I treated
the honest sailor to a melodramatic scowl, which
seemed to cause him no small astonishment, and
strode past him to the other side of the deck.
Solitude was what I wanted—solitude in which I
could brood over the frightful crime which was
being hatched before my very eyes. One of the
quarter-boats was hanging rather low down upon
the davits. An idea struck me, and, climbing on
the bulwarks, I stepped into the empty boat and
lay down in the bottom of it. Stretched on my
back, with nothing but the blue sky above me, and
an occasional view of the mizzen as the vessel
rolled, I was at least alone with my sickness and
I tried to recall the words which had been
spoken in the terrible dialogue I had overheard.
Would they admit of any construction but the one
which stared me in the face? My reason forced
me to confess that they would not. I endeavoured
to array the various facts which formed the chain
of circumstantial evidence, and to find a flaw in it;
but no, not a link was missing. There was the
strange way in which our passengers had come
aboard, enabling them to evade any examination
of their luggage. The very name of "Flannigan"
smacked of Fenianism, while "Muller" suggested
nothing but Socialism and murder. Then their
mysterious manner; their remark that their plans
would have been ruined had they missed the ship;
their fear of being observed; last, but not least,
the clenching evidence in the production of the
little square box with the trigger, and their grim
joke about the face of the man who should let it
off by mistake—could these facts lead to any conclusion
other than that they were the desperate
emissaries of some body, political or otherwise,
and intended to sacrifice themselves, their fellow-passengers,
and the ship, in one great holocaust?
The whitish granules which I had seen one of
them pour into the box formed no doubt a fuse
or train for exploding it. I had myself heard a
sound come from it which might have emanated
from some delicate piece of machinery. But what
did they mean by their allusion to to-night? Could
it be that they contemplated putting their horrible
design into execution on the very first evening of
our voyage? The mere thought of it sent a cold
shudder over me, and made me for a moment
superior even to the agonies of sea-sickness.
I have remarked that I am a physical coward.
I am a moral one also. It is seldom that the two
defects are united to such a degree in the one
character. I have known many men who were
most sensitive to bodily danger, and yet were
distinguished for the independence and strength
of their minds. In my own case, however, I
regret to say that my quiet and retiring habits
had fostered a nervous dread of doing anything
remarkable, or making myself conspicuous, which
exceeded, if possible, my fear of personal
peril. An ordinary mortal placed under the circumstances
in which I now found myself would
have gone at once to the captain, confessed
his fears, and put the matter into his hands. To
me, however, constituted as I am, the idea was
most repugnant. The thought of becoming the
observed of all observers, cross-questioned by a
stranger, and confronted with two desperate conspirators
in the character of a denouncer, was
hateful to me. Might it not by some remote
possibility prove that I was mistaken? What
would be my feelings if there should turn out to
be no grounds for my accusation? No, I would
procrastinate; I would keep my eye on the two
desperadoes and dog them at every turn.
Anything was better than the possibility of being
Then it struck me that even at that moment
some new phase of the conspiracy might be
developing itself. The nervous excitement seemed
to have driven away my incipient attack of sickness,
for I was able to stand up and lower myself
from the boat without experiencing any return of
it. I staggered along the deck with the intention
of descending into the cabin and finding how my
acquaintances of the morning were occupying
themselves. Just as I had my hand on the companion-rail,
I was astonished by receiving a hearty
slap on the back, which nearly shot me down the
steps with more haste than dignity.
"Is that you, Hammond?" said a voice which I
seemed to recognise.
"God bless me," I said as I turned round, "it
can't be Dick Merton! Why, how are you, old
This was an unexpected piece of luck in the
midst of my perplexities. Dick was just the man
I wanted; kindly and shrewd in his nature, and
prompt in his actions, I should have no difficulty
in telling him my suspicions, and could rely upon
his sound sense to point out the best course to
pursue. Since I was a little lad in the second
form at Harrow, Dick had been my adviser and
protector. He saw at a glance that something
had gone wrong with me.
"Hullo!" he said, in his kindly way, "what's
put you about, Hammond? You look as white as
a sheet. Mal de mer, eh?"
"No, not that altogether," said I. "Walk up
and down with me, Dick; I want to speak to you.
Give me your arm."
Supporting myself on Dick's stalwart frame,
I tottered along by his side; but it was some
time before I could muster resolution to speak.
"Have a cigar," said he, breaking the silence.
"No, thanks," said I. "Dick, we shall all be
"That's no reason against your having a cigar
now," said Dick, in his cool way, but looking hard
at me from under his shaggy eyebrows as he
spoke. He evidently thought that my intellect
was a little gone.
"No," I continued; "it's no laughing matter, and
I speak in sober earnest, I assure you. I have
discovered an infamous conspiracy, Dick, to
destroy this ship and every soul that is in her;"
and I then proceeded systematically, and in order,
to lay before him the chain of evidence which I
had collected. "There, Dick," I said, as I concluded,
"what do you think of that? and, above
all, what am I to do?"
To my astonishment he burst into a hearty fit
"I'd be frightened," he said, "if any fellow but
you had told me as much. You always had a
way, Hammond, of discovering mares' nests. I
like to see the old traits breaking out again. Do
you remember at school how you swore there was
a ghost in the long room, and how it turned out
to be your own reflection in the mirror? Why,
man," he continued, "what object would any one
have in destroying this ship? We have no great
political guns aboard. On the contrary, the
majority of the passengers are Americans. Besides,
in this sober nineteenth century, the most wholesale
murderers stop at including themselves among
their victims. Depend upon it, you have misunderstood
them, and have mistaken a photographic
camera, or something equally innocent, for an
"Nothing of the sort, sir," said I, rather touchily.
"You will learn to your cost, I fear, that I have
neither exaggerated nor misinterpreted a word.
As to the box, I have certainly never before seen
one like it. It contained delicate machinery; of
that I am convinced, from the way in which the
men handled it and spoke of it."
"You'd make out every packet of perishable
goods to be a torpedo," said Dick, "if that is to
be your only test."
"The man's name was Flannigan," I continued.
"I don't think that would go very far in a court
of law," said Dick; "but come, I have finished
my cigar. Suppose we go down together and split
a bottle of claret. You can point out these two
Orsinis to me if they are still in the cabin."
"All right," I answered; "I am determined not
to lose sight of them all day. Don't look hard at
them, though; for I don't want them to think that
they are being watched."
"Trust me," said Dick; "I'll look as unconscious
and guileless as a lamb;" and with that we passed
down the companion and into the saloon.
A good many passengers were scattered about the
great central table, some wrestling with refractory
carpet-bags and rug-straps, some having their
luncheon, and a few reading and otherwise amusing
themselves. The objects of our quest were not
there. We passed down the room and peered
into every berth; but there was no sign of them.
"Heavens!" thought I, "perhaps at this very
moment they are beneath our feet, in the hold
or engine-room, preparing their diabolical contrivance!"
It was better to know the worst than
to remain in such suspense.
"Steward," said Dick, "are there any other
"There's two in the smoking-room, sir," answered
The smoking-room was a little snuggery, luxuriously
fitted up, and adjoining the pantry. We
pushed the door open and entered. A sigh of
relief escaped from my bosom. The very first
object on which my eye rested was the cadaverous
face of Flannigan, with its hard-set mouth and
unwinking eye. His companion sat opposite to
him. They were both drinking, and a pile of cards
lay upon the table. They were engaged in playing
as we entered. I nudged Dick to show him that
we had found our quarry, and we sat down beside
them with as unconcerned an air as possible. The
two conspirators seemed to take little notice of
our presence. I watched them both narrowly.
The game at which they were playing was
"Napoleon." Both were adepts at it; and I could
not help admiring the consummate nerve of men
who, with such a secret at their hearts, could
devote their minds to the manipulating of a long
suit or the finessing of a queen. Money changed
hands rapidly; but the run of luck seemed to be
all against the taller of the two players. At last
he threw down his cards on the table with an oath
and refused to go on.
"No, I'm hanged if I do!" he said; "I haven't
had more than two of a suit for five hands."
"Never mind," said his comrade, as he gathered
up his winnings; "a few dollars one way or the
other won't go very far after to-night's work."
I was astonished at the rascal's audacity, but
took care to keep my eyes fixed abstractedly upon
the ceiling, and drank my wine in as unconscious
a manner as possible. I felt that Flannigan was
looking towards me with his wolfish eyes to see
if I had noticed the allusion. He whispered something
to his companion which I failed to catch.
It was a caution, I suppose, for the other answered
"Nonsense! Why shouldn't I say what I like?
Over-caution is just what would ruin us."
"I believe you want it not to come off," said
"You believe nothing of the sort," said the other,
speaking rapidly and loudly. "You know as
well as I do that when I play for a stake I like
to win it. But I won't have my words criticised and
cut short by you or any other man; I have as much
interest in our success as you have—more, I hope."
He was quite hot about it, and puffed furiously
at his cigar for a few minutes. The eyes of the
other ruffian wandered alternately from Dick
Merton to myself. I knew that I was in the
presence of a desperate man, that a quiver of my
lip might be the signal for him to plunge a weapon
into my heart; but I betrayed more self-command
than I should have given myself credit for under
such trying circumstances. As to Dick, he was
as immovable and apparently as unconscious as
the Egyptian Sphinx.
There was silence for some time in the smoking-room,
broken only by the crisp rattle of the cards
as the man Muller shuffled them up before replacing
them in his pocket. He still seemed to
be somewhat flushed and irritable. Throwing the
end of his cigar into the spittoon, he glanced
defiantly at his companion, and turned towards me.
"Can you tell me, sir," he said, "when this ship
will be heard of again?"
They were both looking at me; but though my
face may have turned a trifle paler, my voice was
as steady as ever as I answered—
"I presume, sir, that it will be heard of first
when it enters Queenstown Harbour."
"Ha, ha!" laughed the angry little man; "I
knew you would say that. Don't you kick me
under the table, Flannigan; I won't stand it. I
know what I am doing. You are wrong, sir," he
continued, turning to me; "utterly wrong."
"Some passing ship, perhaps," suggested Dick.
"No, nor that either."
"The weather is fine," I said; "why should we
not be heard of at our destination?"
"I didn't say we shouldn't be heard of at our
destination. No doubt we shall in the course of
time; but that is not where we shall be heard of
"Where then?" asked Dick.
"That you will never know. Suffice it that a
rapid and mysterious agency will signal our whereabouts,
and that before the day is out. Ha, ha!"
and he chuckled once again.
"Come on deck!" growled his comrade; "you
have drunk too much of that confounded brandy-and-water.
It has loosened your tongue. Come
away!" and taking him by the arm he half led
him, half forced him out of the smoking-room,
and we heard them stumbling up the companion
together, and on to the deck.
"Well, what do you think now?" I gasped, as I
turned towards Dick. He was as imperturbable
"Think!" he said; "why, I think what his companion
thinks—that we have been listening to the
ravings of a half-drunken man. The fellow stunk
"Nonsense, Dick! you saw how the other tried
to stop his tongue."
"Of course he did. He didn't want his friend
to make a fool of himself before strangers. Maybe
the short one is a lunatic, and the other his private
keeper. It's quite possible."
"Oh, Dick, Dick," I cried; "how can you be so
blind? Don't you see that every word confirmed
our previous suspicion?"
"Humbug, man!" said Dick; "you're working
yourself into a state of nervous excitement. Why,
what the devil do you make of all that nonsense
about a mysterious agent which would signal our
"I'll tell you what he meant, Dick," I said,
bending forward and grasping my friend's arm.
"He meant a sudden glare and a flash seen far out
at sea by some lonely fisherman off the American
coast. That's what he meant."
"I didn't think you were such a fool, Hammond,"
said Dick Merton testily. "If you try to fix a
literal meaning on the twaddle that every drunken
man talks, you will come to some queer conclusions.
Let us follow their example, and go on
deck. You need fresh air, I think. Depend upon
it, your liver is out of order. A sea-voyage will
do you a world of good."
"If ever I see the end of this one," I groaned,
"I'll promise never to venture on another. They
are laying the cloth, so it's hardly worth while my
going up. I'll stay below and finish my smoke."
"I hope dinner will find you in a more pleasant
state of mind," said Dick; and he went out, leaving
me to my thoughts until the clang of the great
gong summoned us to the saloon.
My appetite, I need hardly say, had not been
improved by the incidents which had occurred
during the day. I sat down, however, mechanically
at the table, and listened to the talk which was
going on around me. There were nearly a hundred
first-class passengers, and as the wine began to
circulate, their voices combined with the clash of
the dishes to form a perfect Babel. I found myself
seated between a very stout and nervous old lady
and a prim little clergyman; and as neither made
any advances, I retired into my shell, and spent
my time in observing the appearance of my fellow-voyagers.
I could see Dick in the dim distance
dividing his attentions between a jointless fowl in
front of him and a self-possessed young lady at
his side. Captain Dowie was doing the honours at
my end, while the surgeon of the vessel was seated
at the other. I was glad to notice that Flannigan
was placed almost opposite to me. As long as I
had him before my eyes I knew that, for the time
at least, we were safe. He was sitting with what
was meant to be a sociable smile on his grim face.
It did not escape me that he drank largely of wine—so
largely that even before the dessert appeared
his voice had become decidedly husky. His friend
Muller was seated a few places lower down. He
ate little, and appeared to be nervous and restless.
"Now, ladies," said our genial captain, "I trust
that you will consider yourselves at home aboard
my vessel. I have no fears for the gentlemen. A
bottle of champagne, steward. Here's to a fresh
breeze and a quick passage! I trust our friends
in America will hear of our safe arrival in twelve
days, or a fortnight at the very latest."
I looked up. Quick as was the glance which
passed between Flannigan and his confederate, I
was able to intercept it. There was an evil smile
upon the former's thin lips.
The conversation rippled on. Politics, the sea,
amusements, religion, each was in turn discussed.
I remained a silent though an interested listener.
It struck me that no harm could be done by
introducing the subject which was ever in my
mind. It could be managed in an off-hand way,
and would at least have the effect of turning the
captain's thoughts in that direction. I could
watch, too, what effect it would have upon the
faces of the conspirators.
There was a sudden lull in the conversation.
The ordinary subjects of interest appeared to be
exhausted. The opportunity was a favourable
"May I ask, captain," I said, bending forward,
and speaking very distinctly, "what you think of
The captain's ruddy face became a shade darker
from honest indignation.
"They are poor cowardly things," he said, "as
silly as they are wicked."
"The impotent threats of a set of anonymous
scoundrels," said a pompous-looking old gentleman
"Oh, captain!" said the fat lady at my side,
"you don't really think they would blow up a
"I have no doubt they would if they could.
But I am very sure they will never blow up
"May I ask what precautions are taken against
them?" said an elderly man at the end of the
"All goods sent aboard the ship are strictly
examined," said Captain Dowie.
"But suppose a man brought explosives aboard
with him?" said I.
"They are too cowardly to risk their own lives
in that way."
During this conversation Flannigan had not
betrayed the slightest interest in what was going
on. He raised his head now, and looked at the
"Don't you think you are rather underrating
them?" he said. "Every secret society has produced
desperate men—why shouldn't the Fenians
have them too? Many men think it a privilege
to die in the service of a cause which seems right
in their eyes, though others may think it wrong."
"Indiscriminate murder cannot be right in anybody's
eyes," said the little clergyman.
"The bombardment of Paris was nothing else,"
said Flannigan; "yet the whole civilised world
agreed to look on with folded arms, and change
the ugly word 'murder' into the more euphonious
one of 'war.' It seemed right enough to German
eyes; why shouldn't dynamite seem so to the
"At any rate their empty vapourings have led to
nothing as yet," said the captain.
"Excuse me," returned Flannigan, "but is there
not some room for doubt yet as to the fate
of the Dotterel? I have met men in America
who asserted from their own personal knowledge
that there was a coal torpedo aboard that
"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
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 upon 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 seemed like a sea of blood. A single star
was twinkling faintly above our main-mast, 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 seemed 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 upon 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 sick-bed 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
It was a relief to me when Dick came on deck.
Even an incredulous confidant is better than none
"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
"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
"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."
"Let me know of the result," said my companion;
and with a nod he strolled away in
search, I fancy, of his partner at the dinner-table.
Left to myself, I bethought me of my retreat
of the morning, and climbing on the bulwark I
mounted into the quarter-boat, and lay down there.
In it I could reconsider my course of action, and by
raising my head I was able at any time to get a
view of my disagreeable neighbours.
An hour passed, and the captain was still on the
bridge. He was talking to one of the passengers,
a retired naval officer, and the two were deep in
debate concerning some abstruse point in navigation.
I could see the red tips of their cigars from
where I lay. It was dark now—so dark that I
could hardly make out the figures of Flannigan
and his accomplice. They were still standing in
the position which they had taken up after dinner.
A few of the passengers were scattered about
the deck, but many had gone below. A strange
stillness seemed to pervade the air. The voices of
the watch and the rattle of the wheel were the
only sounds which broke the silence.
Another half-hour passed. The captain was still
upon the bridge. It seemed as if he would never
come down. My nerves were in a state of
unnatural tension, so much so that the sound of
two steps upon the deck made me start up in a
quiver of excitement. I peered over the side of
the boat, and saw that our suspicious passengers
had crossed from the other side and were standing
almost directly beneath me. The light of a binnacle
fell full upon the ghastly face of the ruffian
Flannigan. Even in that short glance I saw that
Muller had the ulster, whose use I knew so well,
slung loosely over his arm. I sank back with a
groan. It seemed that my fatal procrastination
had sacrificed two hundred innocent lives.
I had read of the fiendish vengeance which
awaited a spy. I knew that men with their lives
in their hands would stick at nothing. All I could
do was to cower at the bottom of the boat and
listen silently to their whispered talk below.
"This place will do," said a voice.
"Yes, the leeward side is best."
"I wonder if the trigger will act?"
"I am sure it will."
"We were to let it off at ten, were we not?"
"Yes, at ten sharp. We have eight minutes yet."
There was a pause. Then the voice began again—
"They'll hear the drop of the trigger, won't
"It doesn't matter. It will be too late for any
one to prevent its going off."
"That's true. There will be some excitement
among those we have left behind, won't there?"
"Rather! How long do you reckon it will be
before they hear of us?"
"The first news will get in in about twenty-four
"That will be mine."
"Ha, ha! we'll settle that."
There was a pause here. Then I heard Muller's
voice in a ghastly whisper, "There's only five
How slowly the moments seemed to pass! I
could count them by the throbbing of my heart.
"It'll make a sensation on land," said a voice.
"Yes, it will make a noise in the newspapers."
I raised my head and peered over the side of
the boat. There seemed no hope, no help. Death
stared me in the face, whether I did or did not
give the alarm. The captain had at last left the
bridge. The deck was deserted, save for those two
dark figures crouching in the shadow of the boat.
Flannigan had a watch lying open in his hand.
"Three minutes more," he said. "Put it down
upon the deck."
"No, put it here on the bulwarks."
It was the little square box. I knew by the
sound that they had placed it near the davit, and
almost exactly under my head.
I looked over again. Flannigan was pouring
something out of a paper into his hand. It was
white and granular—the same that I had seen him
use in the morning. It was meant as a fuse, no
doubt, for he shovelled it into the little box, and
I heard the strange noise which had previously
arrested my attention.
"A minute and a half more," he said. "Shall
you or I pull the string?"
"I will pull it," said Muller.
He was kneeling down and holding the end in
his hand. Flannigan stood behind with his arms
folded, and an air of grim resolution upon his
I could stand it no longer. My nervous system
seemed to give way in a moment.
"Stop!" I screamed, springing to my feet.
"Stop, misguided and unprincipled men!"
They both staggered backwards. I fancy they
thought I was a spirit, with the moonlight streaming
down upon my pale face.
I was brave enough now. I had gone too far to
"Cain was damned," I cried, "and he slew but
one; would you have the blood of two hundred
upon your souls?"
"He's mad!" said Flannigan. "Time's up!
Let it off, Muller."
I sprang down upon the deck.
"You shan't do it!" I said.
"By what right do you prevent us?"
"By every right, human and divine."
"It's no business of yours. Clear out of this!"
"Never!" said I.
"Confound the fellow! There's too much at
stake to stand on ceremony. I'll hold him, Muller,
while you pull the trigger."
Next moment I was struggling in the herculean
grasp of the Irishman. Resistance was useless; I
was a child in his hands.
He pinned me up against the side of the vessel,
and held me there.
"Now," he said, "look sharp. He can't prevent
I felt that I was standing on the verge of
eternity. Half-strangled in the arms of the taller
ruffian, I saw the other approach the fatal box.
He stooped over it and seized the string. I
breathed one prayer when I saw his grasp tighten
upon it. Then came a sharp snap, a strange rasping
noise. The trigger had fallen, the side of the box
flew out, and let off—two grey carrier-pigeons!
Little more need be said. It is not a subject on
which I care to dwell. The whole thing is too
utterly disgusting and absurd. Perhaps the best
thing I can do is to retire gracefully from the
scene, and let the sporting correspondent of the
New York Herald fill my unworthy place. Here
is an extract clipped from its columns shortly
after our departure from America:—
"Pigeon-flying Extraordinary.—A novel match
has been brought off, last week, between the birds
of John H. Flannigan, of Boston, and Jeremiah
Muller, a well-known citizen of Ashport. Both
men have devoted much time and attention to an
improved breed of bird, and the challenge is an old-standing
one. The pigeons were backed to a large
amount, and there was considerable local interest
in the result. The start was from the deck of the
Transatlantic steamship Spartan, at ten o'clock on
the evening of the day of starting, the vessel being
then reckoned to be about a hundred miles from
the land. The bird which reached home first was
to be declared the winner. Considerable caution
had, we believe, to be observed, as British captains
have a prejudice against the bringing off of sporting
events aboard their vessels. In spite of some little
difficulty at the last moment, the trap was sprung
almost exactly at ten o'clock. Muller's bird arrived
in Ashport in an extreme state of exhaustion on
the following afternoon, while Flannigan's has not
been heard of. The backers of the latter have the
satisfaction of knowing, however, that the whole
affair has been characterised by extreme fairness.
The pigeons were confined in a specially invented
trap, which could only be opened by the spring.
It was thus possible to feed them through an
aperture in the top, but any tampering with their
wings was quite out of the question. A few such
matches would go far towards popularising pigeon-flying
in America, and form an agreeable variety
to the morbid exhibitions of human endurance
which have assumed such proportions during the
last few years."