Kobo (Illustrated) (Herbert Strang)

by Herbert Strang

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eBook formateBook, (torrent)En
PublisherLost Leaf Publications
File size2 Mb
Release date 03.01.2014
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The P. and O. liner Sardinia was some twenty hours out of Shanghai, making a direct course for Nagasaki. Few passengers were on deck: it was drear and cold this January afternoon, the sky grey and sullen as with coming snow, the sea rolling heavily under a stiff north-easter that blew cuttingly through the Korea Strait. But beneath the bridge, somewhat sheltered from the wind, sat three figures in a group, talking earnestly. The eldest of the three, John Morton by name, a big shaggy Englishman of forty-five, sat enwrapped in a heavy ulster and a travelling rug, his legs propped on a deck-chair before him. Every few seconds a voluminous cloud of smoke issued from his lips, and floated away like a pale miniature copy of the vast black coil from the funnel above. John Morton was correspondent of the Daily Post. At his left sat a round little Frenchman, with fine-drawn moustache and neat imperial, a comforter about his neck, a cigarette in his mouth. Armand Desjardins was also a correspondent, representing the Nouveau Figaro. The third member of the group was much younger than his companions. He was a tall, slim young fellow, with bright hair and frank blue eyes, his cheeks tanned the healthy brown of outdoor life at home no less than by the winds of four weeks' sea travel. The collar of his long frieze ulster was turned up to his ears; a low cloth cap was perched on the back of his head. Nobody could have mistaken Bob Fawcett for anything but a Briton.

He had just answered, smilingly, a remark of the vivacious little Frenchman, when the attention of the group was attracted by the quarter-master clambering hurriedly up the ladder to the bridge, the ship's biggest telescope under his arm. He handed it to the captain, who, with the chief and third officers, was looking intently towards a spot a few points on the port bow. After gazing for a minute or two through the telescope, the captain handed it without remark to the chief officer, who looked in his turn and passed it also in silence to the third. The three men below rose to their feet and went to the port-rail, scanning the horizon for the object of the officers' curiosity. Nothing was to be seen save a limitless expanse of dark, green billows, heaving with the swell.

There was a short colloquy on the bridge, after which the third officer ran down the ladder on his way aft. He was intercepted by the little group, who raked him with a gatling-fire of questions.

"Only a raft, or wreckage, or sea-serpent, or something," he said in reply. "Perhaps sea-weed."

"But you vill examine?" said Desjardins. "De sea-serpent is a subject of im-mense interest to de savants of all nations."

The officer laughed.

"Well, monsieur," he said, "get a good glass and you'll have a chance of seeing for yourself; we shall pass it within a short mile."

By this time a speck was visible far ahead, which gradually disclosed itself, as the vessel drew nearer, as a half-submerged spar with a tangled mass of rigging. Bob Fawcett and his companions had ceased to take any interest in what appeared to be merely floating wreckage, when they were surprised at hearing the clang of the engine-room bell signalling successive orders. The steamer slowed down, then with helm hard a-starboard crept up to within a hundred yards of the object, and came to a stop. A boat was speedily lowered, and the passengers, drawn from below by the sudden stoppage on the high sea, crowded into the bows, and looked on with breathless curiosity as the third officer steered gingerly up to the spar. It was possible now to make out a human figure rising and falling with the heave of the sea, its outlines half-hidden by the surrounding cordage. The quarter-master was seen to open his huge clasp knife and cut several strands that apparently lashed the castaway to the mast, and the men who had supported the inert body while this was being done lifted it gently into the boat. The passengers heard the third officer's voice shout the order to give way, and in less than three minutes the boat was being swung in upon the davits, and the Sardinia was again forging ahead at full speed.

The castaway, an inert, sodden, unconscious figure, was lifted out of the boat and carried below, to be handed over to the ship's doctor.

"Is there any life in him?" asked Bob Fawcett, pressing forward to the third officer.

"As dead as mutton, sir, in my belief. But we'll do what we can for the poor beggar."

He passed on; and, catching a glimpse of the castaway as he was borne down the companion-way, Bob noticed that he had but one ear. In a few minutes the passengers had resumed the occupations and amusements which the incident had interrupted. The curiosity of the most of them finally evaporated when it became known that the figure saved from the sea was nothing more romantic than the body of a Chinaman. Bob Fawcett was not a sufficiently hardened traveller to take the matter so lightly. But learning on enquiry that the doctor had little hope of the man's recovery, and that in any case his resuscitation would take some time, he went back to his companions, and found that they had been joined by another passenger—a stranger to him. The new-comer was a stout, brown-bearded, spectacled man, with cheeks puffy and sallow. He leant heavily on a stick, and every now and then rammed his soft wide-awake down upon his head, evidently in apprehension of its being swept away by the breeze.

"Feel better?" Bob heard Morton say as he approached.

"Ach ja!" was the reply. "I do feel better, zairtainly, but not vell, not vell by no means."

"You'll be all right soon. Fawcett, let me introduce you to Herr Schwab; don't think you've met. He came on at Shanghai, and—well, hasn't been visible since. My friend Mr. Fawcett—Herr Schwab."

"Glad to meet you, sir," said Bob, lifting his cap. The German was a second or two behind in the salutation, not from lack of native courtesy, but because his hand had to skirt the limp brim of his wide-awake and come perpendicularly on to the crown, which he raised between finger and thumb.

"Most delighted," he said with guttural urbanity. "I lose much zrough my so unlucky disbosition to sea-illness; it keep me downstair all ze time since ve leave Shanghai. Ze loss of food, zat is nozink; it is ze gombany. Vy, I regollect, ven first I voyage to Zanzibar it lose me vun big order for bianofortes. At Massowa zere come on board a Somali sheik vat vas fery musical. I vas below—fery ill. Vat could I? Ze sheik, he buy concertina from ze rebresentative of concertina house. Now ze Somali, zey all blay concertina; zey might haf blayed biano!"

"And are you in pianos now, sir?" asked Bob, smiling.

"Vell, yes, but primarily I am in literature. I haf ze honour to rebresent ze Düsseldörfer Tageblatt, a journal of fery vide circulation in Werden, Kettwig, Mülheim, Odenkolin, Grevenbroich—zobsgribtion, twenty-zree mark fifty, payableinadvance."

He handed Bob a card with these particulars duly set forth, and paused as if for a reply.

"Unfortunately," said Bob with a smile, "my screw is payable in arrears; I'm afraid I shall have to wait a little."

"You say screw!" responded Herr Schwab instantly. "I haf also ze honour to rebresent ze solid house of Schlagintwert: ve can ship you best assorted screw f.o.b. Hamburg at truly staggering price."

He drew from the pocket of his ulster a sheaf of papers and looked them rapidly through.

"No," he murmured, "zis is botato spirit; zis is batent mangle; zis is edition de luxe Stones of Venice; ha! ve haf it: best Birmingham screw. Allow me, vid gombliments."

Bob caught Morton's eye as he pocketed the price list, and strenuously preserving his gravity, said:

"Thank you, sir; I shall know where to come. But I fear that with war in the air your journey may not be profitable."

"Ah! Zere you mistake, my friend. If it is peace, I sell botato-spirit Birmingham screw Ruskin edition de luxe batent mangle; if it is var—zen I rebresent zeDüsseldörfer Tageblatt; ve circulate in Werden, Kettwig, Mülheim, Odenkolin—"

"Magnifique!" exclaimed Desjardins. "You save de price of passage in all case. To compete vid you Germans, it is impossible."

Herr Schwab smiled indulgently.

"Business are business," he said. "In peace, ze Chinese, ze Japanese, ze Russian—zey are all vun to me. But in var, I am instructed by my house—ach! I should say, my journal—to agompany ze Japanese field-army."

"By all accounts," said Bob, "it'll be a case of the patent mangle and not the pen this time. A fellow in the smoking-room has just been saying that there's no earthly chance of war. He had it from a native merchant in Hong-Kong, and somehow or other they're always the first to scent out news."

"No var!" exclaimed Desjardins. "Vat den shall I do? Vat shall I write for de Figaro! I have no patent-mangle!"

"You'll have to write poetry," said Morton; "geishas, plum blossom, and that kind of thing. You'll be all right. But I'm helpless. Couldn't do it to save my life; if I could, Daily Post wouldn't take it. Fawcett will come off best of the lot."

"I'm afraid not. They wouldn't have sent for me to help with their range-finders unless they expected a rumpus, and soon. If there's no war, I shall get a month's notice and my passage home.—Hi, steward, how's the castaway?"

The steward came up in answer to Bob's hail.

"Doin' well, sir; most surprisin'. Doctor himself can't make it out nohow. Says the Chinee must have the constitootion of a elephant. Captain's with him this very minute, interviewin' of him; he can't speak English, but there's another Chinee in the steerage that's doin' the interpretin'. He's a big ruffian of a fellow, the castaway, a regular hooligan to look at—and only one ear and all. I've just sent some vittles for'ard for him, sir."

The steward passed on. A little later, when it became known that the interpreter had returned to his quarters, Bob announced that he was going to see the man, and was at once joined by Monsieur Desjardins and Herr Schwab, the former in eagerness to get material for a paragraph, the latter in obedience to his motto, "Business are business". Morton refused to budge.

"Saw plenty of Chinamen, dead and alive, in the war, ten years ago; all alike," he said.

Accordingly the other three made their way to the steerage, and, finding the Chinese interpreter, were soon assured of his willingness to tell all he knew for a consideration. It was Bob who paid.

The man who had so narrowly escaped drowning was, it appeared, a Manchu Tartar—a big muscular fellow nearly six feet high. When once he regained consciousness he had made a surprisingly rapid recovery from his long immersion, and had told his story with great readiness. He had been making the voyage from Chemulpo to Yokohama in a Korean junk, which had been capsized by a sudden squall, and had gone down, he feared, with all hands. Luckily he himself had managed to cling to a considerable portion of wreckage, and to hold on long enough to lash himself to the mast. He was sorry now that he had not waited for a steamer; it was only his strong family affection that had prompted him to sail in a crazy junk, and he would certainly never do so again. He had a brother in Tokio, the owner of a small curiosity shop. News had reached him in Chemulpo that his beloved brother was at the point of death, and without delay he had embarked on a rice-laden junk that happened to be sailing for Tokio, in the hope of reaching that town in time to see his brother before he died.

"'Plenty muchee velly good piecee man," concluded the interpreter approvingly.

"Extraordinaire!" exclaimed Desjardins in admiration. "Dat is sentiment; it is noble, it touch my 'art."

He laid his hand on that section of his rotundity which might be taken to conceal the organ in question, and sighed with enjoyment.

"Ach! it is not sentiment," said Schwab, "it is business. Ze brozer haf curiosity shop—vell, ze ozer brozer vish to inherit imme'ately, vizout drouble. He must be on ze spot."

"Come now, Herr Schwab, don't spoil our little romance," said Bob. "Poor fellow! he's had a rough time anyhow. I wonder how he lost his ear."

"Bad time indeed," said Desjardins. "Pauvre diable! Ve must make him a collection, and you, Monsieur Schwab, you are business man, you shall collect de moneys."

Herr Schwab, who had evidently foreseen that the Frenchman's sympathy might take this practical form, began to decline the proffered honour, but the chorus of amused assent left him no option. Then, finding that he had himself to pay the tax, with German thoroughness he devoted himself heartily to the task of seeing that no one else escaped, and by the time the vessel opened up the lights of Nagasaki quite a respectable sum had been gathered for the Chinaman's benefit.

Bob, being on official business, had instructions to proceed direct from Nagasaki to Tokio. Most of the passengers, however, among them his recent companions, were remaining on the Sardinia as far as Kobe, with the object of seeing the world-famed beauties of the inland sea. The last words Bob heard as he went down the side after the final farewells were a guttural protest from Herr Schwab, with whom his enforced contribution to the Chang-Wo fund was still rankling.

"Business, my dear sir, are business; sentiment is sentiment. Zey should nefer be mix. Damit basta!"

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