Facing the Flag

Page 18

Towards three o'clock, the warship which was cruising before the inlet, after having sent search parties aboard a few fishing-smacks, suddenly manoeuvred to the entrance of the pass, and awaited the approaching schooner. The latter surely did not imagine that she could force a passage in spite of the cruiser, or escape from a vessel propelled by steam. Besides, had she attempted such a foolhardy trick, a couple of shots from the _Falcon's_ guns would speedily have constrained her to lay to.

Presently a boat, manned by two officers and ten sailors, put off from the cruiser and rowed towards the _Ebba_. When they were only about half a cable's length off, one of the men rose and waved a flag.

"That's a signal to stop," said Engineer Serko.

"Precisely," remarked the Count d'Artigas.

"We shall have to lay to."

"Then lay to."

Captain Spade went forward and gave the necessary orders, and in a few minutes the vessel slackened speed, and was soon merely drifting with the tide.

The _Falcon's_ boat pulled alongside, and a man in the bows held on to her with a boat-hook. The gangway was lowered by a couple of hands on the schooner, and the two officers, followed by eight of their men, climbed on deck.

They found the crew of the _Ebba_ drawn up in line on the forecastle.

The officer in command of the boarding-party--a first lieutenant--advanced towards the owner of the schooner, and the following questions and answers were exchanged:

"This schooner belongs to the Count d'Artigas, to whom, I presume, I have the honor of speaking?"

"Yes, sir."

"What is her name?"

"The _Ebba_."

"She is commanded by?--"

"Captain Spade."

"What is his nationality?"

"Hindo-Malay."

The officer scrutinized the schooner's flag, while the Count d'Artigas added:

"Will you be good enough to tell me, sir, to what circumstance I owe the pleasure of your visit on board my vessel?"

"Orders have been received," replied the officer, "to search every vessel now anchored in Pamlico Sound, or which attempts to leave it."

He did not deem it necessary to insist upon this point since the _Ebba_, above every other, was to be subjected to the bother of a rigorous examination.

"You, of course, sir, have no intention of refusing me permission to go over your schooner?"

"Assuredly not, sir. My vessel is at your disposal from peaks to bilges. Only I should like to know why all the vessels which happen to be in Pamlico Sound to-day are being subjected to this formality."

"I see no reason why you should not be informed, Monsieur the Count," replied the officer. "The governor of North Carolina has been apprised that Healthful House has been broken into and two persons kidnapped, and the authorities merely wish to satisfy themselves that the persons carried off have not been embarked during the night."

"Is it possible?" exclaimed the Count, feigning surprise. "And who are the persons who have thus disappeared from Healthful House?"

"An inventor--a madman--and his keeper."

"A madman, sir? Do you, may I ask, refer to the Frenchman, Thomas Roch?"

"The same."

"The Thomas Roch whom I saw yesterday during my visit to the establishment--whom I questioned in presence of the director--who was seized with a violent paroxysm just as Captain Spade and I were leaving?"

The officer observed the stranger with the keenest attention, in an effort to surprise anything suspicious in his attitude or remarks.

"It is incredible!" added the Count, as though he had just heard about the outrage for the first time.

"I can easily understand, sir, how uneasy the authorities must be," he went on, "in view of Thomas Roch's personality, and I cannot but approve of the measures taken. I need hardly say that neither the French inventor nor his keeper is on board the _Ebba_. However, you can assure yourself of the fact by examining the schooner as minutely as you desire. Captain Spade, show these gentlemen over the vessel."

Then saluting the lieutenant of the _Falcon_ coldly, the Count d'Artigas sank into his deck-chair again and replaced his cigar between his lips, while the two officers and eight sailors, conducted by Captain Spade, began their search.

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