As I was sitting on the poop, two of my fellow-passengers, Falsten, the engineer, and Ruby, the merchant, whom I had observed to be often in company, were engaged in conversa- tion almost close to me. What they said was evidently not intended for my hearing, but my attention was directed to- ward them by some very emphatic gestures of dissatisfaction on the part of Falsten, and I could not forbear listening to what followed.
"Preposterous! shameful!" exclaimed Falsten; "nothing could be more imprudent."
"Pooh! pooh!" replied Ruby, "it's all right; it is not the first time I have done it."
"But don't you know that any shock at any time might cause an explosion?"
"Oh, it's all properly secured," said Ruby, "tight enough; I have no fears on that score, Mr. Falsten."
"But why," asked Falsten, "did you not inform the cap- tain?"
"Just because if I had informed him, he would not have taken the case on board."
The wind dropped for a few seconds; and for a brief in- terval I could not catch what passed; but I could see that Falsten continued to remonstrate, while Ruby answered by shrugging his shoulders. At length I heard Falsten say.
"Well, at any rate, the captain must be informed of this, and the package shall be thrown overboard. I don't want to be blown up."
I started. To what could the engineer be alluding? Evi- dently he had not the remotest suspicion that the cargo was already on fire. In another moment the words "picrate of potash" brought me to my feet, and with an involuntary impulse I rushed up to Ruby, and seized him by the shoulder.
"Is there picrate of potash on board?" I almost shrieked.
"Yes," said Falsten, "a case containing thirty pounds."
"Where is it?" I cried.
"Down in the hold, with the cargo."
CHAPTER XI THE PASSENGERS DISCOVER THEIR DANGER
WHAT my feelings were I cannot describe; but it was hardly in terror so much as with a kind of resignation that I made my way to Curtis on the forecastle, and made him aware that the alarming character of our situation was now complete, as there was enough explosive matter on board to blow up a mountain. Curtis received the information as coolly as it was delivered, and after I had made him ac- quainted with all the particulars said, "Not a word of this must be mentioned to anyone else, Mr. Kazallon. Where is Ruby, now?"
"On the poop," I said.
"Will you then come with me, sir?"
Ruby and Falsten were sitting just as I had left them. Curtis walked straight up to Ruby, and asked him whether what he had been told was true.
"Yes, quite true," said Ruby, complacently, thinking that the worst that could befall him would be that he might be convicted of a little smuggling.
I observed that Curtis was obliged for a moment or two to clasp his hands tightly together behind his back to pre- vent himself from seizing the unfortunate passenger by the throat; but suppressing his indignation, he proceeded quietly, though sternly, to interrogate him about the facts of the case. Ruby only confirmed what I had already told him. With characteristic Anglo-Saxon incautiousness he had brought on board, with the rest of his baggage, a case con- taining no less than thirty pounds of picrate, and had allowed the explosive matter to be stowed in the hold with as little compunction as a Frenchman would feel in smuggling a single bottle of wine. He had not informed the captain of the dangerous nature of the contents of the package, because he was perfectly aware that he would have been refused per- mission to bring the package on board.
"Anyway," he said, with a shrug of his shoulders, "you can't hang me for it; and if the package gives you so much concern, you are quite at liberty to throw it into the sea. My luggage is insured."
I was beside myself with fury; and not being endowed with Curtis's reticence and self-control, before he could in- terfere to stop me, I cried out:
"You fool! don't you know that there is fire on board?"
In an instant I regretted my words. Most earnestly I wished them unuttered.