" It's no use, Orrington, there's nothing in it," said the managing editor decisively. " We can't publish a fairy story like that. We've got to stick to probabilities, at least. What did the Secretary of War say when you told him ? "
" Oh, he said it was simply the insane freak of a crazy man," I answered glumly enough, for I had set my whole heart on this scoop, and felt more and more convinced that it was true, the more I was rebuffed. I went on with a gleam of hope. " I'd like to have you see radium bring out the second letter, that was underneath the first."
" My dear chap," said the chief, a little impatiently, " I'll take your word for that, and you could use that story very well in another way, but it isn't news. Whole fleets can't be sunk by a single man. It's nonsense." He placed his glasses on his nose with a vigorous gesture, and picked up a fresh bunch of copy.
Without a word, I passed out into the big office where, sitting down at an empty desk by the window, I lighted my pipe and lost myself in thought. Not very pleasant thoughts they were, for I had been rebuffed for my enthusiasm on every side, since I took up the quixotic task of persuading the United States that one of her battleships was in danger. My own chief, the Washington correspondent, the War Department, the President, and now the managing editor of the New York office whither I had been suddenly called — all laughed at my tale. Dorothy Haldane alone had believed. Together we had seen the message grow from the darkness. We were convinced of its truth. From that one meeting had come the feeling that, when Dorothy agreed, the opinion of the rest of the world faded to minor account. Over and over again her name threaded the shuttle of my thoughts. Dorothy was my last thought as I lay down at night. Dorothy was my first thought with the dawn.
I had an hour to wait before I could reach a man whom I had been told to interview, and I sat back waiting and dreaming. It was Tuesday of the fatal week, the first week in July. Suddenly the door of the chief's office opened, and I heard my name. " Orrington ! Orrington ! " I jumped to my feet and hurried in. The chief was sitting with the receiver to his ear. " Close that door! " he ordered. " Here's Orrington now. Tell him what you told me."
I took the phone at his gesture and listened.
" Orrington ? "
" Yes." (The man on the other end was the head of our Washington office.)
" There may be something in that story of yours. The War Department has just called me up. The Alaska has disappeared somewhere between Newport News and Bar Harbor. They talked with her by wireless yesterday morning, and have been unable to get into communication with her since. She has two sets of wireless on board, and has not been out of close communication for three years. They have sent four revenue cutters out searching the coast, but nothing has been seen. Finally the secretary thought of you and the message from the man who intended to stop all war. Have you found out anything ? "
" Well, take your orders from New York now. They've asked for you for this. I don't think the other papers have it yet."
I straightened up with a throb of joy and turned to the chief. He looked at me keenly. " Better not write anything till you have something more. The assignment is yours. Go out and find the Alaska or what happened to her. I give you carte blanche."
Hardly were the last words out of his mouth before I had jumped for my hat and was hurrying down the stairs with a generous order for expense money in my hand. A moment's stop at the cashier's, and I was out on the street. Up and down I looked for cab or automobile. I was bound for the water front. For once, there was not even a street car going my way. I started hurriedly on, half running in my speed. As I rushed along, I heard my name, " Mr. Orrington ! " The voice would have called me miles. It was Dorothy Haldane, seated in a big blue motor. Her chauffeur drew up beside me, and she threw open the door.
" Let me take you wherever you are going, and tell me if you have heard more from that letter."
I needed no second invitation, gave the wharf address to the chauffeur, and turned to answer Dorothy. As I told her the news, she leaned forward to the chauffeur.
" Go back to where we left Mr. Haldane's launch," she said, and turned to me. " I've just left Tom at his launch, which was to take him out to the Black Arrow. They were waiting for some provisions at the wharf, and may be there yet. He'll be delighted to take you, and the Black Arrow is one of the swiftest motor yachts in the bay. Will you make your search on her ? If you will, I'll go with you. I only stayed ashore to-day to do some shopping that can wait."
When the gods befriend a man, who is he to say nay ? Through the hot and dirty markets we sped and reached the wharf, just as the Black Arrow's launch was leaving the shore. A clear call and a wave of Dorothy's parasol brought it back, while a bewildered smile passed over Tom Haldane's face as he saw us awaiting him. " Why, Jim ! " he began,
" Don't stop to talk now," said Dorothy. " Take us to the Black Arrow as fast as you can."
In a moment we had cleared the wharves and were passing from the dirt and smells of the city on to the clear waters of the bay. As we went, Dorothy explained the situation to Tom, who fell in with the plan joyously. Once on the slim rakish yacht, he spoke.
" Now, Jim, you're in command. Where are we going ? "
" Right down the coast," I said, " and we'll megaphone every fisherman and yacht. It's the men on the coasters who will know, if any one does."
Swift as her name, the Black Arrow ploughed her way through the summer sea. Pleasantest of all assignments to sit on her deck and watch Dorothy Haldane as she talked and speculated on the problem before us. Could one man have sunk so mighty a battleship ? Was there any possibility that a single man could make war on the world ? Tom came up to us in the midst of the discussion, and stood listening.
" Queer this should come up now," he said. " It was only last winter that someone was talking
about something like this up at our house, one Sunday night. Who was it, Dorothy ? "
A sudden look of alarm flashed across her face. She started to speak and then broke off. " Oh ! I hardly remember."
Tom persisted. " Let's see, there was a crowd of the fellows there, and, queer thing too, John King and Dick Regnier. The same pair that were with you the other night."
" Regnier! " That name shot across me like a bullet. The short, quick, troubled breathing of some one behind me on the night we read the letter ! " Can it be ! " I burst forth.
Dorothy made no pretense of misunderstanding me. " No," she said firmly. " Dick was up to see me last night. It couldn't have been he."
The coast had been rushing by us rapidly as we talked, and now the summer cottages and bathing beaches were giving way to longer stretches of bare sand and wooded inlets. I rose and looked forward.
" We may as well commence here," I said, and we began systematic inquiry. Catboat and sloop tacking out on pleasure bent, tramp steamer ploughing heavily up the coast, — one after another, we came alongside and asked the same questions. " Have you seen a battleship to-day or yesterday ? Have you seen or heard anything unusual ? "
The answers came back in every vein. Brusque denials — ironical inquiries — would-be humorous sallies — courteous rejoinders — one and all had the same word. No battleship seen. Nothing unusual seen or heard. The morning had become noon, ere we were fairly on our quest. The afternoon wore on towards night, as it progressed. As the hours passed, I protested against my hosts giving up their yacht to my service, but quite in vain. They were as firmly resolved to pursue the quest to the end as I was myself.
About five o'clock, when we were some six or seven miles off the coast, came the first success. We hailed a schooner whose lookout replied negatively to our questions. As we passed slowly, we heard a sudden hail, as a gaunt man, the skipper, rushed to the side.
" Lookin' for anything unusual, be ye ? " he shouted. " I've seen one thing, — a catboat takin' on a crazy man out of a knockabout."
" Whereabouts ? " I shouted.
" 'Bout ten miles back, I reckon," came the answer.
He knew no more than that, and the interchange over, I turned to Dorothy.
" Shall we run that clue down ? " I asked.
She nodded decisively. " By all means," she said. " It's the only one we have. Send the Arrow inshore, will you, Tom, on a long slant ? "
Once more the engine took up its racing speed, as the boat bore down on the shore. As we went in, we changed the questions, and asked the few boats we met if they had picked up a man. At last we saw a catboat just sailing out of a little bay, and bore down on it. A man and a boy sat in the stern. As I shouted my question once more, the man jumped up.
" Yes, we picked one up."
" Where is he ? " I shouted.
" At my house, but he's crazy," replied the man.
" Can we get in there with the yacht ? "
" No, but I can take you in," he answered, and it was but a moment's work to lower a boat from the davits. As I stepped to the side, Tom and Dorothy hurried up.
" We're going, too," Tom cried.
The launch bore us rapidly across to the cat-boat, and as we approached, I studied the faces of the man and the boy. They were simple folk, of evidently limited intelligence. Hardly had we come alongside, when I began my questions, and a strange story came in reply. Stripped of its vernacular and repetitions, this was the tale finally dragged from the man and boy, as we sailed towards the shore.
They had started out in the early morning and had fished with some success. In the afternoon, they had seen a knockabout running free before the wind, with all sorts of strange action. The sail widespread, she turned and reared, started and checked, swung and circled. There was no sign of life on board that they could ascertain, and they made up their minds that the boat had either lost its occupants or had been driven offshore with its sail hoisted. On boarding, much to their surprise, they found a man, apparently a solitary fisherman, lying unconscious in the stern sheets. Throwing water over him roused him. He sat up and looked around, but with unseeing eyes. His lips quivered, and in a low whisper he began to speak. " Disappeared, disappeared, disappeared. Nothing real, nothing real." Rising, he started to walk straight ahead, but struck the side and fell. His murmur now changed to a loud moan. " Disappeared, disappeared, disappeared. Nothing real, nothing real." Again he tried to walk, but this time they caught him, bound him, and carried him to shore, to their house, where he went quietly enough to bed, with the unceasing moan. " Disappeared, disappeared, disappeared. Nothing real, nothing real," rising and falling like the waves on the shore.
The story had taken all the way in, and as we rowed towards shore, leaving the catboat and launch at the mooring where the knockabout lay, the night was swiftly shutting in. A light glimmered in a low house on the bluff.
" That's my house," said the man, as we hastened towards it. A woman with a kindly face met us at the door.
" Wife, these are some folks that are looking for the crazy man," said our friend.
" He's fast asleep," was the answer, " but you can go in and see him, if you want to."
My heart rose. The second step of my quest was in sight.
" Tom," I said quietly, " come along with me. Miss Haldane, will you remain here ? "
Dorothy nodded. Tom and I followed the woman as she passed down a narrow passage. Opening a rude door, she entered. In front of the bed, she stopped short and threw up her hands. " For the land's sake," she cried. " He's gone! "
Gone! The word echoed dismally in my brain.
" Wait till I get a lamp," said the woman, and she pattered nervously out.
By the fading light, we could see the disordered bed, the open window, and an overturned chair. A glimmer of light came down the passage, and the woman hurried back, followed by Dorothy. No more information could be gleaned. Evidently the lost man had risen, dressed completely, and left by the low open window. The woman of the house was in great distress, weeping and rocking. " The poor crazy man, lost in these woods. He was as harmless as anything. I thought he was all right."
Dorothy sat down beside her, and, soothing her, began a series of quiet questions. " How long did you leave him ? "
" An hour or more." She had been doing the supper dishes. Dorothy turned to the husband.
" What roads are there from here ? "
" Only one for a mile. That goes from the front of the house."
The woman broke in. " If he'd taken that, I'd have seen him. He'd have gone by my window. He must have gone to the shore or the woods."
" There's no use waiting. He's only getting farther away from us," cried Tom. " Let's look around the house."
Our fisher friend had two lanterns and a kerosene light. With these, we began the search. The sand and rock around the house gave no sign of footprints, and we passed out in widening circles, meeting and calling without avail. A half hour's exploration left us just where we started. We had found nothing. Turning back, we met Dorothy at the door.
" I was afraid you would find nothing," she said. " I've just found out that he said one thing beside the sentence which he continually repeated. Once he said, ' The sea, the sea, the awful sea.' I believe he has gone to the shore."
Together, we went in that direction. Tom and the fisherman took one way, Dorothy and I the other. As we hastened on, the light of the lantern threw circles of hazy light on the black water and on the shore. Dorothy, in the depths of thought, walked on a httle in advance, and, despite myself, my thoughts turned from the man I sought and the errand for which I sought him, and I gazed wholly at the round cheek shaded by a flying tress that escaped from the close veil, and at the erect figure, now stooping to look ahead, now rising and passing on in deep thought. The same thrill which had held me the first night came again, that binding call, that tightening chain. I lost myself in a dreamy exhilaration.
Suddenly, Dorothy stopped. " It's no use to go farther."
Obediently I turned, and we retraced our steps. Just below the house, we met Tom and the fisherman, returned from an equally unavailing search. We all four stood gazing out to sea where the Black Arrow lay, her lights the sole gemmed relief of the dark waters, save where her search-light blazed a widening path of changing silver before her. All at once I saw Dorothy raise her head with a quick breath.
" If he's on the shore, I know how we can find him, no matter what start he has."