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"Here's a message for you, Gordon," said Stedman, with business-like calm. "Albert Gordon, Correspondent," he read: "Try American consul.
First message O. K.; beat the country; can take all you send. Give names of foreign residents ma.s.sacred, and fuller account blowing up palace. Dodge."
The expression on Gordon's face as this message was slowly read off to him, had changed from one of gratified pride to one of puzzled consternation.
"What's he mean by foreign residents ma.s.sacred, and blowing up of palace?" asked Stedman, looking over his shoulder anxiously. "Who is Dodge?"
"Dodge is the night editor," said Gordon, nervously. "They must have read my message wrong. You sent just what I gave you, didn't you?" he asked.
"Of course I did," said Stedman, indignantly. "I didn't say anything about the ma.s.sacre of anybody, did I?" asked Gordon. "I hope they are not improving on my account. What AM I to do? This is getting awful.
I'll have to go out and kill a few people myself. Oh, why don't that Dutch captain begin to do something! What sort of a fighter does he call himself? He wouldn't shoot at a school of porpoises. He's not----"
"Here comes a message to Leonard T. Travis, American consul, Opeki,"
read Stedman. "It's raining messages to-day. 'Send full details of ma.s.sacre of American citizens by German sailors.' Secretary of--great Scott!" gasped Stedman, interrupting himself and gazing at his instrument with horrified fascination--"the Secretary of State."
"That settles it," roared Gordon, pulling at his hair and burying his face in his hands. "I have GOT to kill some of them now."
"Albert Gordon, Correspondent," read Stedman, impressively, like the voice of Fate. "Is Colonel Thomas Bradley commanding native forces at Opeki, Colonel Sir Thomas Kent-Bradley of Crimean war fame?
Correspondent London Times, San Francisco Press Club."
"Go on, go on!" said Gordon, desperately. "I'm getting used to it now.
"American consul, Opeki," read Stedman. "Home Secretary desires you to furnish list of names English residents killed during sh.e.l.ling of Opeki by ship of war Kaiser, and estimate of amount property destroyed.
Stoughton, British Emba.s.sy, Washington."
"Stedman!" cried Gordon, jumping to his feet, "there's a mistake here somewhere. These people cannot all have made my message read like that. Someone has altered it, and now I have got to make these people here live up to that message, whether they like being ma.s.sacred and blown up or not. Don't answer any of those messages except the one from Dodge; tell him things have quieted down a bit, and that I'll send four thousand words on the flight of the natives from the village, and their encampment at the foot of the mountains, and of the exploring party we have sent out to look for the German vessel; and now I am going out to make something happen."
Gordon said that he would be gone for two hours at least, and as Stedman did not feel capable of receiving any more nerve-stirring messages, he cut off all connection with Octavia by saying, "Good-by for two hours," and running away from the office. He sat down on a rock on the beach, and mopped his face with his handkerchief.
"After a man has taken nothing more exciting than weather reports from Octavia for a year," he soliloquized, "it's a bit disturbing to have all the crowned heads of Europe and their secretaries calling upon you for details of a ma.s.sacre that never came off."
At the end of two hours Gordon returned from the consulate with a ma.s.s of ma.n.u.script in his hand.
"Here's three thousand words," he said, desperately. "I never wrote more and said less in my life. It will make them weep at the office.
I had to pretend that they knew all that had happened so far; they apparently do know more than we do, and I have filled it full of prophesies of more trouble ahead, and with interviews with myself and the two ex-Kings. The only news element in it is, that the messengers have returned to report that the German vessel is not in sight, and that there is no news. They think she has gone for good. Suppose she has, Stedman," he groaned, looking at him helplessly, "what AM I going to do?"
"Well, as for me," said Stedman, "I'm afraid to go near that cable.
It's like playing with a live wire. My nervous system won't stand many more such shocks as those they gave us this morning."
Gordon threw himself down dejectedly in a chair in the office, and Stedman approached his instrument gingerly, as though it might explode.
"He's swearing again," he explained, sadly, in answer to Gordon's look of inquiry. "He wants to know when I am going to stop running away from the wire. He has a stack of messages to send, he says, but I guess he'd better wait and take your copy first; don't you think so?"
"Yes, I do," said Gordon. "I don't want any more messages than I've had. That's the best I can do," he said, as he threw his ma.n.u.script down beside Stedman. "And they can keep on cabling until the wire burns red hot, and they won't get any more."
There was silence in the office for some time, while Stedman looked over Gordon's copy, and Gordon stared dejectedly out at the ocean.
"This is pretty poor stuff, Gordon," said Stedman. "It's like giving people milk when they want brandy."
"Don't you suppose I know that?" growled Gordon. "It's the best I can do, isn't it? It's not my fault that we are not all dead now. I can't ma.s.sacre foreign residents if there are no foreign residents, but I can commit suicide, though, and I'll do it if something don't happen."
There was a long pause, in which the silence of the office was only broken by the sound of the waves beating on the coral reefs outside.
Stedman raised his head wearily.
"He's swearing again," he said; "he says this stuff of yours is all nonsense. He says stock in the Y.C.C. has gone up to one hundred and two, and that owners are unloading and making their fortunes, and that this sort of descriptive writing is not what the company want."
"What's he think I'm here for?" cried Gordon. "Does he think I pulled down the German flag and risked my neck half a dozen times and had myself made King just to boom his Yokohama cable stock? Confound him!
You might at least swear back. Tell him just what the situation is in a few words. Here, stop that rigmarole to the paper, and explain to your home office that we are awaiting developments, and that, in the meanwhile, they must put up with the best we can send them. Wait; send this to Octavia."
Gordon wrote rapidly, and read what he wrote as rapidly as it was written.
"Operator, Octavia. You seem to have misunderstood my first message.
The facts in the case are these. A German man-of-war raised a flag on this island. It was pulled down and the American flag raised in its place and saluted by a bra.s.s cannon. The German man-of-war fired once at the flag and knocked it down, and then steamed away and has not been seen since. Two huts were upset, that is all the damage done; the battery consisted of the one bra.s.s cannon before mentioned. No one, either native or foreign, has been ma.s.sacred. The English residents are two sailors. The American residents are the young man who is sending you this cable and myself. Our first message was quite true in substance, but perhaps misleading in detail. I made it so because I fully expected much more to happen immediately. Nothing has happened, or seems likely to happen, and that is the exact situation up to date.
"Now," he asked, after a pause, "what does he say to that?"
"He doesn't say anything," said Stedman.
"I guess he has fainted. Here it comes," he added in the same breath.
He bent toward his instrument, and Gordon raised himself from his chair and stood beside him as he read it off. The two young men hardly breathed in the intensity of their interest.
"Dear Stedman," he slowly read aloud. "You and your young friend are a couple of fools. If you had allowed me to send you the messages awaiting transmission here to you, you would not have sent me such a confession of guilt as you have just done. You had better leave Opeki at once or hide in the hills. I am afraid I have placed you in a somewhat compromising position with the company, which is unfortunate, especially as, if I am not mistaken, they owe you some back pay. You should have been wiser in your day, and bought Y.C.C. stock when it was down to five cents, as 'yours truly' did. You are not, Stedman, as bright a boy as some. And as for your friend, the war-correspondent, he has queered himself for life. You see, my dear Stedman, after I had sent off your first message, and demands for further details came pouring in, and I could not get you at the wire to supply them, I took the liberty of sending some on myself."
"Great Heavens!" gasped Gordon.
Stedman grew very white under his tan, and the perspiration rolled on his cheeks.
"Your message was so general in its nature, that it allowed my imagination full play, and I sent on what I thought would please the papers, and, what was much more important to me, would advertise the Y.C.C. stock. This I have been doing while waiting for material from you. Not having a clear idea of the dimensions or population of Opeki, it is possible that I have done you and your newspaper friend some injustice. I killed off about a hundred American residents, two hundred English, because I do not like the English, and a hundred French. I blew up old Ollypybus and his palace with dynamite, and sh.e.l.led the city, destroying some hundred thousand dollars' worth of property, and then I waited anxiously for your friend to substantiate what I had said. This he has most unkindly failed to do. I am very sorry, but much more so for him than for myself, for I, my dear friend, have cabled on to a man in San Francisco, who is one of the directors of the Y.C.C., to sell all my stock, which he has done at one hundred and two, and he is keeping the money until I come. And I leave Octavia this afternoon to reap my just reward. I am in about twenty thousand dollars on your little war, and I feel grateful. So much so that I will inform you that the ship of war Kaiser has arrived at San Francisco, for which port she sailed directly from Opeki. Her captain has explained the real situation, and offered to make every amend for the accidental indignity shown to our flag. He says he aimed at the cannon, which was trained on his vessel, and which had first fired on him. But you must know, my dear Stedman, that before his arrival, war-vessels belonging to the several powers mentioned in my revised despatches, had started for Opeki at full speed, to revenge the butchery of the foreign residents. A word, my dear young friend, to the wise is sufficient. I am indebted to you to the extent of twenty thousand dollars, and in return I give you this kindly advice. Leave Opeki. If there is no other way, swim. But leave Opeki."
The sun, that night, as it sank below the line where the clouds seemed to touch the sea, merged them both into a blazing, blood-red curtain, and colored the most wonderful spectacle that the natives of Opeki had ever seen. Six great ships of war, stretching out over a league of sea, stood blackly out against the red background, rolling and rising, and leaping forward, flinging back smoke and burning sparks up into the air behind them, and throbbing and panting like living creatures in their race for revenge. From the south came a three-decked vessel, a great island of floating steel, with a flag as red as the angry sky behind it, snapping in the wind. To the south of it plunged two long low-lying torpedo-boats, flying the French tri-color, and still farther to the north towered three magnificent hulls of the White Squadron.
Vengeance was written on every curve and line, on each straining engine-rod, and on each polished gun-muzzle.
And in front of these, a clumsy fishing-boat rose and fell on each pa.s.sing wave. Two sailors sat in the stern, holding the rope and tiller, and in the bow, with their backs turned forever toward Opeki, stood two young boys, their faces lit by the glow of the setting sun and stirred by the sight of the great engines of war plunging past them on their errand of vengeance.
"Stedman," said the elder boy, in an awe-struck whisper, and with a wave of his hand, "we have not lived in vain."