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The Deflected Compass by Alfred Colbeck

 

The paddle-steamer Queen of the Isles was alongside the quay at St. Mary's, and had already given one shrill intimation that she was prepared to leave the harbour. Sydney and I were ready, with our portmanteaux strapped and our caps on, but the Honourable John had not yet appeared. We were impatient. Very important was it that we should catch the mail out of Penzance that same evening, for the following morning we were all due in London. Any delay in our return would be taken from the holidays of the next batch, and we should never hear the last of it if we were late, to say nothing of the unfairness of reducing the well-earned rest of the next batch by our dilatoriness and lack of consideration. We had taken the precaution to settle the hotel accounts, because we knew the habits of the Honourable John, and we stood in the hall with the thunder gathering upon our brows, and threatening to peal forth in tones more loud than complimentary.

"If he isn't down in two minutes, Syd, I'm off," said I, pulling out my watch, and nervously noting the jerky springs of the spidery second-hand that seemed to be in a much greater hurry than usual.

"John!" bawled Syd up the stairway. "Do you hear? You'll miss the steamer."

"What's the fellow doing?" I asked, with irritation, as I observed that half a minute had passed.

"Waxing the ends of his ridiculous moustache," answered Syd; then, turning again to the foot of the stairs, "John! We're going. Hurry up!"

A door opened on the landing, and a voice drawled, "I say, you chaps, have you paid the bill?"

"Certainly," said I. "Come along. We've barely time to catch the steamer. Didn't you hear the whistle?"

"I heard something a little while ago, a sort of an ear-piercing shriek that startled me, and caused me to nick my chin with the razor. I shall have to put a bit of flesh-coloured plaster over it. Was that the whistle?" asked the Honourable John in the most tantalising, nonchalant way, as if he had all the day before him.

We looked up the stairway, and there he was on the landing, in his shirt-sleeves, slowly adjusting the ends of a salmon-coloured tie.

"The two minutes are up," said I, replacing my watch, and stooping for my portmanteau. At that moment the whistle sounded again, and I hurried away, followed by Syd, both of us muttering that the dawdler deserved to be left, but none the less hoping in our hearts that he would be in time.

The hotel was near the harbour, and we were soon aboard. On the bridge, between the paddle-boxes, the captain stood with the string attached to the syren in his hand; beside him, glancing at the compass-card, grasping the spokes of the wheel, and silently awaiting instructions, was one of the men; the mate was for'ard with his whistle; and two little knots of islanders were gathered about the moorings on the quay, ready to cast off the hawsers as soon as the paddles moved and the captain gave the word.

Loungers and holiday-makers were stirred into mild excitement by our expected departure. Exchanges of farewells, amid occasional shouts and a continuous ripple of laughter, were passing between those on board and those ashore. The usually quiet life of St. Mary's was bubbling up in its periodical agitation. By the outgoing and incoming of the steamer the islanders touched the great world without, and thrilled at the touch and felt its importance.

It was a pleasant scene, or it would have been but for the inexcusable delay of the Honourable John. We began to fear that he would be left. The captain pulled the string again, and the syren sounded, with a peculiar urgency, as it seemed to me, ending in a despairing wail; then, stepping to the indicator, he signalled to the engineer, and the paddles began to revolve. The forward hawser was thrown off and fell with a splash into the sea; astern we were yet alongside the quay.

The Honourable John appeared, resplendent in all the glory of a silk hat and frock coat, with a flower in his buttonhole, his hands gloved in lemon-coloured kids, and his feet shiny with patent leather; the people parted to let him pass, and stared at him as if he were a marquis at the very least, but the porter flung his portmanteau over the bulwarks like that of any other common tourist; John himself, with more agility than I gave him credit for, sprang aboard only just in time, as the men shouted "All clear aft, sir."

Once more we heard the click of the bells in the engine-room, and away we went through the clear waters, with the white foam mingling in our wake and the other islands gliding rapidly into view.

"You donkey!" said I, surveying the delinquent from head to foot, and noticing particularly the round spot of plaster on his chin. "Why didn't you come earlier?"

"Call him a parrakeet," said Syd. "That will better describe him."

"He's both," I replied—"slow as the one and gay as the other. But we've got him, and we'll see that he does not defraud young Clifton of a single minute of the holiday he's waiting for—ay, and well deserves."

"You're always in such a desperate hurry," observed the Honourable John, ignoring the epithets with which we assailed him. He was never offended, and never perturbed. When the vials of our wrath were poured upon him, as they had been pretty freely during the holiday, they ran off him like the proverbial water from the duck's back. We simply could not have endured his foppishness and dandyism, combined with a temper always serene, if we had not known that at heart he was a very good fellow. "I was in time," said he.

"You were," returned Syd significantly—"nearly in time to be late."

"But I wasn't late," drawled John, "so what's the good of making a fuss about it. One of the pleasures of life is to take things easily; as my friend the Irishman once remarked, 'If ye cannot be happy, be aisy; and if ye cannot be aisy, be as aisy as ye can.' But, I say, I don't call this a specially bright morning; do you? Look there! We're running into a bank of fog."

So we were. A dense white barrier, clean and straight as a wall, rose from the sea to the sky, and in another minute we had plunged into it. We did not anticipate so sudden a change. Fog was far from our thoughts, for the morning had been bright and sunny all around the islands, and the air was very still. For two or three days scarcely a breath of wind had wandered across the brilliant summer atmosphere. Now, with the fog, came a softly moving breeze out of the north-east. The fog drifted before it in one immense mass; there was no ripple upon the sea.

Upon the passengers the effect was very curious; where, a few moments before, there had been ready repartee, interspersed with laughter, now there was low-toned commonplace conversation, or a dead silence. We were wrapped in a cloud; moisture began to form in tiny drops upon the stanchions and the deck, upon the beards and moustaches of the male part of the voyagers, upon the woolly texture of the garments of all, even upon the smoothly brushed silk of the Honourable John's top hat; save for the swish of the paddles and the running of the engines, with a whispered exclamation here and there, we could hear nothing; and we could scarcely see the length of the ship.

It was the first bit of objectionable weather we had experienced during the holiday. We had spent a fortnight in the "Delectable Duchy." From Looe to Sennen we had not missed a single place worth seeing, and we had finished up with a week in the Scilly Isles. Making St. Mary's our centre, we had rowed and waded to St. Martin's and St. Agnes', to Tresco and Bryer and Samson and Annet, to Great Ganilly and Great Arthur, to Gweal and Illiswilgis, and a host of other places in that shattered and scattered heap of granite which forms the outstanding sentinel of our far western coast. The weather had been perfect. But now, having cleared the road and rounded St. Mary's, we were met by this thick mist, swaying down upon us like a vast curtain, and quickly enveloping us in its vapoury folds.

"You'll want a new topper, John, when we reach Penzance," said Syd, as he noted how the moisture was ruffling the silk and dimming its gloss. He laughed as he said it, but, in the silence, his laugh seemed to be an intrusion.

"You're mistaken, Syd," he replied; and, as he took off his hat and surveyed it, he continued, "In all weathers, there's no head gear so durable, and therefore so economical, as a good silk chimney-pot; and certainly there's nothing in the way of a chapeau so comfortable and becoming."

"Tastes differ," said I.

"They do," answered John, "and I speak about my own. I've tried others. Oh, yes, I have," said he, as we looked at him incredulously, "and I speak from experience. I tell you, they're cheap, if you will only give enough for them. Why, I know an old fellow who has worn the very same tile, in all weathers, for fifteen years; it has been in the height of fashion twice in that time, and it will soon come in again; and it is a very decent thing yet when it has been newly pressed and ironed."

"I prefer my deerstalker," said Syd.

"And I my golfer," said I.

"Which shows very plainly that your sartorial education has been neglected," returned John, "and I pity you. You are not living up to your privileges, and, worse still, you are unaware of the privileges you might live up to. But, I say, this is a sneezer!" and he looked about him into the fog, which was becoming denser every minute. "They're lessening the pace. I suppose it wouldn't do to drive along through this thick stuff. We might reach an unexpected terminus. What say you? Shall we go on the bridge?"

"The captain may not allow us," said I.

"Pooh! I know the cap. He's a forty-second cousin of mine. Come along. I'll introduce you now that we are out of the narrows and in the open sea."

"It seems to me as if the sea were shut," whispered Syd, as we followed the Honourable John to the bridge.

"Closed, at any rate," said I, "and with very moist curtains, through which we must push our way unpleasantly enough into the harbour."

We reached the upper deck, which was dotted with bulgy figures in cloaks and capes, damp, and silent, and melancholy. The bridge formed the forward part of the upper deck, where it terminated amidships; the helmsman, with his hands upon the spokes, shifted his eyes alternately between the binnacle and the bows, and gave the wheel a turn now this way and now that, while the captain paced cross-wise between the paddle-boxes, and searched the mirk above and ahead to see whether there was any likelihood that the weather would clear.

Abaft the funnel the deck was free to those of the passengers who held saloon tickets, but afore the funnel—that is, on the bridge itself—no one was allowed without the captain's special permission. This space was railed off, with a hinged lift in the mahogany on either side, both of which were now down and barred. We were not quite sure whether the captain were really the Honourable John's relative, or whether our comrade's proposal to join the captain was only one of those erratic notions which visited his aristocratic brain, and were often carried through with a confidence so complete as to be rarely unsuccessful. He was unmercifully snubbed sometimes, and he richly deserved it; but the curious thing about him was that the snubs were wasted. Where others would have retired crestfallen, the Honourable John held his head high and heeded not.

We were prepared to find that the forty-second cousinship was a fiction, and that the captain would quietly ignore him; but we were in the background, and it mattered very little to us; the deck would be as welcome as the bridge.

"Well, cousin cap.," said John familiarly, placing his hand upon the wet mahogany rail, "and how are you?"

"Hallo!" exclaimed the captain, facing round. "Where have you tumbled from?"

"Hughtown, St. Mary's, was the last bit of mother earth I touched before I sprang aboard the Queen of Paddlers. May we venture within your private domain?"

"Why, certainly, John," and he lifted the rail and beckoned us forward.

"Two chums of mine," said John, naming us, and then he named the captain as his respected cousin forty-two times removed. The captain smiled at him, shook his head, and observed that the relationship was a little closer than that, but a puzzle, nevertheless, to work out exactly.

"I must have missed you when you came aboard," said he, "and yet in your usual get-up I don't see how I could very well. You look as if you had just stepped out of a band-box, except for the dampness, of course."

"Oh, you were busy when I joined you," said John, evidently pleased with the captain's remarks about his appearance. "I had to jump for it. But you haven't answered my question. How are you?"

"Tol'able, thank'e. And your folks—how are they? I need not ask how you are," and, while John answered him, he placed camp-stools for us, and said to Syd and me, "Sit down, gentlemen; and excuse me if I address myself mainly to this eccentric cousin of mine, and, I am sure, your very good friend. I do not see him often, and he never will let me know when he is coming my way"—a statement which Syd and I could easily believe. For, with all John's faults, and he had many of them, he was one of the least obtrusive of men where hospitality came in, and one of the most reticent about himself and his own affairs; and we, who worked with him, knew him almost exclusively as a good fellow in the department, and a capital companion for a holiday.

The captain placed John's camp-stool on the starboard side of the binnacle. Their conversation was broken into snatches by the captain's movements. As he paced the bridge, backwards and forwards, he halted each time just for a moment when he came to where John had propped his back against the binnacle and tilted his stool at an angle that threatened collapse. Syd and I sat quite apart, and left them alone to their semi-private conversation. We noticed, however, that the captain appeared to be uneasy about the vessel's course and progress; he glanced more than once at the compass-card, and several times, in his perambulations, he lingered over the paddle-boxes, and intently watched the water as it slipped by. So that his conversation with the Honourable John became more fragmentary, and was more frequently interrupted the nearer we approached the land.

After some time the captain came to a sudden stand over the port paddle-box, and curved his left hand round his ear. For a minute or more he stood like a statue, perfectly motionless, and with his whole being absorbed in an effort to catch a faint and expected sound across the water. Satisfied with the effort, he stepped briskly to the indicator, and signalled to the engineer to increase the speed of the steamer.

"What is it, cap.?" asked John.

"The bell on the Runnel Stone," he replied. "Cannot you hear it?"

The captain's statuesque figure, intently listening, had been observed by the passengers, and there was a dead silence aboard, broken only by the thumping of the engines and the splash of the paddle-blades as they pounded the still waters. Presently the dreary clang of the bell, struck by the clapper as the sea rocked it, came to us in uncertain and fitful tones. It was a melancholy sound, but its effect was cheering, because it gave the people some idea of our whereabouts, and was an indication that we had crossed the intervening space between the islands and the mainland. We were making fair progress despite the fog, and should soon be ashore again.

A babble of talk began and ran the round of the passengers, breaking out among a group of younger people into a ripple of laughter. For a quarter of an hour this went on, then, to the amazement of all on board, the captain, after glancing anxiously at the compass-card, sternly called out "Silence!" Meanwhile the sound of the bell had become clearer, but was now growing less distinct; and, as the captain's order was instantly obeyed, we became aware of another sound—the breaking of the waves upon the shore.

For a moment the captain listened, straining his eyes at the same time to pierce the dense mist ahead; the man on the look-out, perched in the bows, who had been leaning forward with his hand shading his eyes, turned about with a startled gesture, throwing his arms aloft, and shouted to the captain that we were close in shore, and heading for it directly; the captain sprang to the indicator, and signalled for the reversal of the engines; but it was too late. With a thud that threw us all forward the steamer grounded.

Instantly all was confusion. Some lost their heads, and began to rush about wildly. A few screamed. Nearly every one became visibly paler. Syd and I started from our seats, and gazed bewilderedly at an expanse of yellow sand softly revealed beneath the mist, and stretching ahead and on either hand into the white moisture by which we were encompassed. John walked over to us apparently unmoved.

"Well, this is a go," said he.

Before we could reply, the captain bawled out his orders that all the passengers must retire to the after-part of the ship, and help, so far as their collected weight might do so, to raise the bows now sunk in the soft sand. He assured them that there was not the slightest danger; the vessel was uninjured; we were ashore on a yielding and shelving beach; and that, if they would remain perfectly quiet, and obey orders, he had some hope that he might get the vessel afloat again.

There was a general move aft, and although signs of distress, and even of terror, were not wanting on some faces, the people gathered quietly enough into one solid mass. We three stood on the outer edge of the company. Syd and I were considerably excited, but John was as calm as a man could be. With tremendous uproar the reversed paddles began to churn the shallow water, but not an inch did we move.

The captain stepped to the binnacle, and read the compass-card. A swift change passed over his face; in mingled surprise and anger he pointed within the binnacle, and began to question the man at the wheel; but he was more surprised than the captain—so utterly amazed, in fact, that he could not be angry, and only protested that he had kept the vessel true to the course which had been given him, and could not explain why the card had veered three to four points farther westward since the vessel had touched the ground. It was no use contending about the matter then. The paddles began to throw up the sand as well as the water, and the captain saw that the vessel would have to remain where she was until the next tide.

"We are fast, sure 'nough," sang out the captain. "You had better gather your traps together, and prepare to leave the vessel. There will be conveyances in the villages to take you to Penzance."

The company dispersed and scattered about the boat, merrily collecting their belongings now that they knew the worst, and that the worst was not very bad after all. We rejoined the captain.

"What's the name of this new port of discharge?" asked John.

"Not port, but Porth," answered the captain grimly, for it was no laughing matter to him. "Porth Curnow. And you may thank your stars that we have run clear in upon the sand, and not a few furlongs south or north, for then we should have been laid up either under Tol-Pedn or beneath the Logan Rock."

"I can follow your location admirably, cap.," said John. "We are eight or nine miles from Penzance—is not that so? Yes!" as the captain nodded gloomily; "and Porth Curnow is the place where the submarine telegraph chaps live. But, I say, why did you bring us here? We booked for Penzance."

"Goodness knows—I don't. Something's gone wrong with the compass. We were on the right course, and the compass was true until we grounded; then it swerved most unaccountably nearly four points to the westward, and there it remains."

"That's a curious freak, cap. You'll be interviewed by all the scientific folk in the kingdom, and I shouldn't wonder if you are not summoned to appear, and give evidence, before a select committee of the Royal Society. Four points out! Why, man, you're immortalised. I call it a most lucky deflection."

"Do you? I don't," growled the captain. "Others are welcome to the immortality. I prefer to do without, and steer by a compass that's true. And it has been true up to now."

"That's where it comes in," exclaimed John. "That's what makes it remarkable. If the compass hadn't been true, you would have gained nothing by this little adventure; but, as you say, it has been true, therefore—— Oh! dear, it takes a lot to satisfy some people. And you cannot account for it? Do you think the telegraph station has had anything to do with it—electricity, you know? Electricity is a queer thing, and plays pranks sometimes. No! Well, perhaps the hills are magnetic."

"Come, John, you're losing your head; and I have these people to see to," remarked the captain somewhat tartly.

"I believe I am," said John. "It's a habit I have, but I generally find it again. Well, cap., if you require any assistance in the unloading of the cargo, say the word, and here I am, your cousin to command"; and the captain was obliged to smile, notwithstanding the disaster—an effect which John had been trying for all the while.

"Your suggestion about the telegraph station has put a practical idea into my brain, and I am thankful for that, John. I'll sound the syren, and bring the fellows down. They'll be willing to help in a mess like this, anyhow; and, if there are not enough conveyances to run the people down to Penzance, they can wire for a few to fetch them"; and, pulling the cord, he sent the shriek of the syren through the mist in resounding and ear-splitting tones.

By this time, the passengers had all pressed forward into the bows, with the easily transferable part of their luggage about them. The water had receded, and left the bows clear; but it was too long a drop into the wet sand for any one to venture down without assistance. The ladies especially were looking wistfully over the bulwarks. We three went forward also, but we left our portmanteaux to take care of themselves.

Soon two young fellows dashed down the sands, halloing in answer to the syren, and stood with wondering eyes beneath the bows.

"Who are you?" shouted one of them.

"Scilly people," piped a shrill female voice from our midst.

"That we are—very," said John drily; at which, notwithstanding our plight, there was a general laugh.

The two were speedily increased to half a dozen, and these were joined by quite a group of farm-servants and villagers, attracted by the unwonted sound of a syren floating across their fields. Some of the latter, scenting substantial gain, ran off to harness their horses to such conveyances as they could command in readiness for the drive to Penzance, while the rest remained, having also a view to the needful, to act as porters and guides.

One of the men, by the captain's orders, came forward with a rope-ladder, fastened one end securely within the bulwarks, and threw the other over the side. It hung about four feet from the ground. Immediately the passengers swarmed about the head of the ladder, and, although there was no real danger, pushed and jostled each other in the attempt to secure an early descent. A few thoughtless young fellows were claiming the first chance when the Honourable John interfered.

"Here," said he, "ladies first, and one at a time," and he shouldered the too eager males aside. He took off his hat, turned to the crowd below, and, picking out a telegraph clerk, said, "Catch my tile, will you? And, mind, don't sit on it! It may collapse. Thank you!" as the man caught it cleverly, and smiled at the instructions. Then he slipped out of his frock-coat, and flung it aside; undid his cuff-links, and rolled up his sleeves; bowed to the nearest woman of the party, who happened to be a stout Scillonian in a peasant's dress, and said, "Ready! Allow me, madam." As he helped her to the top of the bulwarks, and down the rungs, he sang out, "Below there! Steady this lady down, and help her to the ground."

Syd and I handed up the other ladies, and the Honourable John, balanced upon the bulwarks, gallantly helped them down the ladder as far as his arms would reach, where they were taken in charge by the telegraph clerks, and landed upon the wet sand. The captain watched the proceedings from the bridge with an amused expression. Before long all the ladies were disposed of, and we left the men to scramble down as best they could. John picked up his coat, and I held it by the collar while he slipped his arms through the arm-holes and drew it on.

When he flung the coat aside I noticed a peculiarity of the collar as it fell and lay upon the ground. While the waist and all the lower part was limp, the collar preserved an unnatural stiffness—a stiffness that extended to the breast; this part stood up as if within it there were some invisible form. Several times as I turned to assist the lady whose turn came next I noticed this peculiarity; and when I held the collar to help the Honourable John into this fashionable frock-coat, there was a hardness about it which made me wonder whether his tailor had stitched into it several strips of buckram, or cleverly inserted beneath the collar, and down the breast, a piece of flexible whalebone. Whatever it was that gave this part of his coat its rigidity, I dismissed it from my mind with the thought that the Honourable John was a greater fop than either Syd or I supposed.

Bareheaded he went to bid his cousin good-bye. We also shook the captain's hand, and expressed our regret, with John, at the misfortune which had befallen him because of the deflection of the compass. We were the last to leave by the rope-ladder, handing down our portmanteaux before we descended ourselves; and the captain waved his hand to us from the bows before we vanished into the mist. The heavy luggage would have to wait until the steamer floated off with the next tide, and made her way round to Penzance; but negotiations had begun before we left for the conveyance of the mails in time to catch the up train, by which we also intended travelling to London.

John recovered his hat, and we pushed through the yielding shell beach, preceded by our improvised porters, to the broken ramparts of Treryn Dinas; these we climbed, and made our way across the fields to the village of Treryn; and here we hired a trap, which ran us into Penzance in time to discuss a good dinner before we started on our journey by rail.

We were well on the way to Plymouth, and I was reading a newspaper of the day before, when a curious paragraph caught my eye.

"Listen to this!" said I to the other two, and I read: "'It has frequently happened that ships have got out of their course at sea by some unaccountable means, and a warning just issued by the Admiralty may perhaps have some bearing on the matter. Their Lordships say that their attention has been called to the practice of seamen wearing steel stretchers in their caps, and to the danger which may result from these stretchers becoming strongly magnetised, and being worn by men close to the ship's compasses. Instances have been reported of compasses being considerably deflected in this manner, and their Lordships have now directed that the use of steel stretchers in caps is to be immediately discontinued.' I wonder if the deflection of the compass of the Queen of the Isles can be explained in a similar way. Possibly the helmsman may have been wearing one of these stretchers."

"Whew!" exclaimed the Honourable John, giving his knee a tremendous slap. "I have it. I must write to my cousin. It is my fault—my fault, entirely. But I never thought of it."

"Thought of what?" asked Syd.

"What do you mean?" inquired I.

"This——" and the Honourable John for once exhibited a rueful face. "You saw where the cap. placed me; and how I tilted my stool and leaned against the binnacle. Well, look here!" and he folded back the lappets of his coat, and showed us a narrow band of flat spring steel that passed under his collar and down either side to keep it from creasing and to help it to fit closely to his body. "That patent thing has done the mischief, without a doubt. Oh, what a fool I am! I might have sent the whole ship-load of us to Davy Jones. I'll forswear this fashionable toggery henceforth when I'm away on holiday, and follow the innocent example of sensible chaps like you."

We made no comment, but we both observed that our companion was singularly quiet all the way from Plymouth to London.