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The Sea Wolf 138







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The Sea Wolf




all," I remarked. "All the work was in the preparation." "And all the wonder in the completion," Maud added. "I can scarcely bring myself to realize that that great mast is really up and in; that you have lifted it from the water, swung it through the air, and deposited it here where it belongs. It is a Titans task." "And they made themselves many inventions," I began merrily, then paused to sniff the air. I looked hastily at the lantern. It was not smoking. Again I sniffed. "Something is burning," Maud said, with sudden conviction. We sprang together for the ladder, but I raced past her to the deck. A dense volume of smoke was pouring out of the steerage companion-way. "The Wolf is not yet dead," I muttered to myself as I sprang down through the smoke. It was so thick in the confined space that I was compelled to feel my way; and so potent was the spell of Wolf Larsen on my imagination, I was quite prepared for the helpless giant to grip my neck in a strangle hold. I hesitated, the desire to race back and up the steps to the deck almost overpowering me. Then I recollected Maud. The vision of her, as I had last seen her, in the lantern light of the schooners hold, her brown eyes warm and moist with joy, flashed before me, and I knew that I could not go back. I was choking and suffocating by the time I reached Wolf Larsens bunk. I reached my hand and felt for his. He was lying motionless, but moved slightly at the touch of my hand. I felt over and under his blankets. There was no warmth, no sign of fire. Yet that smoke which blinded me and made me cough and gasp must have a source. I lost my head temporarily and dashed frantically about the steerage. A collision with the table partially knocked the wind from my body and brought me to myself. I reasoned that a helpless man could start a fire only near to where he lay. I returned to Wolf Larsens bunk. There I encountered Maud. How long she had been there in that suffocating atmosphere I could not guess. "Go up on deck!" I commanded peremptorily. "But, Humphrey--" she began to protest in a queer, husky voice. "Please! please!" I shouted at her harshly. She drew away obediently, and then I thought, What if she cannot find the steps? I started after her, to stop at the foot of the companion-way. Perhaps she had gone up. As I stood there, hesitant, I heard her cry softly: "Oh, Humphrey, I am lost." I found her fumbling at the wall of the after bulkhead, and, half leading her, half carrying her, I took her up the companion-way. The pure air was like nectar. Maud was only faint and dizzy, and I left her lying on the deck when I took my second plunge below. The source of the smoke must be very close to Wolf Larsen--my mind was made up to this, and I went straight to his bunk. As I felt about among his blankets, something hot fell on the back of my hand. It burned me, and I jerked my hand away. Then I understood. Through the cracks in the bottom of the upper bunk he had set fire to the mattress. He still retained sufficient use of his left arm to do this. The damp straw of the mattress, fired from beneath and denied air, had been smouldering all the while. As I dragged the mattress out of the bunk it seemed to disintegrate in mid-air, at the same time bursting into flames. I beat out the burning remnants of straw in the bunk, then made a dash for the deck for fresh air. Several buckets of water sufficed to put out the burning mattress in the middle of the steerage floor; and ten minutes later, when the smoke had fairly cleared, I allowed Maud to come below. Wolf Larsen was unconscious, but it was a matter of minutes for the fresh air to restore him. We were working over him, however, when he signed for paper and pencil. "Pray do not interrupt me," he wrote. "I am smiling." "I am still a bit of the ferment, you see," he wrote a little later. "I am glad you are as small a bit

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