On board the Rampatina liner, eleven days and a half out from Liverpool, the usual terrific sensation created by the appearance of the pilot-yacht prevailed. Necks were craned and toes were trodden on as the steamer slackened speed, and a line dexterously thrown by a blue-jerseyed deck-hand was caught by somebody aboard the yacht. The pilot, not insensible to the fact of his being a personage of note, carefully divested his bearded countenance of all expression as he saluted the Captain, and taking from the deck-steward’s obsequiously proffered salver a glass containing four-fingers of neat Bourbon whisky, concealed its contents about his person without perceptible emotion, and went up with the First Officer upon the upper bridge as the relieved skipper plunged below. The telegraphs clicked their message—the leviathan hulk of the liner quivered and began to forge slowly ahead, and an intelligent-looking, thin-lipped, badly-shaved young man in a bowler, tweeds, and striped necktie, introduced himself to the Second Officer as an emissary of the Press.
“Mr. Cyrus K. Pillson, New York Yeller.... Pleased to know you, sir,” said the Second Officer; “step into the smoke-room, this way. Bar-steward, a brandy cocktail for me, and you, sir, order whatever you are most in the habit of hoisting. Whisky straight! Now, sir, happy to afford you what information I can!”
“I presume,” observed the young gentleman of the Press, settling himself on the springy morocco cushions and accepting the Second Officer’s polite offer of a green Havana of the strongest kind, “that you have had a smooth passage, considerin’ the time of year?”
“Smooth....” The Second Officer carefully reversed in his reply the Pressman’s remark: “Well, yes, the time of year considered, a smooth passage, I take it, we have had.”
“No fogs?” interrogated the young gentleman, clicking the elastic band of a notebook which projected from his breast-pocket.
“Fogs?... No!” said the Second Officer.
“You didn’t chance,” pursued the young gentleman of the Press, taking his short drink from the steward’s salver and throwing it contemptuously down his throat, “to fall in with a berg off the Bank, did you?”
“Not a smell of one!” replied the Second Officer with decision.
“Ran into a derelict hencoop, perhaps?” persisted the young gentleman, concealing the worn sole of a wearied boot from the searching glare of the electric light by tucking it underneath him, “or an old lady’s bonnet-box? ... or a rubber doll some woman’s baby had lost overboard? No?” he echoed, as the Second Officer shook his head. “Then, how in thunder did you manage to lose twenty feet of your port-rail?”
“Carried away,” said the Second Officer, offering the young Press gentleman a light.
“No, thanks. Always eat mine,” said the young Press gentleman gracefully.
“Matter of taste,” observed the Second Officer, blowing blue rings.
“I guess so; and I’ve a taste for knowing how you came,” said the young Pressman, “to part with that twenty foot of rail.”
“Carried away,” said the Second Officer.
“I kin see that,” retorted the visitor.
“It was carried away,” said the Second Officer, “by an elephant.”
“A pet you had running about aboard?” queried the Pressman, with imperturbable coolness.
“A passenger,” returned the Second Officer, with equal calm.
There was a snap, and the Pressman’s notebook was open on his knee. The pencil vibrated over the virgin page, when a curious utterance, between a wail, a cough, and a roar, made the hand that held it start.
“Yarr-rr! Ohowgh! Yarr!” The melancholy sound came from without, borne on the cool breeze of a late afternoon in March, through the open ventilators.
“Might that,” queried the young gentleman of the Press, “be an expression of opinion on the part of the elephant?”
“Lord love you, no!” said the Second Officer. “It’s the leopard.” He added after a second’s pause: “Or the puma.”
“Do you happen to have a menagerie aboard?” inquired the Pressman, making a note in shorthand.
“No, sir. The beasts—elephants, leopards, and a box of cobras—are invoiced from the London Docks to a wealthy amateur in New York State. Not an iron king, or a corn king, or a cotton king, or a pickle king, or a kerosene king,” said the Second Officer, with a steady upper lip, “but a chewing-gum king.”
“If you mean Shadland C. McOster,” said the Pressman, “my mother is his cousin. They used to chew gum together in school recess, sir, little guessing that Shad would one day soar, on wings made of that article, to the realms of gilded plutocracy.”
“I rather imagine the name you mention to be the right one,” said the Second Officer cautiously, “but I won’t commit myself. The beasts shipped from Liverpool are intended as a present for the purchaser’s infant daughter on her fifth birthday.”
“Yarr-rr! Ohowgh! Ohowgh!” Again the coughing roar vibrated through the smoke-room. Then the chorus of “Hail Columbia!” rose from the promenade deck, where the lady passengers were assembled ready to wave starred and striped silk pocket-handkerchiefs and exchange patriotic sentiments at the first glimpse of land.
“It’s not what I should call a humly voice, that of the leopard,” observed the Pressman, controlling a slight shiver.
“Children have queer tastes,” said the Second Officer. “And it’s as well Old Spots is lively, as Bingo’s dead.”
“Bingo?” queried the Pressman.
“Bingo was the elephant,” said the Second Officer, passing the palm of his brown right hand over his upper lip as the Pressman made a few rapid notes. “And if the particulars of the deathbed scene are likely to be of any interest to you—why, you’re welcome to ’em!”
“You’re white!” said the Pressman warmly, licking his pencil. “What did your elephant die of?”
“Seasickness!” said the Second Officer calmly.
“I’ve seen a few things worth seeing—myself,” said the Pressman enviously, “but not a seasick elephant.”
“With a professional lady-nurse in attendance,” said the Second Officer; “all complete from stem to stern, in her print gown, white apron, fly-away cap-rigging, and ward shoes.”
The Pressman grunted, but not from lack of interest. Doubled up in the corner of the smoke-room divan, his notebook balanced on his bulging shirt-front, he made furious notes. The Second Officer waited until the pencil seemed hungry, and then fed it with a little more information.
“When that girl came aboard at Liverpool with her mackintosh and holdall and little black shiny bag,” he went on, “I just noticed her in a passing sort of way as a fresh-colored, tidy-looking young woman, rather plump in the bows, and with an air as though she meant to get her full money’s worth out of her eleven-pound fare. But our cheap tariff had filled the passenger-lists fairly full, and I’d a long score of things to attend to. A special derrick had had to be rigged to sling the elephant’s cage aboard, and a capital one it was, of sound Indian teak strengthened with steel—must have cost a mint of money. We stowed it, after a lot of sweat and swearing, on the promenade deck, abaft the funnels, bolting it to rings specially screwed in the deck, passing a wire hawser across the top, which was made fast to the port and starboard davits, and rigging weather-screens of double tarpaulin to keep Bingo warm and dry.