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Mutual Exchange, Limited
by [?]

CHAPTER I.

Millionaire though he was, Mr Markham (nee Markheim) never let a small opportunity slip. To be sure the enforced idleness of Atlantic crossing bored him and kept him restless; it affected him with malaise to think that for these five days, while the solitude of ocean swallowed him, men on either shore, with cables at their command, were using them to get rich on their own account–it might even be at his expense. The first day out from New York he had spent in his cabin, immersed in correspondence. Having dealt with this and exhausted it, on the second, third, and fourth days he found nothing to do. He never played cards; he eschewed all acquaintance with his fellow men except in the way of business; he had no vanity, and to be stared at on the promenade deck because of the fame of his wealth merely annoyed him. On the other hand, he had not the smallest excuse to lock himself up in his stuffy state-room. He enjoyed fresh air, and had never been sea-sick in his life.

It was just habit–the habit of never letting a chance go, or the detail of a chance–that on the fourth morning carried him the length of the liner, to engage in talk with the fresh-coloured young third officer busy on the high deck forward.

‘A young man, exposed as you are, ought to insure himself,’ said Mr Markham.

The third officer–by name Dick Rendal–knew something of the inquisitiveness and idle ways of passengers. This was his fifth trip in the Carnatic. He took no truck in passengers beyond showing them the patient politeness enjoined by the Company’s rules. He knew nothing of Mr Markham, who dispensed with the services of a valet and dressed with a shabbiness only pardonable in the extremely rich. Mr Markham, ‘the Insurance King,’ had arrayed himself this morning in gray flannel, with a reach-me-down overcoat, cloth cap, and carpet slippers that betrayed his flat, Jewish instep. Dick Rendal sized him up for an insurance tout; but behaved precisely as he would have behaved on better information. He refrained from ordering the intruder aft; but eyed him less than amiably–being young, keen on his ship, and just now keen on his job.

‘I saw you yesterday,’ said Mr Markham. (It had blown more than half a gale, and late in the afternoon three heavy seas had come aboard. The third officer at this moment was employed with half a dozen seamen in repairing damages.) ‘I was watching. As I judged, it was the nicest miss you weren’t overboard. Over and above employers’ liability you should insure. The Hands Across Mutual Exchange– that’s your office.’

Mr Markham leaned back, and put a hand up to his inner breast-pocket–it is uncertain whether for his cigar-case, or for some leaflet relating to the Hands Across.

‘Take care, sir!’ said the third officer sharply. ‘That stanchion–‘

He called too late. The hand as it touched the breast-pocket, shot up and clawed at the air. With a voice that was less a cry than a startled grunt, Mr Markham pitched backwards off the fore-deck into the sea.

The third officer stared for just a fraction of a second; ran, seized a life-belt as the liner’s length went shooting past; and hurled it– with pretty good aim, too–almost before a man of his working party had time to raise the cry of ‘Man overboard!’ Before the alarm reached the bridge, he had kicked off his shoes; and the last sound in his ears as he dived was the ping of the bell ringing down to the engine-room–a thin note, infinitely distant, speaking out of an immense silence.

CHAPTER II.

It was a beautifully clean dive; but in the flurry of the plunge the third officer forgot for an instant the right upward slant of the palms, and went a great way deeper than he had intended. By the time he rose to the surface the liner had slid by, and for a moment or two he saw nothing; for instinctively he came up facing aft, towards the spot where Mr Markham had fallen, and the long sea running after yesterday’s gale threw up a ridge that seemed to take minutes–though in fact it took but a few seconds–to sink and heave up the trough beyond. By-and-by a life-belt swam up into sight; then another–at least a dozen had been flung; and beyond these at length, on the climbing crest of the swell two hundred yards away, the head and shoulders of Mr Markham. By great good luck the first life-belt had fallen within a few feet of him, and Mr Markham had somehow managed to get within reach and clutch it–a highly creditable feat when it is considered that he was at best a poor swimmer, that the fall had knocked more than half the breath out of his body, that he had swallowed close on a pint of salt water, and that a heavy overcoat impeded his movements. But after this fair first effort Mr Markham, as his clothes weighed him down, began–as the phrase is–to make very bad weather of it. He made worse and worse weather of it as Dick Rendal covered the distance between them with a superlatively fine side-stroke, once or twice singing out to him to hold on, and keep a good heart. Mr Markham, whether he heard or no, held on with great courage, and even coolness–up to a point. Then of a sudden his nerve deserted him. He loosed his hold of the life-belt, and struck out for his Rescuer. Worse, as he sank in the effort and Dick gripped him, he closed and struggled. For half a minute Dick, shaking free of the embrace–and this only by striking him on the jaw and half stunning him as they rose on the crest of a swell–was able to grip him by the collar and drag him within reach of the life-belt. But here the demented man managed to wreathe his legs and arms in another and more terrible hold. The pair of them were now cursing horribly, cursing whenever a wave left choking them, and allowed them to cough and sputter for breath. They fought as two men whose lives had pent up an unmitigable hate for this moment. They fought, neither losing his hold, as their strength ebbed, and the weight of their clothes dragged them lower. Dick Rendal’s hand still clutched the cord of the life-belt, but both bodies were under water, fast locked, when the liner’s boat at length reached the spot. They were hauled on board, as on a long line you haul a fish with a crab fastened upon him; and were laid in the stern-sheets, where their grip was with some difficulty loosened.