“But they won’t take excuses. You’re across the line, and that’s enough. They’ll take you. In you go, Siberia and the salt-mines. And as for Uncle Sam, why, what’s he to know about it? Never a word will get back to the States. ‘The Mary Thomas,’ the papers will say, ‘the Mary Thomas lost with all hands. Probably in a typhoon in the Japanese seas.’ That’s what the papers will say, and people, too. In you go, Siberia and the salt-mines. Dead to the world and kith and kin, though you live fifty years.”
In such manner John Lewis, commonly known as the “sea-lawyer,” settled the matter out of hand.
It was a serious moment in the forecastle of the Mary Thomas. No sooner had the watch below begun to talk the trouble over, than the watch on deck came down and joined them. As there was no wind, every hand could be spared with the exception of the man at the wheel, and he remained only for the sake of discipline. Even “Bub” Russell, the cabin-boy, had crept forward to hear what was going on.
However, it was a serious moment, as the grave faces of the sailors bore witness. For the three preceding months the Mary Thomas sealing schooner, had hunted the seal pack along the coast of Japan and north to Bering Sea. Here, on the Asiatic side of the sea, they were forced to give over the chase, or rather, to go no farther; for beyond, the Russian cruisers patrolled forbidden ground, where the seals might breed in peace.
A week before she had fallen into a heavy fog accompanied by calm. Since then the fog-bank had not lifted, and the only wind had been light airs and catspaws. This in itself was not so bad, for the sealing schooners are never in a hurry so long as they are in the midst of the seals; but the trouble lay in the fact that the current at this point bore heavily to the north. Thus the Mary Thomas had unwittingly drifted across the line, and every hour she was penetrating, unwillingly, farther and farther into the dangerous waters where the Russian bear kept guard.
How far she had drifted no man knew. The sun had not been visible for a week, nor the stars, and the captain had been unable to take observations in order to determine his position. At any moment a cruiser might swoop down and hale the crew away to Siberia. The fate of other poaching seal-hunters was too well known to the men of the Mary Thomas, and there was cause for grave faces.
“Mine friends,” spoke up a German boat-steerer, “it vas a pad piziness. Shust as ve make a big catch, und all honest, somedings go wrong, und der Russians nab us, dake our skins and our schooner, und send us mit der anarchists to Siberia. Ach! a pretty pad piziness!”
“Yes, that’s where it hurts,” the sea lawyer went on. “Fifteen hundred skins in the salt piles, and all honest, a big pay-day coming to every man Jack of us, and then to be captured and lose it all! It’d be different if we’d been poaching, but it’s all honest work in open water.”
“But if we haven’t done anything wrong, they can’t do anything to us, can they?” Bub queried.
“It strikes me as ‘ow it ain’t the proper thing for a boy o’ your age shovin’ in when ‘is elders is talkin’,” protested an English sailor, from over the edge of his bunk.
“Oh, that’s all right, Jack,” answered the sea-lawyer. “He’s a perfect right to. Ain’t he just as liable to lose his wages as the rest of us?”
“Wouldn’t give thruppence for them!” Jack sniffed back. He had been planning to go home and see his family in Chelsea when he was paid off, and he was now feeling rather blue over the highly possible loss, not only of his pay, but of his liberty.