Was the wreck worth more than we supposed? A sudden heat was kindled in my brain; the bids were nearing Longhurst's limit of five thousand; another minute, and all would be too late. Tearing a leaf from my sketch-book, and inspired (I suppose) by vanity in my own powers of inference and observation, I took the one mad decision of my life. "If you care to go ahead," I wrote, "I'm in for all I'm worth."
Jim read and looked round at me like one bewildered; then his eyes lightened, and turning again to the auctioneer, he bid, "Five thousand one hundred dollars."
"And fifty," said monotonous Bellairs.
Presently Pinkerton scribbled, "What can it be?" and I answered, still on paper: "I can't imagine; but there's something. Watch Bellairs; he'll go up to the ten thousand, see if he don't."
And he did, and we followed. Long before this, word had gone abroad that there was battle royal: we were surrounded by a crowd that looked on wondering; and when Pinkerton had offered ten thousand dollars (the outside value of the cargo, even were it safe in San Francisco Bay) and Bellairs, smirking from ear to ear to be the centre of so much attention, had jerked out his answering, "And fifty," wonder deepened to excitement.
"Ten thousand one hundred," said Jim; and even as he spoke he made a sudden gesture with his hand, his face changed, and I could see that he had guessed, or thought that he had guessed, the mystery. As he scrawled another memorandum in his note- book, his hand shook like a telegraph-operator's.
"Chinese ship," ran the legend; and then, in big, tremulous half-text, and with a flourish that overran the margin, "Opium!"
To be sure! thought I: this must be the secret. I knew that scarce a ship came in from any Chinese port, but she carried somewhere, behind a bulkhead, or in some cunning hollow of the beams, a nest of the valuable poison. Doubtless there was some such treasure on the Flying Scud. How much was it worth? We knew not, we were gambling in the dark; but Trent knew, and Bellairs; and we could only watch and judge.
By this time neither Pinkerton nor I were of sound mind. Pinkerton was beside himself, his eyes like lamps. I shook in every member. To any stranger entering (say) in the course of the fifteenth thousand, we should probably have cut a poorer figure than Bellairs himself. But we did not pause; and the crowd watched us, now in silence, now with a buzz of whispers.
Seventeen thousand had been reached, when Douglas B. Longhurst, forcing his way into the opposite row of faces, conspicuously and repeatedly shook his head at Jim. Jim's answer was a note of two words: "My racket!" which, when the great man had perused, he shook his finger warningly and departed, I thought, with a sorrowful countenance.
Although Mr. Longhurst knew nothing of Bellairs, the shady lawyer knew all about the Wrecker Boss. He had seen him enter the ring with manifest expectation; he saw him depart, and the bids continue, with manifest surprise and disappointment. "Hullo," he plainly thought, "this is not the ring I'm fighting, then?" And he determined to put on a spurt.
"Eighteen thousand," said he.
"And fifty," said Jim, taking a leaf out of his adversary's book.
"Twenty thousand," from Bellairs.
"And fifty," from Jim, with a little nervous titter.
And with one consent they returned to the old pace, only now it was Bellairs who took the hundreds, and Jim who did the fifty business. But by this time our idea had gone abroad. I could hear the word "opium" pass from mouth to mouth; and by the looks directed at us, I could see we were supposed to have some private information. And here an incident occurred highly typical of San Francisco. Close at my back there had stood for some time a stout, middle-aged gentleman, with pleasant eyes, hair pleasantly grizzled, and a ruddy, pleasing face. All of a sudden he appeared as a third competitor, skied the Flying Scud with four fat bids of a thousand dollars each, and then as suddenly fled the field, remaining thenceforth (as before) a silent, interested spectator.
Ever since Mr. Longhurst's useless intervention, Bellairs had seemed uneasy; and at this new attack, he began (in his turn) to scribble a note between the bids. I imagined naturally enough that it would go to Captain Trent; but when it was done, and the writer turned and looked behind him in the crowd, to my unspeakable amazement, he did not seem to remark the captain's presence.
"Messenger boy, messenger boy!" I heard him say. "Somebody call me a messenger boy."
At last somebody did, but it was not the captain.
"He's sending for instructions," I wrote to Pinkerton.