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ASSIGNATS

by Henry Leverage

Author of "The Iron Dollar."

WHEN Ivan with the long surname walked down the beach at Novgorod he found three men. These men were sitting on their haunches staring out over the Japan Sea. Ivan spoke to them in English.

"I have a ship," he said.

The first man glanced at the second; the second stared at the third. They rose from their haunches and wrapped their rags around gaunt limbs.

"A ship in this accursed port?" asked one.

"A bloody lie!" exclaimed a second castaway.

"Ah hae me doots," rasped a third derelict.

"It is a fact, gentlemen," said Ivan with the long surname. "The ship is loading between here and Vladivostok. She wants but a master, a mate and an engineer."

The three men grew sad. They had been broken on the rack of peace. They had come ashore at Novgorod in a leaking sampan. The government of Japan was at that moment interested in their whereabouts.

"Our papers were lost in a great storm at sea," said the leader of the trio, whom men called "Micky" McMasters. "You mind the vast simoom?"

Ivan, the Russian, spread out his hands. His great spade-shaped beard fluttered in the warm Japanese breeze. He thumped a be-medaled chest.

"Come with me!" he said. "Papers or no papers—it is you three who shall take the Shongpong out across the sea."

"He talks like a poet writes," whispered "Red" Landyard, a Yankee mate, to Mike Monkey, the Scotch engineer.

"Ah hae noo doot he's read a wee bit. How otherwise would he know we were on the beach at Novgorod? There is a price on our heads."

Micky McMasters edged the big Russian away from his whispering companions.

"This ship," asked the little skipper, "this boat you 'ave loading between 'ere and Vladivostok—what flag does she fly?"

"Her home flag is Chinese. Her crew are loyal Russians. Her cargo, now going aboard, is caravan tea. This tea must be taken to America where Victoria on the Island of Vancouver is. Do you know the route?"

Micky felt his heart thump like a mallet inside a cask. He had sweated and toiled and starved on the mud flats of Novgorod. He sensed the coming of a bitter Winter. And here was a hard-eyed Russian offering him and his mates a ship for the Pacific broadside, where white men walked and roses bloomed and shirts could be worn.

"I've steamed and sailed, man and boy," he explained, "going on thirty years. I'm 'Umber born—at Great Grimsby on the North. Sea. My mate, the tall man with the red face, is an American out of New Bedford. My first engineer came from Tyneside—where they build good ships. We take no back-slack from nobody. Show me your ship, says I, and I'll work 'er across the Japan Sea and east by the line to Victoria."

"That is settled," said Ivan Alexandrovski. "You may come with me."

Micky McMasters gathered the tattered collar of his dungaree coat around his unshaven neck.

"One more question before it becomes a contract," he said suspiciously. "Are you loyal Russian or are you Bolshevik?"

Ivan with the long surname smiled blandly. He stroked his straggling beard. He stared down at the little castaway.

"Loyal Russian," he said. "I have a home in Vladivostok—where Allied troops are guarding."

Micky turned, jerked his head toward his mates who stood shivering in their rags, and shouted:

"The contract's signed! A fair thing for all of us. We work the Shongpong across the western Pacific."

"Ye arranged about terms?" asked Mike Monkey, siding up to the skipper and glancing at the Russian.

"Terms?"

"Bonuses and wages?"

"We'll leave that to our noble friend."

Mike gulped and spat to the mud flat.

"Last time Ah left that," he said, "Ah had nothing coming to me when Ah went ashore."

The Russian drew himself erect.

"The scale of wages," he declared, "shall be, for you three officers, one thousand rubles a week—paid at Victoria."

"How much is a ruble?" asked Mike.

"Two shillin'," hissed the cockney skipper.

"Twa shillin'? That make a hundred pun a week! Ah hae noa doot it'll be well earned before the end of the passage."

"Where's the ship?" asked Red Landyard. "Show me the Shongpong!"

The Russian led the way up the beach. Two hours stiff walking brought the castaways to a cove in which lay a rusty tramp flying the Chinese flag and swarming with coolies—like ants on a cockroach.

Mike Monkey stared at the boxes which the coolies were carrying aboard the ship.

"Tay!" he spat. "Aya, it may be tay and it may be something else. Them ain't Chinese marks on the sides."

"Russian!" explained Ivan. "Come with me aboard my ship. You can see the boxes are marked with Russian letters."

Micky McMasters jabbed the engineer, in the ribs as they trailed up a shaky gangplank and sprang from the Shongpong's unpolished rail at die waist.

"Be careful!" he warned. "Don't ask no bloomin' questions. Wait till we cross the Sea o' Japan!"

Mike gulped. He eyed the decrepit back-stays and standing rigging of the tramp. He ranged a fluttering glance along the dirty planks of the freighter. He shifted his tongue in his mouth as h...

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