On a bright, still morning in October, the Doraine sailed from a South American port and turned her glistening nose to the northeast. All told, there were some seven hundred and fifty souls on board; and there were stores that filled her holds from end to end,—grain, foodstuffs, metals, chemicals, rubber and certain sinister things of war. Her passenger list contained the names of men who had achieved distinction in world affairs,—in finance, in business, in diplomacy, in war, besides that less subtle pursuit, adventure: men from both hemispheres, from all continents. It was a cosmopolitan company that sailed out to sea that placid day, bound for a port six thousand miles away.
Her departure, heavy-laden, from this South American port was properly recorded in the then secret annals of a great nation; the world at large, however, was none the wiser. For those were the days when sly undersea monsters of German descent were prowling about the oceans, taking toll of humanity and breeding the curse that was to abide with their progenitors forever.
Down through the estuary and into the spreading bay slid the big steamer; abreast the curving coast-line she drove her way for leagues and leagues, and then swept boldly into the vast Atlantic desert.
Four hundred years ago and more, Amerigo Vespucci had sailed this unknown southern sea in his doughty caravel; he had wallowed and rocked for months over a course that the Doraine was asked to cover in the wink of an eye by comparison. Up from the south he had come in an age when the seas he sailed were no less strange than the land he touched from time to time; the blue waste of sky and sea as boundless then as now; the west wind drift as sure and unfailing; the waves as savage or as mild; the star by which he laid his course as far away and immutable,—but he came in 1501 and his ship was alone in the trackless ocean.
The mighty Doraine was not alone; she sailed a sea whose every foot was charted, whose every depth was sounded. She sailed in an age of Titans, while the caravel was a frolicksome pygmy, dancing to the music of a thousand winds, buffeted today, becalmed tomorrow, but always a snail on the face of the waters. Four hundred years ago Vespucci and his men were lost in the wilderness of waves. Out of touch with the world were they for months,—aye, even years,—and no man knew whither they sailed nor whence they came, for those were the days when the seven seas kept their secrets better than they keep them now.
Into the path traversed by the lowly caravel steamed the towering Doraine, pointing her gleaming nose to the north and east.
She was never seen again.
Out from the lairs of the great American navy sped the swiftest hounds of the ocean. They swept the face of the waters with a thousand sleepless eyes; they called with the strange, mysterious voice that carries a thousand miles; they raked the sea as with a fine-tooth comb; they searched the coast of a continent; they penetrated its rivers, circled its islands, scanned its rocks and reefs,—and asked a single question that had but one reply from every ship that sailed the southern sea.
For months ships of all nations searched for the missing steamer. Not so much as the smallest piece of wreckage rewarded the ceaseless quest. The great vessel, with all its precious cargo, had slipped into its niche among the profoundest mysteries of the sea. Came the day, therefore, when the Secretary of the Navy wrote down against her name the ugly sentence: "Lost with all on board."
Maritime courts issued their decrees; legatees parcelled estates, great and small; insurance companies paid in hard cash for the lives that were lost, and went blandly about their business; more than one widow reconsidered her thoughts of self-denial; and ships again sailed the course of Amerigo Vespucci without a thought of the Doraine....