The Captain of the Kansas Part 20

"Did we get up steam with it?"

"There might have been a hundred-weight or two lying loose in the stoke-hold, but, for all practical purposes, we have used nothing but the Valparaiso bunker since we left port."

"The rest of our coal was shipped at Coronel?"

"Yes, sir."

"You hear? It is exactly as I have told you," said Courtenay, glancing at the others. "I must explain to you, Mr. Boyle, that I wished you to state the facts in front of witnesses before I gave you my reasons for cross-examining you on the matter. Mr. Walker and I have been certain, all along, that the furnaces were blown up wilfully. Now our suspicions are proved. This morning, after a careful scrutiny, we came across a number of lumps of coal cleverly constructed out of small pieces glued together. In the center of each lump was a stick of dynamite, protected by an asbestos wrapper. It was undoubtedly the intent of some miscreant that a number of these lumps should be fed into the furnaces. This actually occurred, as we know, but, by the mercy of Providence, the ship did not experience the full power of the explosion, or she must have sunk like a stone."

"Huh," grunted Boyle. "Who holds the insurance?"

"The shippers of the cargo, of course--Messrs. Baring, Thompson & Miguel."

"Worth a quarter of a million sterling, ain't it?"

"Yes."

"Huh, it's a lot of money."

There was a momentary silence. Elsie's eyes grew larger, and she became rather pale. As was her habit when puzzled, she placed a finger on her lips. Christobal noted her action. Indeed, he missed few of her characteristic habits or expressions. He laughed quietly.

"I think you are quite right, Miss Maxwell," he said. "This is one of the many instances in which silence is golden."

Taken by surprise, she blushed and dropped her hand. But Courtenay said promptly:

"There are some instances in which silence may be misinterpreted. Let me state at once that the shippers of the valuable cargo on board the _Kansas_ will suffer a serious financial reverse if the ship is lost.

Two thousand tons of copper may be worth a considerable fixed sum, but the lack of the metal on the London market at the end of January will have far-reaching consequences in a fight against the bull clique in Paris, and that is why Mr. Baring made this heavy shipment."

"Those consequences could be foreseen and discounted," put in Tollemache, dryly.

"Exactly. But by whom? By the man who sent his only daughter as a pa.s.senger on this vessel?"

Every one scouted that notion. But Tollemache, though disavowing any thought of Mr. Baring as a party to the scheme, stuck to his guns.

"Somebody will make a pile when the _Kansas_ is reported missing," he said.

"The insurance money would not be paid for a long time," Courtenay explained.

"No, but the copper market will respond instantly."

"Then the process has commenced already. The _Kansas_ should have been reported yesterday from Sandy Point. The news that she has not arrived will soon reach the nearest cable station. There will be terrific excitement at Lloyd's when that becomes known."

"It is distinctly odd that Suarez should turn up last night, and tell us how gold slipped through his fingers five years ago. Let us hope the parallel will hold good for the gentleman who so amiably endeavored to send the _Kansas_ to the bottom of the Pacific," said Christobal.

"It is rather a rotten trick," broke in Tollemache, "just a bit of Spanish roguery-- Well, I'm sorry, Christobal, but I can't regard you as quite a Spaniard, you see."

"Nevertheless, I am one," and the doctor stiffened visibly.

"What Tollemache means is that he would expect you to take the English and straightforward view of a piece of rascality, doctor." Then Courtenay paused in his turn. "By the way," he continued, with the frowning dubiety of one whose thoughts outstrip his words, "does any one here know a man named Ventana?"

"It is a name common enough in Chile," said Christobal.

"If you mean Senor Pedro Ventana, who is a.s.sociated with Mr. Baring in mining matters, I am acquainted with him," said Elsie. The men seemed to have forgotten her presence. They were wrapped up in the remarkable discovery which Courtenay himself had made by diligent search among the coal ready for use in the furnaces when the explosion took place.

For no reason in particular, save the unexpectedness of it, Elsie's statement was received with surprise. They all looked at her, and some of them wondered, perhaps, why her smiling eyes had lost their mirth.

Yet there was nothing unreasonable in the mere fact that a certain Chilean named Ventana, who had business relations with Mr. Baring, should make the acquaintance of Isobel Baring's friend. As quickly as it had arisen, the feeling of strangeness pa.s.sed.

Courtenay even laughed. Elsie as the Jonah of the ship was a quaint conceit.

"I mentioned Ventana because I was told he took some part of the insurance on his own account," he explained. "But he was a member of Baring's copper syndicate, and, indeed, was spoken of as a mining engineer of high repute. Believe me, I was not jumping to conclusions on that account."

"I know him to be a very bad man," said Elsie, slowly. Her face was white and her eyes downcast. It was evident that the sudden introduction of Ventana's personality was distressing to her, but Courtenay, preoccupied with the dastardly attempt made to sink his ship, did not observe this feature of a peculiar discussion.

"Bad! In what sense, Miss Maxwell?" he asked unguardedly.

"In the most loathsome sense. He is evil-minded, vicious, altogether detestable. If Mr. Baring knew his character as I know it, Ventana would not be allowed to enter his office."

"Pedro Ventana?" interrupted Christobal. "Is he a half-caste, a tall, brown-skinned man, who affects an American drawl when he speaks English--a man prominent in Santiago society and in mining circles generally?"

"Yes," said Elsie.

"That is odd, exceedingly so. I once heard a rumor--but perhaps it is unfair to mention it in this connection. Yet it cannot hurt any one if I state that Isobel Baring and he were--well--how shall I put it?--at any rate, there was a lively summer-hotel sort of attachment between them."

"Isobel has never told me that," said Elsie, nerving herself for a personal disclosure which was obviously disagreeable. "I own a small ranch near Quillota, and, as there was a chance of copper being located there, Mr. Baring advised me to employ Ventana as an expert prospector.

Indeed, Mr. Baring himself sent Ventana to examine the property and report on it. He came to see me. He told me there were no minerals of value on my land, but I could never free myself from him afterwards.

Indeed, I am running away from him now."

She uttered the concluding words with a genuine indignation which forthwith evaporated in its unconscious humor. Everybody laughed, even the girl herself, and Boyle grunted:

"Huh, shows the beggar's good taste, anyhow."

Courtenay, perhaps, thought that if he encountered Ventana again he would take the opportunity to reason with him in the approved manner of the high seas. And, as there was no need to prolong a topic which caused Elsie any sort of embarra.s.sment, he hastened to say:

"I have brought names into the discussion largely to show what a doubtful field is opened once we begin to suspect without real cause.

The only witness of any value we have on board is Frascuelo, and his evidence merely goes to prove a secret design to interfere with, or control, the tr.i.m.m.i.n.g of the bunker. That particular hatch must be sealed, and the specimens we have secured put away under lock and key.

I feel a.s.sured that the remainder of our coal is above suspicion. We can carry the inquiry no further while we remain here. Now, Mr.

Walker, you have something of a more cheering nature to communicate, I think."

The engineer grinned genially.

"I don't wish to bind myself to a day or so, Miss Maxwell and gentlemen," he said, "but I've had a good look at the damage, an' I feel pwitty shu-aw I'll get up steam in one boil-aw within ten days or a fawt-night. It'll be a makeshift job at the best, because I have so few spa-aw fittin's, an' no chance of makin' a castin', but I'll bet a ye'aw's scwew the _Kansas_ gets a move on her undaw her own steam soon aftaw New Ye-aw's Day."

New Year's Day! What a lump in the throat the words brought. In three days it would be Christmas, in seven more the New Year! Though, from the beginning of the voyage, they were prepared to pa.s.s both festivals at sea, there was all the difference in the world between a steady progress towards home and friends and the present plight of the _Kansas_. Death, too, had thrown its shadow over them. Some there were to whom the pa.s.sing of the years would mean no more in this world.

Others, the great majority of the ship's company, were probably hidden by the same eternal silence; the last sight they had of them was a dim vision of boats rushing into a chaos of angry seas and sheeted spray.

But Courtenay would have none of these mournful memories. He had solved the mystery of the ship's breakdown, and an expert mechanical engineer had just pledged his reputation to restore wings to the _Kansas_--somewhat clipped wings, it is true, but sufficient, given fair weather and reasonable good fortune, to bring her to a civilized settlement in the Straits. Why, then, should they yield to gloom?

"Isn't that glorious news?" he cried. "Now, Christobal, that motor trip in June through the Pyrenees looks feasible once more. And you, Miss Maxwell, though you have never quailed for an instant, can hope to be in England in the spring. As for you, Tollemache, surely you will say that our prospects are 'fair,' at the least."

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