Here was candor undiluted. Elsie was speaking without heat. She might have been reasoning some disputed point in ethics. The Spaniard was obviously thrown off his guard.
"You seem to demand an explanation," he said with some warmth. "Well, you shall have it. I am not a man to flinch from the disagreeable. I admit a sort of impression, I might almost describe it as a conviction, that Captain Courtenay's manner towards you betokens a growing admiration."
"This is the wildest folly," cried Elsie in bewilderment. "I--I cannot imagine what put such a notion into your head."
"Let me at least lay claim to a species of altruism," he replied. "I can see fifty excellent reasons why our young and good-looking commander should be drawn to you, nor can I urge one against it."
"But he is already engaged to another woman, so my one reason is worth more than all your fifty."
"Ah, can that really be so?"
The tense eagerness in his voice might have warned her, were it not that she was shocked by the bitterness which welled up in her heart.
She was amazed by this introspective glimpse; it alarmed her; she must convince herself, at all costs, that she had spoken truly.
Although the evidence she tendered was of dubious value, she strove to advance her argument further.
"I have prized our friendship greatly, Dr. Christobal," she said, speaking with a calm deliberateness that rang hollow in her own ears, "so greatly that I am compelled to utter this protest. Now, to end a distasteful controversy, let me tell you what I know to be true. When the ship was stranded, and we all thought our only chance of safety was to take to the boats, by a fluke, the accident of the moment, I was left alone in the captain's cabin. The sea was breaking in through the doorway, and it brought an odd relief to my over-burthened mind when I endeavored to rescue the contents of a locker which, for some reason, had been scattered on the floor previously. Among them I found some letters. I think you will believe me when I say that I would not consciously read another person's private correspondence. Just then, I was hardly responsible for my actions, and I did happen to see and grasp the meaning of a pa.s.sage in a letter from Captain Courtenay's sister which alluded to his affianced wife. It is not such a tragic admission, is it? I would scarce have given it another thought were it not for your manner this morning and your words last night. I paid no heed at the time to the innuendo that I had come on deck to find him--to waylay him, as I have heard men say when speaking of a type of woman I despise. So I resolved to straighten out a stupid little tangle. It would be ridiculous, in our present state of suspended animation, to let such a slight thing mar our friendship."
Elsie, was indulging in that most delusive thing, self-persuasion. It was not surprising, therefore, that she failed to note the unmixed satisfaction with which Christobal listened.
"Am I forgiven, then?" he asked, with a new tenderness in his voice.
"Oh, yes, let us laugh at it."
"Please let us talk of something more useful. I have a little plan, and you might ask the captain if he approves of it. We have plenty of strong canvas; what do you say if I set to work and cover in the promenade deck, fore and aft as well as on both sides? Then, if the Indians try to seize the ship, they would not be able to gain a lodgment at so many points simultaneously. It would simplify the defense, so to speak."
"Admirable! I am sure Courtenay will agree. Indeed, I am ashamed that we superior males failed to hit on the idea earlier. Before I go, let me be certain that my forgiveness is complete?"
"Shall we quarrel about a degree of blessedness? I a.s.sure you I like you more than ever. When all is said and done, you thought I was flinging myself at our excellent captain's head, so you tried to spare me the pangs of unrequited love." The words hurt, but she did not flinch. Christobal, anxious to deceive himself, was radiant.
"Your charity goes too far," he cried. "That was not the exact reason.
No, my dear Miss Maxwell, I begin to exercise a new-born discretion. I shall not elucidate that cryptic remark until after New Year's Day.
But I don't mind telling you why I have hit on a definite date. If all goes well with us--and we have had so many escapes that Providence may well send us a few more--the _Kansas_ should steam out of our little bay of Good Hope about that period. Then I shall remind you of our discussion, and keep my promise."
With that he left her. After a gasp or two of surprise, for Elsie could read only one meaning into his words, she hurried up the bridge companion to arouse Mr. Boyle and ask what he would like for luncheon.
"Thank goodness, Joey," she murmured to the dog, whom she picked up in her arms, "thank goodness, Mr. Boyle is neither an engaged man nor a widower. I do believe our excellent doctor is more concerned on his own account than on mine. And he said that your master's manner 'betokened a growing admiration.' I wish--no, Joey, I mean nothing of the sort, and if you dare to hint at such a thing I shall be very angry with you--very--angry--indeed."
"Huh," muttered Boyle, wide awake and watching her through the open door, "some one has been worryin' that girl. It's a sure sign of trouble when a woman whispers in the ear of a dog or cat. Now, who can it be? That doctor chap? He c.o.c.ked his eye at her this mornin' when she spoke about Ventana. He's a pretty tough old bird to think about settin' up house with a nice young jenny wren. d.a.m.n his eyes! he may be as rich as a Jew, but if she doesn't want him, an' is too skeered to say so, I 'll tell him, in the right sort of Spanish, an' all. Now, had it been the skipper--"
Boyle hardly knew what to think--"had it been the skipper."
The captain was enthusiastic when he heard of Elsie's idea for the protection of the main deck--"an excellent notion," he termed it, but he scouted the suggestion that she should undertake the work herself.
"You little know what hauling taut heavy canvas means," he said when they met at lunch. "It would tear the skin off your hands. No, Miss Maxwell, we can put our Chileans on to that job. I have something better for you to do. Can you map?"
"I have copied heaps of plans for my father," she told him.
"Excellent! At noon to-day I took an observation, so I intend to devote an hour to revising the chart. Will you help? Joey is in the scheme already. Then the Admiralty will gracefully acknowledge the survey supplied by Miss Elsie Maxwell, Captain Arthur Courtenay, and Joey, otherwise known as 'the pup.'"
His allusion to the dog by name recalled "Jose the Wine-bag," but Elsie thought she would retain that tiny sc.r.a.p of detective information for the present. So she simply said:
"You will explain to me my part of the undertaking, of course?"
"Certainly. You must first correct the Index Error. Then you subtract the Dip and the Refraction in Alt.i.tude, take the sun's semi-diameter from the Nautical Almanac, and add the Parallax. Do you follow me?"
"Perfectly; it sounds the easiest thing. But I don't wish to hear the remarks of the Admiralty when they see the result."
"I am interested in navigation, to the slight extent possible to a mere yachtsman: may I join you?" interposed Christobal.
"Oh, yes," said the captain off-handedly.
Elsie repressed the smile on her lips. Did the worthy doctor fear developments if this harmless map-making progressed in his absence?
She imagined, too, that Courtenay's acquiesence in Christobal's desire to be present was not wholly in accordance with his innermost wish.
She promptly crushed that dangerous fancy. The captain was only seeking for some excuse to take her away from the rough work of rigging the extra awnings. How odd that the other thought should have cropped up first!
"You still think the _Kansas_ will win clear of her difficulties?" she said rather hurriedly. "I am sorry to bring King Charles's head into the conversation, but, after all, the ship's safety is essential to your survey."
"Every hour strengthens my opinion," was the confident reply. "Suarez says that there is a reasonable chance of occasional brief spells of fine weather at this period of the year. At any rate, the gale may not be absolutely continuous, and Walker is a.s.sured that he can patch up the engines for half speed. Given a calm day, a day like this, for instance, we can reach the Straits in a few hours."
"And the Indians?"
"I leave them out of my reckoning. What else can I do?"
"Kill 'em," said Tollemache.
Courtenay glanced sharply at his fellow-countryman. He disliked these references to the Alaculof bogy in Elsie's presence. It was enough that it should exist without being constantly paraded. Though the girl herself was the culprit, Tollemache should have left the topic alone.
But Tollemache was a man of fixed ideas. The device of canvas shields to repel boarders had set him thinking how much more effective it would be if the savages were kept at a distance. He well knew that they would not be deterred by a shotgun and a few revolvers, once they had made up their minds to carry the ship by a.s.sault. To explain himself, he was compelled to speak at some length, and his swarthy face flushed under the unusual strain.
"We have dynamite aboard," he said. "Why not construct a couple of infernal machines which could be fired by pulling a string, and let them drift towards the canoes when the Indians are near enough?"
"It is worth trying," was Courtenay's brief comment, though he saw later that Tollemache's suggestion was a very useful one.
Elsie's first task was to prepare a large-scale drawing of the southern part of Hanover Island, as set forth in Admiralty Chart No. 1837 (Sheet 2, Patagonia), which is the only trustworthy record available for shipmasters using the outer pa.s.sage between the Gulf of Penas and the Straits of Magellan. It was a simple matter to fill in the few contours given. The neighboring small islands were shown in reasonable detail, but the whole western coast of Hanover Island itself consisted of a dotted line and a solitary peak, Stokes Mountain, the height of which could be estimated and its position triangulated from the sea.
Even Concepcion Straits on the north and the San Blas Channel on the south were marked in those significant dotted lines. The coast was practically unknown to civilized man. One of the last fortresses of the world, grim, inhospitable, it guarded its secret recesses with crag and glacier and reef-strewn sea.
It was borne in on the girl, while she worked, that the chiefest marvel in her present condition was the triumph of science over nature in its most hostile mood. The _Kansas_ boasted all the comforts and luxuries of a well-equipped hotel. Seated at the same table as herself was a skilful sailor, using logarithms, secants and cosecants, polar distances and hour angles, as if he were in some university cla.s.s-room.
Near the door, enjoying the warm sun, Boyle was stretched on a deck-chair, while Christobal was offering a half-hearted protest against his patient's manifest enjoyment of the first cigar he had been able to smoke since a Chilean knife disturbed certain sensory nerves between his shoulder-blades. The every sociableness of the gathering was a paradox: the truth lay with the ice-capped hills and the ape-like nomads who infested the humid forests of the lower slopes.
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