Barely a minute had elapsed since they were in the throes of a struggle which promised to be the last act of a tragedy. The ship was then over-run by a horde of howling savages, maddened by the desperate resistance offered by the defenders, and ruthless as wolves in their l.u.s.t for destruction. Now, the _Kansas_ was clear of every bedaubed Alaculof, save the many who c.u.mbered the decks, either dead or so seriously wounded that they could not move. These men were so near akin to animals, that this condition implied ultimate collapse save in a few instances of fractured skulls and broken limbs. From the final stage of a hopeless butchery the survivors of the ship's company were suddenly transferred to a position of reasonable security. It was not that the arrival of the ship's boats meant such an accession of fighting strength that the Alaculofs could not have made sure of victory. Gray and his companions were badly armed. The Indians remaining in the canoes could have pelted them to shreds in a few minutes. Even those on the ship had the power to resist any attempt by the newcomers to gain the decks. But the superst.i.tious savages had already screwed themselves up to an act of unusual daring in delivering a night attack, and the appearance of boats filled with men of whose fighting qualities they had already such a lively experience quite demoralized them. They fled without attempting a counter a.s.sault.
Just as negroes conjure up white demons, so did these nude Alaculofs regard with awe men who wore clothes. They were ready to kill and eat the strange beings of another race who, few in numbers and ill armed, wandered into their rock-pent fastness, but it was quite a different thing to face them in equal combat.
At last the sounds of conflict died away. The black waters closed over the dead; the last swimmer vanished into the silence. The spasmodic barking of the dog, the groaning of men lying on the decks and the shouts exchanged between Courtenay and Gray for the guidance of the boats, were the only remaining symbols of the fiercest crisis which had yet befallen the _Kansas_.
Elsie, wandering through a trance-like maze of vivid impressions, awoke with a start to the fact that Courtenay was giving directions for the lowering of the ship's gangway, meanwhile receiving information as to the ident.i.ty of the boats beneath.
"Mr. Malcolm is in charge of the jolly-boat," Gray was saying. "Miss Baring and Mr. and Mrs. Somerville are with him. Miss Baring's maid is dead. Senor Jerrera is in my boat, Number 2. We have been on White Horse Island all this time, but we have seen nothing of the other life-boat."
That meant that two boats out of those which quitted the ship had arrived thus opportunely. Senor Jerrera was the Spanish mining engineer who had been hustled into one of the craft manned by the mutineers. And Isobel was actually sitting down there in the darkness a few feet away. How wonderful it all was! Elsie thought her heart would never cease its labored throbbing. Even yet her breath came in little gasps. How could the captain and Gray talk so coolly, as if some of the pa.s.sengers and crew were returning on board the ship after an evening ash.o.r.e? It was the bedizened savages who now a.s.sumed reality: the simple orders which dealt with the clearing of the falls and the lowering of a ladder became wildly fantastic.
And Christobal was saying:
"Well, Miss Maxwell, you and I can look forward to a busy night. The ship is littered with wounded men, and our newly arrived friends must be worn with fatigue."
His smooth, even sentences helped to dispel the stupor of amazement which had made her dumb. And the first reasoned thought which came to her was that the Spanish doctor had treated her with the kindness of an indulgent parent, for Elsie was far too unselfish not to be alive to the unselfishness of others.
"How good you have been to me!" she murmured. "I can never repay you.
I remember now that I said dreadful things to you in the saloon. But you did not know what it meant to me when I realized that Captain Courtenay might be falling even then beneath the blows of those merciless savages. I have not had a chance to tell you that he has asked me to be his wife, and I have consented. I love him more than all the world. And you, Dr. Christobal, you who knew my father and mother, who have grown-up daughters of your own, you will wish me happiness?"
It was not easy to bear when it came, although he had guessed the truth already. But he choked back the wrath and despair which surged up in him, and said with his stately courtesy:
"I do wish you well, Elsie. No man can hope more earnestly than I that you have made the better choice."
Then he turned, with a certain abruptness which reminded her of the change in his manner she had noticed once or twice during recent days, and quitted the bridge. She sighed, and was sorry for him, knowing that he loved her.
Courtenay, who had been far too busy to pay heed to anything beyond the brief fight between the boats and the canoes, perceived now that the gangway was in position; lights were shining on both the upper and lower platforms.
He stretched out his hand, and drew Elsie to him.
"Are you alone, sweetheart?" he asked.
"Kiss me, then, and go to meet your friends. They will be aboard in less than a minute. Oh, Elsie, I thought I had seen the last of you."
"Was it so bad as that?" she murmured, a great content soothing her heart and brain at her lover's admission that he was thinking of her during the worst agony of the fray. He gave her a rea.s.suring hug.
"You will never know how bad it was," he said. "I cannot understand how we escaped. One moment it all looks like blind chance; the next I feel like going on my knees in thankfulness for the direct intervention of Providence. Those brutes ought to have mastered us a dozen times.
I almost lost faith when I heard Tollemache shout that the saloon was in danger, but I could not leave the after deck, where four of us were keeping fifty in check. The least sign of yielding would have caused an overwhelming rush. Well, all's well that ends well. And not a sailor living can squeeze his best girl and do his work at the same time. Off with you, or I shall never bring you on a voyage in my ship again."
With her soul singing a canticle of joy she pa.s.sed from the bridge to the lower deck. Mr. Boyle was waiting there, holding a lantern.
"Huh!" he growled, when he saw her, "p'raps you'll believe what I tell you before your hair turns gray, if not sooner. Luck! Did any man ever have such luck as the skipper? Why, if he fell off Mong Blong he'd find a circus net rigged up to catch him."
"I agree with you so fully, Mr. Boyle," she whispered, "that I am going to marry him."
"I guessed as much," he answered. "At any rate I fancied it wouldn't be for want of axing on his part." He whirled off into a tempest of wrath because a sailor beneath had failed to keep a guide-rope taut.
The occupants of the boats might have saved his life, but he would let them know that he was still chief officer for all that.
At last he stooped and gave his hand to some one who emerged from the darkness beneath.
"Glad to see you again, Miss Baring," he said gruffly. "And you, Mrs.
Somerville. And you, sir," to the missionary. "We thought you'd gone under, an' good folks are scarce enough as it is."
It was a wan and broken-spirited Isobel whom Elsie led to her cabin, but notwithstanding her wretched state, her eyes quickly took in the orderly condition of the room.
"I left my clothes strewed all over the floor," she said, with a nervousness which Elsie attributed to the hardships she had undergone.
"Why did you trouble to pack them away?"
Then Elsie told her of her hunt for the poudriere, and was so obviously unconcerned about any incident other than the adventures they had both experienced since they parted, that Isobel questioned her no further.
A bath and a change of clothing worked marvels. Though thin and weak for want of proper food, neither Isobel nor Mrs. Somerville had suffered in health from the exposure and short fare involved by life on the island. It was broad daylight ere they could be persuaded to retire to rest, there was so much to tell and to hear.
Meanwhile, the meeting between Tollemache and Gray was full of racial subtleties.
Tollemache, stepping forward to grasp Gray's hand, felt it was inc.u.mbent on him to utter the first word.
"Had a pretty rotten time of it, I expect?" said he.
"Poisonous. And you?"
"Oh, fair. Beastly close squeak when you turned up."
Gray became more explicit when Courtenay met him in the chart-room, where the table had to be cleared of debris before some gla.s.ses and a couple of bottles of champagne could be staged.
"When those blackguards cast off from the ship," he said, "we scudded away in a sort of ocean mill-race which threatened to upset us at any moment. In fact, we gave up hope for a time, but, as the boat kept afloat, Mr. Malcolm and I managed to stir up the Chileans, and we got them to steady her with the oars. Some time before daybreak we ran into smooth water, and made out land on the port bow. In a few minutes we were ash.o.r.e on a pebbly beach, in a place alive with seals. When the sun rose we found we were on a barren island, and, what was more, that one of the ship's life-boats had been upset on a reef which we just missed, and had lost all her stores, though the men had scrambled into safety. With the aid of our boat, and helped by fine weather, we raised the life-boat, and recovered some of her fittings. The water-casks and tins of food were hauled up by a chap who could dive well. We have been on that lump of rock until today, when I finally persuaded the others that unless we made for the land which we could see in the dim distance the weather would break and our food give out.
The trouble with the Chileans was that they were afraid of the natives hereabouts, and preferred to wait on the off chance of a ship showing up. At last they saw that Malcolm and I were right, but we missed the full run of the tide, and were some miles from the mainland, or whatever it is, when night fell. We pushed along cautiously, found the entrance to the cove we had made out before the light failed, and were about to lay to until dawn, when we saw a rocket and heard the fog-horn. That woke us up, you bet. The Chileans pulled like mad, but when we came near enough to discover that the ship was being attacked by Indians, I had a fearful job to get my heroes to b.u.t.t in. That fellow Gomez is a brick. He orated like a politician, and finally they got a move on. From what I have seen since I came aboard, I guess you were hustling about that time?"
"Yes," said Courtenay, filling a gla.s.s with wine as he heard Boyle's step without. He handed the gla.s.s to the chief when he entered.
"How many?" he asked.
"Huh! We've slung fifty-three Indians an' six of the crew overboard.
There's fourteen wounded natives an' five of our men in the doctor's hands. Two Alaculofs died of funk when they set eyes on the n.i.g.g.e.r who turned up in the life-boat. They thought--well, here's chin chin to everybody. I'm thirsty."
"By the way, what of Monsieur de Poincilit?" said Courtenay. "I saw him come aboard with Malcolm, but he dived into the saloon, and has not reappeared. Is he ill?"
Gray's mouth set like a steel trap; his eyes had a glint in them. He seemed to be unwilling to speak; when words came, they were cold and measured.
"I haven't any use for that fellow," he said. "I suppose the unpleasant story must be told sooner or later, so here goes. In the first place, Poincilit forgot that I understood Spanish, and I heard him yelping to the Chileans in the jolly-boat that if we took any more people on board we should be swamped. It was he who put the notion in their heads to cast off while you were lowering Miss Baring's maid into my arms. I tried to forget that, as he was blue-white with fear, and some fellows are not responsible for their actions when their liver melts. But I can never forget his action on the island. Yesterday morning I was just in time to stop him and four others from sneaking off in the life-boat with all our provisions."
Courtenay's face hardened too.
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