The Captain of the Kansas Part 4

"That is the present arrangement. She means to have a good time, especially in Paris. I should like to live in Paris myself. Dear old smoke-laden London does not appeal so thoroughly to the artist. Yet, I am content--yes, quite content."

"Then you have gained the best thing in the world," cried the doctor, throwing out his arms expansively.

The two became good friends as the voyage progressed. Christobal was exceedingly well informed, and delighted in a thoughtful listener like Elsie. Isobel, tiring at times of the Count, would join in their conversation, and display a spasmodic interest in the topics they discussed. There were only six other pa.s.sengers, a Baptist missionary and his wife, three mining engineers, and an English globe-trotter, a singular being who appeared to have roamed the entire earth, but whose experiences were summed up in two words--every place he had seen was either "Fair" or "Rotten."

Even Isobel failed to draw him further, and she said one day, in a temper, after a spirited attempt to extract some of his stored impressions: "The man reminds me of one of those dummy books you see occasionally, bound in calf and labeled 'Gazetteer of the World.' When you try to open a volume you find that it is made of wood."

So they nicknamed him "Mr. Wood," and Elsie once inadvertently addressed him by the name.

"What do you think of the weather, Mr. Wood?" she asked him at breakfast.

He chanced to notice that she was speaking to him.

"Rotten," he said.

Perhaps he wondered why Miss Maxwell flushed and the others laughed.

But, in actual fact, he was not far wrong in his curious choice of an adjective that morning. Dr. Christobal's dismal foreboding had been justified on the second day out. Leaden clouds, a sullen sea, and occasional puffs of a stinging breeze from the southwest, offered a sorry exchange for the sunny skies of Chile.

Though the _Kansas_ was not a fast ship, she could have made the entrance to the Straits on the evening of the fourth day were not Captain Courtenay wishful to navigate the most dangerous part of the narrows by daylight. His intent, therefore, was to pick up the Evangelistas light about midnight, and then crack ahead at fourteen knots, so as to be off Felix Point on Desolation Island by dawn.

This was not only a prudent and seamanlike course but it would conduce to the comfort of the pa.s.sengers. The ship was now running into a stiff gale. Each hour the sea became heavier, and even the eight thousand tons of the _Kansas_ felt the impact of the giant rollers on her starboard bow. Dinner, therefore, promised to be a meal of much discomfort, cheered only by the knowledge that as soon as the vessel reached the lee of Desolation Island the giant waves of the Pacific would lose their power, and all on board would enjoy a quiet night's rest.

There were no absentees at the table. Dr. Christobal strove to enliven the others with the promise of peace ere many hours had pa.s.sed.

"Pay no heed to those fellows!" he cried, as the ship quivered under the blow of a heavy sea, and they heard the thud of many tons of water breaking over the bows and fore hatch, while the defeated monster washed the tightly screwed ports with a venomous swish. "They cannot harm us now. Let us rather thank kindly Providence which provided Magellan's water-way; think what it would mean were we compelled to weather the Cape."

"I am beginning to catch on to the reasonableness of that toast of yours, doctor," said one of the mining engineers, a young American. "I happen to be a tee-totaler, but I don't mind opening a bottle of the best for the general welfare when we shove our nose past the Cape of the large number of young and unprotected females."

Christobal raised his hand.

"All in good time," he said. "Never halloo for the prairie until you are clear of the forest. If the wind remains in its present quarter, we are fortunate. Should it happen to veer round to the eastward, and you see the rocks of Tierra del Fuego lashed by the choppy sea that can run even through a land-locked channel, you will be ready to open two bottles as a thanks-offering. Is this your first trip round by the south?"

"Yes, I crossed by way of Panama. Guess a mule-track over the Sierras is a heap better than the Pacific in a gale. Jee-whizz!"

A spiteful sea sprang at the _Kansas_ and shook her from stem to stern.

The ship groaned and creaked as though she were in pain; she staggered an instant, and then swung irresistibly forward with a fierce plunge that made the plates dance and cutlery rattle in the fiddles.

"I suppose we must endure five hours of this," said Elsie, bravely.

"I don't like it. Why does not Captain Courtenay, or even Mr. Boyle, put in an appearance? I have hardly seen either of them since the day I came aboard."

Isobel was petulant, and perhaps a little frightened. She had not yet reached that stage of confidence familiar to all who cross the open seas. The first period of a gale is terrifying. Later there comes an indifference born of supreme trust in the ship. The steady onward thrust of the engines--the unwavering path across the raging vortex of tumbling gray waters--the orderly way in which the members of the crew follow their duties--these are quietly persistent factors in the gradual soothing of the nerves. Many a timid pa.s.senger, after lying awake through a night of terror, has gone to sleep when the watch began to swab the deck overhead. Not even a Spartan sailor would begin to wash woodwork if the ship were sinking.

"All ladies like to see an officer in the saloon during a storm,"

commented Christobal. "I plead guilty to a weakness in that direction myself, though I know he is much better employed on the bridge."

"The captain cannot be on the bridge always," said Isobel.

"He is seldom far from it in bad weather, if he is faithful to his trust. And I fancy we would all admit that Captain Courtenay--"

A curious shock, sharper and altogether more penetrating than the Thor's hammer blow of a huge wave, sounded loud and menacing in their ears. The ship trembled violently, and then became strangely still.

The least experienced traveler on board knew that the engines had stopped. They felt a long lurch to port when the next sea climbed over the bows; at once the _Kansas_ righted herself and rode on even keel, while the stress and turmoil of her fight against wind and wave pa.s.sed away into a sustained silence.

The half-caste stewards glanced at each other and drew together in whispering groups, but the chief steward, an Englishman, who had turned to leave the saloon, changed his mind and uttered a low growl of command which sent his subordinates' attention, if not their thoughts, back to their work. In the strained hush, the running along the deck of men in heavy sea-boots was painfully audible. Water could be heard pouring through the scuppers. Steam was rushing forth somewhere with vehement bl.u.s.ter. These sounds only accentuated the extraordinary truce in the fight of ship against sea. The _Kansas_ was stricken dumb, if not dead.

"Something has gone wrong," said Elsie in a low voice.

Doctor Christobal nodded carelessly.

"A burst steam-pipe, probably. Such things will happen at times. We are hove to for the moment."

He traded on the ignorance of his hearers. The chief steward heard his explanation and looked at him fixedly. Christobal caught the glance.

"I suppose we shall lose an hour or so now?" he asked.

"Yes, sir. It will be all right by the time you have finished dinner."

The meal drew to its close without much further talk. The American engineer was the first to rise, but the chief steward whispered in his ear; he returned to the table.

"Say," he said calmly, "we can't quit yet. The companion-hatch is closed. We must remain here a bit."

"Do you mean that we are battened down?" demanded Isobel, shrilly, and her face lost some of its beauty in an ashen pallor.

"Something of the sort, Miss Baring. Anyway, we can't go on deck."

"But--I insist on being told what is the matter."

The American knew little of ships, but he knew a great deal about mines, and, in a mine, if an accident happens, the man in charge cannot desert his post to give information to those who are anxious for it.

So he replied laconically:

"Guess the captain will tell us all about it after a while, Miss Baring."

"Que diable! I feel like the rat in the trap," said Count Edouard, suppressed excitement rendering his English less fluent.

At another time the phrase would have sent a ripple of amus.e.m.e.nt through that cheery company. Now, no one smiled. They knew too well what he meant to pay heed to the mere form of his words. No matter how large or sumptuously equipped the trap, the point of view of the rat was new to them.

CHAPTER III

WHEREIN THE CAPTAIN REAPPEARS

The fierce hissing of the continuous escape of steam excited alarm in those not accustomed to machinery. Men and women share the unreasoning panic of animals when an unknown force reveals its pent-up fury. They forget that safety-valves are provided, that diminished pressure means less risk; the knowledge that restraint, not freedom, is dangerous comes ever in the guise of a new discovery.

The mining engineers, of course, did not share this delusion.

"There must be something serious the matter, or they would not be wasting power like that," murmured the American to one of his fellow-professionals.

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