"A smash-up in the engine-room. Nada es mas seguro,"  was the answer.
"Wonder if any one is hurt?"
The Spaniard bent a little nearer. "What can you expect?" he whispered sympathetically.
In the unnatural peacefulness of the ship's progress, disturbed only by the roar of the superheated vapor, they all heard the opening of a door at the head of the saloon stairway. The third officer appeared--his wet oilskins gleaming and dripping.
"Dr. Christobal, the captain wishes to speak to you," he said.
Christobal rose and crossed the saloon.
"As you are here, won't you tell the ladies there is nothing to be afraid of in the mere stopping of the engines?" he suggested.
"Oh, the ship is right enough," was the hasty response. "There has been an accident in the stokehold. That is all."
"Want any help?" demanded the American.
"Well--I'll ask the captain."
Evidently anxious to avoid further questioning, he ran up the companion. Christobal followed, the door was closed and bolted again.
"I hate the word 'accident.' It covers so many horrid possibilities,"
"I am afraid some poor fellows have been injured, and that is why Captain Courtenay sent for Dr. Christobal," said Elsie.
"Oh, of course, I meant that. I was not thinking of the mere delay, though it is annoying that a breakdown should occur here."
"It would be equally bad anywhere else," put in the missionary's wife, timidly.
"By no means," was the sharp response. "If we were in the Straits, for instance, we could signal to San Isidro or Sandy Point; and there would be other vessels pa.s.sing. Here, we are in the worst possible place."
Miss Baring's acquaintance with the chief features of the South American coast-line had seemingly improved. To all appearance, she alone among the pa.s.sengers, now that Christobal was gone, realized vaguely the perilous plight of the _Kansas_. The fact was that even a girl of her apparently frivolous disposition could not avoid the influences of environment.
In a maritime community like that of Valparaiso there was every reason to know and dread the rock-bound coast which fringed the southern path towards civilization. Strange, half-forgotten stories of the terrors which await a disabled ship caught in a southwesterly gale on the Pacific side of Tierra del Fuego rose dimly in her mind. And the advancing darkness did not tend towards cheerfulness. In her new track, the _Kansas_ had turned her back on the murky light which penetrated the storm-clouds towards the west. Unhinged by the external gloom and the prevalent uncertainty, and finding that no one cared to dispute with her, Isobel felt that a scream or two would be a relief.
For once, pride was helpful--it saved her from hysteria.
The curious sense of waiting, they knew not for what, which dulled the thoughts and stilled the tongues of the small company at the table, soon communicated itself to the stewards. The men stood in little knots, exchanging few words, and those mostly meaningless; but the chief steward, whose trained ear caught the regular beat of the donkey-engine, woke them up with a series of sharp orders.
"Switch on the lights," he said loudly. "Clear the table and hurry up with the coffee. Get a move on those fellows, Gomez. Have you never before been in a ship when the screw stopped?"
The Gomez thus appealed to was the Englishman's second-in-command; he acted as interpreter when anything out of the common was required. He muttered a few words in the Hispano-Indian patois which his hearers best understood, and the scene in the saloon changed with wondrous suddenness. The glow of the electric lamps banished the gathering shadows. The luxurious comfort of the apartment soon dispelled the notion of danger. Coffee was brought. The smoking saloon was inaccessible, owing to the closing of the gangway, but the chief steward suggested that the gentlemen might smoke if the ladies were agreeable. Under such circ.u.mstances the ladies always are agreeable, and the instant result was a distinct rise in the social barometer.
The noise of the steam exhaust ceased as abruptly as it began. The ship was riding easily in spite of the heavy sea. Drifting with wind and wave is a simple thing for a big vessel. There is no struggle, no tearing asunder of resisting forces. Thus might a boat caught in the pitiless current of Niagara glide towards the brink of the cataract with cunning smoothness.
And then, while the occupants of the saloon were endeavoring to persuade each other that all was well, the loud wail of the siren thrilled them with increased foreboding. It was not the warning note of a fog, nor the sharp course-signal for the guidance of a pa.s.sing ship, but a sustained trumpeting, which announced to any steamer hidden in the darkening waste of waters that the _Kansas_ was not under control. It was a wild, sinister appeal for help, the voice of the disabled vessel proclaiming her need; and the answer seemed to come in a fiercer shriek of the gale, while the added fury of the blast brought a curling sea over the p.o.o.p. The _Kansas_ staggered and shook herself clear. The wave smashed its way onward; several iron stanchions snapped with reports like pistol-shots, and there was an intolerable rending of woodwork. But, whatever the damage, the powerful hull rose triumphantly from the clutch of its a.s.sailant. Shattered streams of water poured off the decks like so many cascades. Loud above the splash of these miniature cataracts vibrated the tense boom of the fog-horn.
It was a nerve-racking moment. It demanded the leadership of a strong man, and there are few gatherings in Anglo-Saxondom which cannot produce a Caesar when required.
"Say," shouted the American, his clear voice dominating the turmoil, "that gave us a shower-bath. If we could just stand outside and see ourselves, we should look like an illuminated fountain."
That was the right note--belief in the ship, contempt of the darkness and the gale. The crisis pa.s.sed.
"There really cannot be a heavy sea," said Elsie, cheerfully inaccurate. "Otherwise we should be pitching or rolling, perhaps both, whereas we are actually far more steady than when dinner commenced."
"I find these lulls in the storm most trying," complained Isobel.
"They remind me of some wild animal hunting its prey, creeping up with silent stealth, and then springing."
"I have never before heard a fog-horn sounded so continuously," said the missionary's wife, a Mrs. Somerville. "Don't you think they are whistling for a.s.sistance?"
"a.s.sistance! What sort of a.s.sistance can anybody give us here? Unless the ship rights herself very soon we don't know what may happen."
Isobel seemed to have a premonition of evil, and she paid no heed to the effect her words might have on the others. Although the saloon was warm--almost uncomfortably hot owing to the closing of the main air-pa.s.sages--she shivered.
Mr. Somerville drew a book from his pocket. "If that be so," he said gently, "may I suggest that we seek aid from One who is all-powerful?
We are few, and of different religions, but in this hour we can surely worship at a common altar."
"Right!" said the taciturn Englishman, varying his adjective for once.
The missionary offered up a short but heartfelt prayer, and, finding that he carried his congregation with him, read the opening verse of Hymn No. 370, "For those at Sea."
The stewards, most of whom understood a few words of English, readily grasped the fact that the _padri_ was asking for help in a situation which they well knew to be desperate. They drew near reverently, and even joined in the simple lines:
O hear us when we cry to Thee For those in peril on the sea.
During the brief silence which followed the singing of the hymn it did, indeed, seem to their strained senses that the fierce violence of the gale had somewhat abated. It was not so, in reality. A steady fall in the barometer foretold even worse weather to come. Courtenay, a.s.sured now that the main engines were absolutely useless, thought it advisable to get steering way on the ship by rigging the foresail, double-reefed and trapped. The result was quickly perceptible. The _Kansas_ might not be p.o.o.ped again, but she would travel more rapidly into the unknown.
Yet this only afforded another instance of the way men reason when they seek to explain cause from effect. The hoisting of that strip of stout canvas was one of the time-factors in the story of an eventful night, for it was with gray-faced despair that the captain gave the requisite order when the second engineer reported that his senior was dead, the crown of two furnaces destroyed, and the engines clogged, if not irretrievably damaged, by fallen debris. None realized better than the young commander what a disastrous fate awaited his ship in the gloom of the flying scud ahead. There was a faint chance of encountering another steamship which would respond to his signals. Then he would risk all by laying the _Kansas_ broadside on in the effort to take a tow-rope aboard. Meanwhile, it was best to bring her under some sort of control, the steam steering-gear, driven by the uninjured donkey-engine, being yet available.
In the saloon, Elsie had shielded her face in her hands, to hide the tears which the entreaty of the hymn had brought to her eyes. Some one whispered to her:
"Won't you sing something, Miss Maxwell?"
It was the American. He judged that the sweet voice which unconsciously led the singing of the hymn must be skilled in other music.
She looked up at him, her eyes shining.
"Sing! Do you think it possible?" she asked.
"Yes. You can do a brave thing, I guess, and that would be brave."
"I will try," she said, and she walked to the piano which was screwed athwart the deck in front of the polished mahogany sheath of the steel mainmast. It was in her mind to play some lively excerpts from the light operas then in vogue, but the secret influences of the hour were stronger than her studied intent, and, when her fingers touched the keys, they wandered, almost without volition, into the subtle harmonies of Gounod's "Ave Maria." She played the air first; then, gaining confidence, she sang the words, using a Spanish version which had caught her fancy. It was good to see the flashing eyes and impa.s.sioned gestures of the Chilean stewards when they found that she was singing in their own language. These men, owing to their acquaintance with the sea and knowledge of the coast, were now in a state of panic; they would have burst the bonds of discipline on the least pretext. So, as it chanced, the voice of the English senorita reached them as the message of an angel, and the spell she cast over them did not lose its potency during some hours of dangerous toil. Here, again, was found one of the comparatively trivial incidents which contributed materially to the working out of a strange drama, because anything in the nature of a mutinous orgy breaking out in the first part of that soul-destroying night must have instantly converted the ship into a blood-bespattered Inferno.
Excited applause rewarded the song. Fired by example, the dapper French Count approached the piano and asked Elsie if she could play Beranger's "Roi d'Yvetot." She repressed a smile at his choice, but the chance that presented itself of initiating a concert on the spur of the moment was too good to be lost, so M. de Poincilit, in a nice light tenor, told how
Il etait un roi d'Yvetot Pen connu dans l'histoire, Se levant tard, se couchant tot, Dormant fort bien sans gloire.
The Frenchman took the merry monarch seriously, but the lilting melody pleased everybody except "Mr. Wood." The "Oh, Oh's" and "Ah, Ah's" of the chorus apparently stirred him to speech. He strolled from a corner of the saloon to the side of Gray, the American engineer, and said, with a contemptuous nod towards the singer:
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