The Captain of the Kansas Part 6

"What rot!"

"Not a bit of it. He's all right. Won't _you_ give us a song next?"

If Gray showed the face of a sphinx, so did "Mr. Wood," whose real name was Tollemache. He bent a little nearer.

"Seen the rockets?" he asked.

"No. Are we signaling?"

"Every minute. Have counted fifteen."

"You don't say. Things are in a pretty bad shape, then?"

"Rotten."

"Well, like Brer Rabbit, we must lie low and say nothing."

This opinion was incontrovertible. Moreover, Tollemache was not one who needed urging to keep his mouth shut. Indeed, this was by far the longest conversation he had indulged in since he came aboard; nor was he finished with it.

"Ship will strike soon," he said.

Gray turned on him sharply. "Oh, nonsense!" he exclaimed. "What has put that absurd notion into your head?"

"Know this coast."

"But we are far out at sea."

"Fifty miles from danger line, two hours ago. Thirty now."

"Are you sure?"

"Certain."

"Do you mean to tell me that in three hours, or less, the ship may be a wreck?"

"Will be," said Tollemache. "Have a cigar," and he pa.s.sed a well-filled case to his companion.

The American was beginning to take the silent one's measure. He bit off the end of a cigar and lit it.

"What's at the back of your head?" he asked coolly. The other looked towards the Chileans.

"Those chaps are rotters," he said.

"You think they will cut up rough? What can they do? We must all sink or swim together."

"Yes; but there are the women, you know. They must be looked after.

You can count on me. Tell the chief steward--and the padri."

Gray felt that here was a man after his own heart, the native-born American having a rough-and-ready way of cla.s.sifying nationalities when the last test of manhood is applied by a shipwreck, or a fire.

"Got a gun?" he inquired.

"Cabin. Goin' for it first opportunity."

"Same here. But the captain will give us some sort of warning?"

"Perhaps not. Die quick, die happy."

Then Gray smiled, and he could not help saying: "Tell you what, cousin, if you shoot as straight as you talk, these stewards will come to heel, no matter what happens."

"Fair shot," admitted Tollemache, and he stalked off to his stateroom, while the Count was vociferating, for the last time:

Quel bon p't.i.t roi c'etait la!

La, la!

Between Elsie and de Poincilit the chorus made quite a respectable din.

Few noticed that the saloon main companion had been opened again, until the sharp bark of a dog joining in the hand-clapping turned every eye towards the stairway. Captain Courtenay was descending. In front ran Joey, who, of course, imagined that the plaudits of the audience demanded recognition. Courtenay had removed his oilskins before leaving the bridge. His dark blue uniform was flecked with white foam, and a sou'wester was tied under his chin, otherwise his appearance gave little sign of the wild tumult without. Joey, on the other hand, was a very wet dog, and inclined to be snappy. When, in obedience to a stern command, he ceased barking, he shook himself violently, and sent a shower of spray over the carpet. Then he c.o.c.ked an eye at the chief steward, who represented bones and such-like dainties.

Courtenay, removing his glistening head-gear, advanced a couple of paces into the saloon. He seemed to avoid looking at any individual, but took in all present in a comprehensive glance. Elsie, who had exchanged very few words with him since the first afternoon she came on board, thought he looked worn and haggard, but his speech soon revealed good cause for any lack of sprightliness.

"I regret to have to inform you," he said, with the measured deliberation of a man who has made up his mind exactly what to say, "that the ship has been disabled by some accident, the cause of which is unknown at present. The unfortunate result is that she is in a position of some peril."

There was a sudden stir among the Chilean stewards, whose wits were sharpened sufficiently to render the captain's statement quite clear to them. Isobel uttered a little sob of terror, and Mrs. Somerville gasped audibly, "Oh, my poor children!" Elsie, her lips parted, sat forward on the piano-stool. Her senses seemed to have become intensified all at once. She could see everything, hear everything.

Some of the Chileans and Spaniards crossed themselves; others swore.

Count Edouard breathed hard and muttered "Grand Dieu!" She wondered why the captain and Mr. Tollemache, who had returned from his stateroom, and was standing in the half light of a doorway, should simultaneously drop their right hands into a coat pocket. Mr.

Tollemache, too, gave a queer little nod to the American, who had moved near to Isobel and placed a hand on her shoulder. Elsie was quite sure that Gray whispered: "For goodness' sake, don't cause a scene!" And, indeed, he did ask Isobel and Mrs. Somerville, with some curtness, to restrain themselves.

Courtenay, with one cold glance, chilled into silence the muttered prayers and curses of the Chileans.

"It may be necessary, about daybreak, to endeavor to beach the ship,"

he continued. "I wish you all, therefore, to guard against possible exposure by wearing warm clothes, especially furs and overcoats. Money and jewelry should be secured, but no baggage of any sort, not even the smallest handbag, can be carried, as all other personal belongings must be left on board. Pa.s.sengers will gather here, and remain here until I send one of the officers for them. The companion doors will not be closed again, but the decks are quite impa.s.sable. You hear for yourselves that they are momentarily swept by heavy seas."

He turned to the chief steward.

"Your men, Mr. Malcolm," he said, "will begin at once, under your directions, to draw stores for each boat. There need be no hurry or excitement. We are, as yet, many miles distant from the nearest known land. If the wind changes, or one of several possible things happens, the _Kansas_ will suffer no damage whatever. I wish all hands to be prepared, however, for the chance, the remote chance, I trust, of the ship's being driven ash.o.r.e, and I beg each one of you to remember that discipline and strict obedience to orders are not only more necessary now than ever, but also that they will be strictly enforced."

The concluding sentence was uttered very slowly and clearly. It was evident he meant the ship's company to understand him. Before any of his hearers attempted to question him, he jammed the sou'wester on his head and ran up the stairs. The dog followed, somewhat ruefully, the cozy saloon being far more to his liking than the wind-swept, spray-lashed chart-house. Mr. Malcolm promptly stirred his myrmidons with a command to fall in by boats' crews, and Gomez won his chief's approval by quietly translating the captain's orders. Beyond Mrs.

Somerville's subdued sobbing there was little outward manifestation that another crisis in the history of the _Kansas_ and her human freight had come and gone.

"The skipper did turn up, you see," said the American, when Tollemache came to him. The silent man screwed his lips together as if he would put a padlock on them.

"From your knowledge of the coast, do you think he will be able to beach the ship?" went on Gray, some humorous imp prompting him, even in that tense moment, to draw the expected answer from his new friend and ally.

"Yes, in pieces," said Tollemache, and the reply was neither humorous nor expected.

[1] Nothing is more certain.

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