"Oh, I shall be most pleased."
"He is attending the injured men, you know. And there are--others there, who are beyond his help."
"Perhaps I may be of some a.s.sistance."
"Come, then. When I open the door, step out quickly and hold tight to that rail. And don't move until I tell you."
His manner was curt enough to please the superioress of a nunnery.
Elsie was awed instantly by the glimpse she obtained of the flying scud within the narrow area of the saloon lights, but she obeyed directions, and presently found herself clinging desperately to the bra.s.s hand-rail which ran, breast high, along the outer wall of her cabin. She saw Courtenay kneel to fasten a bolt, and she wondered how a man enc.u.mbered with heavy boots could be so active. Then she felt an arm grip her tightly round the waist, and she heard a voice, which sounded as if it had traveled down a long corridor, shouting in her ear:
"Lean well back and trust to me. Let go!"
She had no idea that wind could blow like that, especially when the ship was going in the same direction. It shrieked and whistled and tore at the canvas side-awnings with a vehemence that threatened to rip them from their stays. Courtenay held her glued to his left side, and there was something rea.s.suring in his vice-like grasp. She had a dim notion that he need not squeeze her quite so earnestly, until she pa.s.sed a gangway which led to the port side, between the deck cabins and the music-room. Then she changed her opinion; were it not for the strong arm which held her she would have been blown into the sea.
To reach the forward saloon they had to pa.s.s the boats near which Courtenay had halted. The sailors saw them. During the first lull one of the men said:
"The senor captain is escorting one of the English senoritas from the saloon."
"Where is he taking her to?" asked another.
"It will be all the same wherever she is. If the ship goes, we go."
"Who can tell? These English are stupid. They always try to save women first. Once, when I was on the--"
A few words in Spanish reached them from Mr. Boyle, and they went on with their work. But such muttered confidences are eloquent of mischief when the pinch comes.
At the forward end of the promenade deck, just beneath the bridge, Elsie received another reminder of the force of the wind, which was rendered almost intolerable by the lashing of the spray.
"I--can't--go on," she gasped. Courtenay felt, rather than heard, that she was speaking to him. Without further ado, he picked her up in his arms, and deposited her, all flushed and breathless, in the shelter of the fore saloon hatch. If she were so anxious to see her friend the doctor, he was determined she should not be disappointed.
"No time for explanations," he said, while she tremblingly clutched at a rail which gave support down the companion-way. "Dr. Christobal is below. But--I fear you will find a shocking scene. Perhaps you had better let me take you back."
"No, no, not on my account. I think I am past feeling any sentiment.
I would far rather do something, be of some use, however slight."
A pungent smell of iodoform came to them up the hatchway. Joey, who had followed bravely in their wake, and was now a few steps down the stairs, crept back, awed.
"At least, let me ask Dr. Christobal if you may come. You will be quite safe here if you grip the rail. Even if a sea breaks over the hatch it cannot touch you. May I leave you? And do you mind holding Joey?"
Elsie detected a return to his earlier manner, and she was grateful to him for it. She did not like him so well when he was stern and curt.
"Yes," she said. "That is only reasonable; but please tell him I shall not be in the way, I know that there are wounded men to be attended, and dead men down there, too. I shall not scream or faint, believe me."
"I am sure of that. Not one woman in a thousand could have played and sung to cheer others, as you did after the accident happened."
It might have been the reaction from her exciting pa.s.sage along the deck, but Elsie experienced a sudden warm glow in her face. Somehow, it was delightful to hear those words from such a man in the hour of his supremest trial. For she realized what it meant to him, even though his life were saved, if the _Kansas_ became a wreck.
She stooped, ostensibly to grasp the dog's collar.
"Before you leave me," she said, "let me tell you how sorry I am for you."
He ran down the stairs, and entered the small saloon, which had been hastily converted into a hospital. Perhaps it would be better described as a mortuary, for it held more dead than living.
Christobal, aided by two sailors, was wrapping lint round a fireman's seared arm. Happily, there was an abundance of cotton sheets available, and the men tore them into strips. But the comparatively small supply of cotton wool carried in the ship's stores, and in the doctor's private medicine chest had long since given out.
"Miss Maxwell is here. She asked me to bring her to you in case she might be able to render you some a.s.sistance," explained Courtenay.
Christobal drew himself upright, with the slowness of an elderly man whose joints are stiffening.
"Miss Maxwell here?" he repeated, obviously surprised, if not displeased. He waved a hand towards the men laid on mattresses on the deck. Most were quite motionless; others writhed in agony. "She cannot come--it is impossible."
"It is her wish."
"Quite impossible. Where is she?"
"Standing in the companion."
Courtenay saw that the girl could do no good now in that chamber of death; the mere memory of it would be an abiding horror. He wanted Christobal himself to send her away, but the doctor had taken off his coat and bared his arms. His appearance was grimly business-like.
"Will you tell her how much I am obliged to her for her kind thought.
But you see--it cannot be permitted. Please say that I hope to join her in the saloon in a quarter of an hour. My work is nearly ended. I am sure you will make her understand that this is not a place for a woman."
Again he swept the row of silent bodies with a comprehensive hand. Yet the trivial thought intruded itself on the sailor that this elegant old Spaniard delegated the task of explanation to him solely because he did not wish to appear before Miss Maxwell in a somewhat disheveled state.
He dismissed the notion at once.
"How many?" he asked, glancing at the quiet forms which bore no bandages.
"Eleven, now. By the way, just one word. What chance have we?"
Christobal put the concluding sentence in French.
Courtenay answered in the same language: "A very poor one. But I shall come to the saloon and warn you. That will be only fair, don't you think?"
"Most certainly. Well--I may as well finish here." And the doctor signed to his helpers to lift the next sufferer on to the table.
Courtenay returned to the stairway. At the top stood Elsie, looking eagerly for his reappearance. A sense of unutterable anguish shook him for a second as he saw the sweet face, instinct with life and beauty, gazing down at him. How monstrous it was to think of such a fair woman being battered out of recognition against the rocks. He bit his lip savagely, and it is to be feared the words he swallowed were not those of supplication. But his eyes were calm and his voice well under control when he said:
"Dr. Christobal is captain below there, Miss Maxwell, and he absolutely vetoes your presence. He was exceedingly distressed at being compelled to send you such a message. However, he will soon explain matters to you in person, as he is coming aft almost at once."
Elsie was disappointed. She dreaded the return to the saloon, with its queerly a.s.sorted company. When she quitted them, they were in a state of indescribable distress. Gray and the Englishman were helping the chief steward to adjust life-belts; but Isobel was in a frenzy of despair, her maid had fainted, de Poincilit and the Spaniards were muttering alternate appeals to the saints and oaths of utter abandonment, and Mrs. Somerville was almost unconscious, while her husband knelt by her side and wrung his hands in abject misery.
Anything was better than to go back to that woful a.s.sembly, yet she choked down a protest and said quietly:
"I am ready. I am afraid I have been a bother to you, Captain Courtenay."
"Say, rather, you have given me hope. I think Heaven has work for you to do in the world. Let me go out first. Never mind Joey. He can struggle along behind. Steady now. Head down and lean well against the wind."
Elsie found, to her amazement, that there was less sense of danger in facing the wind than in being driven along before it. Moreover, she had greater confidence during this second transit over the exposed portion of the deck. She felt Courtenay dragging her on irresistibly until they gained the lee of the smoking-room. He let her rest there, beneath the ladder leading to the bridge. Then a strange revulsion of feeling came to him. He experienced an overwhelming desire not to be parted from her; he had a sickening fear that he might never see her again; so he shouted, very close to her cheek:
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