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- THE CRUSADE OF THE EXCELSIOR - 5/44 -


the davits of the quarter boat.

"We're going about, and they're lowering a boat, that's all; but it's as good as hopeless," said Brace. "The accident must have happened before daylight, or it would have been seen by the watch. It was probably long before we came on deck," he added gently; "so comfort yourself, Miss Keene, you could have seen nothing."

"It seems so dreadful," murmured the young girl, "that he wasn't even missed. Why," she said, suddenly raising her soft eyes to Brace, "YOU must have noticed his absence; why, even I"-- She stopped with a slight confusion, that was, however, luckily diverted by the irrepressible Winslow.

"The skipper's been routed out at last, and is giving orders. He don't look as if his hat fitted him any too comfortably this morning, does he?" he laughed, as a stout, grizzled man, with congested face and eyes, and a peremptory voice husky with alcoholic irritation, suddenly appeared among the group by the wheel. "I reckon he's cursing his luck at having to heave-to and lose this wind."

"But for a human creature's life!" exclaimed Mrs. Markham in horror.

"That's just it. Laying-to now ain't going to save anybody's life, and he knows it. He's doin' it for show, just for a clean record in the log, and to satisfy you people here, who'd kick up a row if he didn't."

"Then you believe he's lost?" said Miss Keene, with glistening eyes.

"There ain't a doubt of it," returned Winslow shortly.

"I don't agree with you," said a gentle voice.

They turned quickly towards the benevolent face of Senor Perkins, who had just joined them.

"I differ from my young friend," continued the Senor courteously, "because the accident must have happened at about daybreak, when we were close inshore. It would not be impossible for a good swimmer to reach the land, or even," continued Senor Perkins, in answer to the ray of hope that gleamed in Miss Keene's soft eyes, "for him to have been picked up by some passing vessel. The smoke of a large steamer was sighted between us and the land at about that time."

"A steamer!" ejaculated Banks eagerly; "that was one of the new line with the mails. How provoking!"

He was thinking of his lost letters. Miss Keene turned, heart- sick, away. Worse than the ghastly interruption to their easy idyllic life was this grim revelation of selfishness. She began to doubt if even the hysterical excitement of her sister passengers was not merely a pleasant titillation of their bored and inactive nerves.

"I believe the Senor is right, Miss Keene," said Brace, taking her aside, "and I'll tell you why." He stopped, looked around him, and went on in a lower voice, "There are some circumstances about the affair which look more like deliberation than an accident. He has left nothing behind him of any value or that gives any clue. If it was a suicide he would have left some letter behind for somebody-- people always do, you know, at such times--and he would have chosen the open sea. It seems more probable that he threw himself overboard with the intention of reaching the shore."

"But why should he want to leave the ship?" echoed the young girl simply.

"Perhaps he found out that we were NOT going to Mazatlan, and this was his only chance; it must have happened just as the ship went about and stood off from shore again."

"But I don't understand," continued Miss Keene, with a pretty knitting of her brows, "why he should be so dreadfully anxious to get ashore now."

The young fellow looked at her with the superior smile of youthful sagacity.

"Suppose he had particular reasons for not going to San Francisco, where our laws could reach him! Suppose he had committed some offense! Suppose he was afraid of being questioned or recognized!"

The young girl rose indignantly.

"This is really too shameful! Who dare talk like that?"

Brace colored quickly.

"Who? Why, everybody," he stammered, for a moment abandoning his attitude of individual acumen; "it's the talk of the ship."

"Is it? And before they know whether he's alive or dead--perhaps even while he is still struggling with death--all they can do is to take his character away!" she repeated, with flashing eyes.

"And I'm even worse than they are," he returned, his temper rising with his color. "I ought to have known I was talking to one of HIS friends, instead of one whom I thought was MINE. I beg your pardon."

He turned away as Miss Keene, apparently not heeding his pique, crossed the deck, and entered into conversation with Mrs. Markham.

It is to be feared that she found little consolation among the other passengers, or even those of her own sex, whom this profound event had united in a certain freemasonry of sympathy and interest-- to the exclusion of their former cliques. She soon learned, as the return of the boats to the ship and the ship to her course might have clearly told her, that there was no chance of recovering the missing passenger. She learned that the theory advanced by Brace was the one generally held by them; but with an added romance of detail, that excited at once their commiseration and admiration. Mrs. Brimmer remembered to have heard him, the second or third night out from Callao, groaning in his state-room; but having mistakenly referred the emotion to ordinary seasickness, she had no doubt lost an opportunity for confidential disclosure. "I am sure," she added, "that had somebody as resolute and practical as you, dear Mrs. Markham, approached him the next day, he would have revealed his sorrow." Miss Chubb was quite certain that she had seen him one night, in tears, by the quarter railing. "I saw his eyes glistening under his slouched hat as I passed. I remember thinking, at the time, that he oughtn't to have been left alone with such a dreadful temptation before him to slip overboard and end his sorrow or his crime." Mrs. Markham also remembered that it was about five o'clock--or was it six?--that morning when she distinctly thought she had heard a splash, and she was almost impelled to get up and look out of the bull's-eye. She should never forgive herself for resisting that impulse, for she was positive now that she would have seen his ghastly face in the water. Some indignation was felt that the captain, after a cursory survey of his stateroom, had ordered it to be locked until his fate was more positively known, and the usual seals placed on his effects for their delivery to the authorities at San Francisco. It was believed that some clue to his secret would be found among his personal chattels, if only in the form of a keepsake, a locket, or a bit of jewelry. Miss Chubb had noticed that he wore a seal ring, but not on the engagement-finger. In some vague feminine way it was admitted without discussion that one of their own sex was mixed up in the affair, and, with the exception of Miss Keene, general credence was given to the theory that Mazatlan contained his loadstar--the fatal partner and accomplice of his crime, the siren that allured him to his watery grave. I regret to say that the facts gathered by the gentlemen were equally ineffective. The steward who had attended the missing man was obliged to confess that their most protracted and confidential conversation had been on the comparative efficiency of ship biscuits and soda crackers. Mr. Banks, who was known to have spoken to him, could only remember that one warm evening, in reply to a casual remark about the weather, the missing man, burying his ears further in the turned-up collar of his pea-jacket, had stated, "'It was cold enough to freeze the ears off a brass monkey,'--a remark, no doubt, sir, intended to convey a reason for his hiding his own." Only Senor Perkins retained his serene optimism unimpaired.

"Take my word for it, we shall yet hear good news of our missing friend. Let us at least believe it until we know otherwise. Ah! my dear Mrs. Markham, why should the Unknown always fill us with apprehension? Its surprises are equally often agreeable."

"But we have all been so happy before this; and this seems such an unnecessary and cruel awakening," said Miss Keene, lifting her sad eyes to the speaker, "that I can't help thinking it's the beginning of the end. Good heavens! what's that?"

She had started at the dark figure of one of the foreign-looking sailors, who seemed to have suddenly risen out of the deck beside them.

"The Senor Perkins," he said, with an apologetic gesture of his hand to his hatless head.

"You want ME, my good man?" asked Senor Perkins paternally.

"Si, Senor; the mate wishes to see the Patrono," he said in Spanish.

"I will come presently."

The sailor hesitated. Senor Perkins took a step nearer to him benignantly. The man raised his eyes to Senor Perkins, and said,--

"Vigilancia."

"Bueno!" returned the Senor gently. "Excuse me, ladies, for a moment."

"Perhaps it is some news of poor Mr. Hurlstone?" said Miss Keene, with an instinctive girlish movement of hope.

"Who knows?" returned Senor Perkins, waving his hand as he gayly tripped after his guide. "Let us believe in the best, dear young lady, the best!"

CHAPTER III.


THE CRUSADE OF THE EXCELSIOR - 5/44

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