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- Tomaso's Fortune and Other Stories - 30/41 -
their craft--working against time for their lives.
It was unfortunate that the engines should have held good right across the Arabian Sea, through the Red Sea, through the trying "fast" and "slow" and "stand by" and "go ahead" of the Canal--right through to the Pointe de Raz light, which was blinking down upon them now.
The ship had been got round with difficulty. Her sails, all black with coal-dust and the smoke of many voyages, had been shaken out. They served to keep the vessel's bluff prow pushing into the gale, but that was all. The Mooroo was drifting--drifting.
While the passengers were at dinner the engines had suddenly stopped, and almost before the fact had been realized, the captain, having exchanged glances with his officers, was out of the saloon.
"Something in the engine-room," said the doctor and the fifth officer--left at table. The engineer had probably stopped to replace a worn washer or something similarly simple.
The stewards hurried to and fro with the dishes. And the passengers went on eating their last dinner on earth in that sublime ignorance which is the prerogative of passengers.
Mrs. Judge Barrowby, who, in view of the captain's vacant chair on her left hand, took, as it were, moral command of the ship, was heard to state in a loud voice that she had every confidence in the officers and the crew.
Young Skeen, of the Indian Intelligence, who sat within hearing of Mrs. Judge Barrowby, for his own evil ends and purposes, thereafter said that he could now proceed with his dinner--that his appetite was beginning to return.
"Of course," he went on to say, "if Mrs. Judge Barrowby says that it is all right--"
But he got no farther than this. For a young lady with demure eyes and twitching lips, who was sitting next to him, whispered that Mrs. Judge Barrowby was looking, and that he must behave himself.
"I have every confidence in Mrs. Judge Barrowby," he, nevertheless, managed to assure a grave-looking man across the table.
The truth was that Mrs. Judge Barrowby had had her eye on these two young people all the voyage. There was no reason that they should not fall in love with each other, and marry and be happy ever afterwards; but Mrs Judge Barrowby felt that it was incumbent upon them to ask her first, or at all events to keep her posted as to the progress of matters, so that she might have the satisfaction of knowing more than her neighbours. But the young people simply ignored her.
Lady Crafer, the mother of the girl with the demure eyes, was a foolish woman, who passed most of her days in her cabin; and Mrs. Judge Barrowby felt, and went so far as to say to more than one person, that the least that a nice-minded girl could, under the circumstances, do was to place herself under the protection of some experienced lady--possibly herself. From the fact that Evelyn Crafer had failed to do this, Mrs. Judge Barrowby intimated that each might draw an individual inference.
While these thoughts were in course of lithography upon the expressive countenance of the lady at the captain's end of the saloon table, strange things were taking place on the deck of the good steamship Mooroo. The entire crew had, in fact, been summoned on deck. The boats were being pushed out--the davits swung round, the tarpaulin covers removed, and the awnings unbent. Life-belts were being collected in the music-room on deck, and the purser had given orders to the stewards to prolong dinner as much as possible.
"Let 'em have their dinner first," the captain had said significantly.
And all the while the Mooroo was drifting.
Immediately over the stern rail a light came and went at regular intervals on the horizon, while to eastward, at a higher elevation, a great, yellow staring eye looked out into the night. This was the light on the westernmost point of Europe--the Pointe de Raz. The smaller beacon, low down on the horizon, was that of the Ile de Sein, whose few inhabitants live by what the sea brings them in--be it fish or wreckage. There is enough of both. A strong current sets north and east, and it becomes almost a "race" in the narrow channel between the Ile de Sein and the rock-bound mainland. The Mooroo was in this current.
The captain had said no more than the truth. There are times when nature is too strong for the strongest man and the keenest brain. There was simply nothing to be done but to try and get the repair completed in time--and on deck to send up rockets, and--to prepare for the worst. This the captain had done--even to unlacing his own boots. The latter is always a bad sign. When the captain thinks of his own boots it is time for others to try and remember the few good deeds they may have done.
In ten minutes the passengers knew; for the captain went and told them--before they had their dessert. The result was confusion, and a rush for the saloon stairs. The boats were already lowered and alongside the gangway steps in a terrible sea.
The old ladies did wonderfully well, considering their age and other things. Mrs. Judge Barrowby was heard to say that she would never travel by anything but P. and O. in future, and that it was all her husband's fault. But she was third on the stairs, and in time to select the roomiest life-belt. Lady Crafer was a great believer in stewards. She clung to one, and, calling upon Evelyn to follow her, made very good practice down the saloon.
There was no doubt whatever about young Skeen of the Indian Intelligence. He simply took charge of Evelyn Crafer. He took possession of her and told her what to do. He even found time to laugh at Mrs. Judge Barrowby's ankles as she leapt over a pile of dirty plates.
"Stay here," he cried to Evelyn. "It is useless going with that rabble. Our only chance is to stay."
She obeyed him. Women sometimes do it still. They stood in the gaily lighted saloon, and witnessed the rush for the deck--a humiliating sight.
When at length the stairs were clear, Skeen turned and looked into her face. Then suddenly he took her in his arms and kissed her. They had been drifting towards this for some weeks past. Circumstances had hurried it on. That was all.
"Dear," he said, "will you stay here while I go on deck and see what chances there are? If you once get up there in the dark and the confusion, I shall lose you."
"Yes," she answered; and as she spoke there was a great crash, which threw her into his arms a second time, and made a clean sweep of the tables. They stood literally ankle-deep in wine-glasses, dessert, and plates. The Mooroo had taken the rocks. There was a rolling crash on the deck overhead, and a confused sound of shouting.
"You will stay?" cried Skeen again.
He turned and left her there, alone.
On deck he found a crowd. The passengers were being allowed to go to the boats. Taking into consideration the darkness, the roaring sea, and the hopelessness of it all, the organization was wonderful. The children were going first. A quarter-master stood at the head of the gangway steps and held the people in check. When Skeen arrived, Mrs. Judge Barrowby was giving this man a piece of what she was pleased to call her mind.
"Man," she was saying, "let me pass! You do not know who I am. I am the wife of Judge Barrowby."
"Marm, you may be the wife of the harkangel Gabriel as far as I knows; but I've my orders. Stand aside please. Any more babies in arms?" he cried.
But Mrs. Judge Barrowby knew the value of a good useful life, and persistently blocked up the gangway.
"One woman is as good as another," she said.
"Ay, except the mothers, and they're better," said the man, pushing her aside to let a lady and her child pass.
"THAT woman!" cried Mrs. Judge Barrowby. "A woman who has been the talk of the whole ship--before ME--a flirting grass widow!"
"Gawd knows," said the man, holding her back. "It's little enough to fight about."
"I will report you, man."
"Yes, marm, to the good God, and I ain't afraid o' HIM! NOW you may go!"
And, fuming, Mrs. Judge Barrowby went down to her death. Not one boat could reach the shore through such a surf, as captain and crew well knew; but there are certain formalities vis-a-vis to human lives which must be observed by ship-captains and doctors and others.
Skeen ran to the other side. Lights were twinkling through the spray; the land was not two hundred yards off, but it was two hundred yards of rock and surf. There was only one chance.
Skeen kicked off his boots and ran back to the saloon. It was all a matter of seconds. For a few moments the brilliant lights dazzled him, and he looked round wildly for Evelyn Crafer. A great fear seized his heart as in a grip of cold iron--but only for a moment. He saw her. She was kneeling by the table, unaware of his presence.
"Oh God," she was praying aloud, "save him--save HIM from this danger!"
He heard the words as he stopped to lift her like a child from her knees--bringing her back from God to man.
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