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Spanish Doubloons, Page 2

Camilla Kenyon



  The _Rufus Smith_, tramp freighter, had been chartered to conveythe Harding-Browne expedition to Leeward Island, which lies aboutthree hundred miles west of Panama, and could be picked up by thefreighter in her course. She was a little dingy boat with suchsmall accommodation that I can not imagine where the majority ofher passengers stowed themselves away. My aunt and Miss Browne hada stateroom between them the size of a packing-box, and somebodyturned out and resigned another to me. I retired there to dressfor dinner after several dismal hours spent in attendance on AuntJane, who had passed from great imaginary suffering into the quitegenuine anguish of seasickness. In the haste of my departure fromSan Francisco I had not brought a trunk, so the best I was able toproduce in the way of a crusher for Miss Higglesby-Browne and herfellow-passengers was a cool little white gown, which would shineat least by contrast with Miss Browne's severely utilitariancostume. White is becoming to my hair, which narrow-minded personsterm red, but which has been known to cause the more discriminatingto draw heavily on the dictionary for adjectives. My face is smalland heart-shaped, with features strictly for use and not forornament, but fortunately inconspicuous. As for my eyes, I thinktawny quite the nicest word, though Aunt Jane calls them hazel andI have even heard whispers of green.

  Five minutes after the gong sounded I walked into the cabin. MissBrowne, Captain Watkins of the freighter, and half a dozen men werealready at the table. I slid unobtrusively into the one vacantplace, fortunately remote from the captain, who glared at mesavagely, as though still embittered by the recollection of myaunt's fits.

  "Gentlemen," said Miss Browne in icy tones, "Miss Virginia Harding."

  Two of the men rose, the others stared and ducked. Except for MissBrowne and the captain, I had received on coming aboard only themost blurred impression of my fellow-voyagers. I remembered themmerely as a composite of khaki and cork helmets and astoundedstaring faces. But I felt that as the abetters of Miss Browne ahostile and sinister atmosphere enveloped them all.

  Being thus in the camp of the enemy, I sat down in silence anddevoted myself to my soup. The majority of my companions didlikewise--audibly. But presently I heard a voice at my left:

  "I say, what a jolly good sailor you seem to be--pity your aunt'snot!"

  I looked up and saw Apollo sitting beside me. Or rather, shall Isay a young man who might have walked straight out of anadvertisement for a ready-made clothing house, so ideal andimpossible was his beauty. He was very tall--I had to tilt my chinquite painfully to look up at him--and from the loose collar of hissilk shirt his throat rose like a column. His skin was a beautifulclear pink and white just tinged with tan--like a meringue that hasbeen in the oven for two minutes exactly. He had a straight,chiseled profile and his hair was thick and chestnut and wavy andhe had clear sea-gray eyes. To give him at once his full name andtitles, he was the Honorable Cuthbert Patrick Ruthmore Vane, ofHigh Staunton Manor, Kent, England. But as I was ignorant of this,I can truthfully say that his looks stunned me purely on their ownmerits.

  Outwardly calm, I replied, "Yes, its too bad, but then who everdreamed that Aunt Jane would go adventuring at her time of life? Ithought nobody over the age of thirteen, and then boys, ever wenttreasure-hunting."

  "Ah, but lads of thirteen couldn't well come such a distance ontheir own, you know," returned Apollo, with the kindest air ofmaking allowance for the female intellect.

  I hurriedly turned the subject.

  "I really can't imagine Aunt Jane on a desert island. You shouldsee her behave on the mere suspicion of a mouse! What will she doif she meets a cannibal and he tries to eat her?"

  "Oh, really, now," argued the paragon earnestly, "I'm quite surethere's no danger of that, don't you know? I believe there are nonatives at all on the island, or else quite tame ones, I forgetwhich, and here are four of us chaps, with no end of revolvers andthings--shooting-irons, as you call them in America. Mr.Shaw--sitting opposite Miss Browne, you know--is rather runningthings, so if you feel nervous you should talk to him. Was withthe South Polar Expedition and all that--knows no end about thissort of thing--wouldn't for a moment think of letting ladies runthe risk of being eaten. Really I hope you aren't in a funk aboutthe cannibals--especially as with so many missionary Johnnies aboutthey are most likely all converted."

  "It's so comforting to think of it in that light!" I saidfervently. At the same time I peeped around Apollo for aglimpse of the experienced Mr. Shaw. I saw a strong-featured,weather-beaten profile, the face of a man somewhere in histhirties, and looking, from this side view at least, not only sternbut grim. He was talking quietly to the captain, whose mannertoward him was almost civil.

  I made up my mind at once that the backbone of the party, andinevitably the leader in its projected villainies, whatever theymight be, was this rugged-looking Mr. Shaw. You couldn't fancy himas the misled follower of anybody, even the terrific Violet.

  As it seemed an unpropitious moment for taking counsel with Mr.Shaw about cannibals, I tried another tack with the beautiful youthat my side.

  "How did you like Panama? I fancy the old town is verypicturesque."

  "Oh, rather!" assented Mr. Vane. "At least, that is what thosepainter chaps call it--met a couple of 'em at the hotel. Beastlylittle narrow streets and houses in a shocking state and all that.I like to see property kept up, myself."

  "I am afraid," I said severely, "that you are a philistine!"

  He blinked a little. "Ah--quite so!" he murmured, recoveringhimself gallantly. "One of those chaps that backed Goliath againstDavid, what?"

  From this conversational impasse we were rescued by theinterposition of the gentleman opposite, whose small twinkling eyeshad been taking me in with intentness.

  "I did some flittin' about that little old burg on my own hook," heinformed us, "and what I got to say is, it needs wakin' up. Yes,sir, a bunch of live ones from the U.S.A. would shake up thatlittle old graveyard so you wouldn't know it. I might have took ahand in it myself, if I hadn't have met up with Miss Browne andyour a'nt. Yes, sir, I had a slick little proposition or two up mysleeve. Backed by some of the biggest capital in the U.S.A.--infact, there's a bunch of fellers up there in God's country that'spretty sore on old H.H. for passin' things up this way. Kep' thewires hummin' for two-three days, till they seen I wasn't to beswitched, and then the Old Man himself--no use mentionin' names,but I guess you know who I mean--Wall Street would, quick enough,anyway--the Old Man himself threatened to put his yacht incommission and come down to find out what sort of little game H. H.was playin' on him. But I done like Br'er Rabbit--jes lay low.Hamilton H. Tubbs knows a good thing when he sees it about as quickas the next one--and he knows enough to keep mum about it too!"

  "None can appreciate more profoundly than myself your ability tomaintain that reserve so necessary to the success of thisexpedition," remarked Miss Browne weightily from the far end of thetable. "It is to be wished that other members of our party, thoughtenderly esteemed, and never more than now when weakness of bodytemporarily overpowers strength of soul, had shared your powers ofsecrecy!"

  This shaft was aimed quite obviously at me, and as at the moment Icould think of nothing in reply short of hurling a plate I sankinto a silence which seemed to be contagious, for it spreadthroughout the table. Three or four rough-looking men, of whomone, a certain Captain Magnus, belonged to our party and the restto the ship, continued vigorously to hack their way through themeal with clattering knives and forks. Of other sounds there wasnone. Such gloom weighed heavily on the genial spirit of Mr.Tubbs, and he lightened it by rising to propose a toast.

  "Ladies and gentlemen, to her now unfortunately laid low by thepangs of _mal de mer_--our friend and bony dear, Miss Harding!"

  This was bewildering, for neither by friend nor foe could Aunt Janebe called bony. Later, in the light of Mr. Tubbs's passion forclassical allusion, I decided to translate it _bona dea_, andconsider the family complimen
ted. At the moment I sat stunned, butMiss Browne, with greater self-possession, majestically inclinedher head and said:

  "In the name of our absent friend, I thank you." In spite ofwistful looks from the beautiful youth as we rose from the table,and the allurement of a tropic moon, I remained constant to dutyand Aunt Jane, and immured myself in her stateroom, where I passedan enlivening evening listening to her moans. She showed a faintreturning spark of life when I mentioned Cuthbert Vane, and raisedher head to murmur that he was Honorable and she understood thoughnot the heir still likely to inherit and perhaps after allProvidence--

  The unspoken end of Aunt Jane's sentence pursued me into dreams inwhich an unknown gentleman obligingly broke his neck riding tohounds and left Apollo heir to the title and estates.