Read CHAPTER X - THE VIGIL of His Unknown Wife , free online book, by Louis Tracy, on ReadCentral.com.

Sturgess awoke, too.  Soon they were talking freely, and Maseden not only learned the heart-breaking story of the dozen refugees pent in the chart-house, but was told how he himself came by the blow on the head which took away his senses.

Madge Gray, or Forbes, as he must now call her, was moved to thank Providence for the intervention of the Spanish sailor.

“If that man hadn’t picked you up, Mr. Maseden,” she said, “you would have been washed overboard a few seconds later.  Then nothing could have saved any of us.”

She seemed to be completely unaware of the sensation she created by addressing her rescuer by name.  Maseden felt Nina’s nervous little start, but Sturgess put his astonishment into words.

“Maseden!” he cried.  “You know our friend, then?”

“I I heard his name before on the ship,” came the faltered answer.

“Well, you heard more than I did....  Are you the mysterious English-speaking vaquero who lived in the forecastle?” and the questioner bent a puzzled face sideways to try and discern the other man’s features.

“Yes,” said Maseden promptly.  “There need be no mystery about it now.  I got into trouble in Cartagena, shot the president-elect, and escaped in the disguise of a Spanish cowboy.”

“Gee!” exclaimed Sturgess.

For some reason best known to himself he displayed no further curiosity in the matter, though he might well have wondered how Madge Forbes had come to identify that picturesque-looking person, Ramon Aliones, with the American whose exploits had set all Cartagena agog the day before the Southern Cross sailed.

There was an uncomfortable pause, which Maseden broke by a laugh.

“So you see, Mr. Sturgess, I owed you a good turn, though you never guessed it.  By your kindness in letting me carry your bag and share your boat I got away from my pursuers without attracting attention.”

“Gee!” said Sturgess again.

His comment probably denoted bewilderment.  It may also have shown that the speaker had just ascertained something which supplied food for thought.  In the half light Maseden allowed himself to smile, because the conceit instantly leaped into his mind that his fellow-countryman might have been told of that amazing marriage, and was now engaged in fitting together certain pieces of the puzzle.

If, for instance, Sturgess suspected that Madge Forbes was the lady who figured in that extraordinary episode, he must realize that in paying her such marked attention during the voyage he had placed himself, if not her, in a somewhat equivocal position.

“I had reason to believe that the captain recognized me,” went on Maseden.  “Probably that is how Miss Forbes came to hear my name.”

“Miss Forbes!”

There was no mistaking the new note of surprise, even of annoyance, in Sturgess’s voice.  He was gathering information at a rapid rate, and evidently found some difficulty in assimilating it.

“Yes,” broke in Nina Forbes.  “That is my sister’s name, and my own.  Mr. Gray was our stepfather.  We passed as his daughters while traveling.  The arrangement prevented all sorts of misunderstandings.  In any event, it concerned none but ourselves.  I only mentioned the fact casually to Mr. Maseden a few minutes ago.”

Some men might have caught a rebuke in the girl’s words.  Not so Sturgess.

“I’m tickled to death at hearing it, anyhow,” he said cheerfully.  “The one thing I couldn’t understand was how you two girls could be that poor chap’s daughters....  Well, now we’re all properly introduced, let’s talk as though we really knew one another.  Has any one the beginning of a notion as to the time.”

Then Maseden remembered that he was wearing a watch which he had wound that morning.  He produced it, and was able to discern the hands.

“A quarter past two,” he announced.

A silence fell on them.  Somehow the intimate and homely fact that one of the little company possessed a watch which had not stopped served rather to enhance than allay the sense of peril and abandonment which their brief talk had dispelled for the moment.  A soldier who took part in that glorious but terrible retreat from Mons confessed afterwards that his spirit quailed once, and that was when he read the route names on a London suburban omnibus lying disabled and abandoned by the roadside.

The Marble Arch, Edgware Road, Maida Vale and Cricklewood what had these familiar localities to do with the crash of shell-fire and the spattering of bullets on the pave?  Similarly, the forlorn castaways on Hanover Island felt that a watch was an absurdly civilized thing among the loud-voiced savageries of wind and wave.

The moonlight died away, too, with a suddenness that was almost unnerving.  True, the moon had only vanished behind a cloud-bank.  But her face was veiled effectually, and the growing darkness soon showed that she would not be visible again that night.

They tried to sleep, but the effort failed.  Lack of food was a more serious matter now than mere physical exhaustion.  All four were young and vigorous enough to withstand fatigue, and to wake up refreshed after the brief repose they had already enjoyed.

But they were stiff and cramped, and their blood was beginning to yield to a deadly chill.  Though they huddled together as closely as possible, there was no resisting the steady encroachment of the bitter cold.

At last Maseden counseled that they all stand up, and, despite the urgent need of conserving their energies, obtain some measure of warmth by stretching their limbs and breathing deeply.

He even suggested that they should sing, but the effort to start a popular chorus was such a lamentable failure that they laughed dismally.

Then he tried story telling.  He judged, and quite rightly, that the majority of his hearers would be deeply interested in a recital of his own recent adventures.

Greatly daring, he left out no detail, and, in a darkness which was almost tangible because of its density, he was well aware how alert was every ear to catch the true version of an extraordinary marriage.

No one interrupted.  They just listened intently.  Once, when he asked if he was wearying them by a too exact description of events at the ranch after his escape, Nina Forbes said quietly: 

“Please tell us everything, Mr. Maseden.  I have never heard anything half so interesting.  You have caused me to forget where I am, and I can give you no higher praise.”

At last he made an end, dwelling purposely on the light note of his troubles with the Spanish sailor who claimed a vested right in him after the incident of the falling block.

Sturgess put a direct question or two.

“You don’t seem to have any sort of a notion as to who the lady was?” he began.

“I only know that her Christian name was Madeleine,” answered Maseden readily.  “She was about to sign the register when the idea of getting out of the Castle dawned on me, and, from that instant, I thought of nothing else.  I hadn’t much time, you know.  The plan had to be concocted and carried out almost in the same breath.  And there was no room for failure.  The least slip, either in time or method, and I was a dead man.”

“Madeleine!” mused Sturgess aloud.  “She was English, or American, I suppose?”

“American, I imagine.  Undoubtedly one or the other.”

“And that fat Steinbaum was the marriage broker!  I know Steinbaum a thug, if ever there was one....  What are you going to do about it, Mr. Maseden?”

“Do about what?”

“Well, if you win clear from this present rather doubtful proposition and we’re backing you in that for all we’re worth, ain’t we, girls? you’re tied up to a wife whom you don’t know, and I guess the one place in which you’re likely to find her is off the map for you for keeps.”

“I’m not versed in the law,” laughed Maseden, “but it will be a queer thing if I should be compelled to regard myself as married to a lady whom I have seen, certainly, but do not want.”

“How do you know you don’t want her?”

“I know nothing whatsoever about her.”

“That’s just it.  That’s where you may be hipped.  She may be a peach, the finest ever.  Suppose, for the sake of argument, one of these two, Miss Madge or Miss Nina ”

“The lady’s name happened to be Madeleine,” put in Madge instantly.  “If the ceremony was meant to be valid she would undoubtedly sign her right name.”

“Just so.  You missed my point.”

Maseden thought it advisable to come to the rescue.  He had conveyed to the one vitally interested listener that her secret was safe for the time, and this should suffice.

“I am inclined to think that I shall be proof against my nominal wife’s charms, no matter how great they may be,” he said emphatically.  “There is a romantic side to the affair, I admit, but I cannot blind myself to the fact that it possesses a prosaic one as well.  Association with a skunk like Steinbaum is hardly the best of credentials, in the first place.  Secondly, one asks what motive any woman could have in wishing to marry a man condemned to die.  I’m not flattering myself that my personal qualifications carried much weight.

“Admittedly, the lady wanted to wed because I was about to disappear.  I give her the credit of believing that she would never have gone through with the farce if she had the least reason to think that I would not be dead within the next half hour.  But the fact remains that she was callous and calculating whether to serve her own ends or some other person’s is immaterial....  No, Mr. Sturgess; when, if ever, I choose a wife, it is long odds against her name being Madeleine.”

Nina Forbes laughed, though her teeth chattered with the cold.

“The calm way in which men speak of ‘choosing’ a wife always amuses me,” she said.  “If any man told me he had ‘chosen’ me I should feel inclined to box his ears.”

“It isn’t the best of words,” put in Sturgess promptly, “but it conveys a real compliment.  A fellow meets a girl, the girl, and some electrical arrangement jangles at the back of his head.  ‘This is it,’ says a voice.  ‘Go to it, good and hard,’ and he goes.  That’s the only sort of choice he’s given.  The girl can always turn him down, you know.  Still, she can’t help feeling flattered.  She says to herself, ’That poor fellow, Charles K. Sturgess, is only a mutt, but he did think me the best ever, so he had good taste.’  What do you think, Miss Madge?”

Then he and the others discovered that Madge was crying.  The frivolous chatter intended to hide a dread reality had failed in its object.  They were shivering with cold again, and ever more conscious of gnawing hunger.  The prospect of escape was more than doubtful.  Fate seemed to be playing a pitiless game with every soul on board the Southern Cross, having swept some to instant death, while retaining others for destruction by idle whim.  The renewed darkness, the continuous uproar of the reef, had broken the girl’s nerve.

Maseden fancied that he had placed too great a strain on her by detailing with such precision the sequence of events during those crowded hours at Cartagena.

“I think,” he said gravely, “that we ought to lie down again, and await patiently the coming of daylight.  The sun rises, no matter what else may happen, and dawn cannot be long delayed now.”

They obeyed him.  They looked to him for guidance, but they were glad he did not call for any effort.  Even the light-hearted, apparently irresponsible Sturgess, who, if he had to die, would depart this life with a jest on his lips, was stilled by the sheer hopelessness of their condition.

After one of those hours which seem to belong to eternity rather than to time, a quality of grayness made itself felt in the overwhelming gloom.  Soon the serrated edge of the opposite wall of rock became a fixed and rigid thing against a background of cloud.  In this new world of horror and suffering the break of day, to all appearances, came from the west!

This phenomenon was easily explained.  Near by, on the east, rose the tremendous peaks of the Andes, so the plain of the sea on the western horizon caught the first shafts of light long before they filtered into the fiords and gorges of the coast-line tucked in at the base of those great hills.

Not that it mattered a jot to those desolate ones where the sun rose that day.  They would have given little heed had the earth rolled over on a new axis, and dawn come from the South Pole!

As soon as daylight was sufficiently advanced to render the rock fissures clearly visible, Maseden roused his tiny flock from the stupor of sheer exhaustion.  He was a man born to lead, and the necessity to spur on and exhort others proved his own salvation.  He was stiff and sore, and his head still ached abominably, but he rose to his feet with an energetic shout that quickened the blood in his hearers’ veins.

“Now, folk,” he said, “the first order of the day is breakfast, and then strike camp!”

Breakfast!  They thought he was crazy.  But he took the bottle of brandy from a crevice in which he had lodged it securely overnight, and Sturgess uttered a cackling laugh.

“I’m doing pretty well for a life-long teetotaller,” he wheezed.  “When a fellow like me falls off the water-wagon, he generally drops with a dull thud, but I must have set up a record.  After lunching and dining yesterday on claret, I supped on brandy last night and am about to breakfast on the same....  Girls, help yourself and pass the decanter!”

Maseden held up the bottle to the light.  It had never contained more than a pint, and nearly half had gone.  A small coin served as a measure to divide the contents into five portions.

“Each of us drinks a peseta-worth,” he said.  “There must be neither half measures nor extra ones.  The last peseta-worth remains in the bottle.  Is that agreed?”

“I want very little, please,” said Nina Forbes.  “Just enough to moisten my lips and tongue ”

“You’re going to do as you’re bid,” was the gruff answer.  “I advise you to sip your portion, by all means, but you must take it.  As a penalty for disobedience, you’ll start.”

She made no further protest, but swallowed her dose meekly.  Sister Madge followed.  Sturgess was minded to argue, but met Maseden’s dour glance, and took his share.  The first mouthful of the spirit acted on him like an elixir of life.  He drank down to the allotted mark, and handed the bottle to Maseden.

“Now, girls,” he chortled, “this is the guy who really needs watching.  If he doesn’t play fair let’s heave him into the sea.”

So three pairs of eyes saw to it that their rescuer had his full allowance.  Then the bottle was put away, and the castaways took stock of their surroundings.

At first sight the position was grotesquely disheartening.  Beneath, to the left, was the sea.  Behind them rose an overhanging wall of rock, which swung round to the right and cut off the ledge.  The cleft itself was some twelve feet wide, and the opposite wall rose fully ten feet.  In a word, no chamois or mountain goat could have made the transit.

They all surveyed the situation from every point of view afforded by the fifteen feet of ledge.  There was no reason to express opinions.  Escape, in any direction, looked frankly impossible.

Then Maseden examined the cleft beneath.

“We cannot go up,” he said quietly.  “In that case, as we certainly don’t mean to stay here, I’m going down.”

It was feasible, with care, to climb down to sea level, but the huge rollers breaking over the reef sent a heavy backwash against the cliff.  The swirl of water rose and fell three feet at a time, with enough force to throw the strongest man off his balance.

“Do you mean that you intend jumping into the sea, Mr. Maseden?” said Madge Forbes.

She was quite calm now.  She put that vital question as coolly as though it implied nothing more than a swimmer’s pastime.  Their eyes clashed, and, for the first time, the man saw that Madge possessed no small share of Nina’s self-control.  Her earlier collapse was of the body, not of the soul.

“It doesn’t mean that I shall willingly commit suicide,” he answered.  “If it comes to that, I suggest that we all go together.  I’m merely taking a prospecting trip.  There’s no way out above.  I must see what offers below.”

Without another word he sat on the lip of the rock on which they stood, and lowered himself to a tiny ledge which gave foothold.  They watched him making his way down.  It was no easy climb, but he did not hurry.  Twice he advanced, and climbed a little higher to a point whence descent was more practicable.  At last he vanished.

Sturgess, craning his neck over the seaward side of their narrow perch, could not see him, while the growl of the reef shut out all minor sounds.

Maseden was not long absent, but the three people whom he had left confessed afterwards that of all the nerve-racking experiences they had undergone since the ship struck, that silent waiting was the worst.

At last he reappeared.  Nina, farthest up the cleft, was the first to see him, and she cried shrilly: 

“Oh, thank God!  He’s got a rope!”

A rope!  Of what avail was a rope?  Yet three hearts thrilled with great expectation.  Why should Maseden bring a rope?  It meant something, some plan, some definite means towards the one great object.  They had an abounding faith in him.

The rope was slung around his shoulders in a noose, and he seemed to be tugging at some heavy weight which yielded but slowly to the strain.  When he was still below the level of the ledge he undid the noose and passed it to Sturgess.

“Hold tight!” he shouted.  “I’ve picked up the broken foremast.  I’m going down to clear it off the rocks.  When I yell, haul away steadily.”

They asked no questions.  Maseden simply must be right.  They listened eagerly for the signal, and put all their strength to the task when it came.

Soon the truck of the foremast appeared.  Then the full length of the spar could be seen, with Maseden guiding it.  He had tied the rope at a point about one-third of the length from the truck.  When it was poised so that lifting alone was required he shouted to them to stop, and rejoined them, breathless, but bright-eyed.

“There’s no means of escape by the sea,” he explained, “so we must try the cliff.  This is our bridge.  I think it will span the gully.  Anyhow, it is worth trying.”

Then they understood, and measuring glances were cast from spar to opposing crest.  It would be a close thing, but, as Maseden said, it was certainly worth trying.

In a minute, or less, the broken mast was standing up-ended on the ledge.  Then, with its base jammed into a crevice, it was lowered by the rope across the chasm.  It just touched the top of the rock wall.

They actually cheered, but the women’s hearts missed a couple of beats when Maseden began to climb again.  He worked his way upward without haste, found a toe-grip on the rock, raised himself carefully, and again disappeared from sight.

This time he was not so long away.  He looked down on them with a confident smile.

“There’s a chance,” he said.  “A ghost of a chance.  Now I’m coming back!”