I was touched by the cordiality of her greeting. With the prettiest gesture in the world she gave me both her hands; wheeled forth a chair; and produced, from a cupboard, a tin of my favourite tobacco, and a book of my exclusive cigarette papers.
"There!" she cried; "you see, Mr. Loudon, we were all prepared for you; the things were bought the very day you sailed."
I imagined she had always intended me a pleasant welcome; but the certain fervour of sincerity, which I could not help remarking, flowed from an unexpected source. Captain Nares, with a kindness for which I can never be sufficiently grateful, had stolen a moment from his occupations, driven to call on Mamie, and drawn her a generous picture of my prowess at the wreck. She was careful not to breathe a word of this interview, till she had led me on to tell my adventures for myself.
"Ah! Captain Nares was better," she cried, when I had done. "From your account, I have only learned one new thing, that you are modest as well as brave."
I cannot tell with what sort of disclamation I sought to reply.
"It is of no use," said Mamie. "I know a hero. And when I heard of you working all day like a common labourer, with your hands bleeding and your nails broken--and how you told the captain to 'crack on' (I think he said) in the storm, when he was terrified himself--and the danger of that horrid mutiny"-- (Nares had been obligingly dipping his brush in earthquake and eclipse)--"and how it was all done, in part at least, for Jim and me--I felt we could never say how we admired and thanked you."
"Mamie," I cried, "don't talk of thanks; it is not a word to be used between friends. Jim and I have been prosperous together; now we shall be poor together. We've done our best, and that's all that need be said. The next thing is for me to find a situation, and send you and Jim up country for a long holiday in the redwoods--for a holiday Jim has got to have."
"Jim can't take your money, Mr. Loudon," said Mamie.
"Jim?" cried I. "He's got to. Didn't I take his?"
Presently after, Jim himself arrived, and before he had yet done mopping his brow, he was at me with the accursed subject. "Now, Loudon," said he, "here we are all together, the day's work done and the evening before us; just start in with the whole story."
"One word on business first," said I, speaking from the lips outward, and meanwhile (in the private apartments of my brain) trying for the thousandth time to find some plausible arrangement of my story. "I want to have a notion how we stand about the bankruptcy."
"O, that's ancient history," cried Jim. "We paid seven cents, and a wonder we did as well. The receiver----" (methought a spasm seized him at the name of this official, and he broke off). "But it's all past and done with anyway; and what I want to get at is the facts about the wreck. I don't seem to understand it; appears to me like as there was something underneath."
"There was nothing IN it, anyway," I said, with a forced laugh.
"That's what I want to judge of," returned Jim.
"How the mischief is it I can never keep you to that bankruptcy? It looks as if you avoided it," said I--for a man in my situation, with unpardonable folly.
"Don't it look a little as if you were trying to avoid the wreck?" asked Jim.
It was my own doing; there was no retreat. "My dear fellow, if you make a point of it, here goes!" said I, and launched with spurious gaiety into the current of my tale. I told it with point and spirit; described the island and the wreck, mimicked Anderson and the Chinese, maintained the suspense.... My pen has stumbled on the fatal word. I maintained the suspense so well that it was never relieved; and when I stopped--I dare not say concluded, where there was no conclusion--I found Jim and Mamie regarding me with surprise.
"Well?" said Jim.
"Well, that's all," said I.
"But how do you explain it?" he asked.
"I can't explain it," said I.
Mamie wagged her head ominously.
"But, great Caesar's ghost! the money was offered!" cried Jim. "It won't do, Loudon; it's nonsense, on the face of it! I don't say but what you and Nares did your best; I'm sure, of course, you did; but I do say, you got fooled. I say the stuff is in that ship to-day, and I say I mean to get it."
"There is nothing in the ship, I tell you, but old wood and iron!" said I.
"You'll see," said Jim. "Next time I go myself. I'll take Mamie for the trip; Longhurst won't refuse me the expense of a schooner. You wait till I get the searching of her."
"But you can't search her!" cried I. "She's burned."