“Yes, Hugh, we should know the worst,” said Grace firmly. “The ship is rolling frightfully, and Lieutenant Hamilton has said enough to assure us that Captain Shadburn is alarmed, even apprehensive.”
“Perhaps I am too much of an optimist, but I stick to my statement that while we are in some danger—any fool can see that—we are by no means lost,” said Hugh, looking at Gregory when he used the word fool.
“As long as the engine and steering apparatus hold together the crew of the ship can pull her through,” said Veath. “I have the utmost confidence in the boat and the men.”
“But all the men on the ocean cannot keep her from striking an unseen rock, nor could any ship withstand such a shock,” argued the young Englishwoman bravely.
“That’s right, Lady Tennys,” quickly cried Hamilton. “I don’t say the ship will get the worst of a straight fight against the sea, but we won’t stand the ghost of a chance if we strike a reef.”
“The best thing we all can do is to find some place where there is not quite so much danger of having our brains dashed out against these walls. It’s getting so that I can’t keep my feet much longer. This is no time to be taking chances of a broken leg, or an arm or a neck, perhaps. We’ll need them all if we have to swim to Hong Kong.”
Despite his attempted jocularity, Ridgeway was sorely troubled. Common sense told him that they were now in a most perilous position. The dead reckoning of the captain and his chartmaster, while able to determine with a certain degree of accuracy the locality in which the ship was beating, could not possibly account for the exact position of those little islands. He began to think of the life preservers. A feeble smile came to the ladies when he spoke of swimming to Hong Kong, but the men, Veath included, looked serious.
“I think it would be wise if we make every preparation to leave the ship, awful as the prospect may seem. My judgment is that we should take time by the forelock. It will be too late after the crash comes.” Veath said this solemnly, and a deeper sense of realization came to all of them. Strange to say, it inspired energy and calmness rather than weakness and panic.
“The life preservers, you mean?” almost whispered Grace. A fearful lurch of the boat caused the whole party to cling desperately to the supports. Before he could answer a ship’s officer came scudding down below.
“Captain Shadburn says that every one is to prepare for the worst. The propeller’s smashed and we can’t live in this sea. Be quick!” cried the pale-faced sailor, hurrying onward. In an inconceivably short space of time the passages and saloons were crowded with rushing passengers. Pandemonium prevailed. Women were shrieking, men yelling and praying. Cooler heads were utterly powerless to subdue the crazy disorder. Ridgeway and Veath hurried the two women to their staterooms, plunging along, almost falling with the savage rolling of the boat.