‘But that’s where you’re wrong. I am, as it were, the official record of this trip you can’t start by censoring me the moment something interesting happens.’
‘You’ll know all about it later.’
‘It wouldn’t be the same. Must have the stowaway’s first words and the captain’s reactions. I’m afraid you’ve not got the right angle on this, Dale. Now, here is Romance with a capital R.’
He shook his head at Dale’s grunting snort.
‘Oh, yes it is in spite of your noises. It’s axiomatic in my profession. The unexpected appearance of any girl is always Romance. And I am the representative of the world population two thousand million persons, or thereabouts, all avidly clamouring for Romance is it fair, is it decent, that you for a mere whim should deprive?’
‘Oh, all right. I suppose you’d better come. Only for God’s sake don’t talk so damn’ much. In fact, don’t talk at all if you can manage that without bursting.’
He opened the door, and the two of them crowded into the little place.
The interval had worked a wonderful transformation in the stowaway’s appearance. It was difficult to believe that the girl who lay on the slung couch and examined her visitors with calm appraisement could be identical with the figure of misery which had emerged from the locker. Both men were a little taken aback by the serious, unfrightened regard of her dark eyes. Neither had known quite what attitude to expect, but their surmises had not included this appearance of detached calm. Dale returned her look, momentarily at a loss. He saw an oval face, tanned to a soft brown and framed by darkly gleaming curls. The features were small, fine and regular; a firm mouth, with lips only a shade redder than nature had intended, and, below it, a chin suggesting resolution without stubbornness. Insensibly, when faced with the particular cause, he modified his attitude to the situation in general, and from its beginning the interview progressed along lines he had not intended.
‘Well?’ the girl asked evenly.
Dale pulled himself together. He began as he had meant to begin, but he felt that there was something wrong with the tone.
‘I am Dale Curtance, and I should like an explanation of your presence here.
First, what is your name?’
‘Joan,’ she told him.
‘And your surname?’
Her gaze did not waver.
‘I don’t think that matters at present.’
‘It matters to me. I want to know who you are, and what you are here for.’
‘In that case you will be disappointed that I do not choose to give you my other name. If you were to press me I could give you a false one. You have no means of checking. Shall we say “Smith”?’
‘We will not say “Smith”,’ Dale retorted shortly. ‘If you will not tell me your name, perhaps you will be good enough to explain why you joined this expedition unasked and unwanted. I suppose you do not understand that just your presence might easily have wrecked us at the very start.’
‘I hoped to help.’
‘Help?—You?’ His contemptuous tone caused her to flush, but she did not drop her eyes. At that moment Froud, watching her, felt some slight stirring of memory.
‘I’ve met. you before, somewhere,’ he said suddenly.
Her gaze shifted from Dale’s to his own face. He fancied that he caught a faint trace of apprehension, but the impression was slight.
‘Indeed?’ she said.
‘Yes, I caught it just then, when you were angry. I’ve seen you look like that before. Now, where was it?’ He knitted his brows as he stared at her, but the answer evaded him. Out of the thousands of girls he met each year in the course of his work, it was remarkable that he should have recalled her at all which suggested that they must have met in unusual circumstances, but for the life of him he could not place the occasion.
Dale had prepared appropriate sentiments and was not to be deterred from expressing them.
‘I suppose,’ he said, ‘that you’re one of those girls who think that they can get away with anything nowadays. Give a show girl smile, and everyone is only too glad to have you along and the newspapers lap it all up when you get back. Well, this time you’ve got it wrong. I’m not glad to have you along none of us is we don’t want you’
‘Except me,’ put in Frond. ‘The S.A. angle will be’
‘You shut up,’ snapped Dale. To the girl he went on: ‘And I’d like you to know that, thanks to your interference, we shall be lucky if we ever do get back. If you’d been a man, I’d have thrown you out I ought to even though you’re a woman. But let me tell you this, you’re not going to be any little heroine or mascot here when there’s work to be done, you’ll do it the same as the rest. Help, indeed!’
The girl’s eyes flashed, nevertheless, she spoke calmly.
‘But I shall be able to help.’
‘The only way you’re likely to help is to give Froud a better story for his nitwit public only you’ve probably at the same time spoilt his chance of ever getting back to tell it.’
‘Look here,’ the journalist began, indignantly, ‘my public is not ‘
‘Be quiet,’ Dale snapped.
All three were quiet. The girl shrugged her shoulders and continued to meet Dale’s gaze, unabashed by his mood. The silence lengthened. She appeared unaware that some response from her was the natural next step in the conversation. Dale began to grow restive. He was not entirely unused to young women who kept their eyes fixed on his face, but they usually kept up at the same time a flow of chatter accompanied by frequent smiles. This girl merely waited for him to continue. He became aware that Froud was finding some obscure source of amusement in the situation.
‘How did you get on board?’ he demanded at last.
‘I knew one of your men,’ she admitted.
She shook her head silently. Her expression was a reproof.
‘You bribed him?’
‘Not exactly. I suggested that if he got me here, he would be the only one who knew about it and that the Excess or the Hail might be generous for exclusive information.’
‘Well, I’m damned. So by now everybody knows about it?’
‘I expect so.’
Dale looked helplessly at Froud.
‘And yet,’ said the latter reflectively, ‘there are still people who doubt the power of the Press.’
Dale turned back once more to the girl.
‘But why? Why? That’s what I want to know. You don’t look the kind who I mean if you’d not been as you are, I wouldn’t have been so surprised, but ‘ He finished in the air.
‘That’s not very lucid,’ she said, and for the first time smiled faintly.
‘I think he’s trying to say that you don’t look like a sensationalist that this is not just a bit of exhibitionism on your part,’ Froud tried.
‘Oh, no.’ She shook her head with the curious result that the outflung curls remained outflung instead of falling back into place. Unconscious of the odd effect, she went on: ‘In fact, I should think he has a far more exhibitionistic nature than I have.’
‘Oh,’ said Dale a little blankly as Froud smiled.
Doctor Grayson came to the door.
‘Have you two finished now?’ he inquired. ‘Can’t have you tiring my patient out, you know.’
‘Right you are, Doc,’ said Froud, rising, ‘though I fancy you rather underestimate your patient’s powers of recovery.’
‘What did she say?’ Dugan demanded, as they entered the living room.
‘Precious little except that her name is Joan, and that she considers Dale an exhibitionist which, of course, he is,’ Froud told him. Dugan looked puzzled.
‘Didn’t you ask her why she had done it and all that’?’
Froud shrugged his shoulders and pushed the familiar lock of hair back from his forehead.
‘This looks like being a more interesting trip than I had expected.’ He looked at the other three, thoughtfully. ‘Five of us and her, cooped up here for three months. If the proportion of the sexes were reversed, there would be blue murder. Possibly we shall just avoid murder, but you never know.’
CHAPTER IX. IDENTIFICATION.
DALE’s anger at the finding of the stowaway had been due as much to a dread of the consequences of her presence among them as to the practical results of her additional weight. The girl, Joan, was an unknown quantity thrust among his carefully chosen crew. He saw her as the potential cause of emotional disturbances, irrational cross currents of feeling, and, not impossibly, of violent quarrels which might make a misery of the voyage. The close confinement for weeks would have been a severe enough test of companionship for the men alone, for though he had chosen men he knew well, it was inevitable that he .should know them only under more or less normal conditions. How they were likely to react to the changed circumstances, he could only speculate and that not too happily.