The Shadow of the North by Joseph A. Altsheler
Chapter XII. The Slaver
Robert spent more days in New York, and they were all pleasant. His own handsome face and winning manner would have made his way anywhere, but it became known universally that a great interest was taken in him by Mr. Benjamin Hardy, who was a great figure in the city, a man not to be turned lightly into an enemy. It also seemed that some mystery enveloped him--mystery always attracts--and the lofty and noble figure of the young Onondaga, who was nearly always by his side, heightened the romantic charm he had for all those with whom he came in contact. Both Hardy and Willet urged him to go wherever he was asked by the great, and clothes fitted to such occasions were provided promptly.
"I am not able to pay for these," said Robert to Willet when he was being measured for the first of his fine raiment.
"Don't trouble yourself about it," said the hunter, smiling, "I have sufficient to meet the bills, and I shall see that all your tailors are reimbursed duly. Some one must always look after a man of fashion."
"I wish I knew more than I do," said Robert in troubled tones, "because I've a notion that the money with which you will pay my tailor comes from the till of Master Benjamin Hardy. It's uncommon strange that he does so much for me. I'm very grateful, but surely there must be some motive behind it."
He glanced at Willet to see how he took his words, but the hunter merely smiled, and Robert knew that the smile was a mask through which he could not penetrate.
"Take the goods the gods provide thee," said the hunter.
"I will," said Robert, cheerfully, "since it seems I can't do anything else."
And he did. His response to New York continued to be as vigorous as it had been to Quebec, and while New York lacked some of the brilliancy, some of the ultimate finish that, to his mind, had distinguished Quebec, it was more solid, there was more of an atmosphere of resource, and it was all vastly interesting. Charteris proved himself a right true friend, and he opened for him whatever doors he cared to enter that Mr. Hardy may have left unlocked. He was also thrown much with Grosvenor, and the instinctive friendship between the two ripened fast.
On the fifth day of his stay in New York a letter came out of the wilderness from Wilton at Fort Refuge. It had been brought by an Oneida runner to Albany, and was sent thence by post to New York.
Wilton wrote that time would pass rather heavily with them in the little fortress, if the hostile Indians allowed it. Small bands now infested that region, and the soldiers were continually making marches against them. The strange man, whom they called Black Rifle, was of vast help, guiding them and saving them from ambush.
Wilton wrote that he missed Philadelphia, which was certainly the finest city outside of Europe, but he hoped to go back to it, seasoned and improved by life in the woods. New York, where he supposed Robert now to be, was an attractive town, in truth, a great port, but it had not the wealth and cultivation of Philadelphia, as he hoped to show Robert some day. Meanwhile he wished him well.
Robert smiled. He had pleasant memories of Wilton, Colden, Carson and the others, and while he was making new friends he did not commit the crime of forgetting old ones. It was his hope that he should meet them all again, not merely after the war, but long before.
In his comings and goings among the great of their day Robert kept a keen eye for the vision of St. Luc. He half hoped, half feared that some time in the twilight or the full dusk of the night he would see in some narrow street the tall figure wrapped in its great cloak. But the chevalier did not appear, and Robert felt that he had not really come as a spy upon the English army and its preparations. He must have gone, days since.
He met Adrian Van Zoon three times, that is, he was in the same room with him, although they spoke together only once. The merchant had in his presence an air of detachment. He seemed to be one who continually carried a burden, and a stripling just from the woods could not long have a place, either favorable or unfavorable, in his memory. Robert began to wonder if St. Luc had net been mistaken. What could a man born and bred in France, and only in recent years an inhabitant of Canada, know of Adrian Van Zoon of New York? What, above all, could he know that would cause him to warn Robert against him? But this, like all his other questions, disappeared in the enjoyments of the moment. Nature, which had been so kind in giving to him a vivid imagination, had also given with it an intense appreciation. He liked nearly everything, and nearly everybody, he could see a rosy mist where the ordinary man saw only a cloud, and just now New York was so kind to him that he loved it all.
A week in the city and he attended a brilliant ball given by William Walton in the Walton mansion, in Franklin Square, then the most elaborate and costly home in North America. It was like a great English country house, with massive brick walls and woodwork, all imported and beautifully carved. The staircase in particular made of dark ebony was the wonder of its day, and, in truth, the whole interior was like that of a palace, instead of a private residence, at that time, in America.
Robert enjoyed himself hugely. He realized anew how close was the blood relationship among all those important families, and he was already familiar with their names. The powerful sponsorship of Mr. Hardy had caused them to take him in as one of their number, and for that reason he liked them all the more. He was worldly wise enough already to know that we are more apt to call a social circle snobbish when we do not belong to it. Now, he was a welcome visitor at the best houses in New York, and all was rose to him.
Adrian Van Zoon, who had not only wealth but strong connections, was there, but, as on recent occasions he took no notice of Robert, until late in the evening when the guests were dancing the latest Paris and London dances in the great drawing-room. Robert was resting for a little space and as he leaned against the wall the merchant drew near him and addressed him with much courtesy.
"I fear, Mr. Lennox," he said, "that I have spoken to you rather brusquely, for which I offer many apologies. It was due, perhaps, to the commercial rivalries of myself and Mr. Hardy, in whose house you are staying. It was but natural for me to associate you with him."
"I wish to be linked with him," said Robert, coldly. "I have a great liking and respect for Mr. Hardy."
Mynheer Van Zoon laughed and seemed not at all offended.
"The answer of a lad, and a proper one for a lad," he said. "'Tis well to be loyal to one's friends, and I must admit, too, that Mr. Hardy is a man of many high qualities, a fact that a rivalry in business extending over many years, has proved to me. He and I cannot become friends, but I do respect him."
He had imparted some warmth to his tone, and his manner bore the appearance of geniality. Robert, so susceptible to courtesy in others, began to find him less repellent. He rejoined in the same polite manner, and Mynheer Van Zoon talked to him a little while as a busy man of middle age would speak to a youth. He asked him of his experiences at Quebec, of which he had heard some rumor, and Robert, out of the fullness of his mind, spoke freely on that subject.
"Is it true," asked Mynheer Van Zoon, "that David Willet in a duel with swords slew a famous bravo?"
"It's quite true," replied Robert. "I was there, and saw it with my own eyes. Pierre Boucher was the man's name, and never was a death more deserved."
"Willet is a marvel with the sword."
"You knew him in his youth, Mynheer Van Zoon?"
"I did not say that. It is possible that I was thinking of some one who had talked to me about him. But, whatever thought may have been in my mind, David Willet and I are not likely to tread the same path. I repeat, Master Lennox, that although my manner may have seemed to you somewhat brusque in the past, I wish you well. Do you remain much longer in New York?"
"Only a few days, I think."
"And you still find much of interest to see?"
"Enough to occupy the remainder of my time. I wish to see a bit of Long Island, but tomorrow I go to Paulus Hook to find one Nicholas Suydam and to carry him a message from Colonel William Johnson, which has but lately come to me in the post. I suppose it will be easy to get passage across the Hudson."
"Plenty of watermen will take you for a fare, but if you are familiar with the oars yourself it would be fine exercise for a strong youth like you to row over and then back again."
"It's a good suggestion, as I do row, and I think I'll adopt it."
Mynheer Van Zoon passed on a moment or two later, and Robert, with his extraordinary susceptibility to a friendly manner, felt a pleasant impression. Surely St. Luc, who at least was an official enemy, did not know the truth about Van Zoon! And if the Frenchman did happen to be right, what did he have to fear in New York, surrounded by friends?
The evening progressed, but Mynheer Van Zoon left early, and then in the pleasures of the hour, surrounded by youth and brightness, Robert forgot him, too. A banquet was served late, and there was such a display of silver and gold plate that the British officers themselves opened their eyes and later wrote letters to England, telling of the amazing prosperity and wealth of New York, as proven by what they had seen in the Walton and other houses.
Robert did not go back to the home of Mr. Hardy, until a very late hour, and he slept late the next day. When he rose he found that all except himself had gone forth for one purpose or another, but it suited his own plan well, as he could now take the letter of Colonel William Johnson to his friend, Master Nicholas Suydam, in Paulus Hook. It was another dark, gloomy day, but clouds and cold had little effect on his spirits, and when he walked along the shore of the North River, looking for a boat, he met the chaff of the watermen with humorous remarks of his own. They discouraged his plan to row himself across, but being proud of his skill he clung to it, and, having deposited two golden guineas as security for its return, he selected a small but strong boat and rowed into the stream.
A sharp wind was blowing in from the sea, but he was able to manage his little craft with ease, and, being used to rough water, he enjoyed the rise and dip of the waves. A third of the way out and he paused and looked back at New York, the steeple of St. George's showing above the line of houses. He could distinguish from the mass other buildings that he knew, and his heart suddenly swelled with affection for this town, in which he had received such a warm welcome. He would certainly live here, when the wars were over, and he could settle down to his career.
Then he turned his eyes to the inner bay, where he saw the usual amount of shipping, sloops, schooners, brigs and every other kind of vessel known to the times. Behind them rose the high wooded shores of Staten Island, and through the channel between it and Long Island Robert saw other ships coming in. Truly, it was a noble bay, apparently made for the creation of a great port, and already busy man was putting it to its appointed use. Then he looked up the Hudson at the lofty Palisades, the precipitous shores facing them, and his eyes came back to the stream. Several vessels under full sail were steering for the mouth of the Hudson, but he looked longest at a schooner, painted a dark color, and very trim in her lines. He saw two men standing on her decks, and two or three others visible in her rigging.
Evidently she was a neat and speedy craft, but he was not there to waste his time looking at schooners. The letter of Colonel William Johnson to Master Nicholas Suydam in Paulus Hook must be delivered, and, taking up his oars, he rowed vigorously toward the hamlet on the Jersey shore.
When he was about two-thirds of the way across he paused to look back again, but the air was so heavy with wintry mists that New York did not show at all. He was about to resume the oars once more when the sound of creaking cordage caused him to look northward. Then he shouted in alarm. The dark schooner was bearing down directly upon him, and was coming very swiftly. A man on the deck whom he took to be the captain shouted at him, but when Robert, pulling hard, shot his boat ahead, it seemed to him that the schooner changed her course also.
It was the last impression he had of the incident, as the prow of the schooner struck his boat and clove it in twain. He jumped instinctively, but his head received a glancing blow, and he did not remember anything more until he awoke in a very dark and close place. His head ached abominably, and when he strove to raise a hand to it he found that he could not do so. He thought at first that it was due to weakness, a sort of temporary paralysis, coming from the blow that he dimly remembered, but he realized presently that his hands were bound, tied tightly to his sides.
He moved his body a little, and it struck against wood on either side. His feet also were bound, and he became conscious of a swaying motion. He was in a ship's bunk and he was a prisoner of somebody. He was filled with a fierce and consuming rage. He had no doubt that he was on the schooner that had run him down, nor did he doubt either that he had been run down purposely. Then he lay still and by long staring was able to make out a low swaying roof above him and very narrow walls. It was a strait, confined place, and it was certainly deep down in the schooner's hold. A feeling of horrible despair seized him. The darkness, his aching head, and his bound hands and feet filled him with the worst forebodings. Nor did he have any way of estimating time. He might have been lying in the bunk at least a week, and he might now be far out at sea.
In misfortune, the intelligent and imaginative suffer most because they see and feel everything, and also foresee further misfortunes to come. Robert's present position brought to him in a glittering train all that he had lost. Having a keen social sense his life in New York had been one of continuing charm. Now the balls and receptions that he had attended at great houses came back to him, even more brilliant and vivid than their original colors had been. He remembered the many beautiful women he had seen, in their dresses of silk or satin, with their rosy faces and powdered hair, and the great merchants and feudal landowners, and the British and American officers in their bright new uniforms, talking proudly of the honors they expected to win.
Then that splendid dream was gone, vanishing like a mist before a wind, and he was back in the swaying darkness of the bunk, hands and feet bound, and head aching. All things are relative. He felt now if only the cruel cords were taken off his wrists and ankles he could be happy. Then he would be able to sit up, move his limbs, and his head would stop aching. He called all the powers of his will to his aid. Since he could not move he would not cause himself any increase of pain by striving to do so. He commanded his body to lie still and compose itself and it obeyed. In a little while his head ceased to ache so fiercely, and the cords did not bite so deep.
Then he took thought. He was still sure that he was on board the schooner that had run him down. He remembered the warning of St. Luc against Adrian Van Zoon, and Adrian Van Zoon's suggestion that he row his own boat across to Paulus Hook. But it seemed incredible. A merchant, a rich man of high standing in New York, could not plan his murder. Where was the motive? And, if such a motive did exist, a man of Van Zoon's standing could not afford to take so great a risk. In spite of St. Luc and his faith in him he dismissed it as an impossibility. If Van Zoon had wished his death he would not have been taken out of the river. He must seek elsewhere the reason of his present state.
He listened attentively, and it seemed to him that the creaking and groaning of the cordage increased. Once or twice he thought he heard footsteps over his head, but he concluded that it was merely the imagination. Then, after an interminable period of waiting, the door to the room opened and a man carrying a ship's lantern entered, followed closely by another. Robert was able to turn on his side and stare at them.
The one who carried the lantern was short, very dark, and had gold rings in his ears. Robert judged him to be a Portuguese. But his attention quickly passed to the man behind him, who was much taller, rather spare, his face clean shaven, his hard blue eyes set close together. Robert knew instinctively that he was master of the ship.
"Hold up the lantern, Miguel," the tall man said, "and let's have a look at him."
The Portuguese obeyed.
Then Robert felt the hard blue eyes fastened upon him, but he raised himself as much as he could and gave back the gaze fearlessly.
"Well, how's our sailorman?" said the captain, laughing, and his laughter was hideous to the prisoner.
"I don't understand you," said Robert.
"My meaning is plain enough, I take it."
"I demand that you set me free at once and restore me to my friends in New York."
The tall man laughed until he held his sides, and the short man laughed with him, laugh for laugh. Their laughter so filled Robert with loathing and hate that he would have attacked them both had he been unbound.
"Come now, Peter," said the captain at last. "Enough of your grand manner. You carry it well for a common sailor, and old Nick himself knows where you got your fine clothes, but here you are back among your old comrades, and you ought to be glad to see 'em."
"What do you mean?" asked the astonished Robert.
"Now, don't look so surprised. You can keep up a play too long. You know as well as we do that you're plain Peter Smith, an able young sailorman, when you're willing, who deserted us in Baltimore three months ago, and you with a year yet to serve. And here's your particular comrade, Miguel, so glad to see you. When we ran your boat down, all your own fault, too, Miguel jumped overboard, and he didn't dream that the lad he was risking his life to save was his old chum. Oh, 'twas a pretty reunion! And now, Peter, thank Miguel for bringing you back to life and to us."
A singular spirit seized Robert. He saw that he was at the mercy of these men, who utterly without scruple wished for some reason to hold him. He could be a player too, and perhaps more was to be won by being a player.
"I'm sorry," he said, "but I was tempted by the follies of the land, and I've had enough of 'em. If you'll overlook it and let the past be buried, captain, you'll have no better seaman than Peter Smith. You've always been a just but kind man, and so I throw myself on your mercy."
The captain and Miguel exchanged astonished glances.
"I know you'll do it, captain," Robert went on in his most winning tones, "because, as I've just said, you've always been a kind man, especially kind to me. I suppose when I first signed with you that I was as ignorant and awkward a land lubber as you ever saw. But your patient teaching has made me a real sailor. Release me now, and I think that in a few hours I will be fit to go to work again."
"Cut the lashings, Miguel," said the captain.
Miguel's sharp knife quickly severed them, and Robert sat up in the bunk. When the blood began to flow freely in the veins, cut off hitherto, he felt stinging pains at first, but presently heavenly relief came. The captain and Miguel stood looking at him.
"Peter," said the captain, "you were always a lad of spirit, and I'm glad to get you back, particularly as we have such a long voyage ahead of us. One doesn't go to the coast of Africa, gather a cargo of slaves and get back in a day."
In spite of himself Robert could not repress a shudder of horror. A slaver and he a prisoner on board her! He might be gone a year or more. Never was a lad in worse case, but somewhere in him was a spark of hope that refused to be extinguished. He gave a more imperious summons than ever to his will, and it returned to his aid.
"You've been kind to Peter Smith. Few captains would forgive what I've done, but I'll try to make it up to you. How long are we out from New York?" he said.
"It might be an hour or it might be a day or what's more likely it might be two days. You see, Peter, a lad who gets a crack on the head like yours lies still and asleep for a long time. Besides, it don't make any difference to you how long we've been out. So, just you stay in your bunk a little while longer, and Miguel will bring you something to eat and drink."
"Thank you, captain. You're almost a father to me."
"That's a good lad, Peter. I am your father, I'm the father of all my crew, and don't forget that a father sometimes has to punish his children, so just you stay in your bunk till you're bid to come out of it."
"Thank you, captain. I wouldn't think of disobeying you. Besides, I'm too weak to move yet."
The captain and Miguel went out, and Robert heard them fastening the door on the outside. Then the darkness shut him in again, and he lay back in his bunk. The spark of hope somewhere in his mind had grown a little larger. His head had ceased to ache and his limbs were free. The physical difference made a mental difference yet greater. Although there seemed to be absolutely no way out, he would find one.
The door was opened again, and Miguel, bearing the ship's lantern in one hand and a plate of food in the other, came in. It was rough food such as was served on rough ships, but Robert sat up and looked at it hungrily. Miguel grinned, and laughed until the gold hoops in his ears shook.
"You, Peter Smith," he said. "Me terrible glad to see you again. Miss my old comrade. Mourn for him, and then when find him jump into the cold river to save him."
"It's true," said Robert, "it was a long and painful parting, but here we are, shipmates again. It was good of you, Miguel, to risk your life to save me, and now that we've had so many polite interchanges, suppose you save me from starving to death and pass that plate of food."
"With ver' good will, Peter. Eat, eat with the great heartiness, because we have ver', ver' hard work before us and for a long time. The captain will want you to do as much work in t'ree mont' as t'ree men do, so you can make up the t'ree mont' you have lost."
"Tell him I'm ready. I've already confessed all my sins to him."
"He won't let you work as sailor at first. He make you help me in the cook's galley."
"I'm willing to do that too. You know I can cook. You'll remember, Miguel, how I helped you in the Mediterranean, and how I did almost all your work that time you were sick, when we were cruising down to the Brazils?"
"You have the great courage, you Peter," he said. "You always have. Feel better now?"
"A lot, Miguel. The bread was hard, I suppose, and better potatoes have been grown, but I didn't notice the difference. That was good water, too. I've always thought that water was a fine drink. And now, Miguel, hunger and thirst being satisfied, I'll get up and stretch my limbs a while. Then I'll be ready to go to work."
"I tell you when the captain wants you. Maybe an hour from now, maybe two hours."
He took his lantern and the empty plate and withdrew, but Robert heard him fastening the door on the outside again. Evidently they did not yet wholly trust the good intentions of Peter Smith, the deserter, whom they had recaptured in the Hudson. But the spark of hope lodged somewhere in the mind of Peter Smith was still growing and glowing. The removal of the bonds from his wrist and ankles had brought back a full and free circulation, and the food and water had already restored strength to one so young and strong. He stood up, flexed his muscles and took deep breaths.
He had no familiarity with the sea, but he was used to navigation in canoes and boats on large and small lakes in the roughest kind of weather, and the rocking of the schooner, which continued, did not make him seasick, despite the close foul air of the little room in which he was locked. He still heard the creaking of cordage and now he heard the tumbling of waves too, indicating that the weather was rough. He tried to judge by these sounds how fast the schooner was moving, but he could make nothing of it. Then he strained his memory to see if he could discover in any manner how long he had been on the vessel, but the period of his unconsciousness remained a mystery, which he could not unveil by a single second.
Long stay in the room enabled him to penetrate its dusk a little, and he saw that its light and air came in normal times from a single small porthole, closed now. Nevertheless a few wisps of mist entered the tiny crevices, and he inferred the vessel was in a heavy fog. He was glad of it, because he believed the schooner would move slowly at such a time, and anything that impeded the long African journey was to his advantage.
A period which seemed to be six hours but which he afterward knew to be only one, passed, and his door swung back for the third time. The face of Miguel appeared in the opening and again he grinned, until his mouth formed a mighty slash across his face.
"You come on deck now, you Peter," he said, "captain wants you."
Robert's heart gave a mighty beat. Only those who have been shut up in the dark know what it is to come out into the light. That alone was sufficient to give him a fresh store of courage and hope. So he followed Miguel up a narrow ladder and emerged upon the deck. As he had inferred, the schooner was in a heavy fog, with scarcely any wind and the sails hanging dead.
The captain stood near the mast, gazing into the fog. He looked taller and more evil than ever, and Robert saw the outline of a pistol beneath his heavy pea jacket. Several other men of various nationalities stood about the deck, and they gave Robert malicious smiles. Forward he saw a twelve pound brass cannon, a deadly and dangerous looking piece. It was extremely cold on deck, too, the raw fog seeming to be so much liquid ice, but, though Robert shivered, he liked it. Any kind of fresh air was heaven after that stuffy little cabin.
"How are you feeling, Peter?" asked the captain, although there was no note of sympathy in his voice.
"Very well, sir, thank you," replied Robert, "and again I wish to make my apologies for deserting, but the temptations of New York are very strong, sir. The city went to my head."
"So it seems. We missed you on the voyage to Boston and back, but we have you now. Doubtless Miguel has told you that you are to help him a couple of days in his galley, and you'll stay there close. If you come out before I give the word it's a belaying pin for you. But when I do give the word you'll go back to your work as one of the cleverest sailormen I ever had. You'll remember how you used to go out on the spars in the iciest and slipperiest weather. None so clever at it as you, Peter, and I'll soon see that you have the chance to show again to all the men that you're the best sailor aboard ship."
Robert shivered mentally. He divined the plan of this villain, who would send him in the icy rigging to sure death. He, an untrained sailor, could not keep his footing there in a storm, and it could be said that it was an accident, as it would be in the fulfilment though not in the intent. But he divined something else that stopped the mental shudder and that gave him renewed hope. Why should the captain threaten him with a belaying pin if he did not stay in the cook's galley for two days? To Robert's mind but one reason appeared, and it was the fear that he should be seen on deck. And that fear existed because they were yet close to land. It was all so clear to him that he never doubted and again his heart leaped. He was bareheaded, but he touched the place where his cap brim should have been and replied:
"I'll remember, captain."
"See that you do," said the man in level tones, instinct nevertheless with hardness and cruelty.
Robert touched his forehead again and turned away with Miguel, descending to the cook's galley, resolved upon some daring trial, he did not yet know what. Here the Portuguese set him to work at once, scouring pots and kettles and pans, and he toiled without complaint until his arms ached. Miguel at last began to talk. He seemed to suffer from the lack of companionship, and Robert divined that he was the only Portuguese on board.
"Good helper, you Peter," he said. "It no light job to cook for twenty men, and all of them hungry all the time."
"Have we our full crew on board, Miguel?"
"Yes, twenty men and four more, and plenty guns, plenty powder and ball. Fine cannon, too."
Robert judged that the slaver would be well armed and well manned, but he decided to ask no more questions at present, fearing to arouse the suspicions of Miguel, and he worked on with shut lips. The Portuguese himself talked--it seemed that he had to do so, as the longing for companionship overcame him--but he did not tell the name of the schooner or its captain. He merely chattered of former voyages and of the ports he had been in, invariably addressing his helper as Peter, and speaking of him as if he had been his comrade.
Robert, while apparently absorbed in his tasks, listened attentively to all that he might hear from above He knew that the fog was as thick as ever, and that the ship was merely moving up and down with the swells. She might be anchored in comparatively shallow water. Now he was absolutely sure that they were somewhere near the coast, and the coast meant hope and a chance.
Dinner, rude but plentiful, was served for the sailors and food somewhat more delicate for the captain in his cabin.
Robert himself attended to the captain, and he could see enough now to know that the dark had come. He inferred there would be no objection to his going upon deck in the night, but he made no such suggestion. Instead he waited upon the tall man with a care and deftness that made that somber master grin.
"I believe absence has really improved you, Peter," he said. "I haven't been waited on so well in a long time."
"Thank you, sir," said Robert.
Secretly he was burning with humiliation. It hurt his pride terribly to serve a rough sea captain in such a manner, but he had no choice and he resolved that if the chance came he would pay the debt. When the dinner or supper, whichever it might be called, was over, he went back to the galley and cheerfully began to clear away, and to wash and wipe dishes. Miguel gave him a compliment, saying that he had improved since their latest voyage and Robert thanked him duly.
When all the work was done he crawled into a bunk just over the cook's and in any other situation would have fallen asleep at once. But his nerves were on edge, and he was not sleepy in the least. Miguel, without taking off his clothes, lay down in the bunk beneath him, and Robert soon heard him snoring. He also heard new sounds from above, a whistle and a shriek and a roar combined that he did not recognize at first, but which a little thought told him to be a growing wind and the crash of the waves. The schooner began to dip and rise violently. He was dizzy for a little while, but he soon recovered. A storm! The knowledge gave him pleasure. He did not know why, but he felt that it, too, contributed hope and a chance.
The roar of the storm increased, but Miguel, who had probably spent nearly all his life at sea, continued to sleep soundly. Robert was never in his life more thoroughly awake.
He sat up in his bunk, and now and then he heard the sound of voices and of footsteps overhead, but soon they were lost entirely in the incessant shrieking of the wind and the continuous thunder of the great waves against the side of the schooner. In truth, it was a storm, one of great fury. He knew that the ship although stripped to the utmost, must be driving fast, but in what direction he had no idea. He would have given much to know.
The tumult grew and by and by he heard orders shouted through a trumpet. He could stand it no longer, and, leaping down, he seized the Portuguese by the shoulder and shook him.
"Up, Miguel," he cried. "A great storm is upon us!"
The cook opened his eyes sleepily, and then sprang up, a look of alarm on his face. While the eyes of the Portuguese were filled with fear, he also seemed to be in a daze. It was apparent to Robert that he was a heavy sleeper, and his long black hair falling about his forehead he stared wildly. His aspect made an appeal to Robert's sense of humor, even in those tense moments.
"My judgment tells me, Miguel," he shouted--he was compelled to raise his voice to a high pitch owing to the tremendous clatter overhead--"that there is a great storm, and the schooner is in danger! And you know, too, that your old comrade, Peter Smith, who has sailed the seas with you so long, is likely to be right in his opinions!"
The gaze of Miguel became less wild, but he looked at Robert with awe and then with superstition.
"You have brought us bad luck," he exclaimed. "An evil day for us when you came aboard."
Robert laughed. A fanciful humor seized him.
"But this is my place," he said. "I, Peter Smith, belong on board this schooner and you know, Miguel, that you and the captain insisted on my coming back."
"We go on deck!" cried the cook, now thoroughly alarmed by the uproar, which always increased. He rushed up the ladder and Robert followed him, to be blown completely off his feet when he reached the deck. But he snatched at the woodwork, held fast, and regained an upright position. The captain stood not far away, holding to a rope, but he was so deeply engrossed in directing his men that he paid no attention to Robert.
The youth cleared the mist and spray from his eyes and took a comprehensive look. The aspect of sea and sky was enough to strike almost any one with terror, but upon this occasion he was an exception. He had never looked upon a wilder world, but in its very wildness lay his hope. The icy spars from which he would slip to plunge to his death in the chilling sea were gone, and so was far Africa, and the slaver's hunt. He was not a seaman, his experience had been with lakes, but one could reason from lakes to the universal ocean, and he knew that the schooner was in a fight for life. And involved in it was his fight for freedom.
The wind, cold as death, and sharp as a sword, blew out of the northeast, and the schooner, heeled far over, was driving fast before it, in spite of every effort of a capable captain and crew. The ship rose and fell violently with the huge swells, and water that stung like an icy sleet swept over her continually. Looking to the westward Robert saw something that caused his heart to throb violently. It was a dim low line, but he knew it to be land.
What land it was he had no idea, nor did he at the moment care, but there lay freedom. Rows of breakers opening their strong teeth for the ship might stretch between, but better the breakers than the slaver's deck and the man hunt in the slimy African lagoons. For him the icy wind was the breath of life, and he soon ceased to shiver. But he became conscious of chattering teeth near him and he saw Miguel, his face a reproduction of terror in all its aspects.
"We go!" shouted the Portuguese. "The storm drive the ship on the breakers and she break to pieces, and all of us lost!"
Robert's fantastic spirit was again strong upon him.
"Then let us go!" he shouted back. "Better this clean, cold coast than the fever swamps of Africa! Hold fast, Miguel, and we'll ride in together!"
The superstitious awe of the Portuguese deepened, and he drew away from Robert. In the moment of terrible storm and approaching death this could be no mortal youth who showed not fear, but instead a joy that was near to exaltation. Then and there he was convinced that when they had seized him and brought him aboard they had made their own doom certain.
"In twenty minutes, we strike!" cried Miguel. "Ah, how the wind rise! Many a year since I see such a storm!"
Spars snapped and were carried away in the foaming sea. Then the mast went, and the crew began to launch the boats. Robert rushed to the captain's cabin. When he served the man there he had not failed to observe what the room contained, and now he snatched from the wall a huge greatcoat, a belt containing a brace of pistols in a holster with ammunition, and a small sword. He did not know why he took the sword, but it was probably some trick of the fancy and he buckled it on with the rest. Then he returned to the deck, where he could barely hold his footing, the schooner had heeled so far over, and so powerful was the wind and the driving of the spray. One of the boats had been launched under the command of the second mate, but she was overturned almost instantly, and all on board her were lost. Robert was just in time to see a head bob once or twice on the surface of the sea, and then disappear.
A second boat commanded by the first mate was lowered and seven or eight men managed to get into it, rowing with all their might toward an opening that appeared in the white line of foam. A third which could take the remainder of the crew was made ready and the captain himself would be in charge of it.
It was launched successfully and the men dropped into it, one by one, but very fast. Miguel swung down and into a place. Robert advanced for the same purpose, but the captain, who was still poised on the rail of the ship, took notice of him for the first time.
"No! No, Peter!" he shouted, and even in the roar of the wind Robert observed the grim humor in his voice. "You've been a good and faithful sailorman, and we leave you in charge of the ship! It's a great promotion and honor for you, Peter, but you deserve it! Handle her well because she's a good schooner and answers kindly to a kind hand! Now, farewell, Peter, and a long and happy voyage to you!"
A leveled pistol enforced his command to stop, and the next moment he slid down a rope and into the boat. A sailor cut the rope and they pulled quickly away, leaving Robert alone on the schooner. His exultation turned to despair for a moment, and then his courage came back. Tayoga in his place would not give up. He would pray to his Manitou, who was Robert's God, and put complete faith in His wisdom and mercy. Moreover, he was quit of all that hateful crew. The ship of the slavers was beneath his feet, but the slavers themselves were gone.
As he looked, he saw the second boat overturn, and he thought he heard the wild cry of those about to be lost, but he felt neither pity nor sympathy. A stern God, stern to such as they, had called them to account. The captain's boat had disappeared in the mist and spray.
Robert, with the huge greatcoat wrapped about him clung to the stump of the mast, which long since had been blown overboard, and watched the white line of the breakers rapidly coming nearer, as they reached out their teeth for the schooner. He knew that he could do nothing more for himself until the ship struck. Then, with some happy chance aiding him, he would drop into the sea and make a desperate try for the land. He would throw off the greatcoat when he leaped, but meanwhile he kept it on, because one would freeze without it in the icy wind.
He heard presently the roaring of the breakers mingled with the roaring of the wind, and, shutting his eyes, he prayed for a miracle.
He felt the foam beating upon his face, and believing it must come from the rocks, he clung with all his might to the stump of the mast, because the shock must occur within a few moments. He felt the schooner shivering under him, and rising and falling heavily, and then he opened his eyes to see where best to leap when the shock did come.
He beheld the thick white foam to right and left, but he had not prayed in vain. The miracle had happened. Here was a narrow opening in the breakers, and, with but one chance in a hundred to guide it, the schooner had driven directly through, ceasing almost at once to rock so violently. But there was enough power left in the waves even behind the rocks to send the schooner upon a sandy beach, where she must soon break up.
But Robert was saved. He knew it and he murmured devout thanks. When the schooner struck in the sand he was thrown roughly forward, but he managed to regain his feet for an instant, and he leaped outward as far as he could, forgetting to take off his greatcoat. A returning wave threw him down and passed over his head, but exerting all his will, and all his strength he rose when it had passed, and ran for the land as hard as he could. The wave returned, picked him up, and hurried him on his way. When it started back again its force was too much spent and the water was too shallow to have much effect on Robert. He continued running through the yielding sand, and, when the wave came in again and snatched at him, it was not able to touch his feet.
He reached weeds, then bushes, and clutched them with both hands, lest some wave higher and more daring than all the rest should yet come for him and seize him. But, in a moment, he let them go, knowing that he was safe, and laughing rather giddily, sank down in a faint.