Chapter IX. A Swim to the Namur

All was black, hopeless; with head buried in my hands I sat on a thwart, dazed and stupefied, seemingly even unable to think clearly. Before me, pleading, expressive of agonized despair, arose the sweet face of Dorothy Fairfax. Nothing else counted with me at that moment but her safety--the protecting her from the touch of that blood-stained brute. Yet how, and through what means, could such rescue be accomplished? No doubt by this time all was over--the dead body of Sanchez discovered, the projected attack on the house carried out, the two old men left behind, either dead or severely wounded, and the girl borne off a helpless prisoner, together with the treasure of fifty thousand pounds. Even if I knew where the drifting boat had taken me, which way to turn to once again attain the wharf, the probability remained that I should arrive altogether too late to be of slightest service--the dastardly deed had already been accomplished. Ay, but this I knew; there was only one place to which the villains might flee with their booty--the Namur of Rotterdam. Only on those decks, and well at sea, would they be safe, or able to enjoy their spoils. The thought came to me in sudden revelation--why not? Was not here a chance even yet to foil them? With Sanchez dead, no man aboard that pirate craft would recognize me. I felt assured of this. I had fought the giant negro in the dark; he could not, during that fierce encounter, have distinguished my features any more clearly than I had his own. There was no one else to fear. Although I had been stationed at the wheel of the sloop as we swept past the Namur while at anchor the day before, yet Estada, watching anxiously for the secret signal of his chief, would never have accorded me so much as a glance. His interest was concentrated elsewhere, and, in all probability, he could not swear whether I was black or white. If others of that devilish crew had been secretly watching our deck it was with no thought of me; and not one of them would retain any memory of my appearance. If only I might once succeed in getting safely aboard, slightly disguised perhaps, and mingle unnoticed among the crew, the chances were not bad for me to pass undetected. No doubt they were a heterogeneous bunch, drawn from every breed and race, and in no small force either, for their trade was not so much seamanship as rapine and fighting. Such ships carried large crews, and were constantly changing in personnel. A strange face appearing among them need not arouse undue suspicion. From what Estada had reported to Sanchez, I knew boats had been sent ashore on this coast. What more likely then than that some new recruit had returned to the bark, attracted by a sailor's tale? Who would know how the stranger came among them, or question his presence, unless suspicion became aroused? Even if questioned, a good story, easily told, might win the trick. Before daylight came, and already well at sea beyond pursuit, inconspicuous among the others, accepted as mate by the men, unrecognized even by the officers, there was scarcely a probability that anyone aboard would note, or question my presence.

And I felt convinced I could locate the Namur. Ay, even in that darkness I could find the bark, if the vessel yet swung at her former anchorage. The task would not even be a difficult one. The stars gave me the compass points, and I recalled with some clearness the general trend of the coast line as we came up. But could I hope to attain the ship in advance of the returning party of raiders? To succeed in my object this must be done, because the moment these reached the deck the bark would hastily depart for the open sea. And if I was to accomplish this end it must be attempted at once. The call to action, the possibility of thus being of service to Dorothy, seemed instantly to awaken all my dormant energies; the painful chafing of my wounds was forgotten, while new strength returned miraculously to my bruised body. God helping me, I would try! My brain throbbed with fresh resolution--the call to action.

There were oars in the boat. I had noticed these dumbly before, but now I drew them eagerly forth from the bottom, and quickly fitted them into the oarlocks. They were stout, ashen blades, unusually large for the craft in which they had been stowed, yet workable. The boat itself was a mere shell, scarcely capable of sustaining safely more than three persons, but with lines of speed, its sharp prow cutting the water like a knife blade. I shipped the useless rudder inboard, and chose my course from the stars. The north star was completely obscured by thick clouds, but the great dipper gave me my bearings with sufficient accuracy. To attain again to the west coast not far from where the great point projected outward into the Bay, and behind which the bark swung at anchor, required, according to my understanding of our present position, that I head the boat toward the southwest. I bent earnestly to the oars, and the speed of the craft was most encouraging, especially as my strength and energy seemed to increase with each stroke. My mind brightened also quite perceptibly, as the violent exercise sent the blood coursing anew through my veins. Before I realized the change I had become thoroughly convinced that the course I had chosen was the wisest one possible.

It was wild, and desperate, to be sure. I was not blind to its danger, and yet nothing else offered any solution. The only probable chance now for me to prove of direct service to the captive girl lay in being near her while she remained with these men. If, by any good fortune, she had thus far succeeded in escaping from Estada and his gang of ruffians, I would learn this fact more surely aboard the Namur than in any other way; and, once assured as to this, could certainly find some means of early escape from the ship. While, if she was captured and taken aboard, as was most probable, for me to be left behind on shore would mean her total abandonment. Better any risk of discovery than that. To be sure I had no plan of action devised, no conception of how a rescue could be effected. Yet such an opportunity might develop, and my one hope lay in being prepared, and ready. With the death of Sanchez, his second in command would undoubtedly succeed him; but would that be Estada, or would it be this other, the mulatto, Francois LeVere? More likely the former, for while buccaneers had operated under colored chiefs, a crew of white men would naturally prefer to be led by one of their own color. Indeed it was even possible that a controversy might arise, and a divided authority result. Discipline among such as these depended entirely on strength and ferocity. The most daring and resourceful became the chosen leaders, whose only test was success. Perhaps, in the turmoil, and uncertainty, arising from a knowledge of Sanchez's death, and the jealousy thus aroused between those who would succeed him in command, I might discover the very opportunity I sought. These were some of the thoughts which animated me, and gave new strength to my arms, as I sent the dory flying through the water.

My boat, unguided, had drifted considerably farther out into the Bay than I had supposed, and it required a good half hour of steady toil at the oars before I sighted ahead of me the darker outlines of the shore. Nothing had crossed our path, and no unusual sound had reached my ears along the black water. If the Namur's boat had already returned to the bark, its passage must have been made during the period of my unconsciousness, and this seemed to me utterly impossible. The course I had followed thus far took me directly across the water which they would be compelled to traverse, and they could not have passed unnoticed. No, they were surely yet in the neighborhood of Travers' plantation. The men engaged in that night's bloody business, would have been compelled to carry it out under many obstacles; they would be delayed by consternation at the discovery of their dead leader lying on the sand, and by their lack of knowledge regarding the interior of the house on the summit of the bluff. Quite likely also this lack of a guide would result in an alarm, and consequent struggle, perhaps even in the serious injury of some among them before they secured possession of the money, and the girl. In any case it must have resulted in delay. Convinced of this, and confident that I was already well in advance of them, I drew in as closely as I dared to the dim outline of shore, and studied it carefully, in an endeavor to learn my exact position.

Although the sloop in its voyage up the Bay had never been out of sight of this coast, had indeed skirted it closely all the way, yet my memory of its more prominent landmarks was extremely vague. I had made no effort to impress them on my mind. Therefore at first I could identify nothing, but finally, out of the grotesque, shifting shadows, dimly appearing against the slightly lighter sky beyond, there suddenly arose, clearly defined, the gaunt limbs of a dead tree, bearing a faint resemblance to a gigantic cross. I recalled that Sam had chanced to point this out to me on our upward voyage, and this glimpse obtained of it again now told me exactly where I had made shore. This peculiar mark was at the extremity of the first headland lying north of the point itself, and consequently a straight course across the Bay, would land me within five hundred yards of where the Namur had last been seen at anchor.

To a degree my immediate plan of action had been definitely mapped out within my own mind while toiling at the oars. At least I had arrived at certain conclusions. The one immediate object before me was to attain the bark in advance of Estada. I now was convinced that thus far I was safely ahead. The night wind was light, and baffling, not greatly affecting my own progress, but of a nature to retard considerably the sail-boat, and compel a series of wide tacks, so as to enable those on board to round the point. All this distance I could avoid by beaching my dory, and striking out on foot directly across the narrow neck of land. The Namur, unless her position had been changed since darkness set in, was not so far out from shore as to make swimming to her a dangerous feat; and I could approach and board her with far less chance of discovery in that manner, than by the use of a boat. The watch on deck would undoubtedly be a vigilant one, yet no eye could detect through that darkness--unless by sheer accident--a submerged swimmer, cautiously advancing with silent strokes. The greater danger would come after I had attained the deck, wet to the skin.

The sharp bow of the dory ran up on the soft sand of the beach, and I stepped ashore, hauling the light boat after me beyond the reach of the waves. The night remained calm and still, although the scudding clouds were thickening overhead, until scarcely a single star remained visible. The sea behind me was overhung by a black curtain, yet, by bending low, I could look along the surface for some distance where the heaving water reflected from wave to wave what little light there was. The beach was a narrow one, and only a few feet away the neck of land became elevated into a leveled crest, thickly covered with trees, their upper branches dimly visible from where I stood. Judging from the trend of the coast, it would be necessary for me to strike directly across to the opposite shore, but in this journey special caution was not required. There would be no one in the midst of this desolate region to interfere with my progress, or be alarmed by any noise I might make. Close to shore as the Namur lay, no ordinary sound from the land could be heard aboard, even in the silence of night, nor was it likely the crew would be watchful in that direction. Unquestionably the entire attention of the deck watch at this hour would be concentrated on the expected return of their expedition around the distant point--seeking the glimpse of a white sail above the black water.

To the best of my recollection the bark floated with bow pointing toward the open sea. The sweep of the current about the point was inshore, making the drift of the vessel strong against the anchor hawser. This would naturally bring her with broadside to the eastward, from which direction the absent boat must return. If this proved correct then, in all probability, the deck watch would largely be gathered on that side, even the attention of the officer more or less drawn in that direction. No doubt they had orders to be ready for instant departure the moment the approaching boat was sighted, and the lookout for it would be keen. It was, as I stood there, revolving these matters in my mind, with eyes endeavoring to pierce the surrounding darkness, and ears strained to detect the slightest sound, that there came to me the first real consciousness of the reckless nature of this adventure upon which I had so lightly embarked. Surely it was but the dream of a crazed man, foredoomed to failure. As I faced then the probabilities, there scarcely seemed one chance in a hundred that any such scheme as I proposed would succeed. And yet I must admit there was the one chance; and in no other action could I perceive even that much encouragement. If Dorothy Fairfax was already in the hands of these men, then my only opportunity for serving her lay in my being close at hand. No alternative presented itself; no other effort could be effective. It was already too late to attempt the organization of a rescue party; there was no warship on the coast, and the authorities of the Colony possessed no vessel fitted for pursuit. Long before daylight came, or I might hope to spread an alarm abroad, the Namur would be safely at sea. No, the only choice left was for me either to accompany the girl, or else abandon her entirely to her captors. I must either face the possibility of discovery and capture, which as surely meant torture and death, or otherwise play the coward, and remain impotently behind. There was no safe course to pursue. I believed that I could play my part among the crew, once securely established among them; that I could succeed in escaping recognition even on the part of Cochose. If this was true, then, to a stout heart and ready hand, a way might open even aboard the bark to protect her from the final closing of the devil's jaws. I had nothing to risk but my life, and it had never been my nature to count odds. I would act as the heart bade, and so I drove the temptation to falter away, and strode on up the bank into the black shadow of the trees.

I found extremely hard walking as I advanced through tangled underbrush, over unlevel ground, the night so dark in those shadows I could but barely perceive the outlines of a hand held before the eyes. Fortunately the distance was even shorter than I had anticipated, but, when I finally emerged upon the opposite beach, it was at once quite evident that the sea beating upon the sand was decidedly heavier than higher up the Bay, the white line of breakers showing conspicuously even in the night, while their continuous roar sounded loud through the silence. It was not until after I had advanced cautiously into the water, and then stooped low to thus gain clearer vision along the surface, that I succeeded in locating the vessel sought. Even then the Namur appeared only as a mere shadow, without so much as a light showing aboard, yet apparently anchored in the same position as when we had swept past the previous afternoon. The slightly brighter sky above served to reveal the tracery of bare poles, while the hull was no more than a blot in the gloom, utterly shapeless, and appearing to be much farther away than it was in reality. Indeed, as the sky gradually darkened the entire vision vanished, as though it had been one of those strange mirages I had seen in the African deserts. Yet I knew with certainty the ship was there, had sufficient time in which to mark its position accurately, and rejoiced at the increase of darkness to conceal my approach. Guided by this memory I waded straight out through the lines of surf, until all excepting the head became completely submerged. If I was to reach the bark at all, this was the one opportunity.

I stood there, resisting the undertow tugging at my limbs, and barely able to retain my footing, intent upon my purpose. Full strength had come back to my muscles, and my head was again clear. The imminent sense of danger seemed to bring me a feeling of happiness, of new confidence in myself. The die was cast, and whatever the result, I was going ahead to accomplish all that was humanly possible. From now on there was to be no doubting, no turning back. A voice, high-pitched, echoed to me across the water, reaching my ears a mere thread of sound, the words indistinguishable. It must have been an order, for, a moment later, I distinguished the clank of capstan bars, as though men of the crew were engaged in warping the vessel off shore for greater safety. The movement was too deliberate and noiseless to mean the lifting of the anchor, nor was it accompanied by any flapping of sail, or shifting of yards to denote departure. Nevertheless even this movement decided me to delay my attempt no longer, and, with strong, silent strokes I swam forward, directly breasting the force of the incoming sea, yet making fair progress. Some unconsidered current must have swept me to the right, for, when the outlines of the bark again became dimly visible through the night, I found myself well to starboard of the vessel, and quite likely would have passed it by altogether, but for the sudden rattle of a block aloft, causing me to glance in that direction. As my eyes explored the darkness, yet uncertain that I really beheld the Namur, a light flared for a brief instant, and I had glimpse of a face illumined by the yellow glare, as the single spark of flame ignited a cigarette. It was all over with so swiftly, swallowed up in that blackness, as to seem a vision of imagination. Yet I knew it to be real. Stroking well under water, and with only my eyes exposed above the surface, I changed my course to the left, and slowly and cautiously drew in toward the starboard bow. A few moments later, unperceived from above, and protected from observation by the bulge of the overhang, and density of shadow, my hands clung to the anchor hawser, my mind busy in devising some means for attaining the deck.