Chapter XIII. I Accept a Proposal
 

I went on deck with the watch, and mingled with them forward. No one in authority took any particular notice of me, and I was permitted to take hold with the others at the various tasks. A Portuguese boatswain asked me who I was, and later reported my presence to LeVere, who had charge of the deck, but the only result was my being set at polishing the gun mounted on the forecastle. The mulatto did not come forward, and I rejoiced at having my status aboard so easily settled, and being permitted to remain in the same watch with Watkins.

It was a dull gray morning, the gloominess of the overhanging clouds reflected in the water. Men on lookout were stationed in the fore-top and on the heads, yet the sharpest eyes could scarcely see beyond a half mile in any direction. The sea came at us in great ocean swells, but the stout bark fought a passage through them, shivering with each blow, yet driven forward on her course by half-reefed sails, standing hard as boards in the sweep of the steady gale. Two men struggled at the wheel, and there were times when LeVere paused in his promenade from rail to rail to give them a helping hand. His anxiety was evidenced by his hailing the mast-head every few moments, only to receive each time the same response. The mist failed to lift, but seemed to shut us in more closely with every hour, the wind growing continually more boisterous, but LeVere held on grimly. I was kept at the guns during the entire time of our watch. Besides the Long Tom forward, a vicious piece, two swivel guns were on each side, completely concealed by the thick bulwarks, and to be fired through ports, so ingeniously closed as to be imperceptible a few yards away. All these pieces of ordnance were kept covered by tarpaulin so that at a little distance the Namur of Rotterdam appeared like a peaceful Dutch trader.

There was a brass carronade at the stern in plain view, and so mounted as to be swung inboard in case of necessity. Its ugly muzzle could thus rake the deck fore and aft, but the presence of such a piece would create no suspicion in those days when every ship was armed for defense, and consequently no effort was made for its concealment. I was busily at work on this bit of ordnance, when Estada came on deck for a moment. After staring aloft, and about the horizon into the impenetrable mist, he joined LeVere at the port rail in a short earnest conversation. As the two worthies parted the fellow chanced to observe me. I caught the quick look of recognition in his eyes, but bent to my work as though indifferent to his presence, yet failed to escape easily.

"You must be a pretty tough bird, Gates," he said roughly, "or I would have killed you last night--I had the mind too."

Something about his voice and manner led me to feel that, in spite of his roughness, he was not in bad humor.

"That would have been a mistake, sir," I answered, straightening up, rag in hand, "for it would have cost you a good seaman."

"Hoila! they are easily picked up; one, more or less, counts for little in these seas."

He looked at me searchingly, for the first time perhaps, actually noting my features. In spite of my dirty, disheveled appearance and the bruises disfiguring my face, this scrutiny must have aroused his curiosity.

"Why do you say that, my man?" he questioned sharply. "You were before the mast and drifted aboard here because you were drunk--isn't that true?"

"Partially, yes. It was drink that put me before the mast." I explained, rejoicing in his mood, and suddenly hoping such a statement might help my status aboard. "Three years ago I was skipper on my own vessel. It was Rum ruined me."

"Saint Christopher! Do you mean to say you can read charts, and take observations?"

I smiled, encouraged by his surprise, and the change in his tone.

"Yes, sir; I saw ten years' service as mate."

"What was your last ship?"

"The Bombay Castle, London to Hong Kong; I wrecked her off Cape Mendez in a fog. I was drunk below, and it cost me my ticket."

"You know West Indian waters?"

"Slightly; I made two voyages to Panama, and one to Havana."

"And speak Spanish?"

"A little bit, sir, as you see; I learn languages easily."

He stared straight into my face, but, without uttering another word, turned on his heel and went below. Whether, or not, I had made an impression on the fellow I did not know. His face was a mask perfectly concealing his thought. That he had appeared interested enough to question me had in it a measure of encouragement. He would surely remember, and sometime he might have occasion to make use of me. At least I would no longer remain in his mind as a mere foremast hand to be kicked about, and spoken to like a dog. I went back to my polishing of brass in a more cheerful mood--perhaps this would prove the first step leading to my greater future liberty on the Namur. I had finished my labor on the carronade, and was fastening down securely the tarpaulin, when a thin, stoop-shouldered fellow, with a hang-dog face crept up the ladder to the poop, and shuffled over to where LeVere was gazing out over the rail, oblivious to his approach.

"Mister LeVere, sir," he spoke apologetically, his voice no more than a wisp of sound.

The mulatto wheeled about startled.

"Oh, it's you! Well, what is it, Gunsaules?"

"Senor Estada, sir; he wishes to see a sailor named Gates in the cabin."

"Who? Gates? Oh, yes, the new man." He swept his eyes about, until he saw me. "Gates is your name, isn't it?"

"Yes, sir."

"Follow the steward below; Senor Estada wishes to see you--go just as you are."

"Very good, sir--is this the steward?"

The fellow led the way, amusing me by the peculiar manner in which his long legs clung to the ladder, and then wobbled about on the rolling deck until he attained the protection of the companion-way. A half dozen broad, uncarpeted steps led down into the after cabin, which was plain and practically without furniture, except for a bare table suspended from the upper beams and a few chairs securely resting in chocks. The deck was bare, but had been thoroughly scrubbed, the water not entirely dried, and forward there was a rack of small arms, the polished steel shining in the gray light of the transom overhead. The Dutch character of the bark was very apparent here, in the excessively heavy deck beams, and the general gloom of the interior, finished off in dark wood and ornamented with carved paneling. Filled with wonderment as to why I had been sent for, I halted at the foot of the steps gazing about the dreary interior, surprised at its positive dinginess. There were evidently six staterooms opening on the main cabin, and these must be little more than boxes to judge from the breadth of the vessel. What was farther aft I could not determine because of a lack of light, but as no stern ports were visible, it was to be assumed that this gave space for two more larger staterooms directly astern--occupied probably by the Captain and his first officer. There was no one in the main cabin, although a cat lay asleep on one of the chairs, and after a moment's hesitancy, I followed the beckoning steward, who rapped with his knuckles on one of the side doors. Estada's voice answered.

"Who is it?"

"Gunsaules, Senor; I have with me the sailor." "Open the door, and let him in; I would see him here. Come inside, Gates." His eyes surveyed us both in the narrow opening. "That will be all Juan; no one is to be admitted until I tell you--and, 'twill be well for you to remain by the stairs on guard, you understand?"

"Si, Senor."

"Another thing," sternly, "don't let me catch you listening outside the door; if I do God have mercy on you."

"Si, Senor."

I stepped inside, doubtful enough of what all this might mean, yet quite prepared to accept of any chance it might offer. Gunsaules closed the door softly, but I had already visioned the apartment in all its details. It was small, and nearly square, a swinging lantern in the center, a single bunk on one side, and a small table on the other, screwed to the wall, and covered with charts and various papers. A few books were upon a shelf above this, and a sea chest was shoved under the bunk. Some oilskins, together with a suit of clothes dangled from wooden pins, while the only other furniture consisted of a straight-backed chair, and a four-legged stool. The round port stood partly open, and through it I could see the gray expanse of water.

All these I perceived at a glance, but the instant the door closed behind me my entire attention concentrated on Estada. He sat upright in the chair gazing straight at me, his own face clearly revealed in the light from the open port. It seemed to me I was looking at the man for the first time, and it was not a pleasant picture. His face was swarthy, long and thin, with hard, set lips under a long, intensely black moustache, his cheeks strangely crisscrossed by lines. The nose was large, distinctively Roman, yielding him a hawklike appearance, but it was his eyes which fascinated me. They were dark, and deeply set, absolute wells of cruelty. I had never before seen such eyes in the face of a human being; they were beastly, devilish; I could feel my blood chill as I looked into their depths, yet I held myself erect, and waited for the man to speak. It seemed a long delay, yet doubtless was scarcely more than a moment. Then his lips curled in what was meant to be a smile, and he waved his hand.

"Sit down on the stool, Gates. Have you any knowledge of Portuguese?"

"None whatever, sir."

"Nor do I English; so we shall have to rely on the language of Spain."

"I am hardly expert in that" I explained. "But if you do not talk too fast, I can manage fairly well."

"I shall speak simply. Wait a moment."

He arose, stepped quietly to the door, and glanced out, returning apparently satisfied.

"I don't trust that damned steward," he said, "nor, as a matter of fact, anyone else wholly." He paused, and stared at me; then added: "I've never had any faith in your race, Gates, but am inclined to use you."

"I do not know any special reason why you should sir."

"No more do I. Every Englishman I ever knew was a liar, and a sneaking poltroon. I was brought up to hate the race, and always have. I can't say that I like you any better than the others. By God! I don't, for the matter of that. But just now you can be useful to me if you are of that mind. This is a business proposition, and it makes no odds if we hate each other, so the end is gained. How does that sound?"

I shifted my position so as to gain a clearer view of his face. I was still wholly at sea as to what the fellow was driving at--yet, evidently enough he was in earnest. It was my part to find out.

"Not altogether bad," I admitted. "I have been in some games of chance before."

"I thought as much," eagerly, "and money has the same chink however it be earned. You could use some?"

"If I had any to use; after a sailor has been drunk there is not apt to be much left in his pockets."

He reached across into the upper bunk, and brought forth a bottle and glass, placing these upon the table at his elbow.

"Have a drink first," he said, pouring it out. "It will stiffen your nerve."

"Thanks, no, Senor. I have nerve enough and once I start that sort of thing there is no stopping. Take it yourself and then tell me what is in the wind."

"I will, Gates," affecting cordiality, although I somehow felt that my refusal to imbibe had aroused a faint suspicion in his mind. "But I would rather you would show yourself a good fellow. I like to see a man take his liquor and hold it."

He sat down the emptied glass, and straightened back in the chair, his eyes searching as ever.

"The fact is," he began doubtfully, "what you just said to me on deck chanced to be of interest. You were not boasting?"

"I answered your questions truthfully, if that is what you mean."

"You are a navigator?"

"I was in command of ships for four years, Senor; naturally I know navigation."

"Do you mind if I test you?"

"Not in the least; although it will have to be in English; as I do not know the Spanish sea terms."

"Let that go then; I will soon learn if you have lied, and that will be a sorry day for you. I'll tell you, Gates, how matters stand aboard, and why I have need of your skill. Then you may take your choice--the forecastle, or the cabin?"

"You invite me aft, Senor?"

"I give you a chance to move your dunnage, if you will do my work," he explained seriously. "Listen now. Sanchez has been badly hurt. It may be weeks before he leaves his cabin, if, indeed, he ever does. That leaves me in command with but one officer, the mulatto, LeVere. This might answer to take us safely to Porto Grande, as we could stand watch and watch, but Francois is no sailor. It was his part on board to train and lead the fighting men--he cannot navigate. Saint Christopher! I fear to leave him alone in charge of the deck while I snatch an hour's sleep."

"I see," I admitted. "And yourself, Senor? You are a seaman?"

He hated to confess, yet my eyes were honest, and met his squarely.

"Enough to get along, but not quite sure as to my figures. I have taken no sights, except as we came north, on this trip. 'Tis for this reason I need you--but you will play me no smart English trick, my man, or I'll have you by the heels at once. I know enough to verify your figures."

"I thought of no trick, Estada." I said coldly, now satisfied as to his purpose, and confident of my own power. "English, or otherwise. It is well we understand each other. You would have me as navigator, very well--at what terms?"

His eyes seemed to narrow, and become darker.

"With rating as first officer, and your fair proportion of all spoils."

"You mean then to continue the course? To attack vessels on the high seas?"

"Why not?" sneeringly. "Are you too white-livered for that sort of job? If so, then you are no man for me. It is a long voyage to Porto Grande, and no reason why we should hurry home; the welcome there will be better if we bring chests of gold aboard. Ay, and the thought will put hope into the hearts of the crew; they are restless now from long waiting."

"But Captain Sanchez? You have no surgeon I am told. Will he not suffer from neglect of his wound?"

"Suffer? No more than under a leech ashore. All that can be done, has been. There are men aboard able to treat any ordinary wound. His was a clean knife thrust, which has been washed, treated with lotion, and bound up. No leech could do more."

"And my quarters--will they be aft?"

"You will have your choice of those at port. Come now--have you an answer ready?"

"I would be a fool not to have," heartily. "I am your man Estada."