Chapter XV. The Cabin of the Namur
 

Both huge black hands grasped the spokes, and it was evident that it required all his giant strength to control the bucking wheel. He was an ugly-looking brute, the lower portion of his face apelike, and the wool growing so low as to leave him scarcely an inch of forehead. His eyes lifted an instant from the binnacle card to glance at me curiously. They exhibited no flash of recognition. With sudden relief, and a determination to thoroughly assure myself, I stepped forward and accosted him.

"Little heavy for one man, isn't it?"

"Oh, Ah don't mind, boss," his thick lips grinning. "Ah's bin alone worse tricks den dis."

"You seem to be holding the course, all right--sou'west, by sou', Senor LeVere says."

"Yas, Senor."

"What is your name?"

"Cochose, Senor; Ah's a French nigger."

"Very good, Cochose; my name is Gates, and I am the new first officer. If you need any help, let me know."

He nodded, still grinning, to let me realize he understood, and I stepped aside, confident that the fellow retained no recollection of my features. The relief of this knowledge was considerable, and I gazed over the bark forward with a new feeling of security. Thus far I had successfully passed the test, and been accepted by all on board. The only remaining danger of recognition lay in the early recovery of Sanchez, and, as I glanced aside at Estada the conviction became fixed in my mind that such recovery was doubtful. I felt that I had already penetrated the cowardly plan of the Portuguese, but felt no inclination to interpose. Indeed I had more occasion to dread the return of Sanchez to command than did Estada himself. With me life was at stake; while with him it was but the goal of ambition and power. Brutal and evil minded as Estada undoubtedly was, I had taken his measure, and felt confident of being able to outwit him; but Sanchez would prove a different problem, for he possessed brains and cool, resourceful courage. Of the two he was far more to be feared.

For half an hour Estada hung about aft, apparently paying no attention to me, and yet watching my movements closely. There was little to be done, but I thought it best to keep the watch reasonably busy, so they might thus learn that I knew my work. They proved prompt and capable enough, although I was eyed with some curiosity when I went forward, and, no doubt was very thoroughly discussed behind my back. The idlers amidships were a totally different class--a mongrel scum, profanely chatting in Spanish, or swaggering about the deck, their very looks a challenge. However they kept out of my way, and I found no occasion to interfere with their diversions. After Estada left the deck the majority amused themselves gambling, and as I had received no orders to interfere, I permitted the games to proceed. Mendez interfered only once on occasion of a brief fight. My only instructions from the Portuguese on his going below was to call him at once if a sail was sighted. Apparently he was satisfied of my ability to command the deck.

No occasion to call him arose during my watch. The mist of fog slowly rose, and drifted away, leaving a wide view of ocean, but revealed no glimpse of any other craft. The white-crested waves gleamed in the sun, as we plowed bravely through them, and the wind steadily decreased in violence. I had the crew shake out reefs in jib and foresail, and was surprised myself at the sailing qualities of the bark. In spite of breadth of beam, and heavy top-hamper, she possessed speed and ease of control, and must have been a pretty sight, as we bowled along through that deserted sea. Before my watch was up I could see Gunsaules through the skylight busily preparing the table in the cabin below. It was still daylight, but with a purple gleam across the waters, when LeVere arrived on deck for my relief. We were talking together abaft the wheel when Estada appeared in the companion-way.

"Every promise of a clear night," he said, glancing about at the horizon. "Better change the course two points east LeVere; we are lying in too close to the coast for our purpose. The table call will come very shortly, Senor Gates."

I washed up hastily in my stateroom, and came out into the cabin perplexed as to what might occur within the next few moments. Yet whatever the result, there was no avoiding it. Would the girl be called to join us, as the Portuguese had threatened? Had she received my note of warning? And if so, would she have the strength to play her part so as to avoid suspicion? Those keen searching eyes of Estada's would note every movement, observe every fleeting expression. He had no present doubt of me, only the caution natural to one leading his life of danger. He believed my story, and nothing thus far had arisen to bring him the slightest doubt. To his mind I was a reckless adventurer, ruined by drink, a drifting derelict, so glad to be picked up, and given rank, as to be forever grateful and loyal to the one aiding me. While his instinct made him distrust an Englishman, he already had some measure of faith in me personally, yet this confidence was still so light as to be completely shattered by the slightest mishap. My every move must be one of extreme caution.

He and Estevan were awaiting me, the latter all rigged out, and with smooth black hair oiled and plastered down upon his forehead. I never beheld a more disagreeable face, or one which so thoroughly revealed the nature of a man. As I touched his hand, at Estada's brief introduction, it was as if I fingered a snake, and expected to be greeted with a kiss. Gunsaules hovered about an open door leading forward, and the table had been set for four. As I knew LeVere had eaten alone, before coming to my relief, the only conclusion was that the Portuguese intended that we be joined by the prisoner. Indeed he gave me little time for doubt.

"This is your chair, Gates, and you will find we live well aboard the Namur--wine, women and song--hey, Manuel! Why not, when all are at command? Steward, you told the lady what my orders were?"

"Si, Senor."

"Then bid her join us."

We stood in silence, as Gunsaules crossed the deck, and inserted a key in the afterstateroom door. Manuel was grinning in full enjoyment, but the expression on the face of Estada was that of grim cruelty. Evidently he expected a scene, an outburst of resentment, pleading and tears, and was ready enough to exercise his authority. Perhaps he meant all this as a lesson to me; perhaps it was no more than a natural exhibition of his nature. Yet his purpose to conquer was clearly depicted in his features---this woman would be made to obey, or else ruthlessly crushed. I felt my hands grip like iron on my chair back and my teeth clinch in restraint. God, but I would have liked to grip the fellow where he stood--all the bottled-up hatred in my soul struggling for action. Yet that would only mean the death of all hope, and I turned my eyes away from him, and stared with the others at the opening door. I failed to catch the words Gunsaules uttered, but they were instantly responded to. Out into the full light of the cabin the woman came, and halted, barely a step in advance of the steward, her head uplifted proudly, her eyes on us. Never before had I realized her beauty, her personality, as I did then. The glow of the light was upon her face, and there was color in her cheeks, and a strange appealing look in her eyes. Her posture was not that of defiance, nor of surrender; she stood as a woman defending her right to respect, sustained by a wonderful courage. I caught her glance, but there was no recognition in it; not by the flicker of an eyelid did she betray surprise, and yet in some mysterious manner a flash of intelligence passed between us. It was all instantaneous for her gaze seemed to concentrate on Estada as though she knew him as leader.

"You sent for me? For what?" she asked, her Spanish clear and well chosen.

"To join us at meal," he answered unmoved. "It is better than to remain alone."

"Better! You must have a strange opinion of me to believe I would sit with murderers and thieves."

"Harsh words, Senorita," and Estada grinned grimly. "Yet I expected them. There are many trades in the world by which men are robbed. We only work at the one we like best; nor will I discuss that with you. However, Senorita, I can say that we have taken no lives in this last affair."

"No lives!" in sudden, incredulous surprise. "You mean my uncle lives?"

"If you refer to Fairfax--the one in whose room the chest was hidden, I can reply truthfully that he lives. One of my men struck him down, but it was not a death blow. If that be the reason of your disdain, there is no cause. This chair is held for you."

"But why was I brought away a prisoner? To be a plaything? A sport for your pleasure?"

"That was but the orders of our chief; we await his recovery to learn his purpose."

"Sanchez! was he your chief? A pirate?"

"A buccaneer; we prey on the enemies of Spain," he explained, apparently believing his own words. "It is war with us, without regard to treaties. We rob only that we may carry on the war. They have robbed us, and now it has become our turn. It was at Captain Sanchez's orders we waited the arrival of your vessel from England. It seems he met you on the voyage."

"Yes," breathlessly.

"He loved you; he would, no doubt, have dealt with you honorably: I have reason to believe that to be his purpose now. To this end you gave him no encouragement--is not this true?"

"I--I did not like him."

"Yet it was his will that you should. Nothing will change his purpose. He is that kind, and he has the power. He determined that if you would not come to him by choice, you should be made to by force. You are here now by his orders and will remain until you consent to his purpose--all that remains for you to decide is whether you choose to be prisoner, or guest aboard."

Her questioning, perplexed eyes turned from face to face, as though she could not grasp fully the purpose of what was said.

"He--he is still alive--this Captain Sanchez?"

"Yes, with a chance to survive."

"And if he lives I am to be at his disposal?"

"He is the chief here; his will is law aboard."

"And if he should die?"

Estada shrugged his shoulders indifferently.

"Who knows!"

Her lips tightened as though to hold back a cry while one hand pressed to the open door steadied her. The cheeks were no longer flushed, and there was a look in the searching eyes I did not like to see. It was a moment before she could control her voice.

"I have heard them call you Estada," she said finally, determined to learn the whole truth. "Of what rank in this company are you?"

"I am Pedro Estada, formerly the first officer, now, by occasion of Captain Sanchez's wound, in full command. These are two of my officers--Senor Gates, one of your own countrymen, and Manuel Estevan."

"You are pirates?"

He laughed unpleasantly, as though the word had an ugly sound even to his ears.

"Rather call us sea rovers, Senorita. It better expresses our trade. Enough to admit that we serve under no flag, and confess no master. And now, that I have answered your questions, what is it to be between us--peace or war?"

Her eyes drooped, and I could distinctly note the trembling of her slender figure. When she slowly raised her glance once more it rested on my face as though seeking approval, guidance.

"If there be only the one choice," she said quietly. "I accept peace. I cannot live locked in that room alone, haunted by my thoughts and memories. If I pledge you my word, Senor, am I to enjoy the freedom of this cabin and the deck?"

Estada looked at us, a shade of doubt in his eyes. I made no sign, but Manuel nodded.

"Why not?" he asked in his harsh croak of a voice. "So long as we be at sea? What harm can the girl do?"

"Perhaps none; I will take a half chance, at least. You shall have the freedom of the cabin. So long as you keep your word, while as to the deck we will consider that later. Prove you mean what you say by joining us here."

My recollection of that meal is not of words, but of faces. I do not even clearly recall what it was we talked about, although it included a variety of topics, limited somewhat by lack of knowledge on the part of Estada and Manuel. The former attempted conversation, but soon gave up the effort in despair. His eyes, however, sought constantly the girl's face and to my consternation exhibited an interest in her personality which promised trouble. I know not whether she noticed this awakening admiration, but she certainly played her part with quiet modesty, speaking just enough to entertain, and hiding the deep anxiety against which she struggled. I believe that even the Portuguese reached the conclusion that she was not altogether regretful for this adventure and that it was safe for him to relax some degree of vigilance. His manner became more gracious and, long before the meal ended, his language had a tendency to compliment and flatter. I contented myself with occasional sentences. The young woman sat directly across from me, our words overheard by all, and as I knew both men possessed some slight knowledge of English, I dare not venture beyond commonplace conversation in that tongue. With quick wit she took her cue from me, so that nothing passed between us, either by word of mouth or glance of eye, to arouse suspicions.

Believing the feeling of confidence would be increased by such action, I was first to leave the table, and it being my watch below, immediately retired to my room, noisily closing the door after me, yet refraining from letting the latch catch, thus enjoying a slight opening through which to both see and hear. Manuel did not linger long, making some excuse to go forward, but Estada remained for some time, endeavoring to entertain. She laughed at his efforts and appeared interested in encouraging him, so that he kept his spirit of good humor even amid these difficulties. His egotism made a fool of the man, yet even he finally became discouraged of making her comprehend his meaning, and lapsed into a silence which gave her an excuse to retire. This was accomplished so graciously as to leave no sting, the fellow actually accompanying her to the door of her stateroom, bowing his compliments as she disappeared within. The fool actually believed he had made a conquest and preened himself like a turkey cock.

"Gunsaules."

"Senor."

"You need not lock the Senorita in her room or guard her in any way hereafter. She is permitted to come and go as she pleases aboard."

"Si, Senor."

"You have served the Captain and Jose? Yes--did the wounded man eat at all?"

"A little soup, Senor; he would taste nothing else."

Estada entered his own stateroom, leaving the door ajar. When he came out he had exchanged his coat for a rough jacket. Thus attired for a turn on deck, he disappeared through the companion.