Chapter XVI. In Dorothy's Stateroom
 

I stood crouched, with eye at the crack watchful of every movement in the lighted cabin, my own decision made. I must see and talk with Dorothy. We must understand each other, and the earlier we could thus begin working together in unison, the better. Gunsaules bore a tray of dishes from the Captain's room and then, after carefully wiping up the main table, and sliding it up out of the way on its stantions, placed a bottle of brandy and some glasses on a swinging shelf. Apparently satisfied that his work there was completed he turned down the light, and departed along the passage leading amidships. A moment later I heard the sound of dishes grinding together preparatory to being washed. No better opportunity for action was likely to occur, although the situation was not without peril. Jose might emerge at any instant from Sanchez's cabin, while I had no reason to be assured that Estada would remain long on deck. Even if he did, any movement below could be observed through the overhead glass. Indeed it might be with this purpose in view that he had gone outside. However I felt compelled to accept the chance. The light was so dim that I believed I could steal cautiously along in the deeper shadows without attracting attention from the deck, even if someone stood there on watch.

I moved noiselessly leaving my own door slightly ajar, and crept along close to the side walls until I attained my destination. Nothing occurred causing me to fear my movements were detected. To have knocked at the closed door however softly might be overheard, so knowing it to be unlocked I merely lifted the latch noiselessly, and slipped quickly within. There was no light, except a glimmer of stars through a large after port, but against this faint radiance she stood vaguely revealed. Evidently the girl had been standing there, gazing out at the waters, and had turned swiftly about at my entrance, aroused by some slight sound. Her first thought must have been Estada, for there was a startled note of fear in her challenge.

"Who are you? Why do you come here?"

"Speak low," I cautioned. "You must know my voice."

"Geoffry Carlyle!"

"Yes, but do not use that name--all hope depends on my remaining unknown. You welcome me?"

She came straight forward through the dim star-shine, a spectral figure, with both hands outstretched.

"Welcome!" her tone that of intense sincerity. "Your presence gives me all the strength I have. But for you I should throw myself through that port into the sea. But I know not how you came here--tell me, you are not really one of these wretches?"

"No; you must believe that first of all, and trust me."

"I do--but--but tell me all you can."

"Is there a divan here, or anywhere we can sit down together? I can see nothing in this darkness."

"Yes, hold my hand while I guide you; we can sit here." It was a couch of some kind against the outer wall. She did not release her grasp, seemingly gaining courage from this physical contact, and my fingers closed warmly over her own.

"Now please," breathlessly, "how is it possible you are aboard this vessel--an officer?"

I told her the strange story, as swiftly and simply as possible, speaking scarcely above a whisper, feeling as I progressed that I related a dream rather than a series of facts. It seemed to me she could scarcely be expected to believe the truth of what I said, and yet she did, almost unquestioningly, the clasp of her fingers perceptibly tightening as I proceeded. The soft light from the open port touched her face slightly, enough to reveal its outline and she sat so close beside me, her eyes uplifted to mine, that I could feel her breath upon my cheek.

"Why, if---if you had not told me this yourself I could hardly believe such a tale," she exclaimed. "Yet it must be true, miraculous as it seems. But what is to be the ending? Have you any plan of escape?"

"Hardly a plan. I have had no opportunity even to learn the true nature of the crew. Watkins is an honest sailor, and he has told me of others on whom I could rely. There are those aboard--but I do not know how many--who would mutiny if they had a leader, and a reasonable chance of success. I must reach these and learn who they are. Fortunately the voyage promises to be long enough to enable me to plan carefully."

"You have discussed the voyage with this man--Estada?" "He told me what he had decided upon; not to return to their rendezvous until after they had captured some prizes, and could go with gold chinking in their pockets."

"They have gold already--the chest taken from my uncle."

"That only serves to make such as these more greedy."

"Where is their rendezvous?"

"An island in the West Indies, probably not on the chart. They call it Porto Grande."

"And they will sweep the ocean between here and there, seeking victims? Unarmed merchantmen to rob and sink? And you--you will be compelled to take part in such scenes, such acts of pillage and perhaps murder. Is this true?"

"I presume I must seem to be one of them to avoid suspicion. There is some hope in my mind that we may chance to run into an English or French warship. Quite a few must be cruising in these waters. But these are only contingencies; they may happen and they may not. How we are to act under such conditions will have to be decided later. Now we must be content to seek release through our own efforts. Have you any suggestions?"

She was silent for a long moment, during which she withdrew her hand, pressing it over her eyes as though thus to better concentrate her thoughts.

"There is conspiracy on board already," she said finally "that you may not know about."

"You mean to depose Sanchez?" I questioned in surprise.

"Yes; you had suspicioned it? They thought me unconscious in the boat, and talked among themselves--the two at the stern, Estada and that beast, Manuel. I did not understand all they said, only a word or two, but I do not think they intend the Captain shall recover."

"You think it best that he should?"

"Oh, I do not know; there is no best that I can see. Yet I would have more faith in being spared disgrace if at the mercy of Sanchez, than his lieutenant. Both may be equally guilty, equally desperate, but they are not the same men."

"True, but I know not which is to be most feared."

"I may be wrong," she insisted, "for I judge as a woman, yet I would feel safer with Sanchez. He cares not much for me, perhaps, yet enough so that I possess some power over him. The other does not--he merely desires with the passions of a brute. No appeal would reach him; he would laugh at tears and find pleasure in suffering. I do not quite believe this of Sanchez."

"Perhaps not---the other may be the greater beast."

"I know he is; the proof is in those horrid eyes. What is the man? Of what race?"

"Portuguese, I am told, but likely a half-breed."

"Ugh! it makes me shudder to even look at him; and yet you would have me appear friendly?"

"We cannot permit him to feel that either of us are enemies. He is the power aboard; our lives, everything are in his hands. If he means to be rid of Sanchez, the man is doomed, for he will find a way to accomplish his purpose at whatever cost; murder means nothing to these men."

"Of course you are right," she acknowledged. "Our case is so desperate we must resort to any weapons. You believe it will serve the possibility of escape if I permit this monster to imagine that I have some interest in him?"

"To do so might delay the explosion," I replied gravely, "and just now any delay is welcome. I know how such an effort will try you, but the end may be well worth the sacrifice. I doubt if even Estada will resort to force on board; indeed force will be the very last card he will care to play in your case. He is a brute, and capable of any crime, yet at heart a coward. There is reason why he will fear to assault you. You are English and all the practical seamen on board are from northern Europe--English and Scandinavian. These men are not pirates from choice--they are prisoners who have taken on to save their own lives. With his bullies and cut-throats amidships he can compel them to work, but he dare not go too far. Once these fellows unite in mutiny they could take the ship. An assault on you would be dangerous."

"It is these men you count on?"

"Yes; but for me to gain their confidence and leadership will require time. I must reach them all secretly and alone. Not more than half are in my watch, and Watkins must approach the others. A plan for concerted action will have to be arranged, and every precaution taken. The slightest slip would mean failure, and merciless punishment. Even if I succeed in gathering together all these better elements on board, we shall yet be outnumbered two to one, perhaps more, and our only hope rests in surprise. At best the situation is absolutely desperate--but I see no other solution."

"And my service is deceit--the acting of a part to blind the eyes of Estada?"

"I sincerely believe your greater chance of security lies in this course. The fellow is a supreme egotist; opposition will anger him, while flattery will make him subservient. You have the wit and discretion to hold him within certain limits. It is a dangerous game, I admit, and a disagreeable one, but the case requires desperate remedies."

She lifted her eyes, searching my face through the dim light.

"Geoffry Carlyle," she said, at last, a tremor in the low voice, "there is no sacrifice I would not make to preserve my honor. I hate this man; I dread his touch; I shrink from contact with him, as I would from a snake, but I am not going to refuse to do my part. If you say this is right, and justified, I will consent."

"I believe it is."

"And you will not lose faith in me?" she questioned earnestly. "It will not lower your belief in my womanhood?"

"Nothing could do that. Mistress Dorothy, I want you to realize the depth of my interest and respect. Your friendliness has meant much to me, and I would never urge you to lower your ideals. But we must face this situation as it is. You cannot cling now to the standards of London, or even Maryland. We are on the ocean, upon a pirate ship, surrounded by men utterly devoid of all restraint--hell-hounds of the sea, who live by murder and pillage. We possess but two weapons of defense--deceit, or force. A resort to the latter is at present impossible. I cannot conceive that you are lowering yourself in any way by using the power you possess to escape violence--"

"The power I possess?"

"Yes--beauty and wit. These are your weapons, and most effective ones. You can play with Estada and defeat him--temporarily at least. I confess there is danger in such a game--he is a wild beast, and his evil nature may overcome his discretion. You are armed?"

"No; I have never felt the need."

"Then take this," and I thrust a pistol into her hands. "I took it from the rack in the cabin, and can get another. It is charged; keep it hidden about your person, but use it only when all else fails. Do you see this necessity now from my standpoint?"

"Yes," hesitatingly, "all that you say is true, but--but the thought frightens me; it--it is like creeping into a lion's cage having only a fan with which to defend myself."

I smiled at her conceit.

"A fan rightly used is no insignificant weapon. In the hands of a woman it has won many a victory. I have faith in your wielding it to the best effect--the lasting discomfiture of Senor Estada."

"You laugh," indignantly, "believing me a coquette--a girl to play with men?"

"No; that misconstrues my thought. I believe you a true woman, yet possessing the natural instincts of your sex, and able to use your weapons efficiently. There is no evil in that, no reproach. I would not have you otherwise, and we must not misunderstand each other. You retain faith in me?"

"Implicitly."

"And pledge yourself to your part, leaving me to attend to mine?"

Her two hands clasped my fingers, her eyes uplifted.

"Geoffry Carlyle, I have always believed in you, and now, after the sacrifice you have made to serve me, I can refuse you nothing you ask. I will endeavor to accomplish all you require of me. God knows how I hate the task; but--but I will do my best. Only--only," her voice sank, "if--if the monster cannot be held, I will kill him."

"I hope you do."

"I shall! If the beast lays hands on me he--he pays the price. I could not do otherwise. Geoffry Carlyle--I am a Fairfax."

Satisfied with my mission, and confident nothing more need be said, I arose to my feet.

"Then we can do nothing further, until I learn the disposition of the crew," I said quietly. "Estada is not likely to resort to extreme measures at present. He has two objects before him---to permit Sanchez to die of his wounds, if that is at all probable; and to win the men by some successful capture. These fellows only retain command by success. The taking of a rich ship will make Estada a hero, while a defeat would mean his overthrow, and the ascendancy of someone else. There is no other test of a robber chief. Estada knows this, and will not dare act until he has put clinking coin in the pockets of his men. That is why I believe you are comparatively safe now--his own position of command is in the balance."

"I am glad you explained that to me, The knowledge will give me more confidence."

"Do not rely too much on his control of himself. There is no trust to be put in such a man. I must go now, and endeavor to reach my quarters unseen."

"I will see you again?"

"Perhaps not here; it is too dangerous, but I will find means to communicate with you. Possibly the steward can be trusted as a messenger; I will talk with him and make sure. Meanwhile we must not appear interested in each other. Good-bye."

We stood with hands clasped in the darkness. I thought she was going to speak again, but the words failed to come. Then suddenly, silently, the door opened a mere crack, letting in a gleam of yellow light from the main cabin, while the crouching figure of a man, like a gliding shadow slipped through the aperture, closing the door behind him as softly as he had opened it. I heard her catch her breath, and felt her hands grasp my sleeve, but I never stirred. The fellow had neither seen nor heard us, and I stared into the black curtain, endeavoring to locate him by some sound of movement.

Who could he be? What might be the purpose of his entrance? But one answer occurred to me--Pedro Estada, driven by unbridled passions to attack the girl. Mad as such an act would be, yet no other explanation seemed possible. I thrust her behind me, and took a step forward, with body poised for action. I was unarmed, but cared little for that in the swift desire felt to come to hand grips with the brute. I could hear him now, slowly and cautiously feeling his way toward us through the darkness.