Chapter XVII. A Murder on Board
 

The fellow made scarcely a sound as he advanced, yet, as I waited breathlessly, I felt assured of his stealthy approach. To be certain of free space I extended one hand and my fingers came into unexpected contact with the back of a chair. Without moving my body I grasped this welcome weapon of defense and swung it above my head. Whoever the invader creeping upon us might prove to be, he was certainly an enemy, actuated by some foul purpose, and, no doubt armed. To strike him down as quickly and silently as possible was therefore the plain duty of the moment. I had no other thought.

The slowness with which he groped his way forward indicated unfamiliarity with the apartment, although his direct advance proclaimed some special purpose. Clearly he had no fear of attack, believing no one more formidable than a girl was there to oppose him. The darkness, perhaps, and silence, convinced the fellow that she had already retired. He would have his grip on her, before she could even dream of his presence. Then there would be no scream, no alarm. I could determine almost his exact position as his advancing foot felt cautiously along the deck, seeking to avoid striking any obstacle in the darkness. He came forward inch by inch, and I had the sensation of awaiting the spring of some creeping animal, about to leap upon me. With tense muscles, the heavy chair poised for a blow, I measured the distance as indicated by faint, shuffling sounds, perceptible only because of the profound stillness.

I could not see, but I knew; I felt his presence; in imagination I pictured him, with arms outstretched, barely beyond my reach, deliberately advancing one foot for yet another step forward. With all my force I struck! Blindly as it had been delivered, the blow hit fair; there was a thud, an inarticulate groan, and the fall of a body onto the floor--beyond that nothing. I waited breathlessly, the chair back gripped in my hands, anxiously listening for the slightest movement. There was none to be distinguished; not so much as the quiver of a muscle. I felt Dorothy touch my shoulder, and caught the sound of her voice, trembling at my ear.

"What it is? What did you do?"

"I struck him with a chair; he lies there on the deck. Wait where you are until I learn what has happened."

I bent over and touched him, dropping to my knees, every nerve tingling as my hands felt of the recumbent body. The fellow lay in a heap, his flesh warm, but with no perceptible heart-beat, no semblance of breathing. My fingers sought his face, and I could scarcely suppress a cry of surprise--he was not Estada. Who then was he? What could have been his purpose in thus invading this stateroom? All I could grasp was the fact that the fellow was not the Portuguese--he possessed a smooth face, long hair, and was a much smaller man. It must have become overcast without, for the star-gleam was no longer visible through the after port, and yet a faint light entered, sufficient for my purpose. I dragged the body that way, dropping it where the slight illumination fell directly on the upturned face. The features revealed were unfamiliar--those unquestionably of a half-breed Indian. Dorothy crossed to my side, her foot striking a knife, which came glimmering into the narrow range of light. She stared in horror at the ugly weapon, and then at the ghastly countenance.

"Who is he? Do you know?"

"One I have never seen before; he must belong to the gang amidships--an Indian."

She shuddered, her voice trembling.

"He came to murder! See his knife lies there. Why should he have sought to kill me?"

"It is all mystery," I admitted, "and too deep for me. Perhaps it was a mistake, or the fellow thought you had jewels. Anyway he will never try that trick again--see, my blow crushed his skull."

"He is actually dead?"

"Beyond doubt. The chair was a heavy one, and I struck with all my strength. What shall be done with the body? It cannot be left lying exposed here; no one would believe you killed him, and my presence must not be suspected."

"Could it," she suggested, "be dropped astern through the port?"

"Ay, that might be done; it was dull of me not to think of that. Yet we must not risk a splash to be overheard on deck. Is there a rope of any kind to be had?"

"Only this curtain cord; it is not large, but strong." "That ought to do, if long enough; there must be a twenty-foot drop to the water. Yes, splice the two together; let me have them."

She shrank back from touching the inanimate figure, her face very pale in the dim light, yet it required the combined efforts of both to force the stiffening body through the port hole, and then lower it slowly to the surging water below. The cord cut our hands cruelly, but it held, and the dead man sank beneath the surface, and was swept swiftly astern, into the black depths. We could distinguish footsteps on the deck above, but these were regular and undisturbed--the slow promenade from rail to rail of the officer on watch. Clearly nothing had been heard, or seen, to awaken suspicion. I turned back, as the released body vanished, to look into her face, which was scarcely visible.

"If you should be questioned tomorrow you had best know nothing," I said gravely. "I do not think you will be, for surely such an attack can be no plan of Estada's. It could gain him no advantage. The fellow was pillaging on his own account; if he is missed it will be supposed he fell overboard, and no one will greatly care."

"You will be able to learn? I--I shall feel better if I know the truth."

"Possibly; however it will be safer for me not to ask questions. I am not myself in too good repute aboard. You are not afraid to remain here alone?"

"No; I am not greatly frightened but shall try and bar the door with a chair. I have no key."

"Then I'll leave you; half of my watch below must be gone by now. I'll take the fellow's knife along, as it must not be found here."

We parted with a clasp of hands, as I opened the stateroom door, and slipped out into the cabin. To my surprise the light over the table had been extinguished, rendering the cabin so black I held to actually feel my way forward. This struck me as very strange, particularly as I recalled clearly that a stream of light had flashed into the after stateroom with the entrance of the prowler. The lantern must have been put out since then by some confederate. Gunsaules would be soundly asleep long ago, and the light was supposed to burn until morning. However there was no noise, other than the creaking and groaning of the ship's timbers, mingled with the steady tread of LeVere on the upper deck. So, after a moment of hesitation, I found my way across to my own stateroom and pressed open the door.

A misty light came in through the port, sufficient to show me all was exactly as I had left it, and I flung off my jacket preparatory to lying down for a short rest before being recalled for the watch on deck. The hilt of the knife in my belt attracted my attention, and I drew it forth, curious to learn if it bore any mark of ownership. Whether it did, or not, I shall never know, as my eyes were instantly attracted to a dark stain on both hilt and blade. I held it to the light--it was the stain of blood, and my hands were also reddened by it. In that first instant of horror, I hurled the weapon out through the open port into the sea. Blood! human blood, without doubt! There had been murder committed on board, and the fellow I had struck down was seeking refuge, endeavoring to find concealment following his crime. Ay, but what about the light in the cabin? It had been extinguished after the fleeing fugitive had entered Dorothy's stateroom. Did this mean that the slayer had an accomplice? If so, then the killing was not the result of a mere personal quarrel amidships, or in the forecastle; but the result of some conspiracy. I thought of Sanchez, and of Estada's plan to obtain control of the ship. Could this be its culmination? And was the Spaniard already lying dead in his cabin? This was the only solution of the mystery which seemed probable, and yet this did not wholly satisfy my mind. Not that I questioned the fiendishness of Estada, or his coconspirator, Manuel, or their unwillingness to commit such a crime, but it seemed so unnecessarily brutal. Why should they stab a man already so severely wounded as to be threatened with death? he was helpless, and in their power; neglect, or at most a simple reopening of his wounds, would be sufficient for their purpose. To attack him anew would only mean exposure, and perhaps awaken the enmity of the crew.

Nothing came of my thought--only confusion; nor did I dare investigate for fear of becoming more deeply involved in the tragedy. There had been no alarm; everything aboard was going on as usual; I could hear LeVere tramping the deck, and occasionally catch the echo of his voice, as he hailed the main-top, or gave some order to the men forward. No, there was nothing to be done; my safety, and the safety of the girl depended on our apparent ignorance of what had occurred. We must have no part in it, no knowledge or suspicion. There was nothing to do but wait the revelation of the morning. Convincing myself of this, I washed the blood stains from my hands, and lay down in the bunk, fully dressed to await my call. Evidently the wind had decreased, as the Namur pitched but little in the sea, and I could hear the scuffling of feet indicating a new spread of canvas above. The night air, blowing in through my open port became so chill that I covered myself with a blanket. The vessel creaked and groaned in every joint, some of the sounds actually startling me with their resemblance to cries of human agony. I tossed about, occasionally sitting upright to peer around in the darkness, my body bathed in cold perspiration, yet must have dropped finally off into an uneasy sleep. A sharp rapping of knuckles on the door awoke me with a start.

"Starboard watch, Senor."

"Will be on deck at once."

"Ay, ay, Senor."

I drew on a heavy pea jacket of leather, fastening it securely at the throat, and donned a wool cap. The lantern in the cabin had been relighted, and was burning brightly, and my anxious glance about the interior revealed nothing out of place. The only door open led to the steward's storeroom. Feeling it best to be prepared for any eventuality, I selected a pistol from the rack, saw to its loading, and slipped the weapon into my pocket. Except for one man busily engaged coiling a rope, the main deck was deserted, and I climbed the short ladder to the poop, meeting LeVere as I straightened up. The sea was a gentle swell, the sky clear above, but with a mass of dark clouds off the port quarter. A glance aloft revealed a full spread of canvas. The air contained a nip of frost.

"All set, I see, LeVere?"

"Si, Senor, and at that we barely move. The bark needs a gale o' wind to make any headway."

"You have no fear of the storm yonder?"

He glanced aside at the mass of cloud.

"No, Senor. It hung just there an hour past--not come here, but creep around."

"Your course?"

"Still to the sou' o' east, Senor." He bent down to glance at the card and I saw his dark face in the gleam of the binnacle light. He was not bad looking, but for the continuous gleam of prominent teeth. He straightened up.

"Who put out the cabin light, Senor?"

"I am sure I don't know; was it out?"

"Yes, Senor. I never knew that to happen before."

"An accident, no doubt. The steward probably left some near-by port open, and a gust of wind did the business. That's nothing to worry over."

He shook his head as though far from satisfied by my theory, but went below without attempting to reply. I watched him through the skylight, but he merely gulped down a glass of liquor, and entered his stateroom.

My watch was uneventful. The fellow at the wheel was unfamiliar to me, and rather surly in his answers, to the few questions I put to him. As he could speak nothing but Spanish I soon left him alone, and fell to pacing the deck, immersed in my own thoughts. These were far from pleasant ones, as I reviewed again the strange situation in which I found myself. Circumstances had played me a sorry trick. Without plan, almost without effort, I had drifted into a position of utmost delicacy. Any accident or mistake might lead to disastrous results. Not only my own life, but the life of the young woman below, could be endangered by a single careless word, or act. The whole affair seemed more a nightmare than a reality. I was actually serving as first officer on a pirate ship in search of vessels to rob on the high seas, commanding a crew of West Indian cut-throats--the very scum of hell, and under the order of a Portuguese devil, whose ambition coolly plotted murder. I was sailing under the black flag, to be hung if captured, compelled to act out the masquerade, a satellite of the most infamous villain who ever sacked a merchantman. Why, the very name of Sanchez had been horror to me in the past--yet here I actually was in charge of the deck of his death ship, searching for new victims, and only hoping that the arch villain might live to overthrow the even fouler demon who would succeed him if he died. Already I knew murder had been done; that the coming morning would reveal some hideous tragedy, on which, perhaps my fate would depend. Somewhere below in the dark lay a dead man, his sightless eyes staring upward. The curse of crime was upon the vessel, and this, possibly, was only the beginning, whose end could not be foreseen. And for what was I there? The answer was not upon my lips, but in my heart--Dorothy Fairfax. I bowed my head on the rail, and stared out over the dark water, but I saw only her face. No, I would not turn back; would not fail her. Let the end be death, and disgrace, I meant to fight grimly on until that end came. In that hour I knew she was more to me than life, or even honor. Far more than mere duty bound me; I was prisoner to love.

The dawn came cold and gray, but with clearing skies. The force of the wind increased, becoming unsteady, and causing a choppy sea, so that I felt impelled to lower the topsails and take a reef in the larger canvas. Nothing was reported in sight, but to reassure myself, I climbed into the main crosstrees, and swept the horizon with a glass. Not so much as a speck rewarded my efforts, and I descended the ratlines, shouting to the boatswain to call the port watch. Watkins came aft to the wheel, and I sent the fellow thus relieved down into the cabin to rout out LeVere. The two returned to deck together, the negro glancing about curiously without mounting the ladder.

"You call Senor Estada yet?" he questioned.

"No; I had no orders to do so."

"He tol' me call him at daylight. Here you, Amada; go wake up the Senor."

The seaman disappeared grumbling, while LeVere crossed the poop deck, and stood beside me looking out across the expanse of sea.

"No sail--hey? We hav' bad luck--too far north."

"And west; we are out of the sea lanes; but if it keeps bright I'll take an observation at noon."

Amada emerged from the companion, and stared up at us, shading his mouth with one hand as he spoke.

"He answer nothing, Senor LeVere."

"You rapped on the door?"

"Si, Senor; I strike with my fist, and my boot, but he never wake up."

"Was the door locked?"

"I know not, Senor; I not try open it."

LeVere gave utterance to an oath.

"The pig-headed swine," he said fiercely. "I suppose I'll have to go myself."

Our eyes met, and something seemed to bid me accompany him.

"We'll go down together, Senor," I said quietly. "Estada must be sick; I could hear the rumpus Amada kicked up even on deck here. No man could sleep through that racket."