Chapter XXIV. In Clasp of the Sea
 

The sound of voices, of moving bodies and bits of furniture overturned were plainly discernible, but the darkness was far too dense below to permit the eye perceiving what was taking place. Yet I could picture the scene, the leaderless mob surging blindly forward, each man vocal in his own tongue, swaying with rage, many smarting with wounds, uncertain where we had disappeared, yet all alike crazed with a desire to attain the open deck. The rattle of steel, the curses, told me some among them had reached the arm rack, and seized whatever weapons they found there. In their struggle the rack was overturned, and suddenly, amid the din, a shrill, penetrating voice yelled something in Spanish, which seemed to hush the clamor. There followed a shuffling of feet, and the crash of wood as though the butt of a gun had splintered a door panel. Then the same voice again pierced the babel. My mind gripped the meaning of it all; they had found a leader; they had released Manuel Estevan. Now the real fight was on!

We stooped low, to escape as much as possible from the dim revealing light streaming through the glass at our backs, and waited, staring into the black depths of the cabin, and listening for every sound. The release of Manuel, the very knowledge of his presence had changed the mob into dangerous fighters. The roar of voices died away with the noise of confusion. I could hear the fellow question those about him, seeking to learn the situation, but the delay was short, and no inkling of his quickly conceived plan of attack was revealed. Yet he saw us and understood; his eyes, long trained to darkness, must have already marked our dim outlines, for his first order evidenced his purpose.

"Who have cutlasses? So many! a dozen form with me. Now bullies, they are on the stairs there, and that is the only way to the deck. We'll show those damned traitors what fighting means. Now then---to hell with 'em!"

We met them, point to point, our advantage the narrow staircase and the higher position; theirs the faint glimmer of light at our backs. The first rush was reckless and deadly, the infuriated devils not yet realizing what they faced, but counting on force of numbers to crush our defense. Manuel led them yelling encouragement, and sweeping his cutlass, gripped with both hands, in desperate effort to break through. DeLasser caught its point with his blade while my cleaver missing him with its sharp edge, nevertheless dealt the fellow a blow which hurled him back into the arms of the man behind. I saw nothing else in detail, the faint light barely revealing indistinct figures and gleam of steel. It was a pandemonium of blows and yells, strange faces appearing and disappearing, as men leaped desperately at us up the steps, and we beat them remorselessly back. I saw nothing more of Manuel in the fray, but his shrill voice urged on his followers. It was strike and parry, cut and thrust. Twice I kicked my legs free from hands that gripped me, and DeLasser fell, a pike thrust through him. Who took his place I never knew, but a stout fighter the lad was, wielding his cutlass viciously, so that we held them, with dead men littering every step to the cabin deck.

But they were of a breed trained to such fighting, and the lash of Manuel's tongue drove them into mad recklessness. And there seemed no end of them, sweeping up out of those black shadows, with bearded or lean brown savage faces, charging over the dead bodies, hacking and gouging in vain effort to break through. I struck until my arms ached, until my head reeled, scarcely conscious of physical action, yet aware of Manners shouts.

"Now you hell-hounds--now! once more, and you have them. Santa Maria! you've got to go through, bullies---there is no other way to the deck. Think of the yellow boys below; they are all yours if you strike hard enough. Rush 'em! That's the way! Here you--go in outside the rail! Broth of hell! Now you have him, Pedro!"

For an instant I believed it true; I saw Jim Carter seized and hurled sideways, his cutlass clashing as it fell, while a dozen hands dragged him headlong into the ruck beneath. But it was only an instant. Before the charging devils could pass me, a huge figure filled the vacant space, and the butt of a gun crashed into the mass. It was the Dutchman, Schmitt, fighting like a demon, his strength that of an ox. They gave way in terror before him, and we went down battering our way, until the stairs were clear to the deck, except for the dead under foot. When we stopped, not a fighting man was left within the sweep of our arms. They had scurried back into the darkness like so many rats, and we could only stare about blindly, cursing them, as we endeavored to recover breath. Schmitt roared like a wild bull, and would have rushed on, but for my grip on his shirt.

"Get back, men!" I ordered sharply. "There may be fifty of them yonder. Our only chance is the stairs. Do as I say, Schmitt, or fight me. Back now!"

We flung the bodies on one side, and formed again from rail to rail. Below us there was noise enough, a babel of angry voices, but no movement of assault. I could see nothing, although the uproar evidenced a large number of men jammed together in that blackness beneath. What they would do next was answered by a blaze of light, revealing the silhouette of a man, engaged in touching flame to a torch of hemp. It flung forth a dull yellow glare, and revealed a scene of unimaginable horror. Our assailants were massed half way back, so blended together I could not judge their number, many between us and the light with faces darkened by shadow. Between us, even ten feet from the stairs, the deck was littered with bodies, ghastly faces staring up, with black stains of blood everywhere. It was Manuel's hand which had kindled the light, and the first croak of his voice told his purpose.

"Now you sculking cowards," he yelled pointing forward, "do you see what you are fighting? There are only five men between you and the deck. To hell with 'em! Come on! I'll show you the way!"

He leaped forward; but it was his last step. With one swing of my arm I sent the cleaver hurtling through the air. I know not how it struck him, but he went down, his last word a shriek, his arms flung out in vain effort to ward off the blow. Schmitt roared out a Dutch oath, and before I knew fully what had happened, his gun, sent whirling above me, had crashed into the uplifted torch. Again it was black, hideous night, through which the eye could perceive nothing. Even the noise ceased, but a hand gripped my shoulder.

"Who are you?"

"Nigger Sam, sah. Mistah Watkins sez it's all done fixed."

"Where is he?"

"Here," answered Watkins himself in a hoarse whisper. "The boats are ready."

"Afloat?"

"Yes, sir. The one forward has pushed off loaded. The after-boat is alongside. There is such a hell of a fog, sir, yer can't see two fathoms from the ship."

"All the better for us; is the girl in the boat?"

"Safe, sir; but LeVere ain't."

"What do you mean? That he has got away? I ordered you to have Harwood watch him."

"Yes, sir; but the mate slipped out o' sight in the fog. He's somewhar aboard, but we ain't been able ter put hands on him nowhar yet."

"Never mind him; the fellow can do no harm now. Move back slowly lads. Schmitt and I will be the last ones out. Pick up that cutlass, Schmitt. We must act before those devils down there wake up again."

We closed the companion door as silently as possible and for the moment there was no sound from within to show that our cautious withdrawal had been observed. I stared about, but was able to perceive little beyond the small group awaiting my orders. The fog clung thick and heavy on all sides, the lungs breathed it in, and the deck underfoot was as wet as though from heavy rain. Moisture dripped from yards and canvas, and it was impossible for the eye to penetrate to either rail. Fortunately there was no weight of sea running, and the bark swung gently, still retaining steerage-way, but with not wind enough aloft to flap the sails. The silence and gloom was most depressing.

"Is there a hand at the wheel, Watkins?"

"No sir; it's lashed."

"And the quarter-boat?"

"There, sir, below the mizzen-chains."

"Then there is nothing more to keep us aboard lads. Stow yourselves away and hang on; I'll wait here until you are all over."

They faded away into the mist, dim spectral figures, and I remained alone, listening anxiously for some hostile sound from below. Had I chosen the right course? I was not altogether sure, yet we had gone too far now to decide on any other. Perhaps if I had called on those men up on deck, who had loaded guns, we might have forced the escaped prisoners back into their place of confinement, and thus kept control of the vessel. Yet at that it would only mean a few hours more on board amid constant danger of revolt. It might have enabled us to salvage the gold hidden below, but I was not greatly concerned for this, as my one and only purpose was the preservation of Dorothy. The men might prove ugly when they awoke to the loss, but I had little fear of them, once we were at sea in the small boats, and their lives depended on my seamanship. Unless a storm arose our lives were in no great peril, although I would have preferred being closer to the coast before casting adrift. I wondered what could be the meaning of that silence below. True the fellows were leaderless and defeated, yet they were desperate spirits, and fully aware that they must attain the open deck in order to recapture the vessel. They would not remain quiet long, and once discovering our retirement, would swarm up the stairs animated with fresh courage. Satisfied that the lads were safely over the rail and the decks clear, I turned toward the ship's side. As I did so a yell reached my ears from the blackness below--the hounds had found voice.

I ran through the fog in the direction the others had disappeared, and had taken scarcely three steps when I collided against the form of a man, whose presence was not even noticed until we came together. Yet he must have been there expectant and ready, for a quick knife thrust slashed the front of my jacket, bringing a spurt of blood as the blade was jerked back. It was a well-aimed blow at the heart, missing its mark only because of my outstretched arms, and the rapidity of my advance. Even as my fingers gripped the uplifted wrist, 'ere he could strike the second time, I knew my antagonist. I knew also this was a fight to the death, a sharp remorseless struggle to be terminated before that unguarded crew below could attain the deck. It was LeVere's life or mine, and in the balance the fate of those others in the waiting boat alongside. The knowledge gave me the strength and ferocity of a tiger; all the hate and distrust I felt for the man came uppermost. In that moment of rage I did not so much care what happened to me, if I was only privileged to kill him. I ripped the knife from his fingers, and we closed with bare hands; our muscles cracking to the strain, his voice uttering one croaking cry for help as I bore in on his windpipe. He was a snake, a cat, slipping out of my grip as by some magic, turning and twisting like an eel, yet unable to wholly escape, or overcome, my strength and skill. At last I had him prone against the rail, the weight of us both so hard upon it, the stout wood cracked, and we both went over, grappling together until we splashed into the water below. The shock, the frantic effort to save myself, must have loosened my hold, for, as I fought a way back to the surface, I was alone, lost in the veil of mist.

Blinded by fog, the water dripping from my hair, weakened by struggle and loss of blood, my mad rage against LeVere for the moment obscured all else in my mind. What had become of the fellow? Had he gone down like a stone? Or was he somewhere behind this curtain of fog? A splash to the right led me to take a dozen strokes hastily, but to no purpose. The sound was not repeated and I no longer retained any sense of direction to guide me. The sea was a steady swell, lifting my body on the crest of a wave, to submerge it an instant later in the deep hollow. I could feel the motion, but scarcely perceived it otherwise, as the thick gray mist obscured everything three feet away. It deadened and confused sound also. Again and again I felt I located the near presence of the Namur, the sound of feet on deck, the shout of a voice, the flapping of canvas against the yards; but as I desperately turned that way, the noise ceased, or else apparently changed into another point of compass. Once a cry reached me, thrilling with despair, although I could not catch the words, and again came to me plainly enough the clank of an oar in its rowlock. I struck out madly for the point from whence it came, only to find the same rolling water, and obscuring fog. My strength began to fail, hope left me as I sank deeper and deeper into the remorseless grip of the sea. There was nothing left to fight for, to struggle after; the fog about me became red and purple before my straining eyes, and then slowly grew black; my muscles refused to respond to my will; I no longer swam, but floated so low in water the crest of the waves swept over my face. I no longer cared, gripped by a strange, almost delicious languor. I was not afraid; my lips uttered no cry, no prayer--I drifted out into total unconsciousness and went down.