Chapter XXV. The Open Boat
 

I came back to a consciousness of pain and illness, unable at once to realize where I was, or feel any true sense of personality. I seemed to be floating through the air, aware dimly of suffering, but helplessly in the grasp of some power beyond all struggling against. Then slowly I comprehended that I rested in a boat, tossed about by a fairly heavy sea; that it was night and there were stars visible in the sky overhead. I stared at these, vacant of thought, wondering at their gleam, when a figure seemed to lean over me, and I caught the outline of a face, gazing eagerly down into my own. Instantly memory came back in a flash--this was not death, but life; I was in a boat with her, I could not move my hands, and my voice was but a hoarse whisper.

"Mistress Fairfax--Dorothy!"

"Yes--yes," swiftly. "It is all right, but you must lie still. Watkins, Captain Carlyle is conscious. What shall I do?"

He must have been behind us at the steering oar, for his gruff, kindly voice sounded very close.

"Yer might lift him up, miss," he said soberly. "He'll breathe better. How's that, Captain?"

"Much easier," I managed to breathe. "I guess I am all right now. You fished me out?"

"Sam did. He got a boat hook in your collar. We cast off when yer went overboard, and cruised about in the fog hunting fer yer. Who was it yer was fightin' with, sir?"

"LeVere."

"That's what I told the lads. He's a goner, I reckon?"

"I never saw him after we sank. Are all the men here?"

"All but those in the forward boat, sir. They got away furst, an' we ain't had no sight ov 'em since. Maybe we will when it gets daylight."

"Who had charge?"

"Harwood, sir; he's the best man o' ther lot, an' a good sailor, I give him a compass, an' told him ter steer west. Wus thet right?"

"All I could have told him," I admitted, lifting myself on one elbow to look about. "I haven't had an observation, and it is all guesswork. I know the American coast lies in that direction, but that is about all. I couldn't tell if it be a hundred, or a hundred and fifty miles away. So the fog has lifted without a storm?"

"Yes, sir, but left an ugly sea. There has been plenty o' wind somewhere, but we seem to be out of it. Must a bin midnight when the mist lifted."

"Is it as late as that? I must have been in bad shape when you pulled me in?"

"We thought you was gone, sir. You was bleedin' some too, but only from flesh wounds. The young lady she just wouldn't let yer die. She worked over yer for two or three hours, sir, afore I hed any hope."

Her eyes were downcast and her face turned away, but I reached out my hand and clasped her fingers. They remained quietly in my grasp, but neither of us spoke. The boat lay before me a black shadow under the stars, flung up on the crests of the waves and darting down into the hollows. It required all of Watkins' skill to keep it upright, the flying spray constantly dashing against our faces. The men were but dimly revealed, sitting with heads lowered beneath the slight protection afforded by the lug sail, although one was upon his knees, throwing out the water which dashed in over the front rail. He was succeeding so poorly I called to another to help him, and the two fell to the job with new vigor. I could not distinguish the faces of the fellows, but counted nine altogether in the boat, and felt assured the huge bulk at the foot of the mast was the Dutchman Schmitt. Beyond these dim outlines there was nothing for the eye to rest upon, only a few yards of black sea in every direction, rendered visible by the reflected star-shine and the dull glow of crested waves. It was dismal, awe inspiring, and I felt that I must speak to break the dreadful silence. My eyes sought the averted face beside me, and for a moment in peculiar hesitancy, observed the silhouette of cheek and form. She rested against the gunwale, her eyes on the dark vista of sea, her chin cupped in her hand. The mystery of the night and ocean was in her motionless posture. Only as her hand gently pressed mine did I gain courage, with a knowledge that she recognized and welcomed my presence.

"Watkins says I owe my life to you," I said, so low the words were scarcely audible above the dash of water alongside. "It will make that life more valuable than ever before."

She turned her head, and I felt her eyes searching the dim outline of my face questioningly.

"Of course I did everything I knew," she replied. "Why should I not? You are here, Captain Carlyle, for my sake; I owe you service."

"And must I be content merely with that thought?" I urged, far from pleased. "This would mean that your only interest in me arises from gratitude."

"And friendship," her voice as confidential as my own. "There is no reason why you should doubt that surely."

"It would be easier for me to understand, but for the memory of what I am--a bond slave."

"You mean the fact that you were sold to my uncle remains a barrier between us?"

"To my mind, yes. I hope you forget, but I cannot. If I return to Virginia, it is to servitude for a term of years. I am exiled from my own country by law, and thus prevented from following a career on the sea. I belong to Roger Fairfax, or, if he be dead, to his heirs, and even this privilege of being the property of a gentleman is mine through your intercession. I know your sympathy, your eagerness to help--but that is not all of friendship."

"Your meaning is that true friendship has as a basis equality?"

"Does it not? Can real friendship exist otherwise?"

"No," she acknowledged gravely. "And the fact that such friendship does exist between us evidences my faith in you. I have never felt this social distinction, Captain Carlyle, have given it no thought. This may seem strange to you, yet is most natural. You bear an honorable name, and belong to a family of gentlemen. You held a position of command, won by your own efforts. You bore the part of a man in a revolution; if guilty of any crime, it was a political one, in no way sullying your honor. I have every reason to believe you were falsely accused and convicted. Consequently that conviction does not exist between us; you are not my uncle's servant, but my friend--you understand me now?"

"I have trained myself so long to another viewpoint, Mistress Dorothy," I admitted, still speaking doubtfully, although impressed by her earnestness, "I know not how to accept this statement. I have not once ventured to address you, except as a servant."

"I know that, and have regretted it," she interrupted. "But not until now have I been able to correct your impression."

"And you would actually have me speak with you as of your own class--a free man, worthy to claim your friendship in life?"

"Yes," frankly, her face uplifted. "Why should it be otherwise? It has been our fortune to meet under strange conditions, Captain Carlyle--conditions testing us, and revealing the very depths of our natures. Concealment and disguise is no longer necessary between us. You have served me unselfishly, plunging headlong into danger for my sake. I shudder at the thought of where I would be now, but for your effort to save me. No man could have done more, or proved himself more staunch and true. We are in danger yet, adrift here in the heart of this desolate sea, but such peril is nothing compared with what I have escaped. I am glad, sincerely glad; I have prayed God in thankfulness, I feel that your skill and courage will bring us safely to land. I am no longer afraid, for I have learned to trust you."

"In all ways?"

"Yes; as gentleman as truly as sailor. You possess my entire confidence."

Cordial and earnest as these words were, they failed to yield me sufficient courage to voice the eager impulse of my heart. There was a restraint, some memory of the past, perhaps, which fettered the tongue. Yet I struggled to give my desire utterance.

"But do you understand fully?" I questioned anxiously. "All I have done for you would have been done for any other woman under the same conditions of danger. I claim no reward for that--a plain duty."

"I am sure that is true."

"It is true, and yet different. Such service to another would have been a duty, and no more. But to be with you, aiding and protecting, has been a delight, a joy. I have served Dorothy Fairfax for her own sake--not as I would any other."

"Did you not suppose I knew?"

Her glance flashed into mine through the star-gleam, with a sudden message of revealment.

"You knew--that--that it was you personally I served?"

"Of course I knew. A woman is never unaware of such things. Nor is there reason now--here in this boat, with you as my only protector--why I should pretend otherwise. Neither of us know what the end may be; we may sink in these waters, or be cast ashore on a desolate coast to perish miserably, and it is no moment for concealment. Now, if ever, I must tell you the truth. I know you care for me, and have cared since first we met. An interest no less fateful has led me to seek your acquaintance, and give you my aid. Surely it is not unmaidenly for me to confess this when we face the chance of death together?"

"But," I stammered, "I can scarcely believe you realize your words. I--I love you Dorothy."

"And is it not also possible for me to love?"

"Possible--yes! But why should you? Forgive me, but I cannot drive away memory of the gulf between us. I would not dare speak such words of my own volition, they seem almost insult. You are rich, with position and friends of influence, while I at best am but a merchant skipper, in truth a bond servant, penniless and disgraced. In the eyes of the world I am not fit to touch the hem of your garment."

"Is it the eyes of the world, or my eyes into which you look?"

"Yours! I am selfish enough, I fear, to find my happiness there--but it is not right, not just."

"Can you not permit me to be the judge as to that?" she asked seriously. "I know your story, and have seen you in stress and storm. Am I one, think you, to love any man for wealth or position. If I possess these things they are to share, not to hoard. It is because I have given you my full trust and confidence I can say these words."

"You--you mean, you love me?"

Her eyes fell from my face and her head was turned away, but there was no falter in her voice.

"I love you--are you sorry?"

"Sorry! I am mad with the joy of it; yet stricken dumb. Dorothy! Dorothy Fairfax, I have never even dared dream of such a message from your lips. Dear, dear girl, do you forget who I am? What my future must be?"

"I forget nothing," she said, almost proudly. "It is because I know what you are that my heart responds. Nor is your future so clouded. You are today a free man if we escape these perils, for whether Roger Fairfax be alive, or dead, he will never seek you again to hold in servitude. If alive he will join his efforts with mine to obtain a pardon because of these services, and we have influence in England. Yet, should such effort fail, you are a sailor, and the seas of the world are free. It is not necessary that your vessel fly the English flag."

"You give me hope--a wonderful hope."

"And courage," her hands firmly clasping mine. "Courage to fight on in faith. I would have that my gift to you, Geoffry. We are in peril still, great peril, but you will face it beside me, knowing that whether we live or die we are together. I am not afraid anymore."

She was like a child; I could feel her body relax in my arms as though relieved of its tension. I know I answered her, whispering into her ear words of love, and confidence, scarcely knowing myself what I said in that moment of unrestraint. I felt her eyes on my face and knew her lips were parted in a smile of content, yet doubt if they answered me. She seemed to yield unconsciously, her head upon my shoulder, her face upturned to the stars, while slowly all the intense fatigue of the day and night stupified mind and body. Almost before I realized her weariness, the eyes were closed and she was sleeping in my arms.

I held her closely, so awakened by what had passed between us, as to feel no desire to sleep myself. Dorothy Fairfax loved me. I could scarcely grasp the thought. I had dreamed of love, but only to repress the imagination as impossible. Yet now, voluntarily from her own lips, it had proven true. With eyes uplifted to the stars I swore fidelity, pledging solemnly all my years to her service; nor could I drive my thought away from the dear girl, sleeping so confidently upon my shoulder. Then slowly there came back memory of where we were, of what grave peril surrounded us, of my own responsibility. My eyes sought to pierce the gloom of the night, only to gain glimpses of black water heaving and tumbling on every side, the boat flung high on a whitened crest, and then hurled into the hollow beneath, as though it was a mere chip in the grasp of the sea. The skill of Watkins alone kept us afloat, and even his iron muscles must be strained to the limit. Forward the boat was a mere smudge, the men curled up asleep and no longer visible. All that stood out with any distinctness of outline was the lug sail, stiff as a board. I endeavored to turn my head, without disturbing the slumbering girl, to gain view of the steersman.

"How is she making it, Watkins?"

"A little stiff, sir, but she's a staunch boat. The sea's likely to go down after sunup."

"Well, you've had long enough trick--call one of the men aft. I'm not strong enough yet for that job."

"No, sir," and I caught the echo of a chuckle, "and yer have yer arms full. I kin hold on yere till daylight; 'twon't be long now."

"Make one of them help; who is the best man?"

"Schmitt for this sorter job."

I called him, and growling to himself at being awakened, the Dutchman crept past cautiously and wedged himself in beside Watkins. There was a few words of controversy between the two men, but in the end Schmitt held the steering oar and a few minutes later Watkins had slipped down into the boat's bottom and was sound asleep. And so the gray dawn found us.