Chapter XXVI. A Floating Coffin
 

The laboring boat rested so low in the water it was only as we were thrown upward on the crest of a wave that I could gain any view about through the pallid light of the dawn. At such brief instants my eyes swept the far horizon, to discern nothing except the desolate, endless expanse of sea. A more dismal, gloomy view surely never unrolled itself before the eye of man. Everywhere the gray monotony of rolling waves, slowly stretching out into greater distance as the light strengthened, yet bringing into view no other object. It was all a desolate, restless waste in the midst of which we tossed, while above hung masses of dark clouds obscuring the sky. We were but a hurtling speck between the gray above and the gray below. How tiny the boat looked as my glance ranged forward with this memory of our surroundings still fresh in mind. The crest of the surges swept to the edge of the gunwale, sending the spray flying inboard. Occasionally drops stung my cheek and all the thwarts forward were wet with drizzle. The negro, Sam, alone was awake, baling steadily, his face turned aft, although scarcely glancing up from his labor. He looked tired and worn, a strange green tinge to his black face, as the dim light struck it. The others were curled up in the bottom of the craft, soaked with spray, yet sleeping soundly. The wind had lost its steadiness, coming now in gusts that flapped the sail loudly against the mast, but failed to awaken the slumberers. Depressed by the sight, my eyes sought the face of the girl whose head yet rested against my shoulder.

She lay there with tightly closed eyes, the long lashes outlined against her cheek, breathing softly. Between lips slightly parted her white teeth gleamed as she smiled from pleasant dreams. It was a beautiful face into which I looked, the cheeks faintly tinted, the chin firm, the rounded throat white as snow--the face of a pure, true woman, yet retaining its appearance of girlish freshness. Whatever of hardship and sorrow the past days had brought her, had been erased by sleep, and she lay then utterly forgetful of danger and distress. And she loved me--loved in spite of all dividing us--and in her rare courage had told me so. The memory thrilled my blood, and I felt my arm close more tightly about her, as I gazed eagerly down into the unconscious features. She was actually mine--mine; not even death could rob me of the treasure of her heart, while life offered me every reward. No doubt assailed me; I believed each whispered word from her lips, and the day dawned about us with rare hope. Not now would I yield to despair, or question the future.

Some sudden plunge of the boat caused the girl to open her eyes, and gaze half frightened up into my face. Then she smiled in swift recognition.

"Is it you, Geoffry? We are still alone at sea?"

"Yes, the night is ending; you have slept well."

She drew herself away from me gently, sat up and glanced about. "How tired you must be. I have been very selfish. There is nothing in sight?"

"Nothing."

"And the men are still asleep. Who are they?"

I named them as best I could, pointing out each in turn.

"Are they reliable--safe?" she asked. "You know them?"

"Not well, but they were selected by Watkins, as among the best on board the Namur. No doubt they will behave themselves."

"But they are pirates; they cannot be trusted."

"These fellows were not aboard the Namur from choice, but seamen captured on merchant ships and compelled to serve to preserve their lives. They are as eager to escape as we. Anyway I shall see to it that they do their duty. Sam!"

The negro looked up quickly.

"Yas, sah!"

"Call the others. Who knows where the food is stored?"

Watkins spoke up behind us.

"It's stored forward, sir, an' all safe; the water casks are lashed amidships."

"I'll see what we've got and serve out."

I crept forward cautiously, because of the erratic leaping of the craft, the men yielding me room to pass, and soon had Sam busily engaged in passing out the various articles for inspection. Only essentials had been chosen, yet the supply seemed ample for the distance I believed we would have to cover before attaining land. But the nature of that unknown coast was so doubtful I determined to deal out the provisions sparingly, saving every crumb possible. The men grumbled at the smallness of the ration, yet munched away contentedly enough, once convinced that we all shared alike. Watkins relieved the Dutchman at the steering oar, and I rejoined Dorothy. The silence was finally broken by one of the men forward asking a question.

"Could you tell us about where we are, sir?"

"Only as a guess," I answered frankly, my eyes traveling over the sea vista, "but will do the best I can. I have had no observation since we left the Capes, but Estada had his chart pricked up to the time he was killed, showing the course of the Namur. We were then about a hundred miles off shore and the same distance south. We have been sailing to the north of west since taking to the boat. That is the best course possible with this wind."

"Then a couple days should bring land, sir?"

"Ay, if figures are correct and this wind holds. But these are stormy waters, and we go by dead reckoning."

"That's near enough," he said stubbornly. "Even if you was astray fifty miles would make little difference. There's land to west of us, and plenty ter eat aboard till we get there--so why not eat it?"

I glanced about into the faces of the others forward, but received little encouragement--evidently the fellow was spokesman for his mates. The time had arrived for me to exhibit my authority, but before I could choose words, Watkins gave indignant utterance to a reply.

"Yer hed yer fair share with the rest ov us, didn't yer, Simms?" "O' course I did; but damn it, I'm hungrier then I wus afore--whut the hell's the use?"

"Let me tell you," I broke in, determined on my course. "It is not just the boat trip to be considered, although that may prove serious enough before we get ashore. If I am any judge we are going to have some weather in the next twenty-four hours, and may have to run before it to keep afloat. That's one point to think over. Another is that coast line west of us doesn't contain a dozen white settlements between the Capes and Florida, and you are just as liable to be hungry on land as sea. You've eaten as much as I have."

"Maybe I have, but by God, there is food enough there to last us a month."

"And it may have to do so. Now Simms, listen to what I say, and you others also. I am not going to repeat this. We're the same as ship-wrecked men, and I am in command of this boat. Whatever I say goes, and I've handled worse fellows than you are many a time. Grumble all you please; I don't mind that, but if you try mutiny, or fail to jump at my orders, I'll show you some sea discipline you will not forget very soon. You are with me, Watkins?"

"You bet I am, sir," heartily.

The Dutchman already half asleep, lifted his head.

"Mine Gott, I cud eat a whale," he growled rather discontentedly, "but what der difference say I do--dat wus best, ach."

Simms made no answer, sitting sullenly at the foot of the mast. I waited, thinking some other might venture a word, but evidently they had enough, and I was willing to let the affair rest. They had been shown that I meant to enforce discipline, and nothing remained but for me to carry out my threat if occasion arose. Meanwhile the least friction aboard, the better.

"All right, lads," I said cheerfully. "Now we understand each other and can get at work. We'll divide into watches first of all--two men aft here, and one at the bow. Watkins and I will take it watch and watch, but there is enough right now for all hands to turn to and make the craft shipshape. Two of you bail out that water till she's dry, and the others get out that extra sail forward and rig up a jib. She'll ride easier and make better progress with more canvas showing. How does she head, Watkins?"

"Nor'west, by west, sir."

"You can give two points more west, with the jib drawing--the sea is not quite so heavy?"

"Ay, ay, sir--she's riding fairly free, an' the wind is shifting nor'east. Thar won't be no storm terday."

The men worked cheerfully enough, finding sufficient to do to keep them busy for half an hour, and thus Dorothy and I watched them, whispering occasionally to each other, and commenting on the varied appearance of the fellows. They were rather an interesting lot in their way, the types familiar to me, but strange to her experience--sea scum, irresponsible, reckless, to be ruled by iron hand, yet honest enough according to their standards. The faces were coarse and dissipated, and many a half-smothered oath floated back to our ears, but I saw in them nothing to fear, or cause uneasiness. The sun had dissipated the clouds, while the swell of the sea had sufficiently subsided to permit of a wide view in every direction. The vista only served to increase our sense of loneliness and peril. We were a tiny chip tossed on the immensity of the waters, stretching away to the distant horizons. It was a vast scene of desolation, without another object to break its grim monotony--just those endless surges of gray-green water brightened by the touch of the sun. Again and again I swept my eyes about the circle in a vain effort to perceive something of hope; it was useless--we were alone on the boundless ocean.

I know not what we talked about during those hours; of all we had passed through together, no doubt; of our chances of escape and our dreams of the future. Her bravery and confidence increased my own courage. Knowing as I did the uncertainty of our position, I needed her blind faith to keep me hopeful. The men gradually knocked off work, and lay down, and finally I also yielded to her pleadings and fell into a sound sleep.

It seemed as though I scarcely lost consciousness, yet I must have slept for an hour or more, my head pillowed on her lap. What aroused me I could not determine, but Schmitt was again at the steering paddle, and both he and Dorothy were staring across me out over the port quarter, as though at some vision in the distance, sufficiently strange to enchain their entire attention.

"What is it?" I asked eagerly, but before the words were entirely uttered, a hoarse voice forward bawled out excitedly.

"There you see it; straight out agin that cloud edge. By God, it's a full-rigged schooner."

"Ay," boomed another, "a headin' straight cross our course astern."

I sat up, ignoring all else, thoroughly awake from excitement, gazing under hollowed hands in the direction the men pointed. For an instant I distinguished nothing but sea and sky, with patches of white cloud speckling the horizon. My heart sank with the belief that one of these had been mistaken for the sheen of a distant sail. Then as our boat was suddenly flung higher on the crest of a great wave, my straining eyes caught the unmistakable glimmer of canvas, could even detect its outline plainly delineated against the blue background. I reached my feet, clinging to the mast to keep erect and, as the boat was again flung upward, gained clearly the glimpse I sought.

"Ay, you're right, lads!" I exclaimed. "It's a schooner, headed to clear us by a hundred fathoms. Port your helm Schmitt--hard down man. Watch out the boom don't hit you, Miss Fairfax. Now, Sam, off with that red shirt; tie it on the boat hook, and let fly. They can't help seeing us if there is any watch on deck."

We swept about in a wide circle, shipping some water as we dipped gunwale under, but came safely out from the smother, headed straight across the bows of the oncoming vessel. All eyes stared out watchfully, Sam's shirt flapping above us, and both Watkins and Schmitt straining their muscles to hold the plunging quarter-boat against the force of the wind. A man forward on his knees growled out a curse.

"What the hell's the matter aboard there?" he yelled. "Did yer ever see a boat yaw like that, afore? Damn me, if I believe they got a hand at the wheel."

The same thought had leaped into my mind. The schooner was headed to pass us on the port quarter, yet yawing so crazily at times as to make me fearful of being run down. I could perceive no sign of life aboard, no signal that we had been seen. Indeed from where we crouched in the boat all we could see now was the bow with the jib and foresail. Not a head peered at us over the rail; in silent mystery it seemed to fly straight at us like a great bird, sweeping through water and sky. The sight angered me.

"Stand by, all hands," I cried desperately. "We'll board whether they want us or not. Slip across, Miss Fairfax, out of the way. Now, Watkins, run us in under those fore-chains; easy man, don't let her strike us. Lay hold quick lads and hang on for your lives. Give me that end of rope--ready now, all of you; I'll make the leap. Now then--hold hard!"

It was five feet, and up, my purchase the tossing boat, but I made it, one hand desperately gripping a shroud, until I gained balance and was flung inboard by a sharp plunge of the vessel. My head was at a level with the rail, yet I saw nothing, my whole effort being to make fast before the grip of the men should be torn loose. This done I glanced back into the upturned faces below.

"Hand in slowly lads; yes, let go, the rope will hold, and the boat ride safely enough. Let a couple of men come up till we see what's wrong with the hooker--the rest of you trail on."

"Am I to remain here, Mr. Carlyle?" "Yes for a few moments; there is no danger. You stay also, Watkins; let Schmitt and Sam come with me."

I helped them clamber up and then lifted my body onto the rail, from which position I had a clear view of the forward deck. It was unexpressibly dirty, yet otherwise shipshape enough, ropes coiled and the forward hatch tightly closed. Nothing human greeted me, and conscious of a strange feeling of horror, I slipped over onto the deck. The next moment the negro and Dutchman joined me, the former staring about wildly, the whites of his eyes revealing his terror.

"My Gawd, sah," he ejaculated. "Ah done know dis boat--it's shore de Santa Marie. "Ah's cooked in dat galley. What's done happened ter her, sah?"

"You know the schooner? Are you sure, Sam? What was she--a pirate?"

"No, sah; a slaver, sah," he sniffed the air. "Ah kin smell dem niggers right now, sah. Ah, suah reckon dars a bunch o' ded ones under dem hatches right dis minute--you white men smell dat odor?"

"I certainly smell something unpleasant enough. This is the Santa Marie; the name is on the stern of that boat yonder. When did you serve aboard here?"

"Three years back, sah, frum Habana to der African coast; Ah didn't want no more dat sorter sailorin'."

"But what could have happened? The boats are all in place, but no crew, I never saw anything like it at sea."

Schmitt's hand fell heavily on my sleeve and I glanced aside into his stolid face.

"Der's a feller on ther gratin' amidships, Captain," he said pointing aft. "But I just bet I know vat wus der trouble."

"What man?"

"Cholera," he whispered, "ve haf boarded a death ship."