Chapter XXVII. On Board the Slaver

The terror of the two men as this thought dawned upon them in all its horror was apparent enough, and, in truth, I shared with them a vivid sense of our desperate situation. Nothing, not even fire was more to be dreaded than a visitation of this awful nature on shipboard. I had heard tales to chill the blood, of whole ships' crews stricken and dying like flies. Yet I dare not hesitate, or permit those under my command to flee in terror. Charnal ship though this might be, the danger to us was not so great, if we only remained in the open air, and used proper precaution in putting the dead overboard. We were in health, well nourished, and our stay aboard would be a short one. Even if the schooner was a floating sepulcher, it was safer by far than the cockleshell towing alongside.

"Let's find out the truth first, men," I said quietly. "Stay here if you want to while I go aft; only hold your tongues. There is no use giving up until we know what the danger is. Will you come with me, or remain where you are?"

The two exchanged glances, and then their eyes ranged along the unoccupied deck. I confess it was eery enough--the silence, the desolate vista, the wind-filled sails above, the schooner flying through the water as though guided by spectral hands, and that single motionless figure crouched on the grating amidships. It made my own nerves throb, and caused me to clinch my teeth, Sam turned his head, his frightened eyes seeking the scuttle leading into the forecastle. He was more frightened to remain where he was, than accompany me, but when he endeavored to say so, his lips refused to utter any sound. The terror in his eyes caused me to laugh, and my own courage came back with a rush.

"Afraid of dead men, are you? Then we'll face them together, my lads, and have it over with. Come on, now, both of you. Buckle up; there is nothing to fear, if you do what I tell you--this isn't the first cholera ship I've been aboard."

It was no pleasant job confronting us, although we had less dead men to handle than I anticipated. Indeed we found only five bodies on board, and as the slaver must have originally carried a large crew, it was evident the survivors had thrown overboard the corpses of those who succumbed first, until they also became too weak to perform such service. There were only two on deck, the fellow crouched on the grating, a giant, coal black negro, and a gray-bearded white man, his face pitted with smallpox, lying beside the wheel. Before he fell to the deck, he had lashed the spokes and still gripped the end of the rope in his dead hand. Determined on what was to be done, I wasted no time with either body. The two sailors hung back, so terrorized at the mere thought of touching these victims of plague, I steeled myself to the job and handled them alone, dragging the inert bodies across the deck, and by the exercise of all my strength launching them over the low rail into the sea. It was indeed a relief to know the deck was clear, and I ordered Schmitt to cut the lashings and take charge of the wheel. Sam was shaking like a leaf, his face absolutely green.

"What---what dey die of, sah--cholera?" he asked faintly.

"No doubt of it; but they are safely over the side now. There is nothing to be frightened about."

"But s'pose we gits it, sah; s'pose we gits it?"

"There is no reason why we should," I contended, speaking loud and confident, so both could hear. "We are all in good health and in the open air. See here, you men, stop acting like fools. We will take a look below, and then have the others on board."

"But Ah's suah feared, sah."

"At what? You are in no more danger than I am. See here, Sam, and you too, Schmitt, I am in love with that girl in the boat. Do you suppose I would ever have her come on this deck, if I believed she might contract cholera? You do as I say, and you are perfectly safe. Now Schmitt remain at the wheel, and you Sam come with me. There will be a dead nigger aboard unless you jump when I speak."

He trotted close at my heels as I flung open the door leading into the cabin. The air seemed fresh enough and I noted two of the ports wide open. A tall smooth-shaven man, with an ugly scar down one cheek, lay outstretched on a divan at the foot of the after mast, his very posture proclaiming him dead. His face was the color of parchment, wrinkled with age, but I knew him at once as Spanish. A uniform cap lay beside him, and I stopped just long enough to scan his features.

"Here, Sam, do you know this fellow."

The negro crept up behind me reluctantly enough, and stared at the upturned face over my shoulder.

"My Gaud, sah, he wus de ol' Captain."

"The one you served under? What was his name?"

"Paradilla, sah; damn his soul!"

"A slaver, I suppose; well, he's run his last cargo of niggers. Let's look into the rooms."

They were empty, all in disorder, but unoccupied. In what was evidently the Captain's room I discovered a pricked chart and a log-book, with no entry in it for three days. Without waiting to examine these I stowed them away in my pocket and returned to Paradilla, relieved to learn our labor aft was so light, and eager to have it over with. Some physical persuasion was necessary to compel Sam to assist me, but finally he took hold, and between us we forced the stiffened form of the Captain through the open after port, and heard it splash into the sea astern. Then I closed the cabin door, and led the way forward.

To my great relief the hold was empty, although the smell arising through the partially opened hatch was stifling, the reminder of a cargo lately discharged. There were two dead seamen in the forecastle, both swarthy fellows, with long Indian hair. I never saw a dirtier hole, the filth overpowering, and once satisfied that both men were beyond help, I was content to lower the scuttle and leave them there. God! it was a relief to return once more to the open deck and breathe in the fresh air. Schmitt was holding the schooner close up in the wind, which, however, was barely heavy enough to keep the sails full. Yet at that the sharp-nosed craft was making the best of it, leaving a long wake astern, the waves cresting within a few feet of her rail as she swept gloriously forward. I leaned over, and hailed the boat, towing below.

"Come aboard, Watkins," I called sharply. "Pass the lady up first, and turn the boat adrift."

"What is she, sir?"

"An abandoned slaver. I'll tell you the story later. Come aboard."

"Ay, ay, sir."

I caught Dorothy's hands and aided her over the rail, the schooner rode steady and she stood still grasping me, her eager eyes on the deck aft. Then they sought my face questioningly, the seamen beginning to gather between us and the rail.

"Why was the vessel abandoned?" she asked. "What has happened? Do you know?"

"Yes; the story is plain enough," I explained, deeming it best to tell the whole truth. "This is a slaver, the Santa Marie, plying between Cuba and the African coast. Sam, the negro who came aboard with me, served as cook on board for one voyage. I do not know why they should be in these waters--driven north by a storm likely--but cholera was the trouble. The crew are all overboard, or dead."

"Overboard, or dead? You found them dead--the slaves also?"

"No; there were no slaves; the hold was clear. We found a few dead men, the last of the crew to survive. One man was lying beside the wheel; he had lashed it to its course before he died; and the Captain was in the cabin."

"And he was dead?"

"Yes, a tall, lean Spaniard; Sam said his name was Paradilla. We found five altogether, and flung their bodies over the side except two sailors in the forecastle."

Her eyes evidenced her horror, her lips barely able to speak.

"They--they died of cholera? All of them? There was no one left alive on board?"

"Not even a dog. It was a tragedy of the sea, of which we will never know all the truth. I have the log here in my pocket all written out until three days ago--perhaps that was when the Captain died. But can you imagine anything more grim, more horrible, than this schooner, with all sails set, standing on her course with a dead man at the wheel?"

"And--and other dead men in cabin and forecastle!" her voice broke and her hands covered her eyes. "O Geoffry, must we stay aboard? The thought is terrible; besides, you said it was cholera."

"There is nothing we need fear," I insisted firmly, clasping the upraised hands and meeting her eyes frankly, "and I rely upon you to help me control the men. They are sailors filled with superstition, and will look to us for leadership. Please do not fail me. You have already passed through too much to be frightened at a shadow. This is a staunch vessel, provisioned and fit for any sea. We are far safer here than in the boat; it is as if God had sent us deliverance."

"Yet we face disease--cholera?" "I do not hold that a peril--not to us, if we use precautions. That is an ever-present sea danger, and I have read every book treating of the disease. So long as we are well fed and keep in the fresh air, we are not liable to suffer. The dead are overboard and every hatch closed. I will have the deck scoured from end to end. The bedding we need, and the food, is being brought up from the boat; we shall come in contact with nothing to spread the disease. You must meet this emergency just as bravely as you have the others; you will, will you not?"

Her eyes met mine smilingly, resolute.

"If you say so--yes. How can I help you?"

"Tell the men just what I have told you," I said gravely. "They will pay more heed to what you say, and will be ashamed to show less courage than you. Do you agree?"

We turned and faced them together, as they formed a little group against the rail. Their dunnage, together with a few boxes of provisions, and a couple of water casks, lay scattered about the deck, and now, their immediate task done, the fellows were sullenly staring around. Hallin was first to speak.

"Vot vas eet you say 'bout dis sheep? Eet haf cholera--hey?"

Dorothy took a step forward, and confronted them, her cheeks flushed.

"You are sailors," she said, speaking swiftly, "and ought not to be afraid if a girl isn't. It is true this vessel was ravaged by cholera, and the crew died; but the bodies have been flung overboard--Captain Carlyle risked his life to do that, before he asked us aboard. Now there is no danger, so long as we remain on deck. I have no fear."

The Swede shook his head, grumbling something, but before the revolt could spread, Watkins broke in.

"An' that's right, miss. I wus on the Bombay Castle when she took cholera, an' we hed twenty-one days of it beatin' agin head winds off the Cape. We lost sixteen o' the crew, but not a man among us who stayed on deck got sick. Anyhow these blokes are goin' ter try their luck aboard yere, er else swim fer it."

He grinned cheerfully letting slip the end of the painter, the released quarter-boat gliding gently away astern, the width of water constantly increasing, the light craft wallowing in the waves.

"Now bullies, jump fer it if yer want ter go. Why don't yer try it Ole? You are so keen about getting away, you ought not to mind a little water. So ye prefer to stay along with the rest of us. All right then, my hearties, let's hunt up something to work with and scrub this deck. That's the way to clean out cholera."

He led the way and they followed him, grumbling and cursing, but obedient. I added a word of encouragement, and in a few minutes the whole gang was busily engaged in clearing up the mess forward, making use of whatever came to hand, their first fears evidently forgotten in action. Watkins kept after them like a slave driver.

"That's the style; throw all the litter overboard. Bend your back, Pierre; now Ole, take hold here. What the hell are you men loafing for? Now, heave altogether."

I glanced astern, catching a fleeting glimpse beneath the main boom, of the disappearing quarter-boat, bobbing up and down in the distance; then my eyes sought the face of the girl. She met my gaze with a smile.

"They are all right now, are they not?" she asked.

"Yes, as long as they can be kept busy, and I will see to that. Let's go aft, and get out of this mess. I want to plan our voyage."

It was not difficult finding plenty for the lads to do, making the neglected schooner shipshape, and adjusting the spread of canvas aloft to the new course I decided upon. Fortunately we had men enough to manipulate the sails, real seamen, able to work swiftly. Sam started a fire in the galley, and prepared a hot meal, singing as he worked, and before noon I had as cheerful a ship's crew forward as any man could possibly ask for. The weather kept pleasant, but with a heavy wind blowing, compelling us to take a reef in the canvas, but the schooner was an excellent sea boat, and all alike felt the exhilaration of rapid progress. Dorothy and I glanced over the log, but gained little information. The vessel had been driven into the northwest by a succession of storms, and lack of provisions had weakened the crew, cholera broke out among them the third day at sea, the first victim being the cabin steward. With no medicine chest aboard and everything below foul, the disease spread rapidly. Within twenty-four hours sixteen bodies were thrown overboard and, in their terror, the remainder of the crew mutinied, and refused to work ship. Both mates died, and finally only three men were left alive--a negro known as Juan; the quarter-master, Gabriel Lossier, and the Captain, who was already lying sick and helpless in the cabin. That was the last entry barely decipherable.

As the sun reached the meridian I ventured again into the cabin, and returned with the necessary instruments to determine our position. With these and the pricked chart, I managed fairly well in determining our location, and choosing the most direct course toward the coast. Dorothy watched closely, and when I looked up from the paper, the men were gathered about the open door of the galley, equally interested. I ordered Watkins to send them all aft, and, as they ranged up across the narrow deck, I spread out the chart before them, and explained, as best I could, our situation, and what I proposed doing. I doubt if many were able to comprehend, yet some grasped my meaning, bending over the map and asking questions, pointing to this and that mark with stubby forefingers. From their muttered remarks I judged their only anxiety was to get ashore as early as possible, out of this death ship. Convinced this was also my object, they ventured forward cheerfully, as I rolled up the chart, and placed it in the flag locker.

One of the Frenchmen relieved Schmitt at the wheel, and, a little later, Sam served Dorothy and I on deck. The food was appetizing and well cooked, and we lingered over it for some time, while Watkins busied the men forward.