Chapter XXVIII. A New Plan of Escape
 

Nothing occurred during the afternoon to disturb the routine work aboard, or to cause me any uneasiness. The swift slaver made excellent progress in spite of light winds, and proved easy to handle. Watkins found enough to occupy the crew on deck and aloft, and they seemed contented, although I noticed the fellows gathered together in groups whenever idle, and discussed the situation earnestly. While they might not be entirely satisfied, and, no doubt, some fear lingered in their minds, the fellows lacked leadership for any revolt, and would remain quiet for the present at least. I made one more trip into the desolate cabin, returning with pipes and tobacco, which I took forward and distributed, an ample supply for all the crew. As the men smoked, Watkins and I leaned over the rail, and discussed the situation.

Sunset brought clouds, and, by the time it was really dark, the entire sky was overcast, but the sea remained comparatively calm, and the wind steady. I judged we were making in the neighborhood of nine knots, and carefully pricked my chart to assure myself of our position. Even at that I was not entirely satisfied, although I kept this lack of faith hidden from the others. Dorothy, however, who kept close beside me much of the time, must have sensed my doubt to some extent, for once she questioned me curiously.

"Are you not sure of your figures?" she asked, glancing from the chart into my face. "That is three times you have measured the distance."

"It is not the figures; it is the accuracy of the chart," I explained. "It is not new, for the schooner evidently seldom made this coast, and it was probably only by chance that they had such a map aboard. Even the best of the charts, are not absolutely correct, and this one may be entirely wrong. I shall rely more on keeping a careful watch tonight than on the map; you see this cape? For all I know it may jut out fifty miles east of where it appears to be and we might run into shoal water at any minute."

She wrinkled her brows over the lines on the map, and then stared out across the darkening sea, without speaking.

It was a pleasant night in spite of the darkness, the air soft, and refreshing. We divided the men into watches, Watkins selecting the more capable for lookouts. I explained to these the danger, and posted them on the forecastle heads, ready to respond instantly to any call. I could see the glow of their pipes for some time, but finally these went out, one by one, and the growl of voices ceased. The schooner was in darkness, except for a faint reflection from the binnacle light aft, revealing the dim figure of the helmsman. Overhead the canvas disappeared into the gloom of the sky.

The locker was filled with flags, representing almost every nation on earth. Evidently the Santa Marie was willing to fly any colors, which would insure safety, or allay suspicion in her nefarious trade. I dragged these out, and spread them on the deck abaft the cabin, thus forming a very comfortable bed, and at last induced the girl to lie down, wrapping her in a blanket. But, although she reclined there, and rested, she was in no mood for sleep, and, whenever my restless wandering brought me near I was made aware of her wakefulness. Finally I found a seat beside her on a coil of rope, and we fell into conversation, which must have lasted for an hour or more.

I shall never forget that dark ship's deck, with no sound breaking the silence except the soft swirl of water alongside, the occasional flap of canvas aloft, and the creak of the wheel. Dorothy was but a shrouded figure, as she sat wrapped in her blanket, and the only other object visible was the dim outline of the helmsman. We seemed to be completely shut in between sea and sky, lost and forgotten. Yet the memory of the tragedy this vessel had witnessed remained with me--the helpless slaves who had suffered and died between decks; the dead sailors in the forecastle, their ghastly faces staring up at the beams above, and the horrible figure of Paradilla outstretched on the cabin divan. I was a sailor and could not feel that any good fortune would come to us from such a death ship. The memory brought to me a depression hard to throw off; yet, for her sake I pretended a cheerfulness I was far from feeling, and our conversation drifted idly into many channels.

This was the first opportunity we had enjoyed to actually talk with each other alone, and gradually our thoughts veered from the happenings of the strange voyage, and our present predicament, to those personal matters in which we were peculiarly interested. I know not how it occurred, for what had passed between us in the open boat seemed more like a dream than a reality, yet my hand found her own beneath the blanket, and I dared to whisper the words my lips could no longer restrain.

"Dorothy," I said humbly, "you were frightened last night. I cannot hold you to what you said to me then."

"You mean you do not wish to? But I was not frightened."

"They were honest words? You have not regretted them since?"

"No, Geoffry. Perhaps they were not maidenly, yet were they honest; why should I not have told you the truth? I have long known my own heart, and yours, as well."

"And you still repeat what you said then?"

"Perhaps I do not remember all I said."

"I can never forget--you said, 'I love you.'"

She drew a quick breath, and for an instant remained silent; then her courage conquered.

"Yes, I can repeat that--I love you."

"Those are dear, dear words; but I ought not to listen to them, or believe. I am not free to ask a pledge of you, or to beg you to trust me in marriage."

"Is not that rather for me to decide?" she questioned archly. "I give you my faith, Geoffry, and surely no girl ever had more reason to know the heart of a man than I. You have risked all to serve me, and I would be ungrateful indeed were I insensible of the sacrifice. Yet do not think that is all--gratitude for what you have done. I did not need that to teach me your nature. I make a confession now. You remember the night I met you on deck, when you were a prisoner, and told you that you had become the property of Roger Fairfax?"

"I could never forget."

"Nor I. I loved you then, although I scarcely acknowledged the truth even to myself. I went back to my berth to lie awake, and think until morning. A new world had come to me, and when the dawn broke, I knew what it all meant--that my heart was yours. I cared nothing because you were a prisoner, a bound slave under sentence. We are all alike, we Fairfax's; we choose for ourselves, and laugh at the world. That is my answer, Geoffry Carlyle; I give you love for love."

"'Tis a strange place for such a pledge, with only hope before us."

"A fit place to my mind in memory of our life together thus far, for all the way it has been stress and danger. And what more can we ask than hope?"

"I would ask an opportunity denied me--to stand once more in honor among men. I would not be shamed before Dorothy Fairfax."

"Nor need you be," she exclaimed impetuously, her hands pressing mine. "You wrong yourself, even as you have been wronged. You have already done that which shall win you freedom, if it be properly presented to those in power. I mean that it shall be, once I am safely back in Virginia. Tell me, what are your plans with--with this schooner?"

"To beach it somewhere along shore, and leave it there a wreck, while we escape."

"I suspected as much--yet, is that the best way?"

"The only way which has occurred to me. The men insist on it with good reason. They have been pirates, and might be hung if caught."

"And yet to my mind," she insisted earnestly, "that choice is most dangerous. I am a girl, but if I commanded here, do you know what I would do?"

"I shall be glad to hear."

"I would sail this vessel straight to the Chesapeake, and surrender it to the authorities. The men have nothing to fear with me aboard, and ready to testify in their behalf. The Governor will accept my word without a question. These men are not pirates, but honest seamen compelled to serve in order to save their lives; they mutinied and captured the bark, but were later overcome, and compelled to take the boats. The same plea can be made for you, Geoffry, only you were there in an effort to save me. It is a service which ought to win you freedom."

"But if it does not?"

"I pledge you my word it shall. If the Governor fail me, I will bear my story to the feet of the King. I am a Fairfax, and we have friends in England, strong, powerful friends. They will listen, and aid me."

"I am convinced," I admitted, after a pause, "that this course is the wiser one, but fear the opposition of the men. They will never go willingly."

"There is an argument which will overcome their fear."

"You mean force?" "No; although I doubt not that might suffice. I mean cupidity. Each sailor, aboard has an interest in the salvage of this vessel under the English law. You tell me the schooner was a slaver, driven out to sea by storm immediately after discharging a cargo of slaves. There must be gold aboard--perhaps treasure also, for I cannot think a slaver above piracy if chance arose. Let the crew dream that dream, and you will need no whip to drive them into an English port."

"Full pardon, and possibly wealth with it," I laughed. "A beautiful scheme, Dorothy, yet it might work. Still, if I know sailormen, they would doubt the truth, if it came direct from me, for I am not really one of them."

"But Watkins is, and he has intelligence. Explain it all to him; tell him who I am, the influence I can wield in the Colony, and then let him whisper the news to the others. Will you not do this--for my sake?"

"Yes," I answered, "I believe you have found the right course. If you will promise to lie down, and sleep, I will talk with Watkins now."

"I promise. But are you not going to rest?"

"Very little tonight. I may catch some catnaps before morning, but most of the time shall be prowling about deck. You see I have no officers to rely upon. But don't worry about me--this sort of life is not new. Good night, dear girl."

She extended her arms, and drew me down until our lips met.

"You are actually afraid of me still," she said wonderingly, "why should you be?"

"I cannot tell; I have never known what it was before. Somehow Dorothy, you have always seemed so far away from me, I have never been able to forget. But now the touch of your lips has----"

"Broken down the last barrier?"

"Yes, forever."

"Are you sure? Would you not feel still less doubt if you kissed me again?"

I held her closely, gazing down into the dimly revealed outline of her face, and this time felt myself the master.

"Now I am sure, sweetheart," I whispered, the note of joy ringing in the words, "that I have won the most precious gift in the world; yet your safety, and those of all on board is in my hands tonight. I must not forget that. I am going now to find Watkins, and you have promised to lie down and sleep."

"To lie down," she corrected, "but whether to sleep, I cannot tell."

I left her there, lying hidden and shapeless on the deck beneath the cover of the blanket, her head pillowed on the flags, and groped my own way forward, pausing a moment to gaze into the binnacle, and exchange a word with the man at the wheel. I found Watkins awake, seated on the forecastle steps, where I joined him, lighting my own pipe for companionship, our conversation gradually drifting toward the point I came to make. He listened gravely to what I had to say, with little comment, and was evidently weighing every argument in his mind.

"I've bin in Virginia, and Maryland, sir," he said at last seriously, "and if the young woman is a Fairfax, she'll likely have influence enough ter do just whut she says. They ain't over-kind ter pirates in them provinces o' late, I've bin told--but the savin' o' her life wud make a heap o' difference with the Governor. Yer know she's a Fairfax?"

"Absolutely. I told you the story that night in the forecastle, and I take more risk than any of you in giving myself up. I was bound in servitude to her uncle, Roger Fairfax, and am therefore a runaway slave."

"Well," he agreed, "I'll talk it over with the lads. It's a good story, an' I'd be ready ter take chances, but I ain't so sure, sir, on makin' 'em feel the same way. All most of 'em think about is ter escape bein' hanged. If they wus only sure thar wus treasure aboard, like you suspicion there may be, I guess most of 'em would face hell ter git their hands on a share of it."

"Then why not search, and see?"

He shook his head obstinately, and his face, showing in the dull glow of the pipe, proved that he, sturdy, intelligent seaman as he was, shared to no small extent the fears of the others.

"Not me, sir; I don't prowl around in no cholera ship, loaded with dead men--not if I never git rich."

"Then I will," and I got to my feet in sudden determination. "You keep the deck while I go below. Have you seen a lantern on board anywhere?"

"Ay, sir, there's one hangin' in the cook's galley. I hope yer don't think I'm a damn coward, Mr. Carlyle?"

"Oh, no, Tom. I know how you feel exactly; we're both of us sailors. But you see I've got to make this crew take the Santa Marie into the Chesapeake, and it's an easier job if I can find gold aboard."

"Yer've got to, sir?"

"Yes, I've given my promise to the girl. Light the lantern, and bring it here. Then we'll go aft together; if there is any specie hidden aboard this hooker, it will be either in the cabin, or lazaret. And, whether there is, or not, my man, the Santa Marie turns north tomorrow, if I have to fight every sea wolf on board single-handed."