Chapter XXIX. A Struggle in the Dark
 

He came back with it swinging in his hand a mere tin box, containing a candle, the dim flame visible through numerous punctures. It promised poor guidance enough, yet emitted sufficient light to show the way around in that darkness below. So as not to arouse suspicion, I wrapped the thing in a blanket, and, with Watkins beside me, started aft. Dorothy must have been asleep already, for there was no sign of movement as we passed where she was lying. Neither of us spoke until my hand was on the companion door ready to slide it open.

"I'll not be long below," I said soberly. "And meanwhile you keep a sharp watch on deck. Better go forward and see that your lookout men are awake, and then come back here. Likely I'll have a story to tell you by that time. The wind seems lessening."

"Yes, sir; shall we shake out a reef in the foresail?"

"Not yet, Watkins. Wait until I learn what secret is below. An hour will make little difference."

With the lantern held before me, its faint light barely piercing the intense darkness, I stood on the first step leading down into the cabin, and slid the door back into place behind me. I had no sense of fear, yet felt a nervous tension to which I was scarcely accustomed. For the instant I hesitated to descend into the gloom of that interior. The constant nerve strain under which I had labored for days and nights, made me shrink from groping blindly forward, searching for the unknown. The very darkness seemed haunted, and I could not drive from my memory the figure of that dead Captain, whose life had ended there. It even seemed to me I could smell foulness in the air; that I was breathing in cholera. Yet I drove this terror from me with a laugh, remembering the open ports through which the fresh wind was blowing; and cursing myself for a fool, began the descent, guided by the flickering rays of light.

I was conscious of a quickening pulse, as I peered about me in the gloom, every article of furniture assuming grotesque form. The rustling of a bit of cloth over one of the open ports caused me to face about suddenly, while every creak of the vessel seemed the echo of a human voice. A blanket in the form of a roll lay on the divan where I had found Captain Paradilla, and for a moment, as I stared at it, dimly visible in a ray of light, I imagined this was his motionless figure. Indeed, I was so strung up, it required all my reserve of courage to persevere, and traverse the black deck. My mind was fixed on a great chest in the Captain's stateroom, which, finding locked, I had not disturbed on my former visit. But first I explored the steward's pantry, in search of knife or hatchet. I found the latter, and, with it tucked into my belt, felt my way aft. It may have required five minutes to pry open the chest, and the reward was scarcely worth the effort. The upper tray contained nothing but clothing, and beneath this were books, and nautical instruments, with a bag of specie tucked into one corner, together with a small packet of letters. I opened the sack, finding therein a strange collection of coins, mostly Spanish, estimating the total roughly at possibly five hundred English pounds. Either this was Paradilla's private purse, or money kept on hand to meet the expenses of the voyage. I searched the room thoroughly, discovering nothing, finally concluding that if there was treasure on board, it must be concealed elsewhere. I did find, however, that which strengthened my suspicion, for, in rummaging hastily through a drawer of the rude desk, I came upon a bill of sale for a thousand slaves, dated two weeks before, but unsigned, although the parties mentioned within the document were Paradilla and a merchant of Habana, named Carlos Martinos. This would evidence the sale for cash of the late cargo of the Santa Marie--a goodly sum--but, whether the amount had been left ashore remained undecided. Only a careful search of the vessel could determine this.

However, this discovery nerved me to press forward with my exploration. All fear and dread had left me, and I went at the task coolly enough, and with a clear purpose. There remained aft two places unvisited--the lazaret and the port stateroom, which I had not previously entered, because of a locked door. I determined on breaking in here first, suspecting its use as a storeroom. There was no key in the lock, and the stout door resisted my efforts. Placing the lantern on the deck I succeeded finally in inserting the blade of the hatchet so as to gain a purchase sufficient to release the latch. As the door yielded, the hinges creaking dismally, a sharp cry, human in its agony, assailed me from within. It came forth so suddenly, and with so wild an accent, I stepped blindly backward in fright, my foot overturning the lantern, which, with a single flicker of candle went out. In that last gleam I saw a form--either of man, or boy--a dim, grotesque outline, fronting me. Then, in the darkness gleamed two green, menacing eyes, growing steadily larger, nearer, as I stared at them in horror. I could not move; I seemed paralyzed; I doubt if I even breathed in that first moment of overwhelming terror. Another cry, like that of a mad person, struck my ears, and I knew the thing was coming toward me. There was no other sound, no footstep on the deck; I merely felt the approach, realizing the increasing glare of those horrible eyes. They seemed to fascinate, to hold me immovable, the blood chilled in my veins. Was it man or beast? Devil from hell, or some crazed human against whom I must battle for life? The green eyes glared into my face; I could even feel the hot breath of the monster. I lifted my hand toward him, and touched--hair!

Even as the creature's grip caught me, ripping through jacket sleeve to the flesh, I knew what my antagonist was--a giant African ape. Horrible as the reality was, I was no longer paralyzed with fear, helpless before the unknown. This was something real, something to grasp, and struggle against, a beast with which to pit strength and skill. The sting of the claws maddened me, brought me instantly to life, and I drove my hatchet straight between those two gleaming eyes. I know not how it struck, but the brute staggered back dragging me with him in the clutch of his claws. His human-like cry of pain ended in a brutal snarl, but, brief as the respite proved, it gave me grip on his under jaw, and an opportunity to drive my weapon twice more against the hairy face. The pain served only to madden the beast, and, before I could wrench free, he had me clutched in an iron grip, my jacket torn into shreds. His jaws snapped at my face, but I had such purchase as to prevent their touching me, and mindless of the claws tearing at my flesh, I forced the animal's head back until the neck cracked, and the lips gave vent to a wild scream of agony. I dared not let go; dared not relax for an instant the exercise of every ounce of strength. I felt as though the life was being squeezed out of me by the grasp of those hairy arms; yet the very vice in which I was held yielded me leverage. The hatchet dropped to the deck, and both hands found lodgment under the jaw, the muscles of my arms strained to the utmost, as I forced back that horrid head. Little by little it gave way, the suffering brute whining in agony, until, the pain becoming unendurable, the clinging arms, suddenly released their hold, letting me drop heavily to the deck.

By some good fortune I fell upon the discarded hatchet, and stumbled to my feet once more, gripping the weapon again in my fingers. I stood trembling, breathing hard, my flesh burning, peering about. The darkness revealed nothing, yet I knew I had been dragged within the stateroom, from which there was no escape, as I had lost all sense of direction. For an instant I could not even locate the brute. With an intense desire to escape, to place the door safely between me and my antagonist, I felt blindly about in the black void. Silently as I endeavored to move, I must have been overheard by the beast, for suddenly his jaws snapped savagely, and I saw once again the baneful glow of those horrible eyes. I knew enough of wild life to realize that now the ape feared me, and that my safer course was to attack. Acting on this impulse, determined to have an end, before he could grip me once more in those awful arms, and crush me into unconsciousness, I sprang straight toward him, sending the sharp blade of the hatchet crashing against the skull. The aim was good, the stroke a death blow, yet the monster got me with one jaw, and we fell to the deck together, he savagely clawing me in his death agony. Then the hairy figure quivered, and lay motionless. With barely strength enough for the task, I released the stiffening grip, and crept aside, rising to my knees, only to immediately pitch forward unconscious. It seemed to me as I went down that I heard voices, saw lights flashing in the outer cabin, but all these merged instantly into blackness.

When I came back once more to life I knew immediately I was upon the schooner's deck, breathing the fresh night air. I could see the outline of the helmsman in the little circle of binnacle light, a ray of which extended far enough to assure me of the presence of Dorothy. I watched her for some time, my mind slowly clearing to the situation, and, it was not until I spoke, that she became aware I had recovered consciousness.

"Dorothy."

"Yes, yes," she bent lower eagerly. "Oh, I am so glad to hear you speak. Watkins said you were not seriously hurt, but your clothes were torn into shreds, and you bled terribly."

"It was not a nightmare then; I really fought that beast?"

"Yes; but it is too horrible to think about--I--I shall never blot out the sight."

"You saw what occurred yourself?" I questioned in astonishment. "You actually came below? Then I did hear voices, and see a light, before my senses left me?"

"Yes; Watkins heard the noise of struggle, the cries of the brute, and woke me. At first he was afraid to go into the cabin, but I made him, rather than let me go alone. The only light we had was a torch, made from a rope end. We got there just as you fell. I saw you staggering on your knees, and that beast outstretched on deck, a great gash in its skull. Watkins says it was a chimpanzee."

"It was a huge ape of some kind, crazed with hunger no doubt." I sat up, aware of the smart of my wounds, but already convinced they were not deep or dangerous. "You did not look about? You took no note of what was in the room?"

"No," puzzled at my sudden interest. "I had no thought of anything but you. At first I believed you dead, until I felt the beat of your pulse. The light revealed little, until Watkins found the overturned lantern, and relit the candle."

"But I saw not even that much; the fight was in pitch darkness, yet I struck against things not furniture--what were they?"

"Oh, you mean that! I think it must have been a storeroom of some kind, for there were casks and boxes piled up, and a strange iron-bound chest was against one wall. I sat on it, and held the lantern while Watkins saw to your wounds. Then we carried you up here."

"That is the answer I sought. Yes, you must let me get up, dear. Oh, I can stand alone; a little weak from loss of blood yet, but none the worse off. Where is Watkins?"

"He went forward. Do you need him?"

"Perhaps it can wait until daylight. You know what I ventured below for?"

"To learn if there was treasure hidden aboard; you hoped such a discovery would induce the men to sail this schooner to the Chesapeake."

"Yes, and now I believe there is--hidden away in the locked room and guarded by that ape. In all probability no one but Paradilla knew the creature was on board, and he could have had no better guardian. No sailor would ever face the brute."

We may have talked there for an hour, Watkins joining us finally, and listening to my story. My wounds, while painful enough, were all of the flesh, and the flow of blood being easily staunched, my strength returned quickly. To my surprise the hour was but little after midnight, and I had so far recovered when the watch was changed, as to insist on Watkins going forward, leaving me in charge of the deck. I felt no desire for sleep, and so he finally yielded to my orders, and curled up in a blanket in the lee of the galley. The girl was harder to manage, yet, when I left her alone, she lay down on her bed of flags. Twice later she lifted her head, and spoke as I passed, but at last remained motionless, while I carefully covered her with an extra blanket.

The time did not seem long to me as I paced the deserted deck aft, or went forward occasionally to assure myself that the lookouts on the forecastle were alert. There was nothing to see or do, the sea and sky both so black as to be indistinguishable, and the breeze barely heavy enough to distend the canvas, giving the schooner a speed not to exceed six knots, I suspicioned a storm in the hatching, but nothing evidenced its near approach. However my thoughts busied me, and vanished all drowsiness. I believed I had won a way to freedom--to a government pardon. The good fortune which had befallen me in the salvage of this vessel, as well as our success against the pirates of the Namur, could scarcely be ignored by the authorities of Virginia, while the rescue of Dorothy Fairfax, and her pleading in our behalf, would commend us to mercy, and reward from the very highest officials. The money, the treasure, I personally thought nothing about, willing enough that it should go to others; but I was ambitious to regain my honor among men, my place of respectability in the world, for the one vital purpose which now dominated my mind--that I might claim Dorothy Fairfax with clean hands. My love, and the confession of her own, had brought to me a new vista, a fresh hope. It seemed to me already her faith had inspired me with new power--power to transform dream into reality.

I stood above her motionless figure as she lay asleep, and solemnly took a resolve. At whatever cost to myself, or others, the Santa Marie should sail in between the Capes to the waters of the Chesapeake. Be the result reward or punishment, liberty or freedom, the chance must be accepted, for her sake, as well as my own.