Wolves of the Sea by Randall Parrish
Chapter XXX. Opening the Treasure Chest
The dawn came slowly, and with but little increase of light. The breeze had almost entirely died away, leaving the canvas aloft motionless, the schooner barely moving through a slightly heaving sea, in the midst of a dull-gray mist. It was a dismal outlook, the decks wet, the sails dripping moisture, and nothing to look about upon but wreaths of fog. Even as the sun rose, its rays failed to penetrate this cloud bank, or yield slightest color to the scene. It was all gray, gloomy, mysterious--a narrow stretch of water, disappearing so suddenly the eye could not determine ocean from sky. The upper masts vanished into the vapor, and, from where I stood aft, I could but dimly perceive the open deck amidships. The light yet burning in the binnacle was hazy and dull.
There was to my mind a threat in the weather, expressed in the silence overhead, as well as in the sullen swell underfoot. We could not be far from the coast--a coast line of which I knew next to nothing--and, at any instant, the blinding fog encircling us might be swept aside by some sudden atmospheric change, catching us aback, and leaving us helpless upon the waters. Again and again I had witnessed storms burst from just such conditions, and we were far too short-handed to take any unnecessary risk. I talked with Harwood at the wheel, and waited, occasionally walking over to the rail, and peering out into the mist uneasily. It seemed to me the heave of water beneath our keel grew heavier, the fog more dense, the mystery more profound. Safety was better than progress, particularly as there was no real object any longer in our clinging to a westerly course. The sensible thing was to lay too until the enveloping fog blew away, explore that room below, and explain my plans to the men.
This determined upon I called all hands, and with Watkins in command forward, preceded to strip the vessel of canvas, leaving exposed only a jib sheet, with closely reefed foresail, barely enough to give the wheelsman control. This required some time and compelled me to lay hold with the others, and, when the last gasket had been secured, and the men aloft returned to the deck, Sam had the galley fire burning, and breakfast nearly ready. The lads, saturated with moisture, and in anything but good humor, were soon restored to cheerfulness, and I left them, sitting about on deck and returned aft, where Dorothy, aroused by the noise, stood, well wrapped up, near the rail.
Sleep had refreshed her greatly, her eyes welcoming me, a red flush on either cheek.
"Have you been up all night?"
"Yes, but I would hardly know it--a sleepless night means nothing to a sailor."
"But it was so selfish of me to sleep all those hours."
"I had you to think about; all we have said to each other, and our plans."
"What are they? You have determined?"
"To do as you suggested. It is the braver, and, I believe, the better way. The difficulty is going to lie in convincing the crew of their safety. I shall explore below before having a talk with them."
"In hope of discovering treasure to be divided?"
"Yes, that will have greater weight with those fellows than any argument, or promise. Here comes Sam with our breakfast; we will eat here from the flag locker."
The negro served us with some skill, and, discovering we were hungry, both did full justice to the well-cooked fare. The denseness of the fog hid the men from us, but we could hear their voices, and occasionally a burst of laughter. We were talking quietly together, and had nearly finished, when Watkins emerged through the mist, and approached respectfully.
"You did not like the look o' things, sir?" he asked, staring out into the smother astern.
"I've seen storms born from such fogs," I answered, "and know nothing of this coast."
"You think then it's not far away--out yonder?"
"It is all a guess; we made good progress most of the night, and I have no confidence in the chart. There are headlands hereabout, and we might be within hail of one at this minute. It is safer to lie quiet until the mist lifts. By the way, Watkins--"
"Ay, ay, sir."
"Miss Fairfax tells me that was a storeroom in which I fought the ape last night."
"It was, sir." "And she reports having seen a chest, iron-bound, among the other stuff. Did you notice it?"
He walked across to the rail, spat overboard, and came back, politely wiping his lips on his sleeve.
"Yes, sir, I did; it was stored ter starboard, an ol'fashioned sea chest, padlocked, an' looked like a relic, but a damned strong box. You think maybe there's gold in it?"
"Likely enough. I found about five hundred pounds in the Captain's room; but there must be more aboard, unless it was left behind in Cuba. My idea is that was why the monkey was locked up in there--to guard the treasure. Does that sound reasonable?"
He scratched his head, his eyes wandering from her face to mine.
"Yes, sir, it does. I've heard o' such things afore. A chimpanzee is better'n a big dog on such a job; thar ain't no sailor who would tackle the beast."
"That was my way of looking at it. So while we are lying here, and the lads are in good humor--hear that laugh--I am going to find out what's in the chest. After I know, I'll talk to the men. Do you agree?"
He nodded, but without speaking.
"Are you willing to go below with me?"
"I ain't overly anxious 'bout it, Mister Carlyle," he replied gruffly, plucking awkwardly at the peak of his cap. "I'm a seaman, sir, an' know my duty, an' so I'll go 'long if yer wus ter order me to. Yer know that; but I ain't fergot yet this yere is a cholera ship, an' it's goin' ter be as black as night down thar in thet cabin--"
"Don't urge him Geoffry," the girl interrupted, her hand on my sleeve. "Leave him here on deck, I am not in the least afraid, and all you need is someone to hold the light. Please let me do that."
I looked down into her eyes, and smiled.
"Suppose we should encounter another ape?"
"Then I would want to be with you," she responded quickly. "You are going to consent?"
"I suppose I am, although if there was the slightest danger my answer would be otherwise. Keep the men busy, Watkins, while we are gone--don't give them time to ask questions. You brought the lantern on deck?"
"Yes, sir; it's over there against the grating."
"Very well; we'll light up in the companion, so the flame will not be seen by the crew. Coming, Dorothy?"
She accompanied me cheerfully, but her hand grasped mine as we groped our way down the stairs into the dark cabin. A faint glimmer of gray daylight filtered through the glass from above, and found entrance at the open ports, but the place was nevertheless gloomy enough, and we needed what little help the candle afforded to find our way about. The memories haunted us both, and hurried us to our special mission. The door of the storeroom stood wide open, but the after ports were closed, the air within heated and foul. Dorothy held the lantern, her hands trembling slightly, as I stepped across and unscrewed both ports. The moist fog blew in upon me but was welcome, although I stared forth into a bank of impenetrable mist.
The dead ape lay just as he had fallen, with his hideous face upturned, and a great gash in the head. The hatchet with which I had dealt the blow, rested on the deck, disfigured with blood. The hugeness of the creature, its repulsive aspect in death, with savage teeth gleaming in the rays of the lantern, and long, hairy arms outspread, gave me such a shock, I felt my limbs tremble. For a moment I could not remove my eyes from the spectacle, or regain control of my nerves. Then I some way saw the horror, reflected in her face, and realized the requirements of leadership.
"He was certainly a big brute," I said quietly, "and it was a lucky stroke which finished him. Now to complete our work in here and get out."
I picked up the hatchet, and my glance sought the whereabouts of the chest. The light was confusing, and she stepped forward, throwing the dim yellow flame directly upon the object.
"This is what I saw--see; does it look like a treasure chest to you?"
"If it be not, I never saw one--and a hundred years old, if it is a day. What a story of the sea it might tell if it had a tongue. There is no way to find its secrets but to break it open. Place the lantern on this cask of wine; now, if I can gain purchase with the blade, it will be easily accomplished."
It proved harder than I had believed, the staple of the lock clinging to the hard teak wood of which the chest was made. I must have been ten minutes at it, compelled to use a wooden bar as lever, before it yielded, groaning as it finally released its grip, like a soul in agony. I felt the girl clutch me in terror at the sound, her frightened eyes searching the shadows, but I was interested by then to learn what was within, and gave all my effort to lifting the lid. This was heavy, as though weighted with lead, but as I finally forced it backward, a hinge snapped, and permitted it to drop crashing to the deck. For an instant I could see nothing within--no more indeed than some dimly revealed outline, the nature of which could not be determined. Yet, somehow, it gave me an impression, horrible, grotesque, of a human form. I gripped the side of the chest afraid to reach downward.
"Lift up the lantern--Dorothy, please. No, higher than that. What in God's name? Why, it is the corpse of a woman!"
I heard her cry out, and barely caught the lantern as it fell from her hand. The hatchet struck the deck with a sharp clang, and I felt the frightened clasp of the girl's fingers on my sleeve. Yet I scarcely realized these things, my entire attention focussed on what was now revealed writhin the chest. At first I doubted the evidence of my own eyes, snatching the bit of flaring candle from its tin socket, and holding it where the full glare of light fell across the grewsome object. Ay, it was a woman, with lower limbs doubled back from lack of space, but otherwise lying as though she slept, so perfect in preservation her cheeks appeared flushed with health, her lips half smiling. It was a face of real beauty--an English face, although her eyes and hair were dark, and her mantilla, and long earrings were unquestionably Spanish. A string of pearls encircled her throat, and there were numerous rings upon her fingers. The very contrast added immeasurably to the horror.
"She is alive! Surely she is alive?" the words were sobbed into my ear, trembling from Dorothy's lips, as though she could barely utter them. I stared into her face, the sight of her terror, arousing me from stupor.
"Alive! No, that is impossible!" and conquering a repugnance, such as I had never before experienced, I touched the figure with my hand, "The flesh is like stone," I said, "thus held lifelike by some magic of the Indies. I have heard of such skill but never before realized its perfection. Good God! she actually seems to breathe. What can it all mean? Who could the woman be? And why should her body be thus carried about at sea. Is it love, or hate?"
"Not love, Geoffry. Love would never do this thing. It is hate, the gloating of revenge; there can be no other answer--this is the end of a tragedy."
"The truth of which will never be known."
"Are you sure? Is there nothing hidden with her in there to tell who she was, or how she died?"
There was nothing, not a scrap of paper, not even the semblance of a wound exposed. The smile on those parted lips had become one of mockery; I could bear the sight no longer, and rose to my feet, clasping Dorothy close to me, as she still gazed down in fascination at the ghastly sight.
"We will never know. The man who could tell is dead."
"Who else could it be? This was his schooner, and here he alone could hide such a secret. There is nothing more we can learn, and the horror unnerves me. Hold the light, dear, while I replace the lid of the chest."
It required my utmost effort to accomplish this, yet I succeeded in sliding the heavy covering back inch by inch, until it fell finally into place. I was glad to have the thing hidden, to escape the stare of those fixed eyes, the death smile of those red lips. It was no longer a reality, but a dream of delirium; I dare not think, or speculate--my only desire being to get away, to get Dorothy away. My eyes swept about through the confusing shadows, half expecting to be confronted by other ghosts of the past, but all they encountered were the indistinct outlines of casks and boxes, and the hideous hairy figure of the ape, outstretched upon the deck. The candle fluttered in the girl's shaking hand, the yellow glare forming weird reflections, ugly shapes along the wall. God! what if it should go out, leaving us lost and groping about in this chamber of horrors? In absolute terror I drew her with me to the open door--then stopped, paralyzed; the half revealed figure of a man appeared on the cabin stairs.
"Stop! who are you?"
"Watkins, sir. I came below to call you. There's sumthin' bloomin' odd takin' place out there in the fog, Captain Carlyle. We want yer on deck, sir, right away."