Chapter XXXIII. Before the Governor
 

The sound startled me; I imagined I heard the keel slipping, yet before we had reached the door opening on deck, the slight movement ceased. My hand gripped the frightened Haines.

"Tell them in the boat to do as I said; then come back here."

"My God, sir, she's a goin' down."

"Not for some minutes yet. There are thousands of pounds in that chest; you've risked life for less many a time. Jump, my man!"

The boat lay in close, bobbing up and down dangerously, yet held firmly beneath the opened port. Pierre warped her in with a rope's end, leaving the other two free to receive the box, as we cautiously passed it out within grasp of their hands. It was heavy enough to tax the strength of two men to handle it, but of a size and shape permitting its passage. Sanchez had raised himself again, and clung there to the edge of the bunk watching us. Even in the darkness caused by the chest obscuring the port, I felt the insane glare of his eyes fastened upon me. Once he attempted to speak, but his voice failed him.

"Now let down easy, lads," I called. "No, place it amidships; get it even, or you go over. Wrap your line about the thwart, Pierre, and take a hand. Ay! that's better. Watch out now; we'll drop this end--Lord, but I thought it was gone! Fix it to ride steady, and stand by--we'll pass a wounded man out to you!"

I stepped across to Sanchez, slushing through the water, and barely able to keep my feet. No matter who the brute was, he could not be left there to die like a rat alone. Willingly, or not, the fellow must be removed before the bark went down. He saw me coming, and drew back, his ghastly face like a mask.

"No, you don't--damn you, Carlyle!" he snapped angrily. "Keep your hands off me. So you want me to die with my neck in a noose, do you? Well, you'll never see that sight. I was born a gentleman, and, by God! I'll die like one--and go down with my ship. Get out of here now--both of you! You won't? Hell's fire, but you will, or else die here with me! I'll give you a minute to make your choice."

He left no doubt as to his meaning, his purpose. From somewhere beneath the blanket, the long, black muzzle of a pistol looked straight into my eyes. The hand holding it was firm, the face fronting me savagely sardonic.

"I'd like to kill you, Carlyle," he hissed hatefully. "By God, I don't know why I shouldn't, the devils in hell would laugh if I did--so don't tempt me too far. Get out of here, damn you! Every time I look at you I see her face. If you take a step nearer, I pull the trigger--go!"

I heard Haines scrambling back up the sharp incline of deck, and realized the utter uselessness of attempting to remain. Any instant might be our last; the man crazed, and probably dying, would kill me gladly. He had chosen his fate--what was it to me? I turned, and worked my way upward to the companion steps, half expecting every instant to be struck by a bullet from behind. At the door I paused to glance below; through the semi-darkness I could see his eyes glaring at me like those of a wild beast.

"You refuse still to let me aid you, Sanchez?"

"To hell with you! Leave me alone!"

It was a hard pull back to the Santa Marie, for the sea had grown noticeably heavier, while the weight of the chest sank the boat so deeply in the water, as to retard progress and keep one man bailing. The cloud in the southwest had already assumed threatening proportions, and I urged the oarsmen to greater exertions, anxious to get aboard before the coming storm broke. It was hard to keep my gaze from the doomed Namur, but I could detect no change in her position, as we drew in toward the waiting schooner. Harwood alone questioned me, and I told him briefly what had occurred within the cabin, and his comment seemed to voice the sentiment of the others.

"He made a bloomin' good choice, sir. That's how the ol' devil ought ter die--the same way he's sent many another. It beats hangin' at that."

Dorothy greeted me first, and we stood close together at the rail, as the men hoisted the chest on deck, and then fastened the tackle to the boat She said nothing, asked nothing, but her hands clung to my arm, and whenever I turned toward her, our eyes met. I did not find the courage to tell her then what we had found aboard the Namur, although I could not prevent my own eyes from wandering constantly toward the doomed vessel. The rising sea was slapping the submerged stern with increasing violence, the salt spray rising in clouds over the after rail. Watkins approached us, coming from among the group of sailors forward.

"There's a smart bit of wind in those clouds, sir," he said respectfully, "an' I don't like the look o' the coast ter leeward. Shall we trim sail?"

"Not quite yet, Watkins. It will be some time before the gale strikes here. The bark is going down, presently."

"Yes, sir; but the men better stand by." He glanced from my face to that of the girl, lowering his voice. "Harwood tells me Sanchez was aboard, sir, and refused to leave?"

"Very true; but he was dying; no doubt is dead by now. There was nothing to be done for him."

"I should say not, Mr. Carlyle. I wouldn't lift a finger ter save him frum hell."

There was a sudden cry forward, and a voice shouted.

"There she goes, buckies! That damn Dutchman's done with. That's the last o' the Namur!"

I turned swiftly, my hand grasping her fingers as they clung to the rail. With a rasping sound, clearly distinguished across the intervening water, as though every timber cried out in agony to the strain, the battered hulk slid downward, the deck breaking amidships as the stern splashed into the depths; then that also toppled over, leaving nothing above water except the blunt end of a broken bow-sprit, and a tangle of wreckage, tossed about on the crest of the waves. I watched breathlessly, unable to utter a sound; I could only think of that stricken man in the cabin, those wild eyes which had threatened me. He was gone now--gone! Watkins spoke.

"It's all over, sir."

"Yes, there is nothing to keep us here any longer," I answered still dazed, but realizing I must arouse myself. "Shake out the reef in your mainsail, and we'll get out to sea. Who is at the wheel?"

"Schmitt, sir--what is the course, Captain Carlyle?"

"Nor'west, by nor', and hold on as long as you can."

"Ay, ay, sir; nor'west by nor' she is."

I yet held Dorothy's hand tightly clasped in my own, and the depths of her uplifted eyes questioned me.

"We will go aft, dear, and I will tell you the whole story," I said gently, "for now we are homeward bound."

       *       *       *       *       *

I write these few closing lines a year later, in the cabin of the Ocean Spray, a three master, full to the hatches with a cargo of tobacco, bound for London, and a market. Dorothy is on deck, eagerly watching for the first glimpse of the chalk cliffs of old England. I must join her presently, yet linger below to add these final sentences.

There is, after all, little which needs to be said. The voyage of the Santa Marie north proved uneventful, and, after that first night of storm, the weather held pleasant, and the sea fairly smooth. I had some trouble with the men, but nothing serious, as Watkins and Harwood held as I did, and the pledge of Dorothy's influence brought courage. I refused to open the chest, believing our safety, and chance of pardon, would depend largely on our handing this over in good faith to the authorities. Watkins and I guarded it night and day, until the schooner rounded the Cape and came into the Chesapeake. No attempt was made to find quarters below, the entire crew sleeping on deck, Dorothy comfortable on the flag locker.

It was scarcely sunrise, on the fifth day, when we dropped anchor against the current of the James, our sails furled, and the red English colors flying from the peak. Two hours later the entire company were in the presence of the Governor, where I told my story, gravely listened to, supplemented by the earnest plea of the young woman. I shall never forget that scene, or how breathlessly we awaited the decision of the great man, who so closely watched our faces. They were surely a strange, rough group as they stood thus, hats in hand, waiting to learn their fate, shaggy-haired, unshaven, largely scum of the sea, never before in such presence, shuffling uneasily before his glance, feeling to the full the peril of their position. Their eyes turned to me questioningly.

Opposite us, behind a long table, sat the Governor, dignified, austere, his hair powdered, and face smoothly shaven; while on either side of him were those of his council, many of the faces stern and unforgiving. But for their gracious reception of Dorothy, and their careful attention to her words, I should have lost heart. They questioned me shrewdly, although the Governor spoke but seldom, and then in a kindly tone of sympathy and understanding. One by one the men were called forward, each in turn compelled to tell briefly the story of his life; and when all was done the eyes of the Governor sought those of his council.

"You have all alike heard the tale, gentlemen," he said. "Nothing like it hath ever before been brought before this Colony. Would you leave decision to me?"

There was a murmur of assent, as though they were thus gladly relieved of responsibility in so serious a matter. The Governor smiled, his kindly eyes surveying us once more; then, with extended hand he bade Dorothy be seated.

"The story is seemingly an honest one," he said slowly, "and these seamen have done a great service to the Colony. They deserve reward rather than punishment. The fair lady who pleads for them is known to us all, and to even question her word is impossible. Unfortunately I have not the power of pardon in cases of piracy, nor authority to free bond slaves, without the approval of the home government; yet will exercise in this case whatsoever of power I possess. For gallant services rendered to the Colony, and unselfish devotion to Mistress Dorothy Fairfax, I release Geoffry Carlyle from servitude, pending advices from England; I also grant parole to these seamen, on condition they remain within our jurisdiction until this judgment can be confirmed, and full pardons issued. Is this judgment satisfactory, gentlemen?"

The members of the council bowed gravely, without speaking.

"The chest of treasure recovered from the sunken pirate ship," he went on soberly, "will remain unopened until final decision is made. As I understand, Master Carlyle, no one among you has yet seen its contents, or estimated its value?"

"No, your excellency. Beyond doubt it contains the gold stolen from Roger Fairfax; and possibly the result of other robberies at sea.

"The law of England is that a certain percentage of such recovered treasure belongs to the crown, the remainder, its true ownership undetermined, to be fairly divided among those recovering it."

"Yet," spoke up Dorothy quickly, "it must surely be possible to waive all claim in such cases?"

"Certainly; as private property it can be disposed of in any way desired. Was that your thought?"

"A Fairfax always pays his debt," she said proudly, "and this is mine."

There was a moment's silence as though each one present hesitated to speak. She had risen, and yet stood, but with eyes lowered to the floor. Then they were lifted, and met mine, in all frank honesty.

"There is another debt I owe," she said clearly, "and would pay, your Excellency."

"What is that, fair mistress?"

She crossed to me, her hand upon my arm.

"To become the wife of Geoffry Carlyle."