CHAPTER XXIII

Aboard The Schooner

     Dignity be hanged!  I scudded down the beach as fast as my legs would carry me.  Alderson had been left alone at the cache and my heart was in my throat.
     When I saw him strolling about with his hands in his pockets I could have shouted for joy if I had the breath.  For I had half expected to find him dead.
     He came forward quickly to meet me.
     "A tug rounded the bend five minutes since and stopped at the yacht, Mr. Sedgwick," he told me.
     I looked out into the bay.  A boat was just leaving the Argos for the shore.  At the point where the sailors presently beached it I was waiting.  Blythe jumped out and splashed through the shallow water to meet em.   From the look on his face it was clear that something had gone wrong.
        Taking me by the arm he led me a few yards along the sand.
     "Bad news, Jack."
     "What is it?"
     "Miss Wallace was waylaid and kidnapped fur days ago while she and her aunt were driving."
     "How do you know?"
     "Miss Berry sent Philips down in a tug to let us know.   But that is not the worst.  The day before the kidnapping Bothwell escaped from prison.  It is thought that his guards were bribed."
     I saw in a flash the cause of the Slav's gloating triumph.   Evelyn was his prisoner.  He had her safely hidden somewhere in the mangrove swamps.
     We might dig the treasure up, but we would have to give him every cent of it in ransom for her.  That was his plan, and in it lay the elements of success.  For Blythe and Yeager, no more than I, would weigh gold against her safety.
     We knew Bothwell.  His civilization was a veneer.   Disappointed of the wealth he had come seeking, the man would revenge himself on the girl who had stood in his way.  I dared not think of the shame and degradation he would make her suffer.
     I told Blythe of my meeting with Bothwell.
     My face must have been ashen, for Sam put a hand on my shoulder.
     "Keep a stiff upper lip, old chap.  Bothwell won't hurt her until he is pushed to it.  Before that time comes we'll take care of her."
     "That's easy saying.  But how?  That prince of devils has her back there in the swamps guarded by his ruffians.  We don't know where they are.  This very minute she may be— My God, think of the danger she runs!"
     Blythe shook his head.
     "She's safe till Bothwell gives the word.  Not one of his fellows would dare lift a hand against her.  The captain would shoot him like a dog."
     "And Bothwell himself?"
"She's safe yet, Jack.  He's playing for the treasure and to marry her, too.   The man is not such a fool as to kill the goose that lays the golden eggs.   The hour of danger for her would be the one when he found out that he had lost the treasure."
     "Let's give it to him.  I'll go tell him he may have it all.
     "Easy, lad, easy.  We must play our cards and not throw the hand down.  We must get hold of the treasure before we can make terms."
     "And let Evelyn stay in his hands without making an effort to free her?" I demanded.
     "Did I say that, Jack?"
     "What are you going to do, then?"
     "As soon as night falls we'll send a boat up the river to find out where his camp is.  We'll make a reconnaissance."
     "I'll go."
     "Don't you think somebody less impetuous would be better, Jack?  We don't want to spoil things by any premature attack."
     "I'm going, Sam.  That's all there is to say about that."
     "All right.  If you are, you are.  But you'd better let me."
     "You may come along if you like."
     "No, if you go I'll have to stay by the ship against a possible attack.  Tom will have charge of the party that watches the treasure.   The deuce of it is that our force will be divided into three.  I hope Bothwell does not take the occasion to make mischief."
     Within the hour the tug that had brought Philips steamed back down the harbor on the return trip to Panama.  With it we sent Jimmie and the steward.  Dugan flatly declined to go, and since his wound was almost healed the captain let him stay.
     This left us fourteen men, counting the former mutineers and the native stokers.  To go with me on my night expedition I chose Alderson and Smith.   The guard for the treasure cache consisted of Yeager, Gallaher, Barbados and Stubbs.  The rest were to remain with the ship.
     The tide was coming in when we pulled from the Argos toward the mouth of the Tuyra.  The wish of the waves made it unnecessary for us to take any precautions to muffle the sound of our oars and the darkness of the night made detection of any distance improbable.
     One difficulty we did encounter.  For the first few hundred yards of our journey up the river we disturbed some of the numberless birds which had settled for the night on the trees close to the banks.  The flapping of their wings gave notice of our approach as plainly as if a herald had shouted it.
     We carried no light.  The heavy tropical jungle growth on the mud flats which extended on both sides of the river helped to increase the darkness.   Our progress was slow, for we had to make sure that we did not slip past without noticing the schooner that had brought the pirates down from Panama.
     The sound of voices on the water warned us that we were approaching the boat of which we were in search.  Very cautiously, keeping close to the bushes along the shore, we drew near the schooner which began to take dim shape in the darkness.
     The tide was still strong, and it carried our boat across the bow of the schooner.  The anchor chain was hanging and served to hold us in place, though with each lift of the tide I was afraid those on board would hear us grind against her side.  Intermittently the voices came to us, though we could make out no words.
     We were in a good deal of danger, for any minute one of the crew might saunter to the side of the vessel and look over.  It was plain to me that we could not stay here.  Either we must go forward or back.
     Now back I would not go without finding whether Evelyn was here, and to try to board the schooner in attack would be sheer madness.  My mind caught at a compromise.
     I whispered to Alderson directions, and when the bibboom of the schooner came down with the next recession of a wave I swung myself to it by means of the chain, using the stays to brace my foot.
     Here I lay for a minute getting my bearings, while the sailors in the boat below backed quietly out of sight among the shore bushes that overhung the banks.
     So far as I could see the deck was deserted.  Carefully I edged on to the bowsprit, crept along it, and let myself down gently to the deck.  I could see now that men were lying asleep at the other end of the vessel.
     One was standing with his back toward me beside the missen-mast.   From his clothes I guessed the watch to be a native.
     The voices that had come to us across the water still sounded, but more faintly than before I had come on board.  Evidently they were from below.
     Probably the speakers were in a cabin with the porthole open.   I could not be sure, but it struck me that one of them was a woman.  My impression was that she pleaded and that threatened, for occasionally the heavier voice was raised impatiently.
     From its scabbard I drew my revolver and crept forward in the shadow of the bulwarks.  My life hung on a hair; so too did that the watchman drowsing by the mast.  If he looked up and turned I was lost, and so was he.
     Foot by foot I stole toward the forecastle ladder, reached it, and noiselessly passed down the stairs.
     I say noiselessly, yet I could hear my heart beat against my ribs as I descended.  For I knew now that the voices which came from behind the closed door of the cabin to my right belonged to my sweetheart and to Boris Bothwell.
     "Not I, but you,"  he was saying.  "I'm hanged if I take the responsibility.  If you had trusted me we might have lifted the gold without the loss of a drop of blood."
     "You are so worthy of trust!"  Evelyn's voice answered with bitterness.
     "Have you ever known me to break my word?  But let that pass.  You chose to reject my love and invite that meddler Sedgwick into our affairs.   What is the result?  What have you gained?"
     "A knowledge of the difference between the love of a true man and that of a false one," she answered quietly.
     "A true man!  Oh, call him a fool and be done with it."
     "Perhaps, but I could love such folly."
     He seemed to strangle his irritation in his throat.
     "A lost of good it will do!  You belong to me.   That is written in the book of your life, and what is to be will be.  And I'll get the treasure, too."
     "Never!  You call them fools, but they have outwitted you from start to finish."
     "They've pulled the chestnuts out of the fire for me, if that is what you mean."
     "And as for me, I'm only a girl, but I swear before Heaven I'd rather sink a knife into my heart than give myself to you."
     He clapped his hands ironically with a deep laugh like the bay of a wolf.
     "Bravo!  Well done!  You'd make a fortune in tragedy, Evie.  But dramatics apart, you may make up your mind to it.  I'm your master, and before twenty-four hours shall be your mate.  why else have I brought this broken wretch of a priest along, but to tie the knot in legal fashion?  I'm a reasonable man.  Since you have a taste for the conventional and decorum you shall have them.  But priest or no priest, wily nilly, mine you are and shall be."
     "You think everybody is a fool but yourself.  Can't I see why you want the marriage?  It's not to please me, but through me to give you a legal claim on the treasure."
     "Why do you always stir up the devil in me?  I love you.  I want to please you.  I'll treat you right if you'll let me."
     "Then send me back to the yacht, Boris.  I'll give my word to divide the treasure with you.  My friends will do as I say.  You don't want to break my heart, do you?  Think of all the dreadful murder that has been done by you."
     "Not by me, but by you and your friends.  I offered to compromise and you wold not.  Now it is too late.  No, by God!  I'll play the game out to a fighting finish."
     She gave a sobbing little cry.
     "Have you no heart?"
     His voice fell a note.  He moved close to her.
     "Cherie, you have stolen it and hold it fast in this little palm I kiss!"
     By the sounds from within she must have struggled in vain.   I told myself:
     "Not yet, not yet!"
     "In such fashion my ancestor Bothwell wooed Mary Queen of Scots.  Fain she would, but dare not.  She knew he was a man and a lover out of ten thousand, and though her heart beat fast for him she was afraid.  She fled, and he followed.  For he was a lover not to be denied, though a king must die to clear the road.  So it is with Boris, my queen."
     "You mean—?"
     The catch in her voice told me she breathed bast.
     He laughed, with that soft boisterousness that marked his merriment.
     "Your mad Irishman is no king, but he has crossed my path enough.  Nest time he dies."
     "Because he has tried to serve me?"
     "Because he is in my way.  Reason enough for me."
     The door knob was in my hand.  All I had to do was to open it and shoot the man dead.  But what after that?  His men would swarm down and murder me before the eyes of my love.  And she would be left alone with a pack of wolves which had already tasted blood.
     It was the hardest ordeal of my life to keep quiet while the fellow pressed his hateful suit, pushed it with the passionate ardor of the Slav, regardless of her tears, her despair, and her helplessness.
     For an hour—to make a guess at the time—she fought with all the weapons a woman has at command, fending him off as best she could with tears and sighs and entreaties.
     Then I heard a man stumbling down the ladder and moved aside.   If he should turn my way I was a dead man, for he must come plump against me.   He knocked on the door of the cabin.
     Bothwell opened and whispered with him a moment, then excused himself to his cousin, locked the door, and followed the sailor up to the deck.
     I unlocked the door softly and walked into the cabin.  by the dim light of a hanging lantern I made out a rough room furnished only with two bunks, one above the other, a deal table, and two cheap chairs.
     Evelyn had not heard me enter.  She was standing with her back to me, leaning against the woodwork of the bed, her face buried in one arm.   Despair and weariness showed in every line of the slight, dropping figure.
     She must have heard me as I moved.  She turned, the deep shadowy eyes gleaming with fear.  Never have I seen the soul's terror more vividly flung to the surface.
     I suppose that for a moment she could not believe that it was I, and not Bothwell.  Perhaps she thought the ghost of me had come to say farewell to her.
     She stared at me out of a face from which the color was gone, the great eyes dilating as the truth came home to her.  From her throat broke a startled, stifled little cry.
     "You!"
     I took her in my arms and her tired body came to me.  The sensitive mouth trembled, the eyes closed, a shiver of relief passed through her.   She clung to me as a frightened child does to its mother, burying her soft cheeks on my shoulder.
     Then came sobs.  The figure of my love rocked.  The horror of what she had been through engulfed her as she told me her story in broken words, in convulsive shivers, in silence so poignant that they stabbed my heart like a needle.
     It was such a tale as no girl should have to tell, least of all to the man she loves.  But I had come in time—I had come in time.  The knowledge of that warmed me like champagne.
     I whispered love to her as I kissed in a passion of tenderness the golden hair, the convolutions of the pink ears, the shadows beneath the sad, tired eyes.
     "Tell me, how did you come?" She begged.
     I told her, in the fewest possible words, for it might be that our time was brief.  Briefly I outlined a plan for her rescue.
     I would send Alderson and Smith back for aid and would hide somewhere in the vessel during their absence, to be ready in case she needed help.
     When Blythe arrived I would join her and barricade the cabin to protect her until our friends had won the ship.
     "But if he should find you before—"
     I aid then what any man with the red blood of youth still running strong in his veins would say to the woman he loves when she is in peril.  Let it cost me what it would I was going to free her from these wolves.
     Her deep eyes, soft with love, aglow with an adorable trust, met mine for a long instant.
     "Do as you will, dear.  But go now—before any one comes.  And—God with us, Jack!"
     Her arm slid round my neck, she drew my face down to hers, and kissed me with a passion that I had not known was in her.
     "Remember, Jack—if I never see you again—no matter what happens—I love you, dearest, for ever and ever."
     She whispered it brokenly, then pushed me from her toward the door.
     The last glimpse I had of her she was standing there in the shadows, like a divine incarnation of love, her eyes raining upon me the soft light that is the sweetest glimpse of heaven given to a man in this storm-battered world.