« PreviousContinue »
We are always inclined to trust our eyes rather than our ears; and such is the conventional temper in which we receive the impression of our senses that I had no idea they were so near us. The destruction of my illusory feeling of distance was the most startling thing in the world. Instantly, it seemed, with the second swing and plash of the oars, the boats were right upon us. They went clear. It was like being grazed by a fall of rocks. I seemed to feel the wind of the rush.
The rapid clatter of rowing, the excited hum of voices, the violent commotion of the water, passed by us with an impetuosity that took
my breath away. They had started in a bunch. There must have been amongst them at least one crew of negroes, because somebody was beating a tambourine smartly, and the rowers chorused in a quick, panting undertone, “Ho, ho, talibambo.. Ho, ho, talibambo.” One of the boats silhouetted herself for an instant; a row of heads swaying back and forth, towered over astern by a full-length figure as straight as an arrow. A retreating voice thundered, “Silence!” The sounds and the forms faded together in the fog with amazing swiftness.
Seraphina, her cloak off, her head bare, stared forward after the fleeting murmurs and shadows we were pursuing. Sometimes she warned us, More to the left ”; or, “ Faster!” We had to put forth our best, for Manuel, as if in the very wantonness of confidence, had set a tremendous pace.
I suppose he took his first direction by the light on the point. I cannot tell what guided him after that feeble sheen had become buried in the fog; but there was no check in the speed, no sign of hesitation. We followed in the track of the sound, and, for the most part, kept in sight of the elusive shadow of the sternmost boat. Often, in a denser belt of fog, the sounds of rowing became muffled almost to extinction; or we seemed to hear them all round and, startled, checked our speed. Dark apparitions of boats would surge up on all sides in a most inexplicable way; to the right; to the left; even coming from behind. They appeared real, unmistakable, and, before we had time to dodge them, vanished utterly. Then we had to spurt desperately after the grind of the oars, caught, just in time, in an unexpected direction.
Ind then we lost them. We pulled frantically. Seraphina had
been urging us,
Faster! faster!” From time to time I would ask her, “Can you see them?” "Not yet," she answered curtly. The perspiration poured down my face. Castro's panting was like the wheezing of bellows at my back. Suddenly, in a despairing tone, she said:
“Stop! I can neither see nor hear anything now."
We feathered our oars at once, and fell to listening with lowered heads. The ripple of the boat's way expired slowly. A great white stillness hung slumbrously over the sea.
It was inconceivable. We pulled once or twice with extreme energy for a few minutes after imaginary whistles or shouts. Once I heard them passing our bows. But it was useless; we stopped, and the moon, from within the mistiness of an immense halo, looked dreamily upon our heads.
Castro grunted, “Here is an end of your plan, Señor Don Juan."
The peculiar and ghastly hopelessness of our position could not be better illustrated than by this fresh difficulty. We had lost touch—with a murderous gang that had every inducement not to spare our lives. And positively it was a misfortune; an abandonment. I refused to admit to myself its finality, as if it had reflected upon the devotion of tried friends. I repeated to Castro that we should become aware of them directly—probably even nearer than we wished. And, at any rate, we were certain of a mighty loud noise when the attack on the ship began. She, at least, could not be very far now. Unless, indeed," I admitted with exasperation, we are to suppose that your imbecile Lugareños have missed their prey and got themselves as utterly lost as we ourselves.”
I was irritated by his nodding plume; by his cold, perfunctory, as if sleepy mutters, " Possibly, possibly, puede ser." He retorted: “Your English generosity could wish your countrymen no better luck than that my Lugareños, as your worship pleases to call them, should miss their way. They are hungry for loot—with much fasting. And it is hunger that makes your wolf fly straight at the throat.”
All the time Seraphina breathed no word. But when I raised my voice, she put out a hushing hand to my arm. And, from her intent pose, from the turn of her shadowy head, I knew that she was peering and listening loyally.
Minutes passed—very few, I dare say—and brought no sound. The restlessness of waiting made us dip our oars in a haphazard stroke, without aim, without the means of judging whether we pulled to seaward, inshore, north, or south, or only in a circle. Once we went excitedly in chase of some splashing that must have been a leaping fish. I was hanging my head over my idle oar when Seraphina touched me.
“I see!” she said, pointing over the bows.
Both Castro and I, peering horizontally over the water, did not see anything. Not a shadow. Moreover, if they were so near, we ought to have heard something.
I believe it is land!” she murmured. “You are looking too low, Juan."
As soon as I looked up I saw it, too, dark and beetling, like the overhang of a low cliff. Where on earth had we blundered to ? For a moment I was confounded. Fiery reflections from a light played faintly above that shape. Then I recognized what I was looking at. We had found the ship.
The fog was so shallow that up there the upper bulk of a heavy, square stern, the very rails and stanchions crowning it like a balustrade, jutted out in the misty sheen like the balcony of an invisible edifice, for the lines of her run, the sides of her hull, were plunged in the dense white layer below. And, throwing back my head, I traced even her becalmed sails, pearly gray pinnacles of shadow uprising, tall and motionless, towards the moon.
A redness wavered over her, as from a blaze on her deck. Could she be on fire ? And she was silent as a tomb. Could she be abandoned? I had promised myself to dash alongside, but there was a weirdness in that fragment of a dumb ship hanging out of a fog. We pulled only a stroke or two nearer to the stern, and stopped. I remembered Castro's warning--the blindness of flying lead; but it was the profound stillness that checked me. It seemed to portend something inconceivable. I hailed, tentatively, as if I had not expected to be answered, “Ship, ahoy!”
Neither was I answered by the instantaneous, " Hallo," of usual watchfulness, though she was not abandoned. Indeed, my hail made a good many men jump, to judge by the sounds and the words that came to me from above. “ What? What? A hail?” “Boat near?" "In English, sir."
“Dive for the captain, one of you," an authoritative voice directed. “He's just run below for a minute. Don't frighten the missus. Call him out quietly."
Talking, in confidential undertones, followed. “ See him?" Can't, sir.” What's the dodge, I wonder.” Astern, I think, sir.” “D-n this fog, it lies as thick as peasoup on the water."
I waited, and after a perplexed sort of pause, heard a stern Keep off.”
HEY did not suspect how close I was to them. And their temper struck me at once as unsafe. They seemed
very much on the alert, and, as I imagined, disposed to precipitate action. I called out, deadening my voice warily:
"I am an Englishman, escaping from the pirates here. We want your help.”
To this no answer was made, but by that time the captain had come on deck. The dingey must have drifted in a little closer, for I made out behind the shadowy rail one, two, three figures in a row, looming bulkily above my head, as men appear enlarged in mist.
“'Englishman,'” he says. “That's very likely,” pronounced a new voice. They held a hurried consultation up there, of which I caught only detached sentences, and the general tone of concern.
It's perfectly well known that there is an Englishman here. Aye, a runaway second mate.
Killed a man in a Bristol ship. ... What was his name, now ?”
Won't you answer me?” I called out.
Aye, we will answer you as soon as we see you. ... Keep your eyes skinned fore and aft on deck there. Ready, boys?
All ready, sir"; voices came from further off. “ Listen to me," I entreated.
Someone called out briskly, “This is a bad place for pretty tales of Englishmen in distress. We know very well where we are.”
“You are off Rio Medio,” I began anxiously; “ and I
"Speaks the truth like a Briton, anyhow," commented a lazy drawl.
“I would send another man to the pump,' a reflective voice suggested. “To make sure of the force, Mr. Sebright, you know.”
“Certainly, sir. . . . Another hand to the brakes, bo'sun."
“I have been held captive on shore," I said. “I escaped this evening, three hours ago."