« PreviousContinue »
“And found this ship in the fog? You made a good shot at it, didn't you?” “It's no time for trifling, I swear to you,” I continued. “They are out looking for you, in force. I've heard them. I was with them when they started.” “I believe you.” “They seem to have missed the ship.” “So you came to have a friendly chat meantime. That's kind. Beastly weather, aint it?” “I want to come aboard,” I shouted. “You must be crazy not to believe me.” “But we do believe every single word you say,” bantered the Sebright voice with serenity. Suddenly another struck in, “Nichols, I call to mind, sir.” “Of course, of course. This is the man.” “My name's not Nichols,” I protested. “Now, now. You mustn't begin to lie,” remonstrated Sebright. Somebody laughed discreetly. “You are mistaken, on my honor,” I said. “Nichols left Rio Medio some time ago.” “About three hours, eh?” came the drawl of insufferable folly in these precious minutes. It was clear that Manuel had gone astray, but I feared not for long. They would spread out in search. And now I had found this hopeless ship, it seemed impossible that anybody else could miss her. “You may be boarded any moment by more than a dozen boats. I warn you solemnly. Will you let me come 2" A low whistle was heard on board. They were impressed, “Why should he tell us this?” an undertone inquired. “Why the devil shouldn't he? It's no great news, is it? Some scoundrelly trick. This man's up to any dodge. Why, the Jane was taken in broad day by two boats that pretended they were going to sell vegetables.” “Look out, or by heavens you'll be taken by surprise. There's a lot of them,” I said as impressively as I could. “Look out, look out. There's a lot of them,” someone yelled in a sort of panic.
“Oh, that's your game,” Sebright's voice said to me. “Frighten us, eh? Never you mind what this skunk says, men. Stand fast. We shall take a lot of killing.” He was answered by a sort of pugnacious uproar, a clash of cutlasses and laughter, as if at some joke. “That's right, boys; mind and send them away with clean faces, you gunners. Jack, you keep a good lookout for that poor distressed Englishman. What's that? a noise in the fog? Stand by. Now then, cook! . . .” “All ready to dish up, sir,” a voice answered him. It was like a sort of madness. Were they thinking of eating? Even at that the English talk made my heart expand—the homeliness of it. I seemed to know all their voices, as if I had talked to each man before. It brought back memories, like the voices of friends. But there was the strange irrelevancy, levity, the enmity —the irrational, baffling nature of the anguishing conversation, as if with the unapproachable men we meet in nightmares. We in the dingey, as well as those on board, were listening anxiously. A profound silence reigned for a time. “I don't care for myself,” I tried once more, speaking distinctly. “But a lady in the boat here is in great danger, too. Won't you do something for a woman?” I perceived, from the sort of stir on board, that this caused some sensation. “Or is the whole ship's company afraid to let one little boat come alongside?” I added, after waiting for an answer. A throat was cleared on board mildly, “Hem . . . you see, we don't know who you are.” “I’ve told you who I am. The lady is Spanish.” “Just so. But there are Englishmen and Englishmen in these days. Some of them keep very bad company ashore, and others afloat. I couldn't think of taking you on board, unless I know something more of you.” I seemed to detect an intention of malice in the mild voice. The more so that I overheard a rapid interchange of mutterings up there. “See him yet?” “Not a thing, sir.” “Wait, I say.” Nothing could overcome the fixed idea of these men, who seemed to enjoy so much the cleverness of their suspicions. It was the most dangerous of tempers to deal with. It made them as untrustworthy as so many lunatics. They were capable of anything, of decoying us alongside, and stoving the bottom out of the boat, and drowning us before they discovered their mistake, if they ever did. Even as it was, there was danger; and yet I was extremely loath to give her up. It was impossible to give her up. But what were we to do? What to say? How to act? “Castro, this is horrible,” I said blankly. That he was beginning to chafe, to fret, and shuffle his feet only added to my dismay. He might begin at any moment to swear in Spanish, and that was sure to bring a shower of lead, blind, fired blindly. “We have nothing to expect from the people of that ship. We cannot even get on board.” “Not without Manuel's help, it seems,” he said bitterly. “Strange, is it not, señor! Your countrymen—your excellent and virtuous countrymen. Generous and courageous and perspicacious.” Seraphina said suddenly, “They have reason. It is well for them to be suspicious of us in this place.” She had a tone of calm reproof, and of faith. “They shall be of more use when they are dead,” Castro muttered. “The schor's other dead countrymen served us well.” “I shall give you great, very great sums of money,” Seraphina suddenly cried towards the ship. “I am the Señorita Seraphina Riego.” “There is a woman—that's a woman's voice, I'll swear,” I heard them exclaim on board, and I cried again: “Yes, yes. There is a woman.” “I dare say. But where do you come in 2 You are a distressed Englishman, aren't you?" a voice came back. “You shall let us come up on your ship,” Seraphina said. “I shall come myself, alone—Seraphina Riego.” “Eh, what?” the voice asked. I felt a little wind on the back of my head. There was desperate hurry. “We are escaping to get married,” I called out. They were beginning to shout orders on the ship. “Oh, you've come to the wrong shop. A church is what you want for that trouble,” the voice called back brutally, through . the other cries of orders to square the yards. I shouted again, but my voice must have been drowned in the creaking of blocks and yards. They were alert enough for every chance of getting away—for every flaw of wind. Already the ship was less distinct, as if my eyes had grown dim. By the time a voice on board her cried, “Belay,” faintly, she had gone from my sight. Then the puff of wind passed away, too, and left us more alone than ever, with only the small disk of the moon poised vertically above the mists. “Listen,” said Tomas Castro, after what seemed an eternity of crestfallen silence. He need not have spoken; there could be no doubt that Manuel had lost himself, and my belief is that the ship had sailed right into the midst of the flotilla. There was an unmistakable character of surprise in the distant tumult that arose suddenly, and as suddenly ceased for a space of a breath or two. “Now, Castro,” I shouted. “Ha! bueno/” We gave way with a vigor that seemed to lift the dingey out of the water. The uproar gathered volume and fierceness. From the first it was a hand-to-hand contest, engaged in suddenly, as if the assailants had at once managed to board in a body, and, as it were, in one unanimous spring. No shots had been fired. Too far to hear the blows, and seeing nothing as yet of the ship, we seemed to be hastening towards a deadly struggle of voices, of shadows with leathern throats; every cry heard in battle was there —rage, encouragement, fury, hate, and pain. And those of pain were amazingly distinct. They were yells; they were howls. And suddenly, as we approached the ship, but before we could make out any sign of her, we came upon a boat. We had to swerve to clear her. She seemed to have dropped out of the fight in utter disarray; she lay with no oars out, and full of men who writhed and tumbled over each other, shrieking as if they had been flayed. Above the writhing figures in the middle of the boat, a tall man, upright in the stern-sheets, raved awful imprecations and shook his fists above his head. The blunt dingey foamed past that vision within an oar's length,
no more, making straight for the clamor of the fight. The last puff of wind must have thinned the fog in the ship's track; for, standing up, face forward to pull stroke, I saw her come out, sternon to us, from truck to water-liné, mistily tall and motionless, but resounding with the most fierce and desperate noises. A cluster of empty boats clung low to her port side, raft-like and vague on the water. We heard now, mingled with the fury and hate of shouts reverberating from the placid sails, mighty thuds and crashes, as though it had been a combat with clubs and battle-axes. Evidently, in the surprise and haste of the unexpected coming together, they had been obliged to board all on the same side. As I headed for the other a big boat, full of men, with many oars, shot across our bows, and vanished round the ship's counter in the twinkling of an eye. The defenders, engaged on the port side, were going to be taken in the rear. We were then so close to the counter that the cries of “Death, death,” rang over our heads. A voice on the poop said furiously in English, “Stand fast, men.” Next moment, we, too, rounded the quarter only twenty feet behind the big boat, but with a slightly wider sweep. I said, “Have the pistols ready, Seraphina.” And she answered quite steadily: “They are ready, Juan.” I could not have believed that any handiwork of man afloat could have got so much way through the water. To this very day I am not rid of the absurd impression that, at that particular moment, the dingey was traveling with us as fast as a cannon-ball. No sooner round than we were upon them. We were upon them so fast that I had barely the time to fling away my oar, and close my grip on the butt of the pistols Seraphina pressed into my hand from behind. Castro, too, had dropped his oar, and, turning as swift as a cat, crouched in the bows. I saw his good arm darting out towards their boat. They had cast a grapnel cleverly, and, swung abreast of the main chains, were grimly busied in boarding the undefended side in silence. One had already his leg over the ship's rail, and below him three more were clambering resolutely, one above the other. The rest of them, standing up in a body with their faces to the