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an English man-of-war disguised? Some even pretended to recognize in her positively one of the lighter frigates of Rowley's squadron. Night had fallen whilst they squabbled, and their flotilla hung under the land, the men in a conflict of rapacity and fear, arguing among themselves as to the ship's character, but all unanimously goading Manuel—since he would call himself their only Capataz—to go boldly and find out.
It seems he had just been doing this with the help of a few choicer spirits, and under cover of the fog. They had managed to steal near enough to hear Englishmen conversing on board, orders given, and the yo-hoing of invisible sailors trimming the yards of the ship to the fitful airs. This last, of course, was decisive. Such sounds are not heard on a man-of-war. She was a merchant ship: she would be an easy prey. And Manuel, in a state of exaltation at his venturesome bravery, had pulled back inshore, to rally all the boats round his own, and lead them to certain plunder. They would soon find out, he declaimed what it was to have at their head their own valiant Manuel, instead of that vagabond, that stranger, that Andalusian starveling; that traitor, that infidel, that Castro. Hidden away, he seemed to spout all this for our ears alone, as though he could see us in our boat. . . . Patience' patience! Some day he would cut off that interloper's eyelids, and l* him on his back under a nice clear sun.
Castro made a brusque movement; a little shudder of disgust escaped Seraphina. . . . Meantime, Manuel declared, by his audacity, that ship was as good as theirs already. "Viva el Capataz!" they cheered.
The cloud-like vapors resting on the sea muffled the short roar; we heard grim laughter, excited cries. He began to make a set speech, and his voice, haranguing with vehement inflections in the shining whiteness of a cloud, had an amazing and uncorporeal character; the quality of abstract surprise; of phenomenal emotion shouted into empty space. And for me it had, also, the fascination of a revealed depth.
It was like the oration of an ambitious leader in a farce; he held his hearers with his eloquence, as much as he had done with the song of his grotesque and desecrating love. He vaunted his sagacity and his valor, and overwhelmed with invective all sorts of names— my own and Castro's among them. He revealed the unholy ideals of all that band of scoundrels—ideals that he said should find fruition under his captaincy. He boasted of secret conferences with O'Brien. There were murmurs of satisfaction.
I don't wonder at Seraphina's shudder of horror, of disgust, of dismay, and indignation. Robbed of the inexpugnable shelter of the Casa Riego, she, too, was made to look into the depths; upon the animalism, the lusts, and the reveries of that sordid, verminhaunted crowd. I felt for her a profound and shamed sorrow. It was like a profaning touch on the sacredness of her mourning for the dead, and on her clear and passionate vision of life.
"Hombres de Rio Media! Amigos/ Valientes! . . ." Manuel was beginning his peroration. He would lead.them, now, against the English ship. The terrified heretics would surrender. There was always gold in English ships. He stopped his speech, and then called loudly, " Let the boats keep touch with each other, and not stray in that fog."
"The dog," grunted Castro. We heard a resolute bustle of preparation; oars were being shipped.
"Make ready, Tomas," I whispered.
"Ready for what? " he grumbled. "Where shall your worship run from these swine?"
"We must follow them," I answered.
"The madness of the senor's countrymen descends upon him," he whispered with sardonic politeness. "Wherefore follow?"
"To find the English ship," I answered swiftly.
This, from the moment we had heard Manuel's guitar, had been my idea. Since the fog that concealed us from their sight made us, too, hopelessly blind, those wretches must guide us themselves out of their own clutches, as it were. I don't put this forward as an inspired conception. It was a most risky and almost hopeless expedient; but the position was so critical that there was no other alternative to sitting still and waiting with folded hands for discovery. Castro seemed more inclined for the latter.
Fortunately, the bandits wasted some time in blasphemous bickerings as to the order of the boats in the procession of attack. I urged my views upon Castro in hurried whispers. His assent was of importance, since he could use an oar very well, and, if left to myself, I could not hope to scull fast enough to keep within hearing of the flotilla.
"Of what use to us would be a ship in Manuel's power?" he argued morosely. On the other hand, if we waited near her till she had been plundered and released, neither the fog nor the night would last forever.
"My countrymen shall beat them off," I affirmed confidently, "At any rate, let us be on the spot. We may take a hand. And remember, Tomas, they are not led by you, this time."
"True," he said, mollified. "But one thing more deserves the consideration of your worship. . . If we follow this plan, we take the senorita among flying bullets. And lead, alas! unlike steel, is blind, or that illustrious man would not now be dead. If we wait here, the senorita, at least, shall take no harm from these ruffians, as I have said."
"Are you afraid of the bullets?" I asked Seraphina.
Before she had answered, Castro hissed at me:
"Oh, you unspeakable English. Would you sacrifice the daughter, too, only because she is brave?"
His sinister allusion made my blood boil with rage, and sud, denly run cold in my veins. Swathed in the brilliant cloud, we heard the sounds of quarreling and scrambling die away; cries of "Ready! ready!" an unexpected and brutal laugh. Seraphina leaned forward.
"Tomas, I wish this thing. I command it," she whispered imperiously. "We shall help these English on the ship. We must; I command it. For these are now my people."
I heard him mutter to himself, "Ah, dear shade of my Carlos. Her people. Where are now mine?" But he shipped his oar, and sat waiting.
In the moment before the picaroons actually started, I became the prey of the most intense anxiety. I knew we were to seaward of the cluster. But of our position relatively to the boats, and to the English ship they would make for, I was profoundly ignorant. The dingey might be lying right in the way. Before I could master the sort of disorder I was thrown into by that thought— which, strange to say, had not occurred to me till then—with a shrill whistle Manuel led off
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, Senor 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 Lugarenos 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 Lugarenos, 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