« PreviousContinue »
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 suddenly 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 thoughtwhich, 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 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 Aying 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."
-n this fog, it lies as thick as peas soup on the water."
I waited, and after a perplexed sort of pause, heard a sters “Keep off."