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direction of Tomas Castro, who was bent and shouting down the
hatch. "Try to "the old man gasped. "Didn't you hear
the child scream?" His face was pallid and wrinkled, like a piece of crumpled paper; his mouth was drawn on one side, and his lips quivered one against the other.
I went to Castro and caught him by the arm. He spun round and smiled discreetly.
"We shall be using force upon you directly. Pray resist, senor; but not too much. What? His wife? Tell that stupid Inglez with whispers that she is safe." He whispered with an air of profound intelligence, "We shall be ready to go as soon as these foul swine have finished their stealing. I cannot stop them," he added.
I could not pause to think what he might mean. The child's shrieks resounding louder and louder, I ran below. There were a couple of men in the cabin with the women. Mrs. Cowper was lying back upon a sofa, her face very white and drawn, her eyes wide open. Her useless hands twitched at her dress; otherwise she was absolutely motionless, like a frozen woman. The black nurse was panting convulsively in a corner—a palpitating bundle of orange and purple and white clothes. The child was rushing round and round, shrieking. The two men did nothing at all. One of them kept saying in Spanish:
"But—we only want your rings. But—we only want your rings."
The other made feeble efforts to catch the child as it rushed past him. He wanted its earrings—they were contraband of war, I suppose.
Mrs. Cowper was petrified with terror. Explaining the desires of the two men was like shouting things into the ear of a very deaf woman. She kept on saying:
"Will they go away then? Will they go away then?" All the while she was drawing the rings off her thin fingers, and handing them to me. I gave them to the ruffians whose presence seemed to terrify her out of her senses. I had no option. I could do nothing else. Then I asked her whether she wished me to remain with her and the child. She said:
"Yes. No. Go away. Yes No—let me think."
Finally it came into my head that in the captain's cabin she would be able to talk to her husband through the deck ventilator, and, after a time, the idea filtered through to her brain. She could hardly walk at all. The child and the nurse ran in front of us, and, practically, I carried her there in my arms. Once in the stateroom she struggled loose from me, and, rushing in, slammed the door violently in my face. She seemed to hate me.
I WE NT on deck again. On the poop about twenty men had surrounded Major Cowper; his white head was being jerked backwards and forwards above their bending backs; they had got his old uniform coat off, and were fighting for the buttons. I had just time to shout to him, "Your wife's down there, she's all right! " when very suddenly I became aware that Tomas Castro was swearing horribly at these thieves. He drove them away, and we were left quite alone on the poop, I holding the major's coat over my arm. Major Cowper stooped down to call through the skylight. I could hear faint answers coming up to him.
Meantime, some of the rascals left on board the schooner had filled on her in a light wind, and, sailing round our stern, had brought their vessel alongside. Ropes were thrown on board and we lay close together, but the schooner with her dirty decks looked to me, now, very sinister and very sordid.
Then I remembered Castro's extraordinary words; they suggested infinite possibilities of a disastrous nature, I could not tell just what. The explanation seemed to be struggling to bring itself to light, like a name that one has had for hours on the tip of a tongue without being able to formulate it. Major Cowper rose stiffly, and limped to my side. He looked at me askance, then shifted his eyes away. Afterwards, he took his coat from my arm. I tried to help him, but he refused my aid, and jerked himself painfully into it. It was too tight for him. Suddenly, he said:
"You seem to be deuced intimate with that man—deuced intimate."
His tone caused me more misgiving than I should have thought possible. He took a turn on the deserted deck; went to the skylight; called down, "All well, still?" waited, listening with his head on one side, and then came back to me.
"You drop into the ship," he said, "out of the clouds. Out of the clouds, I say. You tell us some sort of cock-and-bull story. I say it looks deuced suspicious." He took another turn and came back. "My wife says that you took her rings and—and—gave
them to "He had an ashamed air. It came into my head
that that hateful woman had been egging him on to this through the skylight, instead of saying her prayers.
"Your wife! " I said. "Why, she might have been murdered —if I hadn't made her give them up. I believe I saved her life."
He said suddenly, " Tut, tut! " and shrugged his shoulders. He hung his head for a minute, then he added, " Mind, I don't say— I don't say that it mayn't be as you say. You're a very nice young fellow . . . But what I say is—I am a public man—you ought to clear yourself." He was beginning to recover his military bearing.
"Oh! don't be absurd," I said.
One of the Spaniards came up to me and whispered, " You must come now. We are going to cast off." At the same time Tomas Castro prowled to the other side of the ship, within five yards of us. I called out, " Tomas Castro! Tomas Castro! I will not go with you." The man beside me said, "Come, senor! Vamos!"
Suddenly Castro, stretching his arm out at me, cried, "Come, hombres. This is the caballero; seize him." And to me in his broken English he shouted, "You may resist, if you like."
This was what I meant to do with all my might. The ragged crowd surrounded me; they chattered like monkeys. One man irritated me beyond conception. He looked like an inn-keeper in kneebreeches, had a broken nose that pointed to the left, and a double chin. More of them came running up every minute. I made a sort of blind rush at the fellow with the broken nose; my elbow caught him on the soft folds of flesh and he skipped backwards; the rest scattered in all directions, and then stood at a distance, chattering and waving their hands. And beyond them I saw old Cowper gesticulating approval. The man with the double chin drew a knife from his sleeve, crouched instantly, and sprang at me. I hadn't fought anybody since I had been at school; raising my fists was like trying a dubious experiment in an emergency. I caught him rather hard on the end of his broken nose; I felt the contact on my right, and a small pain in my left hand. His arms went up to the sky; his face, too. But I had started forward to meet him, and half a dozen of them flung their arms round me from behind.
I seemed to have an exaggerated clearness of vision; I saw each brown dirty paw reach out to clutch some part of me. I was not angry any more; it wasn't any good being angry, but I made a fight for it. There were dozens of them; they clutched my wrists, my elbows, and in between my wrists and my elbows, and my shoulders. One pair of arms was round my neck, another round my waist, and they kept on trying to catch my legs with ropes. We seemed to stagger all over the deck; I expect they got in each other's way; they would have made a better job of it if they hadn't been such a multitude. I must then have got a crack on the head, for everything grew dark; the night seemed to fall on us, as we fought.
Afterwards I found myself lying gasping on my back on the deck of the schooner; four or five men were holding me down. Castro was putting a pistol into his belt. He stamped his foot violently, and then went and shouted in Spanish:
"Come you all on board. You have done mischief enough, fools of Lugarenos. Now we go."
I saw, as in a dream of stress and violence, some men making ready to cast off the schooner, and then, in a supreme effort, an effort of lusty youth and strength, which I remember to this day, I scattered men like chaff, and stood free.
For the fraction of a second I stood, ready to fall myself, and looking at prostrate men. It was a flash of vision, and then I made a bolt for the rail. I clambered furiously; I saw the deck of the old bark; I had just one exulting sight of it, and then Major Cowper uprose before my eyes and knocked me back on board the schooner, tumbling after me himself.
Twenty men flung themselves upon my body. I made no movement. The end had come. I hadn't the strength to shake off a fly, my heart was bursting my ribs. I lay on my back and managed to say, " Give me air." I thought I should die.
Castro, draped in his cloak, stood over me, but Major Cowper fell on his knees near my head, almost sobbing:
"My papers! My papers! I tell you I shall starve. Make them give me back my papers. They aint any use to them—my pension—mortgages—not worth a penny piece to you."