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Martin Conisby's Vengeance(Chapter6)

2006-08-28 23:05

  Chapter VI. How I Succoured One Don Federigo, a Gentleman of Spain

  I was out upon the reef, waving my arms like any madman and shouting to the vague figure huddled in the stern sheets. As the boat drew nearer, I discovered this figure to be a man in Spanish half-armour, and the head of this man was bowed meekly upon steel-clad breast like one overcome with great weariness. But presently as I watched he looked up, like one awaking from sleep, and gestured feebly with his arm, whiles I, beholding here the means to my deliverance, babbled prayers of thankfulness to God.

  After some while, the boat being within hail, I began to call out to this solitary voyager (for companion had he none, it seemed) how he must steer to avoid the rocks and shoals. At last, the boat being come near enough and the sea very smooth, I waded out and, watching my chance, clambered aboard over the bows and came, all dripping, eager to welcome this heavensent stranger and thus beheld the boat very foul of blood and him pale and hollow-cheeked, his eyes dim and sunken; moreover his rich armour was battered and dinted, whiles about one leg was knotted a bloody scarf.

  "Senor," said I, in my best Spanish, "a lonely man, giveth you right hearty greeting!"

  "I thank you, sir," he answered and in very excellent English, "though I do much fear you shall abide solitary, for as I do think I am a-dying. Could you——bring me——water——"

  The words ended in a sigh and his head drooped so that I feared he was already gone. But, finding he yet breathed, I made haste to lower the sail and, shipping oars, paddled towards that opening in the reef that gave upon the lagoon. Being opposite this narrow channel I felt the boat caught by some tide and current and swept forward ever more rapidly, insomuch that I unshipped the oars and hasting into the bow, caught up a stout spar wherewith to fend us off from the rocks. Yet more than once, despite all my exertions, we came near striking ere, having passed through this perilous gut, we floated into the placid waters of the lagoon beyond.

  Very soon I had beached the boat as securely as I might on that spit of sand opposite Skeleton Cove, and finding the Spaniard yet a-swoon I lifted him, albeit with much ado, and setting him across my shoulder, bore him thus into the cool shade of the cave. There I laid him down beside the little rill to bathe his head and wrists with the sweet water and moisten his parched lips. At this he revived somewhat and, lifting his head, eagerly drank so much as I would allow, his sunken eyes uplift to mine in an ecstasy.

  "Young sir," said he in stronger voice, "for your kind charity and this good water may the Saints requite thee. 'Tis three nights and two days since I drank——"

  A shadow fell betwixt us and looking up I beheld Joanna. Now in one hand she grasped the Spaniard's sword she had stolen out of his boat and her other hand was hid behind her, wherefore I watched her narrowly, as she stood gazing down at this wounded man; and at first she scowled at him, but slowly her look changed and I saw her vivid lips curl in her baleful smile.

  "Oh," said she very softly, "Oh, marvel of marvels! Oh, wonder of wonders, even and in very truth it is Don Federigo de Rosalva y Maldonada, wafted hither by wind and tide to Joanna and judgment. Oh, most wonderful!"

  Now hereupon this poor wounded wretch lifted himself to peer up into her smiling face with hanging jaw, like one amazed beyond all speech, whiles she, slim and shapely in her 'broidered gown, nodded her handsome head. "Verily," quoth she, "'tis the hanging, bloody governor of Nombre de Dios come to Justice! I pray you, Senor, how many of our company ha' you strung aloft since last we met?"

  Here, though with much painful ado, the Don got to his feet and made her a prodigious fine bow.

  "The Senorita Joanna honours me by her notice," said he. "I should have doubtless known her at once but for her change of habit. And I am happy to inform the Senorita I have been so fortunate as to take and hang no less than five and twenty of her pirate fellowship since last I had the gratification of meeting her."

  "Ha, you lie!" cried she passionately. "You lie!"

  "They swing in their chains along the mole outside Nombre de Dios to witness for my truth, Senorita. And now," said he, propping himself against the rock behind him, "it is my turn to die, as I think? Well, strike, lady——here, above my gorget——"

  "Die then!" cried she and whipped a pistol from behind her, but as she levelled I struck up the weapon and it exploded harmless in the air. Uttering a scream of bitter rage, she thrust with the sword, but I put up the stroke (thereby taking a gash in the arm) and gripping the rapier by the guards I twisted it from her hold. And now she turned on me in a very frenzy:

  "Kill me then!" she panted, striving to impale herself on the sword in my hand. "If this man is to come betwixt us now, kill me in mercy and free me from this hateful woman's flesh——" But here, spying my arm bloody, she forgot her anger all in a moment. "Are ye hurt?" said she. "Are ye hurt and all to save this miserable fool!" And suddenly (or ever I might prevent) she caught my arm, kissing the wound, heedless of the blood that bedabbled her cheek in horrid fashion.

  "Oh, Martino," said she, leaning 'gainst a rock when at last I broke from her, "you are mine now and always, as you were in other times long since forgot. In those days your blood was on my lips, I mind, and your kisses also ere you died…… Mine you are to death, aye, and through death to life again——mine. And to-day is to-day and death not for you or me——yet awhile!"

  When she was gone I turned to find this wounded man upon his knees, his head bowed above a little gold crucifix between his hands.

  "Sir, what would you?" I questioned, struck by his expression, when at last he looked up.

  "I make my peace with God, Senor, since I am soon to die——"

  "Nay, sir, I do trust your hardships are ended——"

  "Shall be, Senor, to-day, to-morrow, the day after?" said he, smiling faintly and shrugging his shoulders. "A sudden shot, steel i' the back——'tis better than death by famine in an open boat. You, Senor, have saved me alive yet a little, doubtless for your own ends, but my death walketh yonder as I know, death in form shapely and fair-seeming, yet sure and unpitying, none the less."

  "Ha, d'ye mean yon woman?" I questioned.

  "The Senorita Joanna——verily, Senor."

  "Never think it!" quoth I. "'Tis wild, fierce creature, yet is she but a woman and young——"

  Now hereupon this wounded man lifted weary head to stare on me, his eyes very bright and keen.

  "Senor," says he, "either you do mock me, or you nothing know this woman. But I do know her well and too well. Senor, I have warred with and been prisoner to you English, I have fought Indians, I have campaigned again buccaneers and pirates these many years, but never have I encountered foe so desperate, so bold and cunning as this Senorita Joanna. She is the very soul of evil; the goddess of every pirate rogue in the Indies; 'tis she is their genius, their inspiration, her word their law. 'Tis she is ever foremost in their most desperate ploys, first in attack, last in retreat, fearless always——I have known her turn rout into victory. But two short months ago she vowed my destruction, and I with my thousands at command besides divers ships well armed and manned; to-day I am a woful fugitive, broken in fortune, fleeing for my life, and, Senor, Fate has brought me, through shipwreck and famine all these weary miles, into the grasp of her slender, cruel hands. Thus and thus do I know myself for dead man and shall die, howsoever I must, as becometh me."

  His keen eyes lost their fire, his head drooped, and looking down on him as he lay huddled against the rock, I did not doubt but that much of this was no more than the raving of his disordered fancy.

  So I set my arm about this poor gentleman and brought him into my habitation, where I loosed off his chafing armour and set myself to feed and cherish him, bathing the hurt in his leg, the which I found very angry and inflamed. This done I bade him be of good comfort and yield himself to slumber. But this he could no way accomplish, being restless and fevered and his mind harping continually on the strange fate had set him thus in Joanna's power and the sure belief that he must die, soon or late, at her hands.

  "For look now, Senor," said he, "and observe my strange destiny. Scarce two months since I set out in a well-found galleon, I and three hundred chosen men, to hunt down and destroy this very woman——her and her evil company. One of their ships we fell in with, which ship, after long and sharp debate, we sunk. But it coming on to blow and our own vessels being much shattered by their shot, we sprung a leak, the which gaining on us, we were forced to take to our boats; but the wind increased and we were soon scattered. On the third day, having endured divers perils, we made the land, I with Pedro Valdez my chief captain and ten others and, being short of water, they went ashore one and all, leaving me wounded in the boat. And I lying there was suddenly aware of great uproar within the thickets ashore, and thereafter the screams and cries of my companions as they died. Then cometh Pedro Valdez running, crying out the Indians were on us, that all was lost and himself sore wounded. Nevertheless he contrived to thrust off the boat and I to aid him aboard. That night, he died and the wind drove me whither it would; wherefore, having committed Pedro Valdez his body to the deep, I resigned myself to the will of God. And God hath brought me hither, Senor, and set me in the power of the Senorita Joanna that is my bitter foe; so am I like to die sudden and soon. But, Senor, for your kindness to me, pray receive a broken man's gratitude and dying blessing. Sir, I am ever a Maldonada of Castile and we do never forget!" There he reached out to grasp my hand. "Thus, Senor, should this be my last night of life, the which is very like, know that my gratitude is of the nature that dieth not."

  "Sir," said I, his hand in mine and the night deepening about us, "I am a very solitary man and you came into my life like a very angel of God (an there be such) when I stood in direst need, for I was sick of my loneliness and in my hunger for companionship very nigh to great and shameful folly. Mayhap, whiles you grow back to strength and health, I will tell you my story, but this night you shall sleep safe——so rest you secure."

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