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Martin Conisby's Vengeance(Chapter8)

2006-08-28 23:05

  Chapter VIII. How the Days of My Watching Were Accomplished

  Our fresh meat being nearly all gone, I set out next morning with my bow and arrows (in the management of which I had made myself extreme dexterous); I set out, I say, minded to shoot me a young goat or, failing this, one of those great birds whose flesh I had found ere now to be very tender and delicate eating.

  Hardly had I waved adieu to the Don (him sitting in the shade propped in one of my great elbow chairs) than I started a goat and immediately gave chase, not troubling to use my bow, for what with my open-air life and constant exercise I had become so long-winded and fleet of foot that I would frequently run these wild creatures down.

  Away sped the goat and I after it, along perilous tracks and leaping from rock to rock, joying in the chase, since of late I had been abroad very little by reason of Don Federigo's sickness; on I ran after my quarry, the animal making ever for higher ground and more difficult ways until we were come to a rocky height whence I might behold a wide expanse of ocean.

  Now, as had become my wont, I cast a look around about this vast horizon and stopped all at once, clean forgetting my goat and all else in the world excepting that which had caught my lonely glance, that for which I had looked and waited and prayed for so long. For there, dim-seen 'twixt the immensity of sea and sky, was a speck I knew for the topsails of a ship. Long stood I staring as one entranced, my hands tight clasped, and all a-sweat with fear lest this glimmering speck should fade and vanish utterly away. At last, dreading this be but my fancy or a trick of the light, I summoned enough resolution to close my eyes and, bowing my head between my hands, remained thus as long as I might endure. Then, opening my eyes, I uttered a cry of joy to see this speck loom more distinct and plainer than before. Thereupon I turned and began to hasten back with some wild notion of putting off in Don Federigo's boat (the which lay securely afloat in the lagoon) and of standing away for this ship lest peradventure she miss the island. Full of this dreadful possibility I took to running like any madman, staying for nothing, leaping, scrambling, slipping and stumbling down sheer declivities, breasting precipitous cliffs until I reached and began to descend Skeleton Cove.

  I was half-way down the cliff when I heard the clash of steel, and presently coming where I might look down into the cove I saw this: with his back to a rock and a smear of blood on his cheek stood Don Federigo, armed with my cut-and-thrust, defending himself against Joanna; and as I watched the flash of their whirling, clashing blades, it did not take me long to see that the Don was no match for her devilish skill and cunning, and beholding her swift play of foot and wrist, her lightning volts and passes, I read death in every supple line of her. Even as I hasted towards them, I saw the dart of her long blade, followed by a vivid, ever-widening stain on the shoulder of the Don's tattered shirt.

  "Ha-ha!" cried she and with a gasconading flourish of her blade. "There's for Pierre Valdaigne you hanged six months agone! There's for Jeremy Price! And this for Tonio Moretti! And now for John Davis, sa-ha!" With every name she uttered, her cruel steel, flashing within his weakening guard, bit into him, arm or leg, and I saw she meant to cut him to pieces. The sword was beaten from his failing grasp and her point menaced his throat, his breast, his eyes, whiles he, leaning feebly against the rock, fronted her unflinching and waited death calm and undismayed. But, staying for no more, I leapt down into the cove and fell, rolling upon the soft sand, whereupon she flashed a look at me over her shoulder and in that moment Don Federigo had grappled her sword-arm; then came I running and she, letting fall her sword, laughed to see me catch it up.

  "Ha, my brave English clod," cried she. "There be two swords and two men against one defenceless woman! Come, end me, Martino, end me and be done——or will you suffer the Don to show you, yes?" And folding her arms she faced me mighty high and scornful. But now, whiles I stared at her insolent beauty and no word ready, Don Federigo made her one of his grand bows and staggered into the cave, spattering blood as he went.

  And in a little (staying only to take up the other sword) I followed him, leaving her to stand and mock me with her laughter. Reaching the Don I found him a-swoon and straightway set myself to bare his wounds and staunch their bleeding as well as I might, in the doing of which I must needs marvel anew at Joanna's devilish skill, since each and every of these hurts came near no vital spot and were of little account in themselves, so that a man might be stabbed thus very many times ere death ended his torment.

  After awhile, recovering himself somewhat, Don Federigo must needs strive to speak me his gratitude, but I cut him short to tell of the ship I had seen.

  "I pray what manner of ship?"

  "Nay, she is yet too far to determine," said I, glancing eagerly seawards. "But since ship she is, what matter for aught beside?"

  "True, Senor Martino! I am selfish."

  "How so?"

  "Unless she be ship of Spain, here is no friend to me. But you will be yearning for sight of this vessel whiles I keep you. Go, young sir, go forth——make you a fire, a smoke plain to be seen and may this ship bring you to freedom and a surcease of all your tribulations!"

  "A smoke!" cried I, leaping up. "Ha, yes——yes!" And off went I, running; but reaching Deliverance I saw there was no need for signal of mine, since on the cliff above a fire burned already, sending up huge columns of thick smoke very plain to be seen from afar, and beside this fire Joanna staring seaward beneath her hand. And looking whither she looked, I saw the ship so much nearer that I might distinguish her lower courses. Thus I stood, watching the vessel grow upon my sight, very slowly and by degrees, until it was evident she had seen the smoke and was standing in for the island. Once assured of this, I was seized of a passion of joy; and bethinking me of all she might mean to me and of the possibility that one might be aboard her whose sweet eyes even now gazed from her decks upon this lonely island, my heart leapt whiles ship and sea swam on my sight and I grew blinded by stinging tears. And now I paced to and fro upon the sand in a fever of longing and with my hungry gaze turned ever in the one direction.

  As the time dragged by, my impatience grew almost beyond enduring; but on came the ship, slow but sure, nearer and nearer until I could discern shroud and spar and rope, the guns that yawned from her high, weather-beaten side, the people who crowded her decks. She seemed a great ship, heavily armed and manned, and high upon her towering poop lolled one in a vivid scarlet jacket.

  I was gazing upon her in an ecstacy, straining my eyes for the flutter of a petticoat upon her lofty quarter-deck, when I heard Don Federigo hail me faintly, and glancing about, espied him leaning against an adjacent rock.

  "Alas, Senor," says he, "I know yon ship by her looks——aye, and so doth the Senorita——see yonder!" Now glancing whither he pointed, I beheld Joanna pacing daintily along the reef, pausing ever and anon to signal with her arm; then, as the ship went about to bear up towards the reef, from her crowded decks rose a great shouting and halloo, a hoarse clamour drowned all at once in the roar of great guns, and up to the main fluttered a black ancient; and beholding this accursed flag, its grisly skull and bones, I cast me down on the sands, my high hopes and fond expectations 'whelmed in a great despair.

  But as I lay thus was a gentle touch on my bowed head and in my ear Don Federigo's voice:

  "Alas, good my friend, and doth Hope die for you likewise? Then do I grieve indeed. But despair not, for in the cave yonder be two swords; go fetch them, I pray, for I am over-weak."

  "Of what avail," cried I bitterly, looking up into the pale serenity of his face, "of what avail two swords 'gainst a ship's company?"

  "We can die, Senor!" said he, with his gentle smile. "To die on our own steel, by our own hands——here——is clean death and honourable."

  "True!" said I.

  "Then I pray go fetch the swords, my friend; 'tis time methinks——look!" Glancing towards the ship, I saw she was already come to an anchor and a boatful of men pulling briskly for the reef where stood Joanna, and as they rowed they cheered her amain:

  "La Culebra!" they roared. "Ahoy, Joanna! Give a rouse for Fighting Jo! Cap'n Jo——ha, Joanna!"

  The boat being near enough, many eager hands were reached out to her and with Joanna on board they paddled into the lagoon. Now as they drew in to Deliverance Beach they fell silent all, hearkening to her words, and I saw her point them suddenly to Skeleton Cove, whereupon they rowed amain towards that spit of sand where we stood screened among the rocks, shouting in fierce exultation as they came. Don Federigo sank upon his knees with head bowed reverently above his little crucifix, and when at last he looked up his face showed placid as ever.

  "Senor," quoth he gently, "you do hear them howling for my blood? Well, you bear a knife in your girdle——I pray you lend it to me." For a moment I hesitated, then, drawing the weapon forth, I sent it spinning far out to sea.

  "Sir," said I, "we English do hold that whiles life is——so is hope. Howbeit, if you die you shall not die alone, this I swear."

  Then I sprang forth of the rocks and strode down where these lawless fellows were beaching their boat.

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