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Black Bartlemy's Treasure(Chapter18)

2006-08-28 22:26

  Chapter XVIII. Concerning the Mark of a Bloody Hand and How I Lay in the Bilboes on Suspicion of Murder

  It was with an effort at last that I dragged my gaze from the hateful thing at my feet, only to meet the wide stare of that great eye my knife had wrought and (albeit no human eye now glittered there) yet it seemed none the less to watch my every move so persistently that I snatched off my neckerchief and pinning it against the bulkhead with my knife, hid the thing from sight. Which done, I spurned my blood-stained doublet into a corner and getting to hands and knees with the light beside me, began my search.

  My bunk was formed of boards supported by four up-ended casks and stretched the whole length of my small chamber. Upon these boards was a pallet covered by a great blanket that hung down to the very flooring; lifting this, I advanced the lanthorn and so began to examine very narrowly this space beneath my bed. And first I noticed that the flooring hereabouts was free of dust as it had been new-swept, and presently in the far corner espied a blurred mark that, as I looked, took grim form and semblance; stooping nearer I stared at this in the full glare of the lanthorn, then, shrank back (as well I might) for now I saw this mark was indeed the print of a great, bloody hand, open at full stretch. Crouching thus, I felt again all the horror I had known in my dreams, that dread of some unseen, haunting presence seeming to breathe in the very air about me, a feeling of some evil thing that moved and crept in the dark beyond the door, of ears that hearkened to my every move and eyes that watched me unseen. And this terror waxed and grew, until hearing a faint stirring behind me, I whirled about in panic to see the neckerchief gently a-swing against the bulkhead where I had pinned it; and though this was caused by no more than the motion of the ship (as I judged), yet in my then state of mind I whipped out my pistol and, levelling at the knot-hole, pulled the trigger, whereon was a mere flash in the pan and no more. This of itself steadied me, and sitting on my bed I found that the charge had been withdrawn.

  Laying by the useless weapon (for I had neither powder nor ball) I fell to profound meditation. And now indeed many things were plain; here (methought) had been the ghost, here had lain the murderer of three men, here in the one and only safe place for him in the whole ship, viz., beneath my bed, the while I lay there in drugged sleep. It would be simple matter to steal hither in my absence and drug my food, and would explain the strange nausea had so afflicted me of late. Here then I had the secret of my day-long sleeping, my vapours and black humours, here the explanation of my evil dreams and ghastly visions while Death, in human guise, crept about my couch or stooped above my unconscious form. But (I reasoned) I was not to be murdered, since I was of more use to him alive than dead and for three reasons (as I judged). First, that in his stealthy comings and goings he might be mistaken for me and thus left alone; secondly, that dressed in my habit he might haply father his crimes on me; and thirdly, that I (lying here drugged and asleep) might afford him the one and only escape from pursuit and capture. And yet (thinks I) what manner of man (or rather devil) should this be who, clad in my doublet, could make away with three lusty fellows and no one the wiser? Hereupon (and all in a flash) I seemed to see again the great black ship drifting down on us in the river and the man who rowed the skiff with the misshapen bundle in the stern-sheets——the bundle that had vanished so inexplicably.

  "By the living God," says I in a whisper, "here's an end to all the mystery at last!" And so remained a great while sitting motionless on my bed, being mightily cast down and utterly confounded. Rousing myself at last I drew my knife from the bulkhead and put out the light; then very cautiously set wide the door, and thus lapped in the pitchy dark (and mighty thankful for the good chain-shirt beneath my jerkin) stood holding my breath to listen. But hearing no more than the usual stir and bustle of the ship, I stole forward silent in my stockinged feet, and groping before me with my left hand, the knife clenched in my right, began to steal towards the ladder. And now, despite shirt of mail, I felt a cold chill that crept betwixt my twitching shoulder-blades as I went, for that which I feared was more hateful than any knife.

  Howbeit, reaching the ladder, I got me to the orlop (and mighty thankful) and so to the upper deck, to find a wondrous fair night breathing a sweet and balmy air and with a round moon uprising against a great plenitude of stars. The moon was low as yet and, taking advantage of the shadows, I got me into the gloom of the mainmast where the boats were stowed; and here (being well screened from chance view) I sat me down to drink in the glory of sea and sky, and to wait for chance of speech with Adam. And huge joy was it to behold these vast waters as they heaved to a slumberous swell and all radiant with the moon's loveliness; or, gazing aloft, through the maze of ropes and rigging, marvelled at the glory of the heaven set with its myriad starry fires. And, contrasting all this with the place of black horror whence I had come, I fell to a very ecstasy. And now, even as I sat thus lost in pleasing wonderment, from the quarter-deck hard by came the sweet, throbbing melody of a lute touched by skilled fingers and therewith a voice richly soft and plaintive, yet thrilling with that strange, vital ring had first arrested me and which I should have known the world over. So she sang an air that I knew not, yet methought it wondrous sweet; anon she breaks off, all at once, and falls to the song I had heard her sing before now, viz.:

  "A poor soul sat sighing by a green willow tree."

  Now as I hearkened, my gaze bent aloft, the starry heavens grew all sudden blurred and misty on my sight, and I knew again that deep yearning for a life far different from that I (in my blind selfishness) had marked out for myself. "Here truly" (thinks I) "is one of Godby's 'times of stars,' the which are good times being times of promise for all that are blessed with eyes to see ——saving only myself who (though possessing eyes) am yet not as other men, being indeed one set apart and dedicated to a just act of vengeance. But for this, I too might have been happy perchance and with a hope of greater happiness to be."

  Something the like of this was in my thoughts while the song was a-singing, and I half-blinded by tears that would not be blinked away. Howbeit, the song ending, I was aware of a man's voice something high-pitched and precise:

  "I vow and protest, dear madam, 'tis rare——a night angelic and an angel here to sing us to an ecstasy."

  "Faith, Joan," says another voice, "your singing might draw any man's heart out of him, sweet cousin."

  "And that is but bald truth, I vow, my lady!" spoke a third.

  "Why then, gentlemen," says she, laughing, "here's an angel will to bed ere so ill a chance befall you."

  Now here (being minded to steal a look upon her) I rose, and creeping to the great mast, edged myself into the shadow and so beheld one that crouched there already, and knew him for that same red-headed fellow I had belaboured with the rope's-end. He was staring up at the quarter-deck and, following his look, I saw my lady stand leaning upon the rail, her shapely figure outlined against the moonlight, her face upraised to the sky. So stood she awhile, the gentlemen beside her (very brave in their velvets and new-fangled great periwigs) until came her maid Marjorie; then she sighed, acknowledged the gentlemen's bows and flourishes with a graceful curtesy, and bidding them a laughing "good-night" went her way, her shapely arm about Marjorie's trim waist. Hereupon the red-headed fellow uttered a sound 'twixt a sigh and groan, and beholding him now as he yet stared after her, I saw his face convulse and a look in his eyes as he tongued his lips as made my very gorge rise, and I crept a pace nearer.

  "Be that you, Smiler?" says he, his gaze still fixed. "O mate, yon's a rare dainty bit——a sweet armful, Smiler——"

  "Dog!" I cried in sudden choking fury. At this he leapt back, hardly escaping my fist.

  "Ha——is't you again!" cries he, and with the words sprang at me and fetched me a staggering buffet in the mouth. At this (forgetting all prudence) I closed with him, and, heedless of his blows, secured the wrestling grip I sought and wrenching him down and across my knee, saw his face suddenly be-splashed with the blood from my cut mouth the while I strove to choke him to silence. But he struggled mightily and thrice he cried "murder" in despite of me, whereupon the cry was taken up by one here and others there, until the very ship seemed to roar "murder."

  Followed a rush of feet, a confusion of voices all about me and, loosing my adversary, I reeled back to the mast under a rain of blows.

  "Stand away——back all!" cried a voice. "Gi'e mea shot at the rogue!" and the muzzle of a caliver was thrust into my face, only to be dashed aside as Adam sprang before me.

  "Hold off!" says he, whereupon they shrank back from me, one and all, before his levelled pistol, and there came a moment's silence wherein I heard Godby utter a gasp, and letting fall the caliver he stared at me a-gape. "Here's no murderer, ye fools!" says Adam, scowling round on them, "'Tis no more than——ha, way for Sir Rupert——make way for the Captain, there!"

  "Pray what's to do, Master Penfeather?" demanded Sir Rupert, hasting forward with drawn sword and the three gentlemen behind him. "What's all this riot?"

  "Nought but a stowaway rogue, Sir Rupert, and one beknown to me in England."

  "Ha!" says Sir Rupert, stroking a curl of his great peruke, "How cometh he brawling with the watch?"

  "Look'ee, my masters," cried the red-headed fellow (gasping and making great to-do of gurgling and clasping his throat where I had squeezed him) "look'ee, sirs, at my bloody face——all bloodied I be and nigh done for by yon murdering rogue. Here's me on my watch and no thought o' harm, and suddenly out o' nowhere he takes him and grips me from behind and would ha' murdered me as he murdered t'others!"

  "Ha!" cried Sir Rupert, "The man reeks blood, observe, Master Penfeather, and here's grave charge beside!"

  Now as I leaned there against the mast I saw a figure flit down the quarter-ladder and fain would have fled, yet seeing this vain, hung my head and cowered in a very agony of mortified pride.

  "And you know this man, you say, Master Adam?" questioned Sir Rupert.

  "Aye I do, sir, for a desperate fellow, and so doth my Lady Brandon——and yourself also."

  "Ha? Bring him forward where I may get look of him." The which being done, Sir Rupert starts back with sword-point raised.

  "By heaven!" he cried, "How cometh this fellow aboard?"

  "A stowaway as I said, sir," quoth Adam. "You mind him very well, it seemeth."

  "Aye, verily!" says Sir Rupert, tapping me lightly with his sword as I stood between my captors. "Ha——you're the rogue stood i' the pillory!"

  "Aye!" I nodded, scowling at his dainty person. "And you're the one that set me there!"

  "'Tis a rogue ingrain!" said Sir Rupert, frowning in turn. "O a very desperate fellow as you say, Master Adam, and like enough the murderer we are a-seeking." Hereupon I laughed and was kicked (unseen) therefor by Adam.

  "My lady!" says he, turning where she stood hard by, "You have seen this fellow, I think."

  "Yes," says she readily. "And indeed, Cousin Rupert, I know more of this——of him than you do, and very sure am I he is no murderer——nor ever will be!" Here for a moment her glance rested on me, and meeting that look I forgot my wounded vanity and degradation awhile.

  "Sweet my lady," says Sir Rupert, "Your gentle woman's heart may not brook scenes the like of this. Go seek thy tender pillow and leave such to us of sterner mould."

  "Nay, cousin, my gentle woman's heart knoweth innocence from guilt, methinks, and here standeth innocent man, stowaway though he be."

  "Why then as stowaway will I entreat him, fair cousin. Master Penfeather, clap him in irons till the morning, away with him—— nay, I myself will see him safely lodged." Here, and without further parley, I was led below, watched by the whole ship's company, and so to a dismal place abaft the lazarette, where the armourer, Master Taffery, duly locked me into the manacles (arm and leg) beneath the eyes of Penfeather and Sir Rupert who, seeing me this secure, presently left me to darkness and my solitary reflections.

  Howbeit, after some while I heard the sound of key turning and Adam re-entered bearing a light; having locked the door on us, he set down the lanthorn on the floor and, seating himself on the bench whereto I was shackled, falls into a passion of cursing both in English, Spanish (and Indian for aught I know) for never had I heard the like words or such deep fervour.

  "Adam," says I (he being at a pause), "'tis hard to think you were ever a student of divinity!"

  Hereupon he glances at me from the corners of his eyes and shakes his head:

  "Your face is bloody, Martin, are ye hurt?"

  "My belly's empty, Adam."

  "Why, I guessed as much, shipmate, Godby's bringing ye the wherewithal to fill it. In the meantime I'll free you o' your bilboes awhile, though I must lock you up again that you may be found snug and secure in the morning." So saying he took a key from his pocket and therewith set me at liberty.

  "Ah, Martin," quoth he, as I stretched myself, "why must ye go a- raising of tumults above deck under our very noses? Here's mighty ill plight you've got yourself into, and here's me a- wondering how I am to get ye out again. Here's been murder done, and, look'ee, this coxcombly captain hath got it into his skull that you're the murderer——aye, and what's worse, every soul aboard likewise save only Godby and myself."

  "And my lady!" says I.

  "True, shipmate, true! She spoke for ye, as I guessed she might."

  "And how should you guess this, Adam?"

  "By adding one and one, Martin. But even so, comrade, even though she stand by you——what can she do, or Godby and I for that matter, 'gainst a whole ship's company crazed wi' panic fear—— fear, aye and small wonder, Martin! Death is bad enough, murder's worse, but for three hearty fellows to disappear and leave no trace——"

  "Aye, but was there no trace, Adam?"

  "None, shipmate, none!"

  "No blood anywhere?"

  "Never a spot, shipmate!"

  "Why then is there ever a man aboard with a wounded hand, Adam?"

  "Not one to my knowing and I've turned up the crew on deck twice these last two days——every man and boy, but saw not so much as cut finger or stained garment among 'em——and I've sharp eyes, Martin. But why d'ye ask?"

  "Because the man who made away with these three fellows was wounded in the hand, Adam——howbeit that hand was bloody."

  "Hand, shipmate," says Penfeather softly, "would it be a right hand——ha?"

  "It was!" I nodded. "The mark of a great right hand."

  "Aye, aye!" says Adam, pinching his chin. "A right hand, Martin. And where was the mark, d'ye say?"

  "Beneath my bed."

  "Bed, Martin——your bed!" Here he caught his breath and rose up and stood looking down at me betwixt narrowed lids and a-pinching at his square chin.

  "Aye——there, Adam, the only place in the ship you never thought to search——there he lay safe hid and I above him in a drugged sleep!"

  "Drugged!" says Adam, betwixt shut teeth. "Aye……drugged……crass fool it was not to ha' guessed it ere this." And now he falls silent and stands very still, only his sinewy fingers pinched and pinched at his chin as he stared blindly down at the floor. So now I told him of my fevered dreams and black imaginations, of my growing fears and suspicions, of the eye had watched me through the knot-hole and of the man on the river with the boat wherein was the great mis-shapen bundle which had vanished just after the black ship ran foul of us.

  "Lord!" says Adam at last. "So the mystery is resolved! The matter lies plain as a pikestaff. Ha, Martin, we've shipped the devil aboard it seems!"

  "Who weareth a steel hook, Adam!"

  "And yet, Martin, and yet," says he, looking at me from the corners of his eyes, "herein, if we seek far enough, we may find the hand of Providence, I think——"

  "How?" says I. "Providence, d'ye call it?"

  "Aye, Martin——if we do but seek far enough!" Here he turned in answer to a furtive rapping, and opening the door, I heard Godby's voice. "Come in, man, come in," says Adam, "here's only Martin."

  "Aye," quoth I heartily, "come in, God-be-here Jenkins that was my friend." At this in he comes unwillingly enough and with never so much as a glance in my direction.

  "Here's the wittles, Cap'n," says he, and setting down the food and drink he had brought, turned away.

  "What, Godby, ha' ye no word for a poor murderer in his abasement?" says I. Whereat he shakes his head mighty gloomy and keeping his gaze averted. As for Adam he stood pinching his chin the while his quick, bright eyes darted from one to other of us.

  "How, are ye going and never a word?" quoth I as Godby crossed to the door.

  "Aye, I am!" says he, with gaze still averted.

  "Why you left me in mighty hurry last time, Godby,"

  "Aye, I did!" says he.

  "Why then tell us wherefore——speak out, man."

  "Not I, Martin, not I!" says he, and touching his bonnet to Penfeather hasted away.

  "Ha!" says Adam, closing and locking the door. "And what's the riddle, Martin?"

  "My doublet. Godby, chancing to take it up, finds it all a-smear with blood and incontinent suspects me for this black murderer, which comes hard since here's an end of Godby's faith and my friendship."

  "Why look now, Martin, his suspicions are in reason seeing that what with drugs, deviltries and what not, you've been mighty strange o' late and more unlovely company than usual, d'ye see!"

  "Howbeit!" says I, scowling and reaching for the food, "Here's an end to my friendship for Godby. Now as to you——what d'you say?"

  "I think, shipmate, that your doublet bloody and you the grimly, desperate, gallowsy, hell-fire rogue you strive so hard to appear, Martin, I say here's enough to hang you ten times over. One thing is sure, you must leave this ship."

  "Not I, Adam!"

  "The long-boat's astern, victualled and ready."

  "No matter!" says I.

  "'Twill be no hard matter to get you safe away, Martin."

  "Howbeit, I stay here!" says I, mighty determined. "I'm no murderer!"

  "But you're a man to hang and hanged you'll be and you can lay to that, d'ye see?"

  "So be it!" says I.

  "Very fine, shipmate, but as I was saying the long-boat is towing astern, a good boat and well stored. The moon will be down in an hour——"

  "And what of it?" I demanded.

  "'Twill be easy for you to slip down from the stern gallery."

  "Never in the world!" quoth I.

  "And as luck will have it, Martin, Bartlemy's Island——our island ——lieth scarce eighty miles south-westerly. Being thither you shall come on our treasure by the aid of the chart I shall give you, and leaving the gold, take only the four coffers of jewels——"

  "You waste your breath, Adam!"

  "Then, shipmate, with these jewels aboard you shall stand away for another island that beareth south a day's sail——"

  "Look you, Adam," says I, clenching my fists, "once and for all, I do not leave this ship, happen what may."

  "Aye, but you will, shipmate."

  "Ha, d'ye think to force me, then?"

  "Not I, Martin, but circumstances shall."

  "What circumstances?"

  Here and all at once Adam started up as again there came a soft knocking at the door. "Who's there?" he cried. And then in my ear, "'Tis she, Martin, as I guess, though sooner than I had expected——into the bilboes with you." Thus whispering and with action incredibly quick, he clapped and locked me back in my shackles, whisked food, platter and bottle into a dark corner and crossed to the door. "Who's there?" he demanded gruffly. Ensued a murmur whereupon he turned the key, set wide the door and fell back bowing, bonnet in hand, all in a moment.

  "Good Master Adam!" says she gently, "Pray you leave us awhile and let none intrude on us." At this Adam bows again very low with a whimsical glance at me, and goes out closing the door behind him.

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