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Martin Conisby's Vengeance(Chapter25)

2006-08-28 23:09

  Chapter XXV. We are Driven Ashore

  And now were days of stifling heat, of baffling airs and maddening calms, wherein we rolled helpless, until in my impatience I would betake me to the oars in a fever of desire to reach our destination and row until the sweat poured from me.

  What with sea, wind and fierce sun we grew brown as any Indians, but Sir Richard seemed to mend apace and to my great joy, for as time passed my respect for him deepened and with it a kindlier feeling; for in these long days and nights of our fellowship I grew to know how, by suffering patiently borne, a man might come by a knowledge of himself and his fellows and a kindly sympathy for their sins and sorrows that is (as I do think) the truest of all wisdom.

  Fain would I set down some of these heart-searching talks, but I fear lest my narration grows over-long; suffice it that few sons ever bore tenderer reverence and love to their father than I to this, my erstwhile enemy.

  So will I now, passing over much that befell us on these treacherous seas, as scorching calms, torrential rains and rageful winds, and how in despite all these we held true on our course by reason of Sir Richard's sailorly skill, I will (I say) come to a certain grey dawn and myself at the tiller whiles Sir Richard slept and beside him the great hound that we had named Pluto, since he had come to us from the dead.

  Now presently I saw the dog stir uneasily and lift his head to sniff the air to windward; thereafter, being on his legs, he growled in his throat, staring ever in the one direction, and uttered a loud, deep bay, whereupon up started Sir Richard, full of question.

  "Sir, look at the dog!" said I, pointing where Pluto stood abaft the mast, snuffing and staring to windward; seeing which, Sir Richard took the perspective-glass and swept with it the hazy distance.

  "There is wind yonder, Martin; we must reef!" said he, the glass at his eye. So presently, whiles he steered, I shortened sail but saw his gaze bent ever to windward. "Dogs have strange senses!" quoth he. "Take the glass, Martin; your eyes are very keen; tell me if you see aught yonder in the mist against the cloudbank bearing about three points." Looking whither he directed, I made out a dim shape that loomed amid the mist.

  "You see it, Martin?"

  "Aye, a ship!" said I, and even as I spoke, the wind freshening, the rain ceased, the mist thinned away, and I saw a large vessel ahead of us standing in for the land which bore some five miles to leeward, a high, rugged coast, very grim and forbidding.

  "How is she heading, Martin?"

  "Southwesterly, I make it, which should bring her close upon us mighty soon, if the wind hold." And passing Sir Richard the glass, I sat staring on this distant ship in no little apprehension, since I judged most vessels that plied hereabouts could be but one of two sorts, viz: pirates or Spaniards.

  "She is a great ship, Martin, and by her cut I think Spanish."

  "I had liefer she were a pirate!" said I, scowling.

  "Your wish may be granted soon enough, for she is going free and much wind astern of her."

  Now whiles Sir Richard watched this oncoming vessel, I took up Don Federigo's sword, and, struck by its beauty, began to examine it as I had not done hitherto. And indeed a very noble weapon it was, the hilt of rare craftsmanship, being silver cunningly inlaid with gold, long and narrow in the blade, whereon, graven in old Spanish, I saw the legend:

  TRUST IN GOD AND ME.

  A most excellent weapon, quick in the hand by reason of its marvellous poise and balance. But looking upon this, I must needs remember him that had given it and bethinking me how he had plucked me forth from the horror of death and worse, I raised my head to scowl again upon the oncoming ship, and with teeth hard-set vowed within myself that no power should drag me a living man back to the terrors of dungeon and torment. And now as I crouched thus, scowling on the ship, the naked sword across my knees, Sir Richard called to me:

  "She is Spanish-built beyond all doubting and whoever chance to be aboard, they've seen us," said he, setting by the glass. "Come now, let us take counsel whether to go about, hold on, or adventure running ashore, the which were desperate risk by the look of things——"

  "Let us stand on so long as we may," quoth I, "for if the worst come, we have always this," and reaching a pistol, I laid it on the thwart beside me.

  "Nay, Martin," said he, his hand on my shoulder, "first let us do all we may to live, trusting in God Who hath saved and delivered us thus far. We have arms to our defence and I can still pull trigger at a pinch, or at extremity we may run ashore and contrive to land, though 'tis an evil coast as you may see and I, alack! am a better traveller sitting thus than afoot. As to dying, Martin, if it must be so, why then let us choose our own fashion, for as Sir Richard Grenville hath it, 'better fall into the hands of God than into the claws of Spain!"

  Thus spake my companion mighty cheering, his serene blue eyes now on me, now on the distant ship, as he held our heeling boat to the freshening wind; hereupon, greatly comforted I grasped his hand and together we vowed never to be taken alive. Then, seeing the ship come down on us apace, I busied myself laying to hand such arsenal as Don Federigo had furnished us withal, viz: four muskets with their bandoliers and two brace of pistols; which done, I took to watching the ship again until she was so close I might discern her lofty, crowded decks. And then, all at once, the wind died utterly away, and left us becalmed, to my inexpressible joy. For now, seeing the great ship roll thus helpless, I seized the oars.

  "Inshore!" I cried, and began to row might and main, whereat those aboard ship fired a gun to windward and made a waft with their ensign as much as to bid us aboard them. But I heeding no whit, they let fly a great shot at us that, falling short, plunged astern in a whirl of spray. Time and again they fired such fore-chase guns as chanced to bear, but finding us out of range, they gave over wasting more powder and I rejoiced, until suddenly I espied that which made me gloomy enough, for 'twixt the ship and us came a boat full of men who rowed lustily; and they being many and I one, they began to overhaul us rapidly despite my efforts, till, panting in sweating despair, I ceased my vain labour and made to reach for the nearest musket.

  "Let be, my son!" quoth Sir Richard, on his knees in the stern sheets. "Row, Martin, the boat rides steadier. Ha!" said he, with a little chuckling laugh, as a bullet hummed over us. "So we must fight, after all; well, on their own heads be it!" And as he took up and cocked a musket, I saw his eyes were shining and his lips upcurled in grim smile. "Alas, I was ever too forward for fight in the old days, God forgive me, but here, as I think, is just and sufficient cause for bloodshed."

  "They come on amain!" I gasped, as I swung to the heavy oars, wondering to behold him so unconcerned and deliberate.

  "Let them come, Martin!" said he, crouching in the stern sheets, "only keep you an even stroke——so, steady it is! Aye, let them come, Martin, and God's will be done!"

  And now our pursuers began firing amain, though for the most part their shooting was very wild; but presently, finding we made no reply, they grew bolder, hallooing and shouting blithely and taking better aim, so that their shot hummed ever nearer and once or twice the boat was struck. And as I hearkened to their ribald shouting and the vicious hiss of their bullets, fierce anger took me and I began to curse Sir Richard's delay; then came the roar of his piece and as the smoke cleared I saw a man start up in the bows of the pursuing boat and tossing up his arms, fall backwards upon the rowers, thereby throwing them into clamorous confusion so that their boat fell off and lay rolling helplessly.

  "Load, Martin!" quoth Sir Richard 'twixt shut teeth. "Load as I fire——for now by God I have 'em——see yonder!" And thrusting towards me his smoking weapon, he caught up the next, levelled and fired again, whereupon their shouting and confusion were redoubled.

  Thus Sir Richard fired on them repeatedly and with deadly effect, judging by their outcries, for I was too busy loading and priming to afford them a glance, so that Sir Richard maintained as rapid a fire as possible. How long we fought them thus I know not; indeed I remember little of the matter save smoke and noise, Sir Richard's grim figure and the occasional hiss of a bullet about us. Suddenly Sir Richard turned to stare up at me, wild-eyed and trembling, as in one of his ague-fits.

  "Enough, Martin!" he gasped. "God forgive me, I ha' done enough——and here's the wind at last!"

  Seeing this indeed was so, I sprang to loose out the reefs, which done, I saw the enemy's boat lie wallowing in the trough and never so much as an oar stirring. But beyond this was another boat hasting to their assistance and beyond this again the ship herself, so that I joyed to feel our little vessel bounding shore-wards. But hearing a groan, I saw Sir Richard crouched at the tiller, his white head bowed upon his hand.

  "God love me——are you hurt, sir?" I cried, scrambling towards him.

  "No, Martin, no!" And then, "Ah, God forgive me," he groaned again, "I fear I have been the death of too many of them——more than was needful."

  "Nay, sir," said I, wondering. "How should this be?"

  "I killed——for the joy of it, Martin."

  "'Twas them or us, Sir Richard. And we may have to kill again——see yonder!" And I pointed where the ship was crowding sail after us with intent to cut us off ere we could make the shore——a desolation of shaggy rocks and tree-girt heights that looked ever the more formidable; yet thither we held our course, since it seemed the lesser of two evils.

  Our boat, as I have said, was a good sailer; none the less the great ship overhauled us until she was near enough to open on us with her fore-chase guns again. But presently (being yet some distance from the shore) the water began to shoal, whereupon the ship bore up lest she run aground, and let fly her whole broadside, the which yet was short of us. In this comparative safety we would have brought to, but seeing the second boat had hoisted sail and was standing into these shallows after us, we perforce ran on for the shore. Soon we were among rocks and before us a line of breakers backed by frowning rocks, very dreadful to behold.

  And now, at Sir Richard's command, I struck our sail and, taking to the oars, began to row, marvelling at the skill with which he steered amid these difficult waters, and both of us looking here and there for some opening amid the breakers whereby we might gain the land.

  Presently, sure enough, we espied such a place, though one none would have attempted save poor souls in such desperate case. The air about us seemed full of spume and the noise of mighty waters, but Sir Richard never faltered; his eyes looked upon the death that roared about us, serene and untroubled. And now we were amid the breakers; over my shoulder, through whirling spray, I caught a glimpse of sandy foreshore where lay our salvation; then, with sudden, rending crash, we struck and a great wave engulfed us. Tossed and buffeted among this choking smother, I was whirled, half-stunned, into shoal water and stumbling to my knees, looked back for Sir Richard. And thus I saw the dog Pluto swimming valiantly and dragging at something that struggled feebly, and plunged back forthwith to the good beast's assistance, and thus together we brought Sir Richard ashore and lay there a while, panting and no strength to move.

  At last, being recovered somewhat, I raised myself to behold my companion, his frail body shaking in an ague, his features blue and pinched. But beholding my look, he smiled and essayed a reassuring nod.

  "Thanks to you and——the dog, I am very well, Martin!" said he, 'twixt chattering teeth. "But what of the boat; she should come ashore." Looking about, sure enough I espied our poor craft, rolling and tossing helplessly in the shallows hard by, and running thither, was seized of sudden despair, for I saw her bilged and shattered beyond repair. Now as she rolled thus, the sport of each incoming wave, I beheld something bright caught up in her tangled gear, whereupon I contrived to scramble aboard and so found this to be Don Federigo's rapier, the which was some small mitigation of my gloom and put me to great hopes that I might find more useful things, as compass or sextant, and so found a small barrico of water firm-wedged beneath a thwart; but save for this the boat was swept bare. So having secured the barrico (and with no small to-do) I hove it ashore and got myself after it, and so came mighty despondent where sat Sir Richard as one deep in thought, his gaze on the sea, his shrivelled hand upon the head of the dog Pluto crouched beside him. "Truly we are in evil case, Martin!" quoth he, when I had told him the result of my search. "Aye, we are in woful plight! And this land of Darien is very mountainous and ill-travelling as I remember."

  "Yet needs must we adventure it," said I gloomily.

  "You must, Martin; but as for me, I bide here."

  "Here?" said I, glancing around on the barren, unlovely spot. "Sir, you talk wildly, I think; to stay here is to die."

  "Aye, Martin, so soon as God shall permit."

  "Surely our case is not so hopeless you despair thus soon?"

  "Sit down, here beside me," said he, smiling up at me. "Come and let us reason the matter, since 'tis reason lifteth man above the brutes."

  So there, on the coast of this vast, unknown wilderness, sat we two poor castaways, the great hound at our feet, his bright eyes looking from one to other of us as we spake and reasoned together thus:

  Sir Richard: First of all, we are destitute, Martin.

  Myself; True.

  Sir Richard: Therefore our food must be such game as we can contrive to take and kill empty-handed.

  Myself: This shall be my duty.

  Sir Richard: Second, 'tis a perilous country by reason of wild Indians, and we are scant of arms. Third, 'tis a country of vasty mountains, of torrents, swamps and thickets and I am a mighty poor walker, being weak of my leg-joints.

  Myself: Then will I aid you.

  Sir Richard: Fourthly, here is a journey where though one may succeed, two cannot: full of peril and hardship for such as have a resolute spirit and strong body, and I am very weak.

  Myself: Yet shall your resolute spirit sustain you.

  Sir Richard: Fifthly and lastly, I am a cripple, so will I stay here, Martin, praying God to bring you safe to your weary journey's end.

  Myself: I had thought you much stronger of late.

  Sir Richard: Indeed so I am, but my joints have been so oft stretched on the rack that I cannot go far and then but slowly, alas!

  There was silence awhile, each of us gazing out across the troubled waters, yet I, for one, seeing nothing of them. Glancing presently at Sir Richard, I saw his eyes closed, but his mouth very resolute and grim.

  "And what of Joan?" I demanded. "What of your daughter?"

  Now at this he started and glancing at me, his mouth of a sudden lost its grimness and he averted his head when he answered:

  "Why, Martin, 'tis for her sake I will not hamper you with my useless body."

  "So is it for her sake I will never leave you here to perish!"

  "Then here," says he in a little, "here is an end to reason, Martin?"

  "Aye, indeed, sir!"

  "God love thee, lad!" cried he, clasping my hand. "For if 'tis reason raiseth us 'bove the brutes 'tis unselfishness surely lifts us nigh to God!"

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