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Martin Conisby's Vengeance(Chapter24)

2006-08-28 23:09

  Chapter XXIV. Of Our Adventure at Sea

  Dawn found us standing easterly before a gentle wind with the land bearing away upon our right, a fair and constantly changing prospect of sandy bays, bold headlands and green uplands backed by lofty mountains blue with distance.

  And what with all the varied beauties of earth, the blue heaven, the sparkle of sea, the soft, sweet wind, it verily seemed the late gloomy terrors of my dungeon were no more than a nightmare until, hearing a moan, I turned to see my companion stirring in uneasy slumber, his haggard features contorted as by some spasm, whereupon I touched him to wakefulness, bidding him see if we had aught aboard to eat or drink; but he crouched motionless as one rapt in an ecstasy, staring eager-eyed from cloudless heaven to sapphire sea and round about upon the glory of the dawn and fell suddenly a-laughing as from pure joy and as suddenly hid his face within his shrivelled hands.

  "This——O, glory of God! This, instead of black despair!" said he in weeping voice. "This sweet, healing wind instead of searing flame——and you, Martin, 'tis you have given all this! I dreamed me back in the hell you brought me from! Sun and wind and sea——oh, God love thee——these be your gifts to me that was your enemy——"

  "Nay, our enmity is dead and done with——"

  "Martin Conisby," said he, looking on me through his tears, "through you, by God's grace, I know again the joy of living, and, God aiding me, you shall yet know the like happiness an I may compass it!"

  Now seeing him thus deeply moved I grew abashed and, beckoning him to take the tiller, began to overhaul the contents of the boat's lockers and thus found that Don Federigo had furnished us to admiration with all things to our comfort and defence. Forthwith I set out breakfast, choosing such things as I judged the most perishable, and we ate and drank mighty cheerful.

  But as Sir Richard sat thus in his rags, staring upon all things with ineffable content, the bright sun showed me the hideous marks of his many sufferings plain and manifest in his bent and twisted frame, the scars that disfigured him and the clumsy movements of his limbs misshapen by the torment, and moreover I noticed how, ever and anon, he would be seized of violent tremblings and shudderings like one in an ague, insomuch that I could scarce abide to look on him for very pity and marvelled within myself that any man could endure so much and yet live.

  "Oh friend!" said he suddenly, "'tis a wondrous world you have given back to me; I almost grow a man again——"

  Even as he uttered these brave words the shuddering took him once more, but when I would have aided him he smiled and spake 'twixt chattering teeth:

  "Never heed me, Martin——this cometh of the water-dungeons——'twill soon pass——"

  "God knoweth you have suffered over-much——"

  "Yet He hath brought me forth a better man therefor, though my body is——something the worse, 'tis true. Indeed, I am a sorry companion for a voyage, I doubt——"

  "Howbeit," said I, "last night, but for your ready wit, we had been taken——"

  "Say you so, Martin? Here is kind thought and comforting, for I began to dread lest I prove an encumbrance to you.

  "Nay, sir, never think it!" said I. "For 'tis my earnest hope to bring you to the loving care of one who hath sought you long and patiently——"

  "Is it Joan? Oh, mean you my daughter Joan? Is she in these latitudes?"

  "Even so, sir. For you she hath braved a thousand horrors and evils."

  And here, in answer to his eager questioning, I told him much of what I have writ here concerning the Lady Joan, her resolute spirit and numberless virtues, a theme whereof I never wearied. Thus, heedless of time, of thirst or hunger, I told of the many dire perils she had encountered in her quest, both aboard ship and on the island, to all of which Sir Richard hearkened, his haggard gaze now on my face, now fixed yearningly on the empty distances before us as he would fain conjure up the form of her whose noble qualities I was describing. When at last I had made an end, he sat silent a great while.

  "I was a proud, harsh man of old," said he at last, "and a father most ungentle——and 'tis thus she doth repay me! You and she were children together——playfellows, Martin."

  "Aye, sir, 'twas long ago."

  "And in my prideful arrogance I parted you, because you were the son of my enemy, but God hath brought you together again and His will be done. But, Martin, if she be yet in these latitudes, where may we hope to find her?"

  "At Darien, in the Gulf!"

  "Darien?" said he. "Why there, Martin? 'Tis a wild country and full of hostile Indians. I landed there once——"

  So I told him how Adam had appointed a place of meeting there, showing him also the chart Adam had drawn for my guidance, the which we fell to studying together, whereby we judged we had roughly but some eighty leagues to sail and a notable good sea-boat under us, and that by keeping in sight of the Main we could not fail of fetching up with the rendezvous, always suppose we lost not our bearings by being blown out to sea.

  "Had I but quadrant and compass, Martin——"

  "How, sir," said I, "can you navigate?"

  "I could once," said he, with his faint smile. Hereupon I hasted to reach these instruments from one of the lockers (since it seemed Don Federigo had forgot nothing needful to our welfare), perceiving which, Sir Richard straightened his bowed shoulders somewhat and his sallow cheek flushed. "Here at last I may serve you somewhat, Martin," said he and, turning his back to the sun, he set the instrument to his eye and began moving the three vanes to and fro until he had the proper focus and might obtain the sun's altitude; whereby he had presently found our present position, the which he duly pricked upon the chart. He now showed me how, by standing out on direct course instead of following the tortuous windings of the coast, we could shorten our passage by very many miles. Hereupon we shaped our course accordingly and, the wind freshening somewhat, by afternoon the high coast had faded to a faint blur of distant mountain peaks, and by sunset we had lost it altogether.

  And so night came down on us, with a kindly wind, cool and refreshing after the heats of the day, a night full of a palpitant, starry splendour and lit by a young, horned moon that showed us this wide-rolling infinity of waters and these vast spaces filled, as it seemed, with the awful majesty of God, so that when we spake (which was seldom) it was in hushed voices. It being my turn to sleep, I lay down, yet could not close my eyes for a while for the wonder of the stars above, and with my gaze thus uplift, I must needs think of my lady and wonder where she might be, with passionate prayers for her safety; and beholding these heavenly splendours, I thought perchance she might be viewing them also and in this thought found me great solace and comfort. And now what must my companion do but speak of her that was thus in my thought.

  "Martin," he questioned suddenly, "do you love her?"

  "Aye, I do!" said I, "mightily!"

  "And she you?"

  "God grant it!"

  "Here," said he after some while, "here were a noble ending to the feud, Martin?"

  "Sir, 'tis ended already, once and for all."

  "Aye, but," said he with a catch in his voice, "all my days I——have yearned——for a son. More especially now——when I am old and so feeble."

  "Then, sir, you shall lack no longer, if I can thus make up in some small measure for all you have suffered——"

  At this he fell silent again but in the dark his trembling hand stole down to touch me lightly as in blessing; and so I fell asleep.

  Prom this slumber I was suddenly aroused by his calling on my name and, opening drowsy eyes, beheld (as it were) a luminous veil that blotted out moon and stars and ocean, and, looking about, saw we lay becalmed in a white mist.

  "Martin," said Sir Richard, his face a pale oval in the dimness, "d'ye hear aught?"

  "No more than the lapping of the waves," I answered, for indeed the sea was very calm and still.

  "Nay, listen awhile, Martin, for either I'm mad or there's some one or something crying and wailing to larboard of us, an evil sound like one in torment. Three times the cry has reached me, yet here we lie far out to sea. So list ye, son, and tell me if my ears do play me false, for verily I——"

  His speech died away as from somewhere amid the chill and ghostly vapour there stole a long-drawn, wailing cry, so woful, so desolate, and so unearthly here in this vasty solitude that I caught my breath and stared upon this eddying mist with gaze of fearful expectancy.

  "You heard it, Martin; you heard it?"

  "Aye!" I nodded.

  "'Tis like one cries upon the rack, Martin!"

  "'Tis belike from some ship hid in the fog yonder," said I, handing him a musket from the arms-locker.

  "There was no ship to see before this fog came down on us," quoth Sir Richard uneasily; howbeit he took the weapon, handling it so purposefully as was great comfort to see, whereupon I took oars and began to row towards whence I judged this awful cry had come. And presently it rose again, dreadful to hear, a sound to freeze the blood. I heard Sir Richard cock his piece and glanced instinctively to make sure Don Federigo's sword lay within my reach. Three times the cry rose, ere, with weapon poised for action, Sir Richard motioned for me to stop rowing, and glancing over my shoulder, I saw that which loomed upon us through the mist, a dim shape that gradually resolved itself into a large ship's boat or pinnace. Sword in one hand and pistol in the other, I stood up and hailed lustily, yet got no sound in reply save a strange, dull whimpering.

  Having shouted repeatedly to no better purpose, I took oars again and paddled cautiously nearer until at last, by standing on the thwart, I might look into this strange boat and (the fog being luminous) perceived three dark shapes dreadfully huddled and still; but as I gazed, one of these stirred slightly, and I heard a strange, dull, thumping sound and then I saw this for a great hound. Hereupon I cast our boathook over their gunwale and while Sir Richard held the boats thus grappled, scrambled aboard them, pistol in hand, and so came upon two dead men and beside them this great dog.

  And now I saw these men had died in fight and not so long since, for the blood that fouled them and the boat was still wet, and even as I bent over them the hound licked the face of him that lay uppermost and whined. And men and dog alike seemed direly thin and emaciate. Now it was in my mind to shoot the dog out of its misery, to which end I cocked my pistol, but seeing how piteously it looked on me and crawled to lick my hand, I resolved to carry it along with us and forthwith (and no little to-do) presently contrived to get the creature into our boat, thereby saving both our lives, as you shall hear.

  So we cast off and I sat to watch the boat until like a phantom, it melted into the mist and vanished away. Turning, I beheld the hound, his great head on Sir Richard's knee, licking the hand that fondled him.

  "He is pined of hunger and thirst, Martin; I will tend him whiles you sleep. He shall be a notable good sentinel and these be very keen of scent——the Spaniards do use them to track down poor runaway slaves withal, but these dogs are faithful beasts and this hath been sent us, doubtless, to some good end."

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