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Black Bartlemy's Treasure(Chapter16)

2006-08-28 21:50

  Chapter XVI. Tells How We Were Dogged by the Black Ship

  I awoke in panic and, leaping up groped in the pitch-dark until my eager fingers closed on the haft of the sheath-knife under my pillow, and with this naked in my hand I crouched awaiting I knew not what; for all about me was direful sound, groans and cries with wailings long drawn out in shuddering complaint. Then, all at once, my panic was lost in sudden great content, and thrusting away the knife I took flint and steel and therewith lighted my lanthorn; since now indeed I knew these dismal sounds nought but the creak and groan of the stout ship, the voice of her travail as she rose to the seas. And as I hearkened, every individual timber seemed to find a voice, and what with this and the uneasy pitching and rolling of the ship I judged we were well under weigh and beyond the river-mouth. This (bethinking me of the damage we had sustained from the great black ship) set me to wondering, insomuch that I reached for my lanthorn, minded to steal on deck that I might know our whereabouts and if it were day or night, since here in the bowels of the ship it was always night. So (as I say) I reached for the lanthorn, then paused as above all other sounds rose a cheery hail, and under the door was the flicker of a light. Hereupon I opened the door (though with strangely awkward fingers) and thus espied Godby lurching towards me.

  "What, Mart'n pal," says he, sitting beside me on my berth and setting down the food and drink he had brought, "are ye waking at last?"

  "Have I slept long, Godby?"

  "You've slept, Mart'n, a full thirty hours."

  "Thirty hours, Godby?"

  "Split me crosswise else, pal!"

  "Mighty strange!" says I, reaching for the flask he had brought, for I felt my mouth bitterly parched and dry, while, added to the consuming thirst, my head throbbed miserably.

  "Well, here we be, pal, clear o' the river this twelve hours and more. And, Mart'n, this is a ship——aye, by hokey, a sailer! So true on a wind, so sweet to her helm, and Master Adam's worthy of her, blister me else!"

  "'Tis strange I should sleep so long!" says I, clasping my aching head.

  "Why, you'm wise to sleep all ye can, pal, seeing there be nought better to do here i' the dark," says he, setting out the viands before me. "What, no appetite, Mart'n?" I shook my head. "Lord love ye, 'tis the dark and the curst reek o' this place, pal—— come aloft, all's bowmon, the fine folk han't found their sea- legs yet, nor like to while this wind holds, Mart'n——so come aloft wi' Godby."

  Nothing loth I rose and stumbled towards the ladder, marvelling to find my hands and feet so unwieldy as I climbed; the higher I went the more the rolling and pitching of the ship grew on me, so that when at last I dragged myself out on deck it was no wonder to find the weather very blusterous and with, ever and anon, clouds of white spray lashing aboard out of the hissing dark with much wind that piped shrill and high in cordage and rigging.

  Being sheltered by the high bulwark hard beside the quarter-deck ladder, I leaned awhile to stare about me and drink in great draughts of sweet, clean air, so that in a little my head grew easier and the heaviness passed from me. Ever and anon the moon peeped through wrack of flying cloud, by whose pale beam I caught glimpses of bellying sails towering aloft with their indefinable mass of gear and rigging, and the heel and lift of her looming forecastle as the stately vessel rose to the heaving seas or plunged in a white smother of foam.

  "She rides well, Mart'n!" roared Godby in my ear. "Aha, here's duck of a ship, pal!"

  "Where's Adam?" I questioned.

  "To'-gallant poop, Mart'n. Lord love ye, it's little sleep he's had since we hove anchor. Hark'ee, pal——he's got it into his head as we'm being dogged!"

  "Dogged, man——by what?"

  "By that same great black ship as fouled us——he has so, pal—— roast me else! But come your ways." So saying, Godby climbed to the quarter-deck and I after him, and mounting the poop-ladder, presently came on Penfeather, peering hard over our lee.

  "Ha, is it you, shipmate!" says he, drawing me out of the wind. "Look yonder, d'ye see aught of a rag o' sail, Martin?" Following his pointing finger, I stared away into the distance across a tumbling spume of waters vague in the half-light. "D'ye glimpse aught, Martin?"

  "Nothing, Adam!"

  "Wait for the moon, shipmate——now, look yonder!" As the light grew, I swept the distant horizon with my eyes until, all at once against the night, I saw the sheen of distant canvas that gleamed and was gone again as a cloud veiled the moon. "You saw it, Martin?"

  "Plainly!" says I, whereupon he sprang away to the men at the helm; came the hoarse roar of speaking-trumpet, and decks and waist below seemed alive with scurrying, dim figures; and now was a chorus of shouts and yo-ho-ing as the "Faithful Friend," obedient to his commands, swung off upon an altered course.

  "Godby," says Adam, beckoning us where stood the compass or bittacle, "look'ee, as she bears now we should be nigh enough yon curst ship to learn more of her by peep o' dawn."

  "Aye, Cap'n——and then?"

  "Then you shall try what you can do wi' one o' those long guns o' yours."

  "Lord love ye, Cap'n, that's the spirit!" cried Godby, hitching joyously at his broad belt, "All I asks is a fair light and no favour!"

  "And you have the middle watch, Godby man, so I'll get a wink o' sleep," says Adam, "but do you call me so soon as we raise her hull. As for you, Martin, you'll have slept your fill, I judge."

  "And yet I'm plaguy drowsy still!" says I.

  "There's a spare berth in the coach, comrade, an you're so minded!"

  "Nay, Adam, I'll watch awhile with Godby."

  "Good! You've keen eyes, Martin——use 'em!" says he, and goes down the ladder forthwith.

  And now, pacing the lofty poop beside Godby, I was aware that the "Faithful Friend" was dark fore and aft, not a light twinkled anywhere.

  "How comes this, Godby!" says I, pointing to the dim shapes of the great stern lanthorns above us.

  "Cap'n's orders, Mart'n! We've been dark these two nights, and yet if yon craft is what we think, 'twould seem she follows us by smell, pal, smell. As how, say you? Says I, last night she was fair to be seen having closed us during the day, so out go our lights and up goes our helm and we stand away from her. At dawn she was nowhere and yet——here she is again——if yon ship be the same."

  "Which we shall learn in an hour or so, Godby."

  "Aye, Mart'n, if she don't smell us a-coming and bear away from us. And yet she must be a clean, fast vessel, but we'll overhaul her going roomer or on a bowline."

  "Roomer? Speak plain, Godby, I'm no mariner!"

  "Time'll teach ye, pal! Look'ee now, 'roomer' means 'large,' and 'large' means 'free,' and 'free' means wi' a quartering-wind, and that means going away from the wind or the wind astarn of us; whiles 'on a bowline' means close-hauled agin the wind, d'ye see?"

  "Godby, 'tis hard to believe you that same peddler I fell in with at the 'Hop-pole.'"

  "Why, Mart'n, I'm a cove as adapts himself according. Give me a pack and I'm all peddler and j'y in it, gi'e me a ship and I'm all mariner to handle her sweet and kind and lay ye a course wi' any——though guns is my meat, Mart'n. Fifteen year I followed the sea and a man is apt to learn a little in such time. So here stand I this day not only gunner but master's mate beside of as tight a ship, maugre the crew, as ever sailed——and all along o' that same chance meeting at the 'Hop-pole.'"

  "And though a friend of Bym you knew little of Adam Penfeather?"

  "Little enough, Mart'n. Joel be no talker——but it do seem Jo was one of the Coast-Brotherhood once when Cap'n Penfeather saved his life and that, years agone. So Joel comes home and sets up marriage, free-trade and what not, when one day lately Master Adam walks into the 'Peck o' Malt,' and no whit changed for all the years save his white hair. And here comes rain, Mart'n——"

  "And wind!" says I as the stout ship reeled and plunged to the howling gust.

  "No, Mart'n," roared Godby above the piping tumult, "not real wind, pal——a stiffish breeze——jolly capful."

  Slowly the night wore away and therewith the buffeting wind gentled somewhat; gradually in the east was a pale glimmer that, growing, showed great, black masses of torn cloud scudding fast above our reeling mastheads and all about us a troubled sea. But as the light grew, look how I might, nowhere could I descry aught of any ship upon that vast horizon of foaming waters.

  "Ha!," says Godby, venting huge sigh, "there's to be no play for my guns this day, Mart'n."

  "Nay but," says I, mighty perplexed, "what's come of her? She could never have marked our change of course at the distance and 'twas black dark beside, and we bore no lights."

  "Mayhap she smelt us, pal, as I said afore. Howbeit, 'tis beyond me, cram me wi' rope-yarn else!"

  Now, as he spoke, up came the sun, turning lowering sky and tempestuous ocean to glory; every ragged cloud became as it were streaming banners enwrought of scarlet and gold, every foaming billow a rolling splendour rainbow-capped, insomuch that I stood awed by the very beauty of it all.

  "I love the good, kind earth, Mart'n, wi' its green grass and flowers a' peep, 'tis a fair resting-place for a man when all's done and said, but yonder, pal——ah, there's glory for ye! Many's the time I've watched it, dawn and sunset, and, minding all the goodly ships and the jolly lads as are a-sleeping down below, at such times, Mart'n, it do seem to me as if all the good and glory of 'em came aloft for eyes to see awhile——howbeit, 'tis a noble winding-sheet, pal, from everlasting to everlasting, amen! And by that same token the wind's veering, which meaneth a fair- weather spell, and I must trim. Meantime do you rouse Master Adam." And here, setting hands to mouth, Godby roared high above the wind:

  "Watch ho! Watch! Brace about——bowse away there!"

  As I crossed the deck, up the poop ladder comes Adam himself, his red seaman's bonnet tight-drawn about his ears and a perspective- glass under his arm. "'Tis as I thought, Martin," says he, pinching his chin and scowling away to leeward, "she changed course as we did."

  "Nay but, Adam, how should she know we changed and the night so black?"

  "Very easily, shipmate, by means of a light——"

  "We bore no lights, Adam."

  "None the less someone aboard this ship signalled yon black craft by means of a lanthorn, 'tis beyond doubt!"

  "And why should she follow us, think ye?"

  "Why am I a marked man, shipmate, why have I been dogged hither and yon across seas? Come into the coach and I'll tell ye a thing. Godby!" says he, coming where Godby stood beside the steersman, "lay her on her old course. 'Tis Merrilees takes next watch, I think——tell him to warn me as soon as we raise her accursed topsails."

  "What," says I, as we climbed from the lofty poop, "you think she will dog us still, then?"

  "I know it, Martin!" says he gloomily, and so brought me into a smallish cabin under the top-gallant poop; here were bunks to larboard and starboard with a table mid-way furnished with calendars, charts, a cross-staff, an astrolabe, with globes and the like, while against the walls stood rows of calivers, musquetoons and fusees, set in racks very orderly. "Aye, shipmate," says he, noting my gaze, "every firelock aboard is either here or in the arm-chests i' the round-house below, and our powder is all stored well aft, by reason that I am a cautious man, d'ye see! Sit ye, Martin! Now as to this black ship——first of all she fouls us in the river, the which was no accident, Martin, though just what the motive was I'm yet a-seeking. Second, as she drifted past us whom should I see aboard her but Abnegation Mings and pulled trigger a moment too late, but winged another o' the rogues. Third, when we'd repaired our damage and got us clear of the river what should we see but this same black ship hove short waiting us, for she presently stands after us. And so she's dogged us ever since and so dog us she will to the world's end unless I can bring her to action."

  "She's a fighting ship by her looks and heavily armed!" says I.

  "So are we, Martin!"

  "And our men, Adam?"

  "Ah!" says he, pinching his chin, "there it is, Martin, there it is! Look'ee, shipmate, in all this crew there are no more than twenty men I can count on, nay, less——ten only can I swear by. See now, here's you and Merrilees and Godby, here's Farnaby and Toby Hudd the bo'sun, Treliving the carpenter, and McLean his mate, here's Robins and Perks and Taffery the armourer——good mariners all. These I can trust, shipmate, but never another one!"

  "And what of the captain, Sir Rupert Dering?"

  "That, Martin!" says Penfeather, snapping his fingers. "A very gentleman-like fool, d'ye see, a bladder of air——like his three fellows."

  "So we have four gentlemen aboard, Adam?"

  "Aye——princocks all that do nothing but vie in court to her ladyship! Now look'ee, Martin, what with one thing or another, and this hell-fire ship on our heels in especial, there's stir and disaffection among the crew, a-whispering o' corners that I don't like, and which is apt to spread unless looked to. Wherefore this morning I ordered a certain red-haired rascal fifty lashes athwart a gun. But the bo'sun had laid on but poor ten and the fellow roaring lustily when into the 'tween-decks cometh my lady in mighty taking, and seeing the rogue's back a little bloody, ordered him freed and thereafter cossets him wi' dainties from her own table. Lord love ye! Which cometh o' women aboard ship!" And here Adam sighed mighty dismal.

  "Why then," says I, "here's work for me, belike."

  "As how, Martin?"

  "Nay, leave it to me, being little better than rogue myself I should know how to outmatch roguery!"

  "Meaning you'll spy on 'em, shipmate?"

  "And lie and cozen and join fellowship with 'em if need be. Howbeit there's aught afoot I'll bottom it, one rascally fashion or t'other."

  "'Tis desperate risk, Martin, and should they suspicion you——"

  "Why, look, Adam, my life's none so sweet or precious that I'd cherish it in lavender. Besides I've a feeling I may not die until——at least, not yet."

  "Wait!" says he, as I rose. "Bide a while, Martin!" And, opening a locker beneath his bunk, he took thence a shirt of fine chain-work like that he himself wore. Shaking my head I would have put it by but he caught my arm in his powerful grip and shook me insistent. "Take it, Martin," says he, "take it, man, 'tis easy and pleasant as any glove, yet mighty efficacious 'gainst point or edge, and you go where knives are sudden! Stay then, take it for my sake, shipmate, since trusty comrades be few and mighty hard come by." So in the end I did it on beneath my doublet and found it to irk me nothing. "And now, what?" he questioned, as I opened the door.

  "Sleep," says I, yawning.

  "There's a bunk yonder, Martin," says he, eyeing me 'twixt narrowed lids.

  "Nay, I'm for my dog-hole, Adam."

  "You seem to sleep much and mighty well, despite stench and rats, shipmate."

  "I'm grown used to 'em," says I, with another yawn, "and as to sleeping I do little else of late——'tis the dark, belike, or bad air, or lack of exercise." Now as I rose to be gone, the deck seemed to heave oddly beneath my feet and the cabin to swing dizzily round, so that I must needs grip at the table to steady myself, while Adam peered at me through a haze as it were.

  "What's here, Martin, are ye sick?" he questioned.

  "A vertigo!" I mumbled, "I'll into the air!" In a little the dizziness abating, I got me out on deck and found in the rushing wind mighty comfort and refreshment, while Adam steadied me with his arm. "Let be!" says I, shaking off his hold. "'Twas nought ——I'll go sleep again." And waiting for no more I stumbled down the quarter-ladder; but even as I went, the haze seemed to close about me thicker than ever, and groping my way to the ship's side I sank across the bulwark and was miserably sick. This agony passing, I made my way below until I reached the orlop; but now feeling my sickness upon me again I crept away into a dark corner and cast me down there. And lying thus in my misery I little by little became aware of someone weeping hard by, a desolate sobbing very pitiful to hear. Insomuch that (maugre my weakness) I got up and going whence this sobbing proceeded, presently came on a small, huddled figure, and stooping, saw it was a little lad. At my step he started to his knees, elbow upraised as if expecting a blow.

  "Why d'ye weep, boy?" I questioned. "What's your trouble?"

  "Nowt!" says he, cowering away; but taking him by his little, thin shoulders I lifted him into the dim light of a swinging lanthorn, and looked into a small, pallid face swollen and disfigured by cuts and bruises wrought by some brutal hand.

  "Who did this?" I demanded.

  "Nobody!" says he, gulping a sob.

  "Who are you?"

  "'Tween-decks boy."

  "How old are you, child?"

  At this he stared up at me out of his swollen eyes, then covering his face in ragged sleeve broke into convulsive sobbing.

  "What now?" says I, drawing him beside me. "What now?"

  "She used to call me 'child'——my mother——" and here his grief choked him. Now as I looked down upon this little, pitiful creature, I forgot my sickness in sudden, fierce anger.

  "Boy," said I, "who's been flogging you——speak!"

  "Red Andy," he gasped, "'e be always a' doin' of it 'e be——wish I was dead like my mother!"

  "Jim, ho Jimmy," roared a voice from somewhere in the gloom forward, "Jim——plague seize ye, show a leg, will 'ee——" Here (and before I could stay him) the boy started up and pattered away drying his tears as he ran. Now as I lay there I kicked off my shoes and hearkened expectant. Thus, all at once I heard a murmur rising to a wail that ended in a shrill scream, and getting to my feet I crept stealthily forward. Past main and foremasts I crept, past dark store-rooms and cubby-holes, and so to a crack of light, and clapping my eye thereto, espied two fellows rolling dice and beyond them the boy, his hands lashed miserably to a staple in the bulkhead, his little body writhing under the cruel blows of a rope's-end wielded by a great, red- headed fellow.

  Now in my many desperate affrays with my fellow-slaves (those two-legged beasts) I had learned that it is the first blow that tells; wherefore groping for the latch I stealthily opened the door and, or ever the red-headed fellow was aware, I was upon him from behind and, giving him no chance for defence, I smote him a buffet under the ear that tumbled him against the bulkhead whence he sank to hands and knees. Then while, half-dazed, he strove to rise, I kicked him down again, and setting my foot upon his chest, caught up the rope's-end he had dropped and beat him therewith until he roared, until he groaned and lay writhing, face hid beneath his crossed arms. Then, whipping out my knife, I fronted his two mates, the one a doleful, bony man with a squint, the other a small, mean, black-eyed fellow in a striped shirt who, closing one bright eye, leered at them with the other; all at once he nodded, and pointing from the knife in my fist to the fellow groaning beneath my foot, drew a long thumb across his own stringy throat, and nodded again. Hereupon I stooped above my captive and set the flat of my blade to his forehead just below his thick, red hair.

  "Look'ee, dog!" I panted, while he glared up at me beneath his bruised arms, "Set so much as a finger on yon pitiful brat again and I'll cut a mark in your gallows-face shall last your life out."

  "His throat, cully——quick's the word!" breathed a voice in my ear. But now as I turned and the little black-eyed fellow leapt nimbly back, was a creaking and groaning of the ladder that led to the main-deck above, and down comes a pair of prodigious stout legs, and after these a round body, and last of all a great, flat face small of mouth, small of nose, and with a pair of little, quick eyes that winked and blinked betwixt hairless lids.

  The fat fellow having got him down the ladder (and with wondrous ease for one of his bulk) stood winking and blinking at me the while he patted one of his plump cheeks with plump fingers.

  "Love my limbs!" says he in soft, high-pitched voice. "Perish and plague me, but who's the friend as be a rope's-ending o' ye, Andy lad——you as be cock o' the ship?" Here the fellow beneath my foot essays to curse, but groans instead. Bless my guts!" says the fat man, blinking harder than ever, "So bad as that, Andy lad? Wot then, hath this fine, upstanding cock o' cocks thrashed all the hell-fire spirit out o' ye, Andy lad? Love my innards——I thought no man aboard could do as much, Andy."

  "He jumped me from behind!" says the fellow Andy 'twixt snarl and groan and writhing under my 'prisoning feet.

  "And where," says the fat man, smiling at me, "where might you ha' come from, my bird o' price? The bo'sun's mate Samuel Spraggons is me, friend——Sam for short, called likewise Smiling Sam——come, come, never scowl on Sam——nobody never quarrels with the Smiler, I'm friends wi' everyone, I am, friend."

  "Why then——loose the child!" says I.

  "Child? Ha, is't this little rogueling ye mean, friend?" As he spoke (and smiling yet) he caught the boy's ear and wrung it 'twixt vicious thumb and finger, whereon I whirled the rope's- end, but he sprang out of reach with wondrous agility and stood patting plump cheek and smiling more kindly than ever, the while I cut the cords that bound the boy's wrists, who, with an up- flung, wondering look at me, sped away into the orlop and was gone.

  "Now mark ye, Spraggons," says I, "harm the child again——any of ye——and I'll beat your fat carcass to a jelly."

  "No, no!" quoth he, "you can't quarrel wi' me, the Smiler don't never quarrel wi' none. You'd never strike Smiling Sam, friend!"

  "Stand still and see!" says I. But hereupon he retreated to the ladder and I, feeling my sickness upon me again, contented me by throwing the rope's-end at the fellow and stepping out backward, clapped to the door. So with what speed I might I got me down into the hold and to my dog-hole. And here I saw I had left my lanthorn burning, and found in this light strange comfort. Now being mighty athirst I reached the demijohn from the corner and drank deep, but the good water tasted ill on my parched tongue; moreover the place seemed strangely close and airless and I in great heat, wherefore I tore off my sleeved doublet and, kicking off my shoes, cast myself upon my miserable bed. But now as I lay blinking at the lanthorn I was seized of sudden, great dread, though of what I knew not; and ever as my drowsiness increased so grew my fear until (and all at once) I knew that the thing I dreaded was Sleep, and fain would I have started up, but, even then, sleep seized me, and strive how I would my eyes closed and I fell into deep and fear-haunted slumber.

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