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Black Bartlemy's Treasure(Chapter20)

2006-08-28 22:27

  Chapter XX. How I Came Out of My Bonds and of the Terrors of a Fire at Sea

  The Devil, ever zealous for the undoing of poor Humanity, surely findeth no readier ally than the blind and merciless Spirit of Mortified Pride. Thus I, minding the Lady Joan's scornful look and the sting of her soft-spoke words, fell to black and raging fury, and vowed that since rogue and galley-slave she had named me, rogue she should find me in very truth henceforward if I might but escape my perilous situation.

  And now it was that Chance or Fate or the Devil sent me a means whereby I might put this desperate and most unworthy resolution into practice; for scarce had I uttered this vow when a key turned softly in the lock, the door opened and closed stealthily, and though I could not see (it being pitch-dark) I knew that someone stood within a yard of me, and all with scarce a sound and never a word. And when this silence had endured a while, I spoke sudden and harsh:

  "What now? Is it the noose so soon, or a knife sooner?"

  I heard a quick-drawn breath, a soft footfall, and a small hand, groping in the dark, touched my cheek and crept thence to my helpless, manacled fist. "Who is it?" I demanded, blenching from the touch, "Who is it? Speak!"

  "Hush!" whispered a voice in my ear, "It be only me, master. Jimmy——little Jim as you was good to. Red Andy don't beat me no more, he be afeared o' you. Good to me you was, master, an' so's she——took me to be her page, she 'ave——"

  "Whom d'you mean, boy?"

  "I mean Her! Her wi' the beautiful, kind eyes an' little feet! Her as sings! Her they calls 'my lady.' Her! Good t' me she is——an' so's you, so I be come to ye, master."

  "Ha——did she send you?"

  "No, I just come to save you from being hung to-morrow like they says you must."

  "And how shall you do this, boy?"

  "First wi' this key, master——"

  "Stay! Did she give you this key?"

  "No, master——I took it!" So, albeit 'twas very dark, the boy very soon had freed me of my shackles; which done (and all a- quiver with haste) he seizes my hand and tugs at it:

  "Come, master!" he whispered, "This way——this way!" So with his little, rough hand in mine I suffered him to bring me whither he would in the dimness, for not a lanthorn burned anywhere, until at last he halted me at a ladder propped against a bulkhead and mounting before, bade me follow. Up I climbed forthwith, and so to a narrow trap or scuttle through which I clambered with no little to-do, and found myself in a strange place, the roof so low I could barely sit upright and so strait that I might barely lie out-stretched.

  "Lie you here, master!" he whispers, "And for the love o' God don't speak nor make a sound!" Saying which, he got him back through the scuttle, closing the trap after him, and I heard the clatter of the ladder as he removed it.

  Hereupon, lying snug in my hiding-place, I presently became aware of a sweetness that breathed upon the air, a fragrance very faint but vastly pleasing, and fell a-wondering what this should be. My speculations were banished by the opening of a door near by and a light appeared, by which I saw myself lying in a narrow space shut off by a valance or curtain that yet showed a strip of carpet beyond, and all at once upon this carpet came a little, buckled shoe. I was yet staring on this in dumb amaze when a voice spoke softly:

  "Are you there, Martin Conisby? Hush, speak low I do command you!"

  For answer I dragged myself into the light and stared up at the Lady Joan Brandon.

  "Where am I?" I demanded.

  "In my cabin," says she, meeting my scowl with eyes serene and all untroubled. "I had you brought hither to save you——"

  "To save me! Ha, you——you to save me——"

  "Because you are not man enough to die yet," she went on in her calm, grave voice, "so I will save you alive that haply you may grow more worthy."

  "So 'twas by your orders? The boy lied then!" says I choking with my anger. "'Twas you gave him the key! 'Twas you bade him bring me hither——"

  "Where none shall dare seek you!" says she, all unmoved by my bitter rage, "So do I give you life, Martin Conisby, praying God you may find your manhood one day——"

  "Life!" quoth I, getting to my feet, "My life at your hands? Now look ye, madam, rather will I hang unjustly, rather will I endure again the shame of the lash——aye by God's light, rather will I rot in chains or perish of plague than take my life at your hands. So now, madam, I'll out of this perfumed nest and hang if I must!" saying which I turned to the door, but she checked me with a gesture.

  "Stay!" she commanded, "Would you shame me?" And now though she fronted me with proud head erect, I saw her cheek flush painfully.

  "Aye, verily!" quoth I, "A lady's honour is delicate ware and not to be cheapened by such poor rogue as I! Fear nothing, lady, I will go as——" I stopped all at once, as came footsteps without and a light tapping on the door.

  "Who is it?" she called, lightly enough, and shot the bolt with nimble fingers.

  "Only I, sweet coz," answered a gay voice, "And I come but to warn you not to venture on deck to-morrow till justice hath been done upon our prisoner."

  "Shall you——hang him, Rupert?"

  "Assuredly! 'Tis a black rogue and merits a worse fate."

  "Is he then tried and condemned already, Rupert?"

  "Nay, though 'twill be soon done. We have come on such evidence of his guilt as doth condemn him out of hand."

  "What evidence, cousin?"

  "His doublet all besmirched with his victim's blood. The man is a very devil and must hang at dawn. So, Joan, stir not abroad in the morning until I come to fetch you. A fair, good night, sweet coz, and sweet dreams attend thee!" And away trips Sir Rupert and leaves us staring on one another, she proud and gracious in all her dainty finery and I a very hang-dog fellow, my worn garments smirched by the grime of my many hiding-places.

  "Was this indeed your doublet?" she questioned at last.

  "It was."

  "How came it stained with blood?" For answer I shrugged my shoulders and turned away. "Have you nothing to say?"

  "Nothing, madam."

  "You would have me think you this murderer?"

  "I would have you think of me none at all," I answered, and smiled to see how I had stirred her anger at last.

  "Nay," sighs she, "needs must I think of you as the poor, mean thing you are and pity you accordingly!"

  "Howbeit," says I, scowling blacker than ever, "I will get me out of your sight——"

  "Aye, but the ladder is gone!"

  "No matter," says I, "better a broken neck to-night than a noose to-morrow. To-morrow, aye, the dawn is like to see an end of the feud and the Conisbys both together——"

  "And so shameful an end!" says she. At this, I turned my back on her, for anger was very strong in me. So, nothing speaking, I got to my knees that I might come at the trap beneath her berth; but next moment I was on my feet glaring round for some weapon to my defence, for on the air was sudden wild tumult and hubbub, a running of feet and confused shouting that waxed ever louder. Then, as I listened, I knew it was not me they hunted, for now was the shrill braying of a trumpet and the loud throbbing of a drum:

  "Martin——O Martin Conisby!" She stood with hands clasped and eyes wide in a dreadful expectancy, "What is it?" she panted, "O what is it? Hark——what do they cry!"

  Rigid and motionless we stood to listen; then every other emotion was 'whelmed and lost in sudden, paralysing fear as, above the trampling rush of feet, above the shrill blast of tucket and rolling of drum we caught the awful word "Fire!"

  "Now God help us all!" cries she, wringing her hands; then sinking to her knees, she leaned, half-swooning, against the door, yet I saw her pallid lips moving in passionate supplication.

  As for me (my first panic over) I sat me on her bed revolving how I might turn the general confusion to the preservation of my life. In this I was suddenly aroused by my lady's hand on my bowed shoulder.

  "Hark!" cries she, "Hark where they cry for aid!"

  "Why so they do," says I. "And so they may!"

  "Then come, let us out. You are a strong man, you will help to save the ship."

  "And hang thereafter? Not I, madam!"

  "Will you do nothing?" cried she, clenching her hands.

  "Verily, madam. I shall do my earnest endeavour to preserve this poor rogue's body o' mine from noose and flame. But as for the ship——let it burn, say I."

  "Spoke like a very coward!" says she in bitter scorn. "And a coward is selfish always." So saying she crossed to the door and reached her hand to the bolt; but in a leap I was beside her and caught this hand, 'prisoning it there:

  "Hark'ee, madam!" quoth I, "You tell me that to hang is a shameful death, and the noose as good as round my neck. But, before God, madam, I'll see this ship go up in flame and perish with it ere that noose shall strangle the life out of me and my wrongs unavenged. So the ship may burn an it will. Meantime do you seek your salvation and leave me to seek mine!" Then opening the door I stood aside to give her way; instead she stood a moment looking on me great-eyed:

  "O blind!" says she at last, "To treasure life for your wicked vengeance! O blind, blind!" Then, and very suddenly she sped out and away.

  Left alone I stood hearkening to the distant uproar and casting about in my mind how best I might contrive my preservation. And now in my desperate need it seemed there was but one hope for me and this but slender, viz., to steal myself up to Adam's lodgment under the poop and that as soon as might be. To this end I stepped forth of the cabin and so into a narrow passage-way with divers doors to right and left that opened upon other cabins, in one of which I espied a cloak and feathered hat lying where their owner had dropped them; whipping the cloak about me I clapped on the hat and, staying for no more, hasted on breathing an air acrid with drifting smoke. Reaching a broad stairway I climbed at speed and found myself out upon the lofty poop, whence I might look down on the decks through a haze of smoke that poured up through the after hatchway, mounting in billowy wreaths against the splendour of the moon. Here it seemed was gathered the whole ship's company with mighty stir and to-do, and none with eyes to spare for me. Howbeit, I stayed for no second glance, but running to Adam's cabin, found the door unlocked, the which I closed and bolted after me, in the doing of which I noticed (to my comfort) that this door was mighty thick and strong and in it moreover a loophole newly cut, with others in the bulkheads to right and left and all very neatly plugged from within; and what with this and the musquetoons that stood in racks very orderly, the place, small though it was, had all the virtues of a fort or citadel. Here then, so far as might be, I was safe whatever chanced, since I had but to lift the trap in the floor and descend into the roundhouse below, whence I might gain the stern- gallery and so the sea itself. And now, laying by the hat and cloak I cast myself on Adam's bed and there outstretched in great content, hearkened to the distant voices and tramp of feet where they laboured to put out the fire.

  Little by little these sounds became merged with the droning of the wind and the never-ceasing surge and hiss of the seas; lulled by this and the sense of my comparative safety, I presently fell a-slumbering. And sleeping thus, dreamed myself young again and playing with the child Damaris, thrilling to the clasp of her little, childish hands, joying in the tones of her clear, sweet child voice——she that grown up I knew for none other than Joan Brandon.

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