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Black Bartlemy's Treasure(Chapter17)

2006-08-28 21:50

  Chapter XVII. Telleth How an Eye Watched Me from the Dark

  It is not my intention to chronicle all those minor happenings that befell us at this time, lest my narrative prove over-long and therefore tedious to the reader. Suffice it then that the fair weather foretold by Godby had set in and day by day we stood on with a favouring wind. Nevertheless, despite calm weather and propitious gale, the disaffection among the crew waxed apace by reason of the great black ship that dogged us, some holding her to be a bloody pirate and others a phantom-ship foredooming us to destruction.

  As to myself, never was poor wretch in more woeful plight for, 'prisoned in the stifling hold where no ray of kindly sun might ever penetrate, and void of all human fellowship, I became a prey to wild, unholy fancies and a mind-sickness bred of my brooding humours; my evil thoughts seemed to take on stealthy shapes that haunted the fetid gloom about me, shapes of horror and murder conjured up of my own vengeful imaginations. An evil time indeed this, of long, uneasy sleepings, of hateful dreams and ill wakings, of sullen humours and a horror of all companionship, insomuch that when came Godby or Adam to supply my daily wants, I would hide myself until they should be gone; thereafter, tossing feverishly upon my miserable bed, I would brood upon my wrongs, hugging to myself the thought of vengeance and joying in the knowledge that every hour brought me the nearer its fulfilment.

  And now it was that I became possessed of an uneasy feeling that I was not alone, that beyond my crazy door was a thing, soft- breathing, that lurked watchful-eyed in the gloom, hearkening for my smallest movement and following on soundless feet whithersoever I went. This unease so grew upon me that when not lost in fevered sleep I would lie, with breath in check, listening to such sounds as reached me above the never-ceasing groaning of the vessel's labour, until the squeak and scutter of some rat hard by, or any unwonted rustling beyond the door, would bring me to an elbow in sweating panic.

  To combat the which sick fancies it became my custom to steal up from my fetid hiding-place at dead of night and to prowl soft- footed about the ship where none stirred save myself and the drowsy watch above deck. None the less (and go where I would) it seemed I was haunted still, that behind me lurked a nameless dread, a silent, unseen presence. Night after night I roamed the ship thus, my fingers clenched on the knife in my girdle, my ears on the strain and eyes that sought vainly every dark corner or patch of shadow.

  At last, on a night, as I crouched beside a gun on the 'tween- decks I espied of a sudden a shape, dim and impalpable-seeming in the gloom, that flitted silently past me and up the ladder to the deck above. Up started I, knife in hand, but in my haste I stumbled over some obstacle and fell; but up the ladder I sprang in pursuit, out into moonlight, and hastening forward came face to face with Adam.

  "Ha-rogue!" I cried, and sprang at him with up lifted knife; but as I came he stepped aside (incredibly quick) and thrusting out a foot tripped me sprawling.

  "Easy, shipmate, easy!" says he, thrusting a pistol under my nose. "Lord love you, Martin, what would you now?"

  "So you'll follow me, will you!" I panted. "You'll creep and crawl and spy on me, will you?"

  "Neither one nor t'other, Martin."

  "'Twas you climbed the gangway but now!"

  "Not I, Martin, not I." And as I scowled up at him I knew he spoke truth, and a new fear seized me.

  "And you saw no one, Adam? Nothing——no shape that flitted up the ladder hitherwards and no sound to it?"

  "Never a thing, Martin, save yourself."

  "Why then," says I, clasping my temples, "why then——I'm mad!"

  "How so, comrade?"

  "Because I'm followed——I'm watched——spied upon sleeping and waking!"

  "Aye, but how d'ye know?" he questioned, stooping to peer at me.

  "I feel it——I've known it for days past, and to-night I saw it. I'm haunted, I tell you!"

  "Who by, shipmate?"

  "Aye!" I cried. "Who is it——what? 'Tis a thing that flits i' the dark and with never a sound, that watches and listens. It mounted the ladder yonder scarce a moment since plain to my sight——"

  "Yet I saw nothing, Martin. And not a soul stirring, save the watch forward, the steersman aft, and myself."

  "Why then I'm verily mad!" says I.

  "Not you, shipmate, not you. 'Tis nought but the solitude and darkness, they take many a man that way, so ha' done with 'em, Martin! My lady's offer of employ yet holdeth good, so 'list with me as master's mate, say but the word and——"

  "No!" says I, fiercely. "Come what may I take no service under an accursed Brandon!" Saying which I got me to my feet and presently back to the haunted dark.

  Thus the days dragged by all unmarked by me (that took no more heed of time) for my fevered restlessness gave place to a heaviness, a growing inertia that gripped me, mind and body; thus when not lost in troubled sleep I would lie motionless, staring dully at the dim flame of the lanthorn or blinking sightless on the dark.

  This strange sickness (as hath been said) I then set down to no more than confinement and my unwholesome situation, in the which supposition I was very far beside the mark, as you shall hear. For there now befell a thing that roused me from my apathy once and for all, and thereby saved me from miserably perishing and others with me, and the manner of it thus:

  On a time as I lay 'twixt sleep and wake, my glance (and for no reason in the world) chanced upon that knot-hole in the opposite bulkhead, the which (as already told) I had wrought into the likeness of a great eye. Now, as I stared at it, the thing seemed, all at once, to grow instinct with life and to stare back at me. I continued to view it (dully enough) until little by little I became aware of something strange about it, and then as I watched this (that was no more than a knot-hole) the thing winked at me. Thinking this but some wild fancy or a trick of the light I lay still, watching it beneath my lowered lids, and thus I suddenly caught the glitter of the thing as it moved and knew it for a very bright, human eye that watched me through the knot-hole. Now this may seem a very small matter in the telling, but to me at that moment (overwrought by my long sojourn in the dark) it was vastly otherwise.

  For maybe a full minute the eye stared at me, fixed and motionless and with a piercing intensity, then suddenly was gone, and I lying there, my flesh a-tingle, my heart quick-beating in a strange terror, so that I marvelled to find myself so shaken. Leaping up in sudden fierce anger I wrenched open the door and rushed forth, only to fall headlong over some obstacle; and lying there bruised and dazed heard the soft thud and scamper of rats in the dark hard by. So I got me back to my bunk, and lying there fell to a gloomy reflection. And the more I thought, the fiercer grew my anger that any should dare so to spy upon me.

  Thus it was in one of my blackest humours that Godby found me when, having set down the victuals he had brought, he closed the crazy door and seated himself on the cask that served me as chair, and bent to peer at me where I lay.

  "Mart'n," said he, speaking almost in a whisper, "be ye awake at last?" For answer I cursed him heartily. "Avast, pal!" says he shaking his head, "look'ee, Mart'n, 'tis in my mind the devil's aboard this ship."

  "And what then?" I demanded angrily. "Am I a raree show to be peeped at and watched and spied upon?"

  "Anan, pal——watched, d'ye say?"

  "Aye, stared at through the knot-hole yonder awhile since by you or Penfeather."

  "Never knowed there was a knot-hole, Mart'n," said he in the same hushed voice and staring at the thing, "and as for Cap'n Adam he aren't been anigh you this two days. But 'tis all one, pal, all one——this ship do be haunted. And as for eyes a-watching of ye, Martin, who should it be but this here ghost as walketh the ship o'nights and makes away wi' good men."

  "How d'ye mean?" I questioned, reaching the ale he had brought. "What talk is this of ghosts?"

  "What's yon?" he whispered, starting up, as a rustling sounded beyond the door.

  "Mere rats, man!"

  "Lord love ye, Mart'n," says he, glancing about him, "'tis a chancy place this. I don't know how ye can abide it."

  "I've known worse!" said I.

  "Then ye don't believe in spectres, Mart'n——ghosts, pal, nor yet phantoms?"

  "No, I don't!"

  "Well, Mart'n, there be strange talk among the crew o' something as do haunt the 'tween-decks——"

  "Aye, I've overheard some such!" I nodded. "But, look ye, I've haunted the ship myself of late."

  "And yet you've seen nowt o' this thing, pal?"

  "No. What thing should I see?"

  "Who knows, Martin? But the sea aren't the land, and here on these wild wastes o' waters there's chancy things beyond any man's wisdom as any mariner'll——ha, what's yon?" says he under his breath and whipping round, knife in hand. "'Twas like a shoeless foot, Mart'n……creeping murder……'Tis there again!" Speaking, he tore open the door and I saw his knife flash as he sprang into the darkness beyond; as for me I quaffed my ale. Presently back he comes, claps to the door (mighty careful) and sinking upon the upturned cask, mops at his brow.

  "Content you, Godby," says I, "here be no ghosts——"

  "Soft, lad——speak soft!" he whispered. "For——Lord love you, Mart'n, 'tis worse than ghosts as I do fear! Dog bite me, pal, here's been black and bloody doings aboard us this last two nights."

  "How so, Godby?" I questioned, lowering my voice in turn as I met his look.

  "I mean, lad, as this thing——call it ghost or what ye will——has took three men these last two nights. There's Perks o' Deptford, McLean as hails from Leith, and Treliving the Cornishman——three good men, Mart'n——lost, vanished, gone! And, O pal, wi' never a mark or trace to tell how!"

  "Lost! D'ye mean——overboard?"

  "No, Mart'n, I mean——lost! And each of them i' the middle watch ——the sleepy hour, Mart'n, just afore dawn. In a fair night, pal, wi' a calm sea——these men vanish and none to see 'em go. And all of 'em prime sailor-men and trusty. The which, Mart'n, sets a cove to wondering who'll be next."

  "But are you sure they are gone?"

  "Aye, Mart'n, we've sought 'em alow and aloft, all over the ship, save only this hole o' yourn——the which you might ha' known had ye slept less."

  "Have I slept so much, then?"

  "Pal, you've done little else since you came aboard, seemingly. All yesterday, as I do know, you slept and never stirred nor took so much as bite or sup——and I know because while we was a' turning out the hold a-seekin' and a-searchin' I come and took a look at ye every now and then, and here's you a-lyin' like a dead man but for your snoring."

  "Here's strange thing, and mighty strange! For until I came aboard I was ever a wondrous light sleeper, Godby."

  "Why, 'tis the stench o' this place——faugh! Come aloft and take a mouthful o' good, sweet air, pal."

  "You say you sought these men everywhere——even down here in the hold?"

  "Aye, alow and aloft, every bulkhead and timber from trucks to keelson!"

  "And all this time I was asleep, Godby?"

  "Aye——like a log, Mart'n."

  "And breathing heavily?"

  "Aye, ye did so, pal, groaning ye might call it——aye, fit to chill a man's good blood!"

  "And neither you nor Adam nor the others thought to search this dog-hole of mine?"

  "Lord love ye——no, Mart'n! How should three men hide here?"

  "Three men? Aye, true enough!" says I, clasping my head to stay the rush and hurry of my thoughts.

  "Come aloft, pal, 'tis a fair evening and the fine folk all a- supping in the great cabin. Come into the air."

  "Yes," I nodded, "yes, 'twill clear my head and I must think, Godby, I must think. Reach me my doublet," says I, for now I felt myself all shivering as with cold. So Godby took up the garment where it lay and held it out to me; but all at once let it fall and, drawing back, stood staring down at it, and all with never a word; whiles I sat crouched upon my bed, my head between my clenched fists and my mind reeling beneath the growing horror of the thought that filled me. And now, even as this thought took dreadful shape and meaning——even as suspicion grew to certainty, I heard Godby draw a gasping breath, saw him reach a stealthy, fumbling hand behind him and open the door, and then, leaping backwards, he was swallowed in the dark, and with a hurry of stumbling feet, was gone.

  But I scarcely heeded his going or the manner of it, so stunned was I by the sudden realisation of the terror that had haunted my ghastly slumbers and evil wakings, a terror that (if my dreadful speculations were true) was very real after all, a peril deadly and imminent.

  The truth of which I now (and feverishly) set myself to prove beyond all doubt, and reached for the lanthorn. Now in so doing my foot caught in the doublet lying where Godby had dropped it, and I picked it up out of the way; but as I lifted it into the light I let it fall again (even as Godby had done): and now, staring down at it, felt my flesh suddenly a-creep for, as it lay there at my feet, I saw upon one sleeve a great, dark stain that smeared it up from wrist to elbow——the hideous stain of new-spilt blood.

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