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Martin Conisby's Vengeance(Chapter13)

2006-08-28 23:06

  Chapter XIII. How We Fought an English Ship

  For the days immediately following I saw nothing of Joanna but learned from Resolution and Diccon that her sickness had increased upon her.

  "'Tis her soul, I doubt!" quoth Diccon, shaking his head. "'Tis too great for her body——'tis giant soul and her but a woman——so doth strong soul overcome weak body, and small wonder, say I?"

  "Nay, Diccon," said Resolution, his bright eye sweeping the hazy distance, "'tis but that she refuseth her vittles, and since 'man cannot live by bread alone' neither may woman, and 'tis more than bread she needeth and so she rageth and thus, like unto Peter's wife's mother, lieth sick of a fever." Here for a brief moment his bright eye rested on me and he scowled as he turned to limp the narrow deck.

  Much might I narrate of the divers hazards of battle and storm that befell us at this time, and more of the goodly ships pillaged and scuttled and their miserable crews with them, by Belvedere and his bloody rogues; of prayers for mercy mocked at, of the agonised screams of dying men, of flame and destruction and death in many hideous shapes. All of the which nameless evils I must perforce behold since this Belvedere that shrank at Joanna's mere look, freed of her presence, took joyous advantage to torment me with the sight of such horrors, such devil's work as shrieked to heaven for vengeance; insomuch that Diccon and divers others could ill-stomach it at last and even grim Resolution would have no more.

  Now although Belvedere and his rogues had taken great store of treasure with small hurt to themselves, yet must they growl and curse their fortune, since in none of the captured vessels had they taken any women, and never was the cry of "Sail, ho!" than all men grew eager for chase and attack; and thus this accursed ship Happy Despatch stood on, day after day.

  Much will I leave untold by reason of the horror of it, and moreover my space is short for all I have set myself to narrate, viz: how and in what manner I came at last to my vengeance and what profit I had therein. So will I pass on to that day when, being in the latitude of the great and fair island of Hispaniola, we descried a ship bearing westerly.

  Hereupon (since greed is never satisfied) all men were vociferous for chase and attack, and Belvedere agreeing, we hauled our wind accordingly and stood after her with every sail we could carry.

  The Happy Despatch was a great ship of some forty guns besides such smaller pieces as minions, patereros and the like; she was moreover a notable good sailer and as the hours passed it was manifest we were fast overhauling our quarry. And very pitiful was it to see her crowding sail away from us, to behold her (as it were) straining every nerve to escape the horrors in store. Twice she altered her course and twice we did the like, fetching ever nearer until it seemed she was doomed to share the bloody fate of so many others. By noon we were so close that she was plain to see, a middling-size ship, her paint blistered, her gilding tarnished as by a long voyage, and though very taut and trim as to spars and rigging, a heavy-sailing ship and sluggish. A poor thing indeed to cope with such powerful vessel as this Happy Despatch, for as we closed in I could count no more than six guns in the whole length of her. As to crew she might have been deserted for all I saw of them, save one man who paced her lofty poop, a smallish man in great wig and befeathered hat and in his fist a sword prodigiously long in the blade, which sword he flourished whereat (as it were a signal) out from her mizzen wafted the banner of Portugal, and immediately she opened fire on us from her stern-chase guns. But their shooting was so indifferent and artillery so pitiful that their shot fell far short of us. Thus my heart grieved mightily for her as with our guns run out and crew roaring and eager we bore down to her destruction.

  Now all at once, as I watched this unhappy ship, I caught my breath and sank weakly to my knees as, despite the distance and plain to see, upon her high poop came a woman, hooded and cloaked, who stood gazing earnestly towards us. Other eyes had noticed her also, for up from our crowded decks rose a hum, an evil murmur that swelled to a cry fierce, inarticulate, bestial, whiles all eyes glared upon that slender, shapely form; presently amid this ravening clamour I distinguished words:

  "Oh, a woman! Aha——women! Hold your fire, lads——no shooting; we want 'em all alive! Easy all, bullies——nary a gun, mates——we'll lay 'em 'longside and board——Aye, aye——board it is!"

  Now being on my knees, I began to whisper in passionate prayer until, roused by a shambling step, I glanced up to find Resolution Day beside me.

  "What, d'ye pray, brother? 'Tis excellent well!" Said he, setting a musquetoon ready to hand and glancing at the primings of his pistols. "Pray unceasing, friend, plague the Throne wi' petitions, comrade, and a word or so on behalf of old Resolution ere the battle joins, for there's——"

  "I pray God utterly destroy this accursed ship and all aboard her!" I cried.

  "And do ye so?" said he, setting the pistols in his belt. "Why, then, 'tis as well you're safe i' your bilboes, amigo, and as to your blasphemous praying, I will offset it wi' prayerful counterblast——Ha, by my deathless soul——what's doing yonder?" he cried, and leant to peer across at the chase, and well he might. For suddenly (and marvellous to behold) this ship that had sailed so heavily seemed to throw off her sluggishness and, taking on new life, to bound forward; her decks, hitherto deserted, grew alive with men who leapt to loose and haul at brace and rope and, coming about, she stood towards us and right athwart our course. So sudden had been this manoeuvre and so wholly unexpected that all men it seemed could but stare in stupefied amaze.

  "Ha!" cried Resolution, smiting fist on the rail before him. "Tricked, by hookey! She's been towing a sea anchor! Below there!" he hailed. "Belvedere, ahoy——go about, or she'll rake us——"

  And now came Belvedere's voice in fierce and shrill alarm:

  "Down wi' your helm——down! Let go weather braces, jump, ye dogs, jump!"

  I heard the answering tramp of feet, the rattle and creak of the yards as they swung and a great flapping of canvas as the Happy Despatch came up into the wind; but watching where our adversary bore down upon us, I beheld her six guns suddenly multiplied and (or ever we might bring our broadside to bear) from these gaping muzzles leapt smoke and roaring flame, and we were smitten with a hurricane of shot that swept us from stem to stern.

  Dazed, deafened, half-stunned, I crouched in the shelter of the mizzen mast, aware of shrieks and cries and the crash of falling spars, nor moved I for a space; lifting my head at last, I beheld on the littered decks below huddled figures that lay strangely twisted, that writhed or crawled. Then came the hoarse roar of a speaking trumpet and I saw Resolution, his face a smother of blood, where he leaned hard by across the quarter-rail.

  "Stand to't, my bullies!" he roared, and his voice had never sounded so jovial. "Clear the guns, baw-cocky boys; 'tis our turn next——but stand by till she comes about——"

  From the companion below came one running, eyes wild, mouth agape, and I recognised the man Ford who had been my chief persecutor in the forecastle.

  "What now, lad——what now?" demanded Resolution, mopping at his bloody face.

  "Death!" gasped Ford. "There be dead men a-lay-ing forward——dead, look'ee——"

  "Likely enough, John Ford, and there'll be dead men a-laying aft if ye're not back to your gun and lively, d'ye see?" But the fellow, gasping again, fell to his knees, whereupon Resolution smote him over the head with his speaking trumpet and tumbled him down the ladder.

  "Look'ee here," quoth he, scowling on me, "this all cometh along o' your ill-praying us, for prayer is potent, as I know, which was not brotherly in you, Martin O, not brotherly nor yet friendly!" So saying, he squatted on the gun beside me and sought to staunch the splinter-gash in his brow; but seeing how ill he set about it, I proffered to do it for him (and despite my shackles), whereupon he gave me the scarf and knelt that I might come at his hurt the better; and being thus on his knees, he began to pray in a loud, strong voice:

  "Lord God o' battles, close up Thine ear, hearken to and regard not the unseemly praying of this mail Martin that hath not the just point o' view, seeing through a glass darkly. Yonder lieth the enemy, Lord, Thine and mine, wherefore let 'em be rooted out and utterly destroyed; for if these be Portingales and Papishers——if——ha——if——?" Resolution ceased his prayer and glancing up, pointed with stabbing finger: "Yon ship's no more Portingale than I am——look, friend, look!"

  Now glancing whither he would have me, I saw two things: first, that the Happy Despatch had turned tail and second that our pursuers bore at her main the English flag; beholding which, a great joy welled up within me so that I had much ado to keep from shouting outright.

  "English!" quoth Resolution. "And a fighting ship——so fight we must, unless we win clear!"

  "Ha, will ye run then?" cried I in bitter scorn.

  "With might and main, friend. We are a pirate, d'ye see, w' all to lose and nought to gain, and then 'tis but a fool as fighteth out o' season!"

  Even as he spoke the English ship yawed and let fly at us with her fore-chase and mingled with their roar was the sharp crack of parting timbers and down came our main-topmast.

  "Why, so be it!" quoth Resolution, scowling up at the flapping ruin where it hung. "Very well, 'tis a smooth sea and a fighting wind, so shall you ha' your bellyful o' battle now, friend, for yonder cometh Joanna at last!"

  And great wonder was it to behold how the mere sight of her heartened our sullen rogues, to hear with what howls of joy they welcomed her as she paced daintily across the littered deck with her quick glance now aloft, now upon our determined foe.

  "Ha, 'tis so——'tis our Jo——our luck! Shout for Cap'n Jo and the luck o' the Brotherhood!"

  And now at her rapid commands from chaos came order, the decks were cleared, and, despite wrecked topmast, round swung the Happy Despatch until her broadside bore upon the English ship. Even then Joanna waited, every eye fixed on her where she lolled, hand on hip, watching the approach of our adversary. Suddenly she gestured with her arm and immediately the whole fabric of the ship leapt and quivered to the deafening roar of her guns; then, as the smoke cleared, I saw the enemy's foreyard was gone and her sides streaked and splintered by our shot, and from our decks rose shouts of fierce exultation, drowned in the answering thunder of their starboard broadside, the hiss of their shot all round about us, the crackle of riven woodwork, the vicious whirr of flying splinters, wails and screams and wild cheering.

  And thus began a battle surely as desperate as ever was fought and which indeed no poor words of mine may justly describe. The enemy lay to windward and little enough could I see by reason of the dense smoke that enveloped us, a stifling, sulphurous cloud that drifted aboard us ever more thick as the fight waxed, a choking mist full of blurred shapes, dim forms that flitted by and vanished spectre-like, a rolling mystery whence came all manner of cries, piercing screams and shrill wailings dreadful to hear, while the deck beneath me, the air about me reeled and quivered to the never-ceasing thunder of artillery. But ever and anon, through some rent in this smoky curtain, I might catch a glimpse of the English ship, her shot-scarred side and rent sails, or the grim havoc of our own decks. And amidst it all, and hard beside me where I crouched in the shelter of the mizzenmast, I beheld Resolution Day limping to and fro, jovial of voice, cheering his sweating, powder-grimed gun-crews with word and hand. Suddenly I was aware of Joanna beside me, gay and debonnaire but ghastly pale.

  "Hola, Martino!" cried she. "D'ye live yet? 'Tis well. If we die to-day we die together, and where a properer death or one more fitting for such as you and I, for am I killed first, Resolution shall send you after me to bear me company, yes."

  So saying, she smiled and nodded and turned to summon Resolution, who came in limping haste.

  "What, are ye hurt, Jo?" cried he, peering. "Ha, Joanna lass, are ye hit indeed?"

  "A little, yes!" said she, and staggering against the mast leaned there as if faint, yet casting a swift, furtive glance over her shoulder. "But death cometh behind me, Resolution, and my pistol's gone and yours both empty——"

  Now glancing whither she looked, I saw Captain Belvedere come bounding up the ladder, cutlass in one hand and pistol in the other.

  "Are ye there, Jo, are ye there?" he cried and stood to scowl on her.

  "Resolution," said she, drooping against the mast, "fight me the ship——"

  "And what o' me?" snarled Belvedere.

  "You?" cried she. "Ah——bah!" and turning, she spat at him and, screaming, fell headlong as his pistol flashed. But over her prostrate form leapt Resolution and there, while the battle roared about them, I watched as, with steel that crashed unheard in that raging uproar, they smote and parried and thrust until an eddying smoke-cloud blotted them from my view. Now fain would I have come at Joanna where she lay, yet might not for my bonds, although she was so near; suddenly as I watched her (and struggling thus vainly to reach her) I saw she was watching me.

  "And would you aid your poor Joanna, yes?" she questioned faintly.

  "'Twas so my thought——"

  "Because I am dying, Martino? Doth this grieve you?"

  "You are over-young to die!"

  "And my life hath been very hard and cruel! Would you kiss a dying woman an' she might creep to your arms, Martino?"

  Slowly and painfully she dragged herself within my reach and, beholding the twisted agony of her look, reading the piteous supplication in her eyes, I stooped to kiss the pale brow she lifted to my lips and——felt two arms about me vigorous and strong and under mine the quivering passion of her mouth; then she had loosed me and was before me on her knees, flushed and tremulous as any simple maid.

  I was yet gazing on her in dumb and stark amaze, when from somewhere hard by a man cried out in wild and awful fashion, and as this agonised screaming swelled upon the air, Joanna rose up to her feet and stood transfigured, her eyes fierce and wild, her clenched teeth agleam 'twixt curling lips; and presently through the swirling smoke limped Resolution Day, a dreadful, bedabbled figure, who, beholding Joanna on her feet, flourished a dripping blade and panted exultant.

  "He is dead?" she questioned.

  "Verily and thoroughly!" said Resolution, wringing blood from his beruffled shirt sleeve. "And a moist end he made on't. But thee, Joanna, I grieved thee surely dead——"

  "Nay, I screamed and dropped in time, but——hark, the Englishman's fire is ceasing and see, Resolution——look yonder!" and she pointed where our antagonist, sore battered in hull and spars, was staggering out of the fight.

  And now in place of roaring battle was sudden hush, yet a quietude this, troubled by thin cryings, waitings and the like distressful sounds; and the smoke lifting showed something of the havoc about us, viz: our riven bulwarks, the tangled confusion of shattered spars, ropes and fallen gear, the still and awful shapes that cumbered the spattered decks, more especially about the smoking guns where leaned their wearied crews, a blood-stained, powder-grimed company, cheering fitfully as they watched the English ship creeping away from us.

  To us presently cometh Diccon, his blackened face streaked with sweat, hoarse-voiced but hearty:

  "Aha, Captain Jo——your luck's wi' us as ever! Yon curst craft hath her bellyful at last, aye, has she!"

  "I doubt!" quoth Resolution, shaking his head, whiles Joanna, leaning against the mast, pointed feebly and I noticed her sleeve was soaked with blood and her speech dull and indistinct:

  "Resolution is i' the——right——see!"

  And sure enough the English ship, having fetched ahead of us and beyond range of our broadside guns, had hauled her wind and now lay to, her people mighty busy making good their damage alow and aloft, stopping shot-holes, knotting and splicing their gear, etc. Hereupon Diccon falls to a passion of vain oaths, Resolution to quoting Psalms and Joanna, sighing, slips suddenly to the deck and lies a-swoon. In a moment Resolution was on his knees beside her.

  "Water, Diccon, water!" said he. "The lads must never see her thus!" So Diccon fetched the water and between them they contrived to get Joanna to her feet, and standing thus supported by their arms, she must needs use her first breath to curse her weak woman's body:

  "And our mainmast is shot through at the cap——we must wear ship or 'twill go! Veer, Resolution, wear ship and man the larboard guns …… they are cool …… I must go tend my hurt——a curst on't! Wear ship and fight, Resolution, fight——to the last!"

  So saying, she put by their hold and (albeit she stumbled for very weakness) nevertheless contrived to descend the quarter-ladder and wave cheery greeting to the roar of acclaim that welcomed her.

  "And there's for ye!" quoth Resolution. "Never was such hugeous great spirit in man's body or woman's body afore, neither in this world or any other——no, not even Davy at Adullam, by hookey! Down to your guns, Diccon lad, and cheerily, for it looks as we shall have some pretty fighting, after all!"

  But at the hoarse roar of Resolution's speaking trumpet was stir and clamorous outcry from the battle-wearied crew who came aft in a body.

  "Oho, Belvedere!" they shouted, "Us ha' fought as long as men may, and now what?"

  "Fight again, bullies, and cheerily!" roared Resolution. At this the uproar grew; pistols and muskets were brandished.

  "We ha' fought enough! 'Tis time to square away and run for't——aye, aye——what saith Belvedere, Belvedere be our Cap'n——we want Belvedere!"

  "Why then, take him, Bullies, take him and willing!" cried Resolution; then stooping (and with incredible strength) up to the quarter-railing he hoisted that awful, mutilated thing that had once been Captain Belvedere and hove it over to thud down among them on the deck below. "Eye him over, lads!" quoth Resolution. "View him well, bawcock boys! I made sure work, d'ye see, though scarce so complete as the heathen Pompey might ha' done, but 'tis a very thoroughly dead rogue, you'll allow. And I killed him because he would ha' murdered our Joanna, our luck——and because he was for yielding us up, you and me, to yon ship that is death for us——for look'ee, there is never a ship on the Main will grant quarter or show mercy for we; 'tis noose and tar and gibbet for every one on us, d'ye see? So fight, bully boys, fight for a chance o' life and happy days——here stand I to fight wi' you and Diccon 'twixt decks and Captain Jo everywhere. We beat off you Englishman once and so we will again. So fight it is, comrades all, and a cheer for Captain Jo——ha, Joanna!"

  Cheer they did and (like the desperate rogues they were) back they went, some to their reeking guns, others to splice running and standing rigging, to secure our tottering mainmast and to clear the littered decks; overboard alike went broken gear and dead comrade. Then, with every man at his quarters, with port fires burning, drums beating, black flag flaunting aloft, round swung the Happy Despatch to face once more her indomitable foe (since she might not fly) and to fight for her very life.

  So once again was smoke and flame and roaring battle; broadside for broadside we fought them until night fell, a night of horror lit by the quivering red glare of the guns, the vivid flash of pistol and musket and the pale flicker of the battle lanthorns. And presently the moon was casting her placid beam upon this hell of destruction and death, whereas I lay, famished with hunger and thirst, staring up at her pale serenity with weary, swooning eyes, scarce heeding the raving tumult about me.

  I remember a sudden, rending crash, a stunning shock and all things were blotted out awhile.

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