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Black Bartlemy's Treasure(Chapter2)

2006-08-28 21:43

  Chapter II. How I Heard a Song in the Wood at Midnight

  Headlong went I, staying for nought and heedless of all direction, but presently, being weary and short of breath, I halted and leaning against a tree stood thus very full of bitter thought. The storm was quite passed, but a chill wind was abroad that moaned dismally, while all about me sodden trees dripped with mournful, sobbing noises. And hearkening to all this, what should I be thinking but of the sweet, soft tones of a woman's voice that had stirred within me memories of better days, a voice that had set me to dreams of a future, to fond and foolish imaginings. For, though shamed and brutalised by my sufferings, I was a man and in this past hour (strange though it do seem) felt scorn of myself and a yearning for higher things, and all this by no greater reason than the sound of a woman's voice in the dark and the touch of her warm lips on my hand——and she a Brandon! And now as the bitter mockery of it all rushed upon me, fierce anger swept me and I broke forth into vile oaths and cursings, English and Spanish, foul invectives picked up from the rogues, my fellows in misery; and feeling a new shame therefore, did but curse the more. So there crouched I 'gainst the tree, shivering like the miserable wretch I was and consumed with a ravening hunger. At last, becoming aware that I yet grasped a weapon in either hand, I thrust my knife in my girdle and fell to handling this other, judging it by touch since it was yet too dark for eyes to serve me. And by its feel I knew it for no honest knife; here was a thing wrought by foreign hands, a haft cunningly shaped and wrought, a blade curiously slender and long and three-edged, a very deadly thing I judged by the feel. Now since it had no sheath (and it so sharp) I twisted my neckerchief about it from pommel to needle-point, and thrusting it into the leathern wallet at my belt, went on some way further 'mid the trees, seeking some place where I might be sheltered from the cold wind. Then, all at once, I heard that which brought me to a stand.

  A man was singing and at no great distance, a strange, merry air and stranger words; and the voice was loud, yet tuneful and mellow, and the words (the which I came to know all too well) were these:

  "Cheerly O and cheerly O,Right cheerly I'll sing O,Whiles at the mainyard to and fro We watch a dead man swing O. With a rumbelow and to and fro He by the neck doth swing O!

  One by the knife did part wi' life And three the bullet took O,But three times three died plaguily A-wriggling on a hook O. A hook both strong and bright and long,They died by gash o' hook O.

  So cheerly O and cheerly O,Come shake a leg, lads, all O. Wi' a yo-ho-ho and a rumbelow And main-haul, shipmates, haul O.

  Some swam in rum to kingdom come,Full many a lusty fellow. And since they're dead I'll lay my head They're flaming now in hell O.

  So cheerly O, so cheerly O"——

  Waiting for no more of the vile rant I strode forward and thus presently came on a small dell or dingle full of the light of a fire that crackled right merrily; at the which most welcome sight I made shift to scramble down the steepy bank forthright and approached the blaze on eager feet. Drawing near, I saw the fire burned within a small cave beneath the bank, and as I came within its radiance the song broke off suddenly and a man rose up, facing me across the fire and with one hand hid under the flap of his side pocket.

  "Fibs off your popps, cull!" quoth in the vernacular of the roads. "Here's none but a pal as lacketh warmth and a bite!"

  "Aha!" quoth the fellow, peering across the blaze, "And who be you? Stand and give a show o' your figurehead!" Obediently I stood with hands outspread to the flame, warming my shivering body at its grateful heat.

  "Well?" says I.

  "Why," quoth he, nodding, "You're big enough and wild enough and as likely a cut-throat as another——what's the lay?"

  "The high pad!" says I.

  "Where away?"

  "'Tis no matter!"

  "All I asks is," quoth the fellow with a quizzical look, "how you've fobbed the nubbing-cheat so long!"

  "And what I ask is," quoth I, "how a sailor-man comes to know the patter o' the flash coves!"

  "'Tis no matter," says he, "but since you're o' the Brotherhood sit ye and welcome, 'tis dry enough here in this cave."

  Staying for no second bidding I entered the little cave and sat me down in the comforting warmth of the fire. The man was a comely fellow of a hectoring, swashing air, bright of eyes and instant of gesture; close to hand lay a short cutting-sword, pistols bulged his deep coat-pockets, while betwixt his knees was a battered case-bottle.

  "Well," says he, eyeing me over, "what's the word?"

  "Food!" says I.

  "Nary a bite!" he answered, shaking his head. "But here's rum now if you've a mind to sluice the ivories——ha?"

  "Not a drop!" says I.

  "Good! The more for me!" he nodded. "Rum——ha——

  "Some swam in rum to kingdom come"——

  "You sing a mighty strange song!" quoth I.

  "Ha——d'ye like it?"

  "No, I don't!"

  "And wherefore no?"

  "There seems overmuch death in it."

  "Death?" cries he with a great laugh and hugging his case-bottle. "Death says you——aye, aye, says I and so there is, death in every line on't. 'Tis song as was made for dead men, of dead men, by a dead man, and there's for ye now!" Here he lifted the bottle, drank, and thereafter smacked his lips with great gusto. "Made by a dead man," he repeated, "for dead men, of dead men, and there's for ye!"

  "I like your song less and less!"

  "You've a cursed queasy stomach I think!" he hiccupped.

  "And an empty one!" says I.

  "'Tis a song well bethought on by——by better men nor you, for all your size!" says he, glancing at me over his bottle with a truculent eye, and though his glance was steady, I perceived the drink was affecting him more and more. "Aye, many a better man!" he nodded, frowning.

  "As who?" I questioned.

  "First, there's Abnegation Mings as you shall hear tell of on the Main from Panama to St. Catherine's, aye, by the horns of Nick there be none of all the coastwise Brotherhood quicker or readier when there's aught i' the wind than Abnegation, and you can lay to that, my delicate cove!"

  "And who's he?"

  "Myself!" Here he took another draught and nodded at me in drunken solemnity. "And look'ee, my dainty cull, when you've seen as much o' death as Abnegation Mings you'll know as Death's none so bad a thing, so long as it leaves you alone. And I for one say 'tis a good song and there's for ye!"

  "And who else?"

  "Well, there's Montbars as do they call the Exterminator, and there's young Harry Morgan——a likely lad, and there's Roger Tressady and Sol Aiken and Penfeather——sink him!"

  "And Abner!" said I at a venture.

  "Aye for sure!" he nodded, and then, "Ha, d'ye know Abner then?"

  "I've met him."

  "Where away?"

  "In a tavern some mile hence."

  "A tavern!" quoth he, "A tavern, 'od rot 'em and here's me hove short in this plaguy hole! A tavern, and here's my bottle out—— dog bite me! But a mouthful left——well, here's to a bloody shirt and the Brotherhood o' the Coast."

  "You drink to the buccaneers, I think?" says I.

  "And what if I do?"

  "'Tis said they be no better than pirates——"

  "Would ye call me a pirate then?" cried he, scowling.

  "I would." Quick as flash he clapped hand to pocket, but the pistol caught on the lining, and before he could free it I had covered him with mine, whereat he grew suddenly rigid and still. "Up wi' your fambles!" says I. Obediently he raised his hands and, taking his pistols, I opened the pan of each one and, having blown out the primings, tossed them back.

  "Snake sting me!" says he, laughing ruefully as he re-pocketed his weapons. "This comes o' harbouring a lousy rogue as balks good liquor. The man as won't take good rum hath the head of a chicken, the heart of a yellow dog, and the bowels of a w-worm, and bone-rot him, says I. Lord love me, but I've seen many a better throat than yours slit ere now, my buxom lad!"

  "And aided too, belike?" says I.

  "Why, here's a leading question——but mum! Here's a hand that knoweth not what doth its fellow——mum, boy, mum!" And tilting back his head he brake forth anew into his villainous song:

  "Two on a knife did end their life And three the bullet took O,But three times three died plaguily A-wriggling on a hook O. Sing cheerly O and cheerly O,They died by gash o' hook O."

  "And look'ee, my ben cull, if I was to offer ye all Bartlemy's treasure——which I can't, mark me——still you'd never gather just what manner o' hook that was. Anan, says you——mum, boy, says I. Howbeit, I say, 'tis a good song," quoth he, blinking drowsily at the fire, "here's battle in't, murder and sudden death and wha—— what more could ye expect of any song——aye, and there's women in't too!" Here he fell to singing certain lewd ribaldry that I will not here set down, until what with the rum and the drowsy heat of the fire that I had replenished, he yawned, stretched, and laying himself down, very soon fell a-snoring, to my no small comfort. As for me, I sat there waiting for the dayspring; the fire sank lower and lower, filling the little cave with a rosy glow falling athwart the sprawling form of the sleeper and making his red face seem purplish and suffused like the face of one I had once seen dead of strangulation; howbeit, he slept well enough, judging from his lusty snoring. Now presently in the surrounding dark beyond the smouldering fire was a glimmer, a vague blur of sloping, trampled bank backed by misty trees; so came the dawn, very chill and full of eddying mists that crawled phantom-like, filling the little dingle brimful and blotting out the surrounding trees. In a little I arose and, coming without the cave, shivered in the colder air, shaken with raging hunger. And now remembering my utter destitution, I stooped to peer down at the sleeper, half minded to go through his pockets, but in a while I turned away and left him sprawled in his sottish slumber.

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