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HOW WE LANDED ON THE ISLAND.
"Friend Sancho," said the Duke, "the isle I have promised you
can neither stir nor fly. And whether you return to it upon
the flying horse, or trudge back to it in misfortune, a pilgrim
from house to house and from inn to inn, you will always find
your isle just where you left it, and your islanders with the
same good will to welcome you as they ever had."--
Night fell, and the xebec had made no further motion to attack: but yet, as the calm held, Captain Pomery continued gloomy; nor did his gloom lift at all when the enemy, as soon as it was thoroughly dark, began to burn flares and torches.
"That will be a signal to the shore," said he. "Though, please God, they are too far for it to reach."
The illumination served us in one way. While it lasted, no boat could push out from the xebec without our perceiving it. The fires lasted until after eight bells, when the captain, believing that he scented a breeze ahead, turned us out into the boat again, to tow the ketch toward it. For my part, I tugged and sweated, but scented no breeze. On the contrary, the night seemed intolerably close and sultry, as though brooding a thunderstorm. When the xebec's fires died down, darkness settled on us like a cap. The only light came from the water, where our oars swirled it in pools of briming, or the tow-rope dropped for a moment and left for another moment a trail of fire.
Neither Mr. Fett nor Mr. Badcock could pull an oar, and old Worthyvale had not the strength for it. The rest of us--all but the captain, who steered and kept what watch he could astern--took the rowing by hourly relays, pair and pair: Billy Priske and I, my father and Mike Halliday, Nat and Roger Wearne.
It had come round again to Billy's turn and mine, and the hour was that darkest one which promises the near daylight. Captain Pomery, foreboding that dawn would bring with it an instant need of a clear head, and being by this time overweighted with drowsiness, had stepped below for forty winks, leaving Wearne in charge of the helm. My father and Nat had tumbled into their berths. We had left Mr. Badcock stationed and keeping watch on the larboard side, near the waist; and now and then, as we tugged, I fancied I could see the dim figures of Mr. Fett and Mike Halliday standing above us in converse near the bows.
Of imminent danger--danger close at hand--I had no fear at all, trusting that the still night would carry any sound of mischief, and, moreover, that no boat could approach without being signalled, a hundred yards off, by the briming in the water. So intolerably hot and breathless had the night become that I spoke to Billy to ease a stroke while I pulled off my shirt. I had drawn it over my head and was slipping my arms clear of the sleeves, when I felt, or thought I felt, a light waft of wind on my right cheek--the first breath of the gathering thunderstorm--and turned up my face towards it. At that instant I heard a short warning cry from somewhere by the helm; not a call of alarm, but just such a gasp as a man will utter when slapped on the shoulder at unawares from behind; then a patter of naked feet rushing aft; then a score of outcries blending into one wild yell as the whole boatload of Moors leapt and swarmed over the starboard bulwarks.
The tow-rope, tautening under the last stroke of our oars, had drawn the boat back in its recoil, and she now drifted close under the Gauntlet's jibboom, which ran out upon a very short bowsprit. I stood up, and reaching for a grip on the dolphin-striker, swung myself on to the bobstay and thence to the cap of the bowsprit, where I sat astride for a moment while Billy followed. We were barefoot both and naked to the waist. Cautiously as a pair of cats, we worked along the bowsprit to the foremast stay, at the foot of which the foresail lay loose and ready for hoisting. With a fold of this I covered myself and peered along the pitch-dark deck.
No shot had been fired. I could distinguish no sound of struggle, no English voice in all the din. The ship seemed to be full only of yellings, rushings to-and-fro of feet, wild hammerings upon timber, solid and hollow: and these pell-mell noises made the darkness, if not darker, at least more terribly confusing.
The cries abated a little; the noise of hammering increased, and at the same time grew persistent and regular, almost methodical. I had no sooner guessed the meaning of this--that the ruffians were fastening down the hatches on their prisoners--than one of them, at the far end of the ship, either fetched or found a lantern, lit it, and stood it on the after-hatch. Its rays glinted on the white teeth and eyeballs and dusky shining skins of a whole ring of Moors gathered around the hatchway and nailing all secure.
Now for the first time it came into my mind that these rovers spared to kill while there remained a chance of taking their prisoners alive; that their prey was ever the crew before the cargo; and that, as for the captured vessel, they usually scuttled and sank her if she drew too much water for their shallow harbours, or if (like the Gauntlet) she lacked the speed for their trade. The chances were, then, that my father yet lived. Yet how could I, naked and unarmed, reach to him or help him?
A sound, almost plumb beneath me, recalled me to more selfish alarms. The Moors, whether they came from the xebec or, as we agreed later, more probably from shore, in answer to the xebec's signal-lights-- must have dropped down on us without stroke of oars. It may be that for the last half a mile or more they had wriggled their boat down to the attack by means of an oar or sweep shipped in the stern notch: a device which would avoid all noise and, if they came slowly, all warning but the ripple of briming off the bows. In any case they had not failed to observe that the ketch was being towed; and now, having discharged her boarding-party, their boat pushed forward to capture ours, which lay beneath us bumping idly against the Gauntlet's stem. I heard some half a dozen of them start to jabber as they found it empty. I divined--I could not see--the astonishment in their faces, as they stared up into the darkness.
Just then--perhaps in response to their cries--a comrade on deck ran forward to the bows and leaned over to hail them, standing so close to me that his shoulder brushed against the fold of the foresail within which I cowered. Like me he was bare to the waist, but around his loins he wore a belt scaled with silver sequins, glimmering against the ray of the lantern on the after-hatch, and maybe also in the first weak light of the approaching dawn. . . .
A madness took me at the sight. In a sudden rage I gripped the forestay with my left hand, lowered my right, and, slipping my fingers under his belt, lifted him--he was a light man--swung him outboard and overboard, and dropped him into the sea.
I heard the splash; with an ugly thud, which told me that some part of him had struck the boat's gunwale. I waited--it seemed that I waited many seconds--expecting the answering yell, or a shot perhaps. Still gripping the forestay with my left hand, I bent forward, ready to leap for deck. But even as I bent, the bowsprit shook under me like a whip, and the deck before me opened in a yellow sheet of fire. The whole ship seemed to burst asunder and shut again, the flame of the explosion went wavering up the rigging, and I found myself hanging on to the forestay and dangling over emptiness. While I dangled I heard in the roaring echoes another splash, and knew that Billy Priske had been thrown from his hold; a splash, and close upon it a heavy grinding sound, a crash of burst planks, an outcry ending in a wail as the lifting sea bore back the Moor's boat and our own together upon the Gauntlet's stem and smashed them like egg-shells.
Then, as the ketch heaved and heaved again in the light of the flames that ran up the tarry rigging, at one stride the dawn was on us; with no flush of sunshine, but with a grey, steel-coloured ray that cut the darkness like a sword. I had managed to hoist myself again to the bowsprit, and, straddling it, had time in one glance aft to take in the scene of ruin. Yet in that glance I saw it--the yawning hole, the upheaved jagged deck-planks, the dark bodies hurled to right and left into the scuppers--by three separate lights: by the yellow light of the flames in the rigging, by the steel-grey light of dawn, and by a sudden white-hot flush as the lightning ripped open the belly of heaven and let loose the rain. While I blinked in the glare, the mizzen-mast crashed overside. I cannot tell whether the lightning struck and split it, or whether, already blasted by the explosion, it had stood upright for those few seconds until a heave of the swell snapped the charred stays and released it. Nay, even the dead beat of the rain may have helped.
In all my life I have never known such rain. Its noise drowned the thunderclap. It fell in no drops or threads of drops, but in one solid flood as from a burst bag. It extinguished the blaze in the rigging as easily as you would blow out a candle. It beat me down prone upon the bowsprit, and with such force that I felt my ribs giving upon the timber. It stunned me as a bather is stunned who, swimming in a pool beneath a waterfall, ventures his head into the actual cascade. It flooded the deck so that two minutes later, when I managed to lift my head, I saw the bodies of two Moors washed down the starboard scuppers and clean through a gap in the broken bulwarks, their brown legs lifting as they toppled and shot over the edge.
No wind had preceded the storm. The lightning had leapt out of a still sky--still, that is, until jarred and set vibrating by the explosion. But now, as the downpour eased, the wind came on us with a howl, catching the ship so fierce a cuff, as she rolled with mainsail set and no way on her, that she careened until the sea ran in through her lee scuppers, and, for all the loss of her mizzen-mast, came close to being thrown on her beam ends.
While she righted herself--which she began to do but slowly--I leapt for the deck and ran aft, avoiding the jagged splinters, in time to catch sight of my father's head and shoulders emerging through the burst hatchway.
"Hullo!" he sang out cheerfully, lifting his voice against the wind. "God be praised, lad! I was fearing we had lost you."
"But what has happened?" I shouted.
Before he could answer a voice hailed us over stern, and we hurried aft to find Billy Priske dragging himself towards the ship by the raffle of mizzen-rigging. We hoisted him in over the quarter, and he dropped upon deck in a sitting posture.
"Is my head on?" he asked, taking it in both hands.
"You are hurt, Billy?"
"Not's I know by," answered Billy, and stared about him. "What's become o' the brown vermin?"
"They seem to have disappeared," said my father, likewise looking about him.
"But what on earth has happened?" I persisted, catching him by the shoulder and shouting in his ear above the roar of a second sudden squall.
"I--blew up--the ship. Captain wouldn't listen--academical fellows, these skippers--like every one else brought up in a profession. So I mutinied and blew--her--up. He's wounded, by the way."
"Tell you what," yelled Billy, staggering up, "we'll be at the bottom in two shakes if somebody don't handle her in these puffs. Why, where's the wheel?"
"Gone," answered my father. "Blown away, it appears."
"And she don't right herself!"
"Ballast has shifted. The gunpowder blew it every way. Well, well--poor old John Worthyvale won't mourn it. I left him below past praying for."
"Look here, Master Prosper," shouted Billy. "If the ship won't steer we must get that mains'l in, or we're lost men. Run you and cast off the peak halliards while I lower! The Lord be praised, here's Mike, too," he cried, as Mike Halliday appeared at the hatchway, nursing a badly burnt arm. "Glad to see ye, Mike, and wish I could say the same to poor Roger. The devils knifed poor Roger, I reckon."
"No, they did not," said my father, in a lull of the wind. "They knocked him on the back of the head and slid his body down the after-companion. The noise of him bumping down the ladder was what first fetched me awake. He's a trifle dazed yet, but recovering."
"'Tis a short life he'll recover to, unless we stir ourselves." Billy clutched my father's arm. "Look 'ee, master! See what they heathens be doin'!"
"We have scared 'em," said my father. "They are putting about."
"Something has scared 'em, sure 'nough. But if 'tis from us they be in any such hurry to get away, why did they take in a reef before putting the helm over? No, no, master: they know the weather hereabouts, and we don't. We've been reckonin' this for a thunderstorm--a short blow and soon over. They know better, seemin' to me. Else why don't they tack alongside and finish us?"
"I believe you are right," said my father, after a long look to windward.
"And I'm sure of it," insisted Billy. "What's more, if we can't right the ballast a bit and get steerage way on her afore the sea works up, she'll go down under us inside the next two hours. There's the pumps, too: for if she don't take in water like a basket I was never born in Wendron parish an' taught blastin'. Why, master, you must ha' blown the very oakum out of her seams!"
My father frowned thoughtfully. "That's true," said he; "I have been congratulating myself too soon. Billy, in the absence of Captain Pomery I appoint you skipper. You have an ugly job to face, but do your best."
"Skipper, be I? Then right you are!" answered Billy, with a cheerful smile. "An' the first order is for you and Master Prosper here to tumble below an' heft ballast for your lives. Be the two specimens safe?"
"Eh?" It took my father a second, maybe, to fit this description to Messrs. Badcock and Fett. "Ah, to be sure! Yes, I left them safe and unhurt."
"What's no good never comes to harm," said Billy. "Send 'em on deck, then, and I'll put 'em on to the pumps."
We left Billy face to face with a job which indeed looked to be past hope. The wheel had gone, and with it the binnacle; and where these had stood, from the stump of the broken mizzen-mast right aft to the taffrail, there yawned a mighty hole fringed with splintered deck-planking. The explosion had gutted after-hold, after-cabin, sail-locker, and laid all bare even to the stern-post. `Twas a marvel the stern itself had not been blown out: but as a set-off against this mercy--and the most grievous of all, though as yet we had not discovered it--we had lost our rudder-head, and the rudder itself hung by a single pintle.
"Nevertheless," maintained my father, as we toiled together upon the ballast, "I took the only course, and in like circumstances I would venture it again. The captain very properly thought first of his ship: but I preferred to think that we were in a hurry."
"How did you contrive it?" I asked, pausing to ease my back, and listening for a moment to the sound of hatchets on deck. (They were cutting away the tangle of the mizzen rigging.)
"Very simply," said he. "There must have been a dozen hammering on the after-hatch, and I guessed they would have another dozen looking on and offering advice: so I sent Halliday to fetch a keg of powder, and poured about half of it on the top stair of the companion. The rest Halliday took and heaped on a sea-chest raised on a couple of tables close under the deck. We ran up our trains on a couple of planks laid aslant, and touched off at a signal. There were two explosions, but we timed them so prettily that I believe they went off in one."
"They did," said I.
"My wits must have been pretty clear, then--at the moment. Afterwards (I don't mind confessing to you) I lay for some minutes where the explosion flung me. In my hurry I had overdone the dose."
We had been shovelling for an hour and more. Already the ship began to labour heavily, and my father climbed to the deck to observe the alteration in her trim. He dropped back and picked up his shovel again in a chastened silence. In fact, deputy-captain Priske (who had just accomplished the ticklish task of securing the rudder and lashing a couple of ropes to its broken head for steering-gear) had ordered him back to work, using language not unmixed with objurgation.
For all our efforts the Gauntlet still canted heavily to leeward, and as the gale grew to its height the little canvas necessary to heave-to came near to drowning us. Towards midnight our plight grew so desperate that Billy, consulting no one, determined to risk all-- the unknown dangers of the coast, his complete ignorance of navigation, the risk of presenting her crazy stern timbers to the following seas--and run for it. At once we were called up from the hold and set to relieve the half-dead workers at the pumps.
All that night we ran blindly, and all next day. The gale had southerned, and we no longer feared a lee-shore: but for forty-eight hours we lived with the present knowledge that the next stern wave might engulf us as its predecessor had just missed to do. The waves, too, in this inland sea, were not the great rollers--the great kindly giants--of our Atlantic gales, but shorter and more vicious in impact: and, under Heaven, our only hope against them hung by the two ropes of Billy's jury steering-gear.
They served us nobly. Towards sunset of the second day, although to eye and ear the gale had not sensibly abated, and the sea ran by us as tall as ever, we knew that the worst was over. We could not have explained our assurance. It was a feeling--no more--but one which any man will recognize who has outlived a like time of peril on the sea. We did not hope again, for we were past the effort to hope. Numb, drenched, our very skins bleached like a washerwoman's hands, our eyes caked with brine, our limbs so broken with weariness of the eternal pumping that when our shift was done, where we fell there we lay, and had to be kicked aside--we had scarcely the spirit to choose between life and death. Yet all the while we had been fighting for life like madmen.
Towards the close of the day, too, Roger Wearne had made shift to crawl on deck and bear a hand. Captain Pomery lay in the huddle of the forecastle, no man tending him: and old Worthyvale awaited burial, stretched in the hold upon the ballast.
At whiles, as my fingers cramped themselves around the handle of the pump, it seemed as though we had been fighting this fight, tholing this misery, gripping the verge of this precipice for years upon years, and this nightmare sat heaviest upon me when the third morning broke and I turned in the sudden blessed sunshine--but we blessed it not--and saw what age the struggle had written on my father's face. I passed a hand over my eyes, and at that moment Mr. Fett, who had been snatching an hour's sleep below--and no man better deserved it-- thrust his head up through the broken hatchway, carolling--
"To all you ladies now at land We men at sea indite, But first would have you understand How hard it is to write: Our paper, pen, and ink and we Roll up and down our ships at sea, With a fa-la-LA!"
"Catch him!" cried my father, sharply; but he meant not Mr. Fett. His eyes were on Billy Priske, who, perched on the temporary platform, where almost without relief he had sat and steered us, shouting his orders without sign of fatigue, sank forward with the rudder ropes dragging through, his hands, and dropped into the hold.
For me, I cast myself down on deck with face upturned to the sun, and slept.
I woke to find my father seated close to me, cross-legged, examining a sextant.
"The plague of it is," he grumbled, "that even supposing myself to have mastered this diabolical instrument, we have ne'er a compass on board."
Glancing aft I saw that Mike Halliday had taken Billy's place at the helm. At my elbow lay Nat, still sleeping. Mr. Badcock had crawled to the bulwarks, and leaned there in uncontrollable sea-sickness. Until the gale was done I believe he had not felt a qualm. Now, on the top of his nausea, he had to endure the raillery of Mr. Fett, whose active fancy had already invented a grotesque and wholly untruthful accusation against his friend--namely, that when assailed by the Moors, and in the act of being kicked below, he had dropped on his knees and offered to turn Mohammedan.
That evening we committed old Worthyvale's body to the sea, and my father, having taken his first observation at noon, carefully entered the latitude and longitude in his pocket-book. On consulting the chart we found the alleged bearings somewhere south of Asia-Minor--to be exact, off the coast of Pamphylia. My father therefore added the word "approximately" to his entry, and waited for Captain Pomery to recover.
Though the sea went down even more quickly than it had arisen, the pumps kept us fairly busy. All that night, under a clear and starry sky, we steered for the north-east with the wind brisk upon our starboard quarter.
"I have no chart, No compass but a heart,"
quoted I in mischief to Nat. But Nat, having passed through a real gale, had saved not sufficient fondness for his verse to blush, for it. We should have been mournful for old Worthyvale, but that night we knew only that it was good, being young, to have escaped death. Under the stars we made bad jokes on Mr. Badcock's sea-sickness, and sang in chorus to Mr. Fett's solos--
"With a fa-la, fa-la, fa-la-la! To all you ladies now at land . . ."
Next morning Captain Pomery (whose hurt was a pretty severe concussion of the skull, the explosion having flung him into the panelling of the ship's cabin, and against the knee of a beam) returned to duty, and professed himself able, with help, to take a reckoning. He relieved us of another anxiety by producing a pocket-compass from his fob.
My father held the sextant for him, while Nat, under instructions, worked out the sum. With a compass, upon a chart spread on the deck, I pricked out the bearings--with a result that astonished all as I leapt up and stared across the bows.
"Why, lad, by the look of you we should be running ashore!" exclaimed my father.
"And so we should be at this moment," said I, "were not the reckoning out."
Captain Pomery reached out for the paper. "The reckoning is right enough," said he, after studying it awhile.
"Then on what land, in Heaven's name, are we running?" my father demanded testily.
"Why, on Corsica," I answered, pointing with my compass's foot as he bent over the chart. "On Corsica. Where else?"
* * * * * * *
It wanted between three and four hours of sunset when we made the landfall and assured ourselves that what appeared so like a low cloud on the east-north-eastern horizon was indeed the wished-for island. We fell to discussing our best way to approach it; my father at first maintaining that the coast would be watched by Genoese vessels, and therefore we should do wisely to take down sail and wait for darkness.
Against this, Captain Pomery maintained--
1. That we were carrying a fair wind, and the Lord knew how long that would hold.
2. That the moon would rise in less than three hours after dark, and thenceforth we should run almost the same risk of detection as by daylight.
3. That in any case we could pass for what we really were, an English trader in ballast, barely escaped from shipwreck, dismasted, with broken steerage, making for the nearest port.
"Man," said Captain Pomery, looking about him, "we must be a poor set of liars if we can't pitch a yarn on this evidence!"
My father allowed himself to be persuaded, the more easily as the argument jumped with his impatience. Accordingly, we stood on for land, making no concealment; and the wind holding steady on our beam, and the sun dropping astern of us in a sky without a cloud, 'twas incredible how soon we began to make out the features of the land. It rose like a shield to a central boss, which trembled, as it were, into view and revealed itself a mountain peak, snowcapped and shining, before ever the purple mist began to slip from the slopes below it and disclose their true verdure. No sail broke the expanse of sea between us and the shore; and, as we neared it, no scarp of cliff, no house or group of houses broke the island's green monotony. From the water's edge to the high snow-line it might have been built of moss, so vivid its colour was, yet soft as velvet, and softer and still more vivid as we approached.
Within two miles of shore, and not long before dark, the wind (as Captain Pomery had promised) broke off and headed us, blowing cool and fresh off the land. I was hauling in the foresheet and belaying when a sudden waft of fragrance fetched me upright, with head thrown back and nostrils inhaling the breeze.
"Ay," said my father, at my elbow, "there is no scent on earth to compare with it. You smell the macchia, lad. Drink well your first draught of it, delicious as first love."
"But somewhere--at some time--I have smelt it before," said I. "The same scent, only fainter. Why does it remind me of home?"
My father considered. "I will tell you," he said. "In the corridor at home, outside my bedroom door, stands a wardrobe, and in it hang the clothes I wore, near upon twenty years ago, in Corsica. They keep the fragrance of the macchia yet; and if, as a child, you ever opened that wardrobe, you recall it at this moment."
"Yes," said I, "that was the scent."
My father leaned and gazed at the island with dim eyes.
Still no sign of house or habitation greeted us as we worked by short tacks towards a deep bay which my father, after a prolonged consultation of the chart, decided to be that of Sagona. A sharp promontory ran out upon its northern side, and within the shelter of this Captain Pomery looked to find good anchorage. But the Gauntlet, after all her battering, lay so poorly to the wind that darkness overtook us a good mile from land, and before we weathered the point and cast anchor in a little bight within, the moon had risen. It showed us a steep shore near at hand, with many grey pinnacles of granite glimmering high over dark masses of forest trees, and in the farthest angle of the bight its rays travelled in silver down the waters of a miniature creek.
The hawser ran out into five fathoms of water. We had lost our boat: but Billy Priske had spent his afternoon in fashioning a raft out of four empty casks and a dozen broken lengths of deck-planking; and on this, leaving the seamen on board, the rest of us pushed off for shore. For paddles we used a couple of spare oars.
The water, smooth as in a lake, gave us our choice to make a landing where we would. My father, however, who had taken command, chose to steer straight for the entrance of the little creek. There, between tall entrance rocks of granite, we passed through it into the shadow of folding woods where the moon was lost to us. Sounding with our paddles, we found a good depth of water under the raft, lit a lantern, and pushed on, my father promising that we should discover a village or at least a hamlet at the creek-head.
"And you will find the inhabitants--your subjects, Prosper-- hospitable, too. Whatever the island may have been in Seneca's time, to deserve the abuse he heaped on it in exile, to-day the Corsicans keep more of the old classical virtues than any nation known to me. In vendetta they will slay one another, using the worst treachery; but a stranger may walk the length of the island unarmed--save against the Genoese--and find a meal at the poorest cottage, and a bed, however rough, whereon he may sleep untroubled by suspicion."
The raft grated and took ground on a shelving bank of sand, and Nat, who stood forward holding the lantern, made a motion to step on shore. My father restrained him.
"Prosper goes first."
I stepped on to the bank. My father, following, stooped, gathered a handful of the fine granite sand, and holding it in the lantern's light, let it run through his fingers.
"Hat off, lad! and salute your kingdom!"
"But where," said I, "be my subjects?"
It seemed, as we formed ourselves into marching order, that I was on the point to be answered. For above the bank we came to a causeway which our lanterns plainly showed us to be man's handiwork; and following it round the bend of a valley, where a stream sang its way down to the creek, came suddenly on a flat meadow swept by the pale light and rising to a grassy slope, where a score of whitewashed houses huddled around a tall belfry, all glimmering under the moon.
"In Corsica," repeated my father, leading the way across the meadow, "every householder is a host."
He halted at the base of the village street.
"It is curious, however, that the dogs have not heard us. Their barking, as a rule, is something to remember."
He stepped up to the first house to knock. There was no door to knock upon. The building stood open, desolate. Our lanterns showed the grass growing on its threshold.
We tried the next and the next. The whole village lay dead, abandoned. We gathered in the street and shouted, raising our lanterns aloft. No voice answered us.
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