THE FRENCHMAN BESIDE ME had been dead since dawn. His scarred and shackled body swayed limply back and forth with every sweep of the great oar as we, his less fortunate bench-fellows, tugged and strained to keep time to the stroke.
Two men had I seen die beside me, yet Death ever passed me by, nay, it seemed rather that despite the pain of stripes, despite the travail and hardship, my strength waxed the mightier; upon arm and thigh, burnt nigh black by fierce suns, the muscles showed hard and knotted; within my body, scarred by the lash, the life leapt and glowed yet was the soul of me sick unto death. But it seemed I could not die—finding thereby blessed rest and a surcease from this agony of life as had this Frenchman, who of all the naked wretches about me, was the only one with whom I had any sort of fellowship. He had died (as I say) with the dawn, so quietly that at first I thought he but fainted and pitied him, but, when I knew, pity changed to bitterness.
Therefore, as I strove at the heavy oar I prayed ’twixt gnashing teeth a prayer I had often prayed, and the matter of my praying was thus:
“O God of Justice, for the agony I needs must now endure, for the bloody stripes and bitter anguish give to me vengeance—vengeance, O God, on mine enemy!”
So prayed I, hoarse-panting and with the sweat trickling down whiles I stared at the naked back of him that rowed before me—a great, fat fellow he had been once, but now the skin hung in numberless creases whereon were many weals, some raw and bloody, that crossed and re-crossed each other after the manner of lacework.
“Justice, O God, upon mine enemy! Since Death is not for me let me live until I be avenged; for the pain I suffer so may I see him suffer, for the anguish that is mine so may I watch his agony. Thou art a just God, so, God of Justice, give to me vengeance!”
The sun rose high and higher over our quarter, beating down upon our naked backs and adding greatly to our torments thereby, waking the pain of old stripes and lending an added sting to new.
Ever and anon would come the sharp crack of the drivers’ whips followed by the squealing cry of quivering flesh (a cry wherein was none of the human) the which, dying to a whine, was lost in the stir and bustle of the great galleass. But ever and always, beneath the hoarse voices of the mariners, beneath the clash of armour and tramp of feet, beneath the creak and rumble of the long oars, came yet another sound, rising and falling yet never ceasing, a dull, low sound the like of which you shall sometimes hear among trees when the wind is high—the deep, sobbing moan that was the voice of our anguish as we poor wretches urged the great Esmeralda galleass upon her course.
The oar whereto I was chained along with my three bench-mates had at some time been badly sprung, so that the armourers had made shift to strengthen it with a stout iron fillet some six inches wide. Now it so happened that my grasp came upon this fillet, and, with every stroke of the oar, day after day, week in and week out, it had become my wont to rub the links of my chain to and fro across this iron band, whereby they had become very smooth and shining.
The words of my prayer were yet upon my lips, when, chancing to look upon one of these links, I beheld that which set my heart a-leaping and my riotous blood a-tingle to my fingers’ ends; yet ’twas a very small thing, no more than a mark that showed upon the polished surface of the link, a line not so thick as a hair and not to be noticed without close looking; but when I bore upon the link this hair-line grew and widened, it needed but a sudden wrench and I should be free. This threw me into such a rapturous transport that I had much ado to contain myself, howbeit after some while I lifted my eyes to the heaven all flushed and rosy with the young day, for it seemed that God had indeed heard my prayer.
Presently, along the gangway amidships, comes none other than that accursed Portugal, Pedro the whip-master, who, espying the drooping form of the Frenchman beside me, forthwith falls a-cursing in his vile tongue and gives a prodigious flourish with his whip. Now by reason of much practice they do become very expert with these same whips, insomuch that they shall (with a certain cunning flick of the lash) gash you a man as it were with a knife, the like of which none may bear and not cry out for the exceeding pain of it. “Ha, thou lazy dog!” cries he, “Think ye to snore and take your ease whiles Pedro is aboard?” And with the word the long lash hissed and cracked upon the Frenchman’s naked back like a pistol-shot.
And lo! he (that meseemed was dead) stirred. I felt the scarred body leap and quiver, the swooning eyes opened, rolling dim and sightless and the pallid face was twisted in sharp anguish; but, even as I watched, the lines of agony were smoothed away, into the wild eyes came a wondrous light, and uttering a great, glad cry he sank forward across the oar-shaft and hung there. Hereupon this accursed Pedro betook him to his whip, smiting right heartily, but, seeing the Frenchman stirred not and perceiving, moreover, the blood to come but slow and in no great quantity, he presently desisted and bade us cease rowing one and all.
This sudden respite from labour served but to teach me how stiff and painful were my limbs, more especially my left wrist and ankle where the fetters had worn great sores.
The wind was fallen light and there rose that hot, sickening reek, that suffocating stench that is like unto nothing on earth save one of these floating hells, and the which, if a man hath but smelled it once, he shall nevermore forget.
After some while, back cometh Pedro with certain of the armourers, and (having by divers methods learned the Frenchman was in sooth dead) they struck off his fetters, hand and leg, in the doing of which they must needs free me also (since we were chained together, he and I) and, binding a great shot to his feet, made ready to heave him overboard.
And now, seeing no man heeded me, I snapped asunder the cracked link and was free, save for the heavy chain that cumbered my leg. Stooping, I lifted this chain and crouched to spring for the bulwark; but now (even in this moment), remembering all that I had suffered at the hands of this most accursed Pedro, I turned, and wrapping the broken oar-chain about my fist, crept towards where he stood to oversee the armourers. His back was towards me and I was within a yard of him when he turned, and, seeing me, uttered a shout and raised his whip, but ere the blow could fall I leapt and smote him. My iron-bound fist took him full betwixt the eyes, and looking down upon his crushed and spattered face as he lay I knew that Pedro the whip-master would whip men no more these many days.
Then (not minded to die by the whip or upon a pike-head) turned I and sprang for the ship’s side, but the chain about my leg hampered me sorely, and ere I could mount the high bulwark I was beset from behind. So would I have faced them and died fighting but fierce strokes battered me to my knees, fierce hands wrenched and tore at me, and grown faint with blows I was overborne, my hands lashed behind me, and thus helpless I was dragged along the gangway and so up the ladder to the poop where, plain to all men’s sight, a whipping-post had been set up. Yet even so I struggled still, panting out curses on them, French and Spanish and English, drawing upon all the vile abuse of the rowing-bench and lazarette since fain would I have them slay me out of hand the rather than endure the miseries and anguish of my lot. Yet this might not be (since slaves were hard to come by and I was mighty and strong) wherefore I struggled no more, but suffered them to strike off my broken fetters and bind me to the whipping-post as they listed. Yet scarce had they made an end when there comes a loud hail from the masthead, whereupon was sudden mighty to-do of men running hither and yon, laughing and shouting one to another, some buckling on armour as they ran, some casting loose the great ordnance, while eyes turned and hands pointed in the one direction; but turn and twist me how I might I could see nought of any strange sail by reason of the high bulkhead beside me.
Of a sudden all voices were hushed as up the poop-ladder comes the commander Don Miguel in his black armour, who, looking long and steadily to windward, gives a sign with his gauntleted hand, whereon divers of the officers go off hot-foot, some to muster the long files of arquebusiers, others to overlook the setting of more sail and the like. And now was a prodigious cracking of whips followed by groans and cries and screaming curses, and straightway the long oars began to swing with a swifter beat. From where I stood in my bonds I could look down upon the poor, naked wretches as they rose and fell, each and all at the same moment, in time to the stroke.
For maybe half an hour the chase was kept up and then all at once the decks quivered ’neath the discharge of one of the forward culverins; and presently, as the great galleass altered her course, obedient to the motion of Don Miguel’s hand, I beheld, some half-league to windward, the towering stern of the ship we were pursuing, whose length gradually grew upon me as we overhauled her until she was fairly in view. She was a small ship, and by her build I did not doubt but that she was English; even as I watched, up to her mizzen-peak fluttered the English flag. And hereupon a great yearning came upon me, insomuch that of a sudden her high, weather-beaten sides, her towering masts and patched canvas grew all blurred and indistinct.
Thrice already our guns had roared, yet (though she was now so close that I made out her very rope and spar) she made no sign. In a little our guns fell silent also, wherefore, looking about, I beheld Don Miguel standing beside the tiller yet with his impassive gaze ever bent upon the foe; and, as I watched, I read his deadly purpose, and a great fear for the English ship came upon me, and I fell a-praying beneath my breath, for we carried a weapon more terrible than any culverin that was ever cast, the long, sharp ram below the water.
The English ship was now so near that I could see the yawning muzzles of her guns, while her high, curving sides seemed to tower over us. As I gazed, with my heart full of a pitiful fear for her, I saw a head appear above her quarter railing, a very round head whereon was a mariner’s red cap. Came a puff of smoke, the sharp crack of a caliver, and one of the officers beside Don Miguel threw up his hands and, twisting on his heels, fell clashing in his armour. When I looked again for the red cap, it was gone. But Don Miguel waited, silent and impassive as ever. Suddenly he gestured with his hand, I saw the heave of the steersmen’s shoulders as they obeyed, while the air rang with shouts of command as, the starboard oars holding water, the larboard thrashed and churned amain and the great Esmeralda galleass (turning thus well-nigh in her own length) drove straight for the side of her foe.
Never had I seen it better done, and I set my teeth, waiting for the grinding crash that was to send the English ship to the bottom, but lo! her creaking yards were braced round, and, paying off before the wind (which now blew strongly) she stood away upon a course at right angles to her old, whereby both vessels were running parallel as before. Yet it had been close, so very close indeed that as we drove past her I heard the sickening crack of our oars as they snapped off one after the other against her side, tossing those that manned them in bloody, struggling heaps.
And now from every English gun leaped roaring flame; the air was full of shrieks and groans and the crash of splintering wood, and through the eddying smoke I could see many of our soldiery that lay in strange, contorted attitudes while others crawled, sobbing on hands and knees; but on the scarlet-dropping rowing-benches I dared not look.
Hotter waxed the fight, louder swelled the din and tumult with the never-ceasing thunder of the guns; and amid it all Don Miguel paced to and fro, impassive as always, the blade of his long rapier gleaming here and there as he directed the fire.
Up rolled the smoke thicker and denser, but, ever and anon, through some rift I might catch a glimpse of the scarred, blackened side of the English ship, or the litter and confusion of our decks. Twice shots ploughed up the planking hard by me, and once my post itself was struck, so that for a moment I had some hope of winning free of my bonds, yet struggle how I would, I could not move; the which filled me with a keen despair, for I made no doubt (what with the smoke and tumult) I might have plunged overboard unnoticed and belike have gained the English ship.
Slowly and by degrees our fire slackened, one by one the guns fell silent and in their place rose the more hateful sounds of anguish. Now as I stood thus, my eyes smarting with burnt powder, my ears yet ringing with the din, I grew aware how the deck sloped in strange fashion; at first I paid small heed, yet with every minute this slope became steeper, and with this certainty came the knowledge that we were sinking and, moreover (judging by the angle of the deck) sinking by the stern.
Hereupon, impelled by that lust of life the which is implanted in each one of us, I fell to a wild struggling against my bonds, until, seeing in a little the hopelessness of this, I grew resigned to despair, and, ceasing my passionate efforts, looked about me, for the smoke was thinned away. And truly an evil sight was this great galleass, with its shot-torn decks and huddled heaps of dead, its litter of broken spars and dismantled guns, and with everywhere great gouts and pools of blood, while below and beyond were the shattered rowing-benches cumbered now with awful red heaps, silent for the most part, yet some there were who screamed high and shrill.
Save for myself and divers of the dead the poop lay deserted, but forward such of the soldiers and mariners who yet lived were fighting for the boats, and all was riot and confusion.
As I stared about me thus I espied Don Miguel lying among the wreckage of a dismantled gun; his face was towards me and looked as I had seen it an hundred times, save for a smear of blood upon his cheek. Even as I gazed his eyes met mine full and square. For a moment he lay without motion, then (his face a-twitch with the effort) he came slowly to his elbow, gazed about him and so back to me again. Then I saw his hand creep down to the dagger at his hip, to fumble weakly there—howbeit, at the third essay he drew the blade and began to creep towards me. Very slowly and painfully he dragged himself along, and once I heard him groan, but he stayed not till he was come within striking distance, yet was he sore wounded and so weak withal that he was fain to rest him awhile. And ever his impassive eyes looked up into mine the while I nerved myself to meet the blow unflinching (an it might be so). Once more he raised himself, his arm lifted slowly, the dagger gleamed and fell, its keen edge severing the cords that bound me, and with a sudden effort I broke free and stood staring down into those impassive eyes as one in a dream. Then, lifting a feeble hand, he pointed to the tattered sails of the English ship hard by, and so, resting his head upon his arm as one that is very weary, he sighed; and with the sigh I think the life passed out of him.
Turning, I was upon the quarter railing in a single leap, and, without a glance at the red havoc behind me, I plunged over and down.
The sharp sting of the brine struck me like a myriad needle-points, but the sweet cool of the waters was wondrous grateful to my sun-scorched body as, coming to the surface, I struck out for the English ship though sore hampered by my chain.
Presently coming beneath her lofty stern I found hanging therefrom a tangle of ropes and cordage whereby I contrived to clamber aboard, and so beheld a man in a red seaman’s bonnet who sat upon the wreckage of one of the quarter guns tying up a splinter-gash in his arm with hand and teeth; perceiving me he rolled a pair of blue eyes up at me and nodded:
“Welcome aboard, lad!” says he, having knotted the bandage to his liking. “Be ye one as can understand good English?”
“Aye!” says I, nodding.
“Why then bear witness as I be a patient soul and marciful. Be witness as I held my fire so long as any marciful soul might by token that I knew what a broadside can do among crowded rowing-benches—having rowed aboard one o’ they Spanish hells afore now—so I held my fire till yon devil’s craft came nigh cutting me asunder—and marcy hath its limits. Timothy Spence o’ the Tiger, master, is me, homeward bound for the Port of London, and by this fight am short five good men. But you’re a proper big ’un. Go for’ard to the bo’sun, you shall know him by reason that he lacketh his starboard yere. Ask him for clothes to cover thy nakedness, lad, and—oho, there goeth yon devil’s craft—!” Turning as he spoke I saw the sharp bows of the Esmeralda lift and lift, high and higher, and, with a long-drawn gurgling roar, the great galleass plunged down stern foremost, burying her shame and misery from the eyes of man for evermore.
Thus then I sailed with Master Timothy Spence aboard the Tiger, a free man after five years of anguish.