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- OF BLACK BARTLEMY'S TREASURE - 1/76 -
BLACK BARTLEMY'S TREASURE
TO MY NEPHEWS
JAMES JEFFREY FARNOL
RONALD EWART OAKESHOTT
BLACK BARTLEMY'S TREASURE
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 lace- work.
"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
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