As a matter of fact, there actually were a few small scattered fragments of wreckage floating at no great distance from me, but there was no sign of a human being, far or near. Then I scanned very carefully the horizon in every direction, but particularly to the northward, in the hope of discovering a sail of some sort heading toward me; but the horizon was bare, save to the southward, where the high land of Hayti loomed up with startling and quite deceptive distinctness. Although I had hoped that I might perchance be so fortunate as to sight a sail, the hope was a very feeble one, and my disappointment by no means acute, for I was perfectly well aware that I was many miles too far to the eastward to render the appearance of a sail of any sort in the least degree probable.
With the pangs of hunger beginning to assail me, and not the smallest fragment of any kind of food wherewith to relieve them, I began for the first time to realise fully the exceeding awkwardness of my situation, and to realise, too, that if deliverance was to come to me I must bestir myself and do what might be possible to meet it, for to remain passively lashed to that inert piece of drifting wreckage might very well mean a slow and agonising death by starvation. Yet, after all, what could I do? The land was my nearest refuge, and that, I considered, must be at least twenty miles distant, altogether too far to dream of swimming to it, although I rather prided myself upon my prowess as a long-distance swimmer. But twenty miles! The idea was ridiculous, especially in that heavy sea, in my exhausted condition, without food, and with no means of getting any. I looked rather longingly at the smaller fragments of wreckage floating in my neighbourhood; if I could but secure one of them of sufficient size to support me partially, yet not large enough materially to hamper my progress through the water, I might perhaps with its aid be able to accomplish the distance, great though it was, before my strength entirely gave out. But the run of the sea and their greater buoyancy were already widening the distance between them and the comparatively massive piece to which I had lashed myself, and I regretted that it had not occurred to me earlier to abandon the mainmast in favour of one of them the moment that the light of dawn revealed them to me.
I struggled into a standing position on the spar that supported me, steadying myself upon my somewhat precarious perch by grasping the arms of the crosstrees, and carefully examined such fragments as came within my ken with the heave of the sea. The detached pieces, which seemed to consist mostly of pieces of planking, with what looked very like a hatch, were all floating together, pretty much in a bunch, with only a few fathoms of water separating any two pieces; I thought that if I could but get in among them surely I ought to be able to find a piece that would serve my purpose. The point that worried me was whether, in my exhausted state, and in so heavy a sea, I dared make the attempt to swim unaided the comparatively short distance that separated me from those coveted fragments; but I reflected that, if I had not the strength to achieve so simple a feat as that, I should certainly never be able to accomplish the longer swim, even with the advantage of a support; the choice seemed therefore to lie between the risk of drowning on the one hand, and that of starvation upon the other; and it took me but a moment to decide in favour of the former. Yes, I told myself, better in every way to drown than to starve, and the sooner the matter was decided, the better.
To give myself the best possible chance I flung off my jacket and kicked off my shoes, retaining only my shirt and trousers. Then, casting off the lashings by which I had secured myself to the shattered mainmast, I stood up, and carefully took the bearings of the flotsam relative to the sun, to guide me when swimming. This done, I poised myself upon the spar preparatory to diving off the mast, and had raised my hands above my head, when not half-a-dozen fathoms away, and immediately between me and the spot for which I was bound, I saw the dorsal fins of two enormous sharks sculling quietly to and fro, as though to blockade me and cut me off from my only hope of escape.
MY VOYAGE ON THE HATCH.
I pulled myself up just in the nick of time, for in another second I should have made the plunge, and that would have meant death, a horrible death; for the splash which I should have made upon entering the water must have inevitably attracted the attention of the monsters and brought them upon me with a rush. It almost appeared as though some malicious influence was at work to prevent my escape, as though fate was against me! Yet, after all, it was not fate that was to blame, but my own dullness in not perceiving my chance and availing myself of it the moment that it presented itself. If instead of vacillating, as I had done, I had promptly taken the plunge, I should have accomplished my short swim before the sharks had made their appearance and cut off my retreat. When I first sighted the detached fragments of wreckage the distance which separated them from me was trifling; now it was at least double as far, and was increasing rapidly; soon it would pass out of sight altogether and my last hope would be gone.
I stood watching those two sharks as they swam lazily to and fro between me and the fast receding wreckage. It really looked as though they were aware of my presence, had divined my purpose, and were determined to frustrate it. For what seemed at least half-an-hour, but was probably not more than ten minutes, the voracious fish tacked this way and that, approaching me a little nearer every tack, until at length they were so close that I could have leapt upon the back of the nearer one, so close that I could distinctly see their entire bulk; and the sight turned my blood cold, for they were veritable monsters, one of them being fully twenty feet long from snout to the tip of the unevenly fluked tail, while the other was perhaps three feet shorter. And there was now no room to doubt that they were fully aware of my existence, for every time that they passed me their great goggle eyes glared at me hungrily with an expression which seemed to say—"All right, my boy; you may hold on there as long as you like: but we will wait for you, and get you at last."
I began to cast about in my mind for some means by which I might drive the creatures away. I had a knife with a long, strong, sharp blade, attached to my neck by a lanyard, and I looked about me to see if there was anything available which I could convert into a spear by lashing the knife to it; but there was nothing; and I was still puzzling my brain when suddenly the two fish paused in their patrol, swung quickly round, and the next instant made sail dead to windward, as though they had just caught the scent of some especially tempting morsel.
Now, if ever, was my time, I told myself; the brutes had undoubtedly left me, there were no other sharks in sight, and every second was precious; therefore, without allowing myself an instant for pause and hesitation, I quietly slid off the mainmast into the water and struck out smoothly and steadily for a certain knoll ashore, in line with which I had last seen the floating fragments that I desired to reach.
It was still blowing quite fresh, and there was a very heavy sea running; but it no longer broke badly, and it was in my favour, every sea that overtook me flinging me forward at least a couple of fathoms, so that I made excellent progress, as I ascertained when I turned for a moment to glance back at the mass of wreckage that I had just abandoned. I saw also that, whatever happened, I must keep on, there must be no thought of turning back, for while the run of the sea was helping me grandly in my progress to leeward, it was powerful enough to render return to my late refuge an impossibility; I, therefore, set my teeth and, with my eyes fixed upon the distant knoll which was to serve me as a guide, struck out with a long, quiet, steady stroke that I knew from experience I could maintain for hours on end, if need were. Of course, I kept a very sharp lookout for the wreckage that I was aiming for, but saw nothing of it for a long time, and more than once a qualm of something very nearly approaching terror seized me, as the idea suggested itself that possibly I had missed my goal, and was every moment leaving it farther behind me. I was fast approaching a state of panic that might very easily have resulted in fatal consequences, when it suddenly occurred to me that, of course, it would be quite impossible for me to see those insignificant fragments of flotsam, unless they and I each happened to be hove up on the crest of a wave at precisely the same moment, and the reflection so far steadied my nerves that I was able successfully to combat the almost irresistible impulse to put forth my whole strength in a frantic struggle to increase my speed through the water and quickly settle the question one way or the other. My reward came to me some ten minutes later when, as I went soaring up on the breast of an unusually high wave, I caught a momentary glimpse of what was undoubtedly a small piece of plank of some sort floating in the midst of a lacework of foam on the crest of a wave immediately in line with the knoll by which I was directing my course, and which, like everything else at a greater distance than some fifty or sixty fathoms, I could only see when on the summit of a wave. But the fragment of plank still seemed to be a terribly long way off, my strength was beginning to flag, and despair was again gripping at my heart when, as I rose upon the next sea, I was cheered by the quite unexpected sight of a considerable quantity of wreckage not more than a hundred fathoms distant. The sight renewed my courage, my composure returned; I was once more calm enough to be able to husband my remaining strength and employ it to the best advantage; I found myself steadily gaining upon the objects of my pursuit; and finally, after a long and dreadfully exhausting struggle, I arrived in the midst of the wreckage.
The first thing I came to happened to be a seaman's chest, which had undoubtedly floated up through the hatchway when the schooner foundered. It floated deep, for in addition to being full of water it evidently contained several articles of the usual kind which a sailor takes to sea with him; but it had a sufficient reserve of buoyancy to afford me an appreciable measure of support, and I clung to it while recovering my breath and resting my wearied limbs after my long swim; it also enabled me to look round at my leisure and make up my mind as to which of the objects in sight would best serve my purpose. There was one of the halves of the wheel grating floating at no great distance from me, but it was a small, thin affair, made of oak, possessing no very great amount of buoyancy, and, although it would undoubtedly be better than nothing at all, I quickly came to the conclusion that there were other pieces that would serve my purpose better. There was, for instance, a hatch—probably one of the main hatches; and after some consideration I decided that I could not do better than secure possession of it. But I wanted something else as well; I could not resign myself to the idea of merely supporting myself upon it and passively allowing the wind and sea to take me whithersoever they would; there was land in sight, and it was my purpose to reach it, if possible, therefore I required something in the nature of a paddle wherewith to propel my hatch and guide it in the right direction; and presently I saw a piece of splintered plank, about four-feet long and six inches wide, which looked more suited to my purpose than anything else in sight. I had by this time quite recovered my breath, and was also somewhat rested; I, therefore, abandoned the chest without more ado, and, swimming first to the piece of plank, secured possession of it, and then, pushing it before me, headed for the hatch, which I soon reached.
To climb up on the hatch was a very much more difficult feat than I had imagined it would be, for my first efforts merely resulted in causing it to turn over; but at length, having considered the matter a little, I managed partly to guide it under me, and partly to climb up on it, until I had it fairly under me, when, to my great delight, I found that it was just buoyant enough to support my weight, and that by carefully seating myself cross-legged, tailor fashion, in the exact centre of it, I could keep it right side up. I next experimented with my makeshift paddle, and although the hatch proved so terribly crank that I was several times in imminent danger of capsizing by the mere sway of my body from side to side, I presently acquired the trick of keeping my balance, and found, to my great delight, that I could actually progress, although only slowly and at the cost of great exertion.
Strangely enough, I had not thus far suffered very greatly from thirst, although something like eighteen hours had elapsed since the last draught had passed my lips; but my sense of hunger was by this time painfully acute. I had no means, however, of satisfying my gnawing craving for food, and I, therefore, addressed myself to the task of paddling my tiny raft shoreward, fully convinced that the only hope of saving my life lay in reaching the land before the scanty remains of my strength became exhausted.
I estimated, from the height of the sun above the horizon, that it was about nine o'clock in the morning when I fairly started upon my shoreward voyage, and the exasperating slowness with which I drew away from the rest of the wreckage caused me to put my speed through the water at not more than a mile an hour at the utmost, while the grey misty appearance of the land for which I was making convinced me that it must be at least twenty miles distant; I had, therefore, something like another twenty-four hours of continuous laborious paddling before me before I might once more hope to feel the solid earth beneath my feet, and find something—were it no more than a little wild fruit—wherewith to stay my hunger. But this was not all: the skin of my hands had become so exceedingly soft and tender through long immersion in the water that the sharp edges of the board which I was using as a paddle quickly caused them to blister, and although I paused long enough in my labours to enable me to trim those sharp edges away with my knife, and to work the board into somewhat more convenient shape, the blistering process continued until within about an hour my palms were quite raw, and smarting most atrociously from the salt in the water. Moreover, I had lost my hat, and the sun struck down so fiercely upon my unprotected head that I was soon nearly delirious with headache and the throbbing of my old wound, received in the attack upon the pirate brigantine on the Costa Firme. Still, headache or no headache, blisters or no blisters, there was the land, yet a long distance off, and it had to be reached before my strength gave out, or my life would pay the forfeit; so I set my teeth and paddled doggedly on, hour after hour, my hunger ever growing keener, while now I began to experience in addition the torments of thirst, my whole body became racked with aches and pains as though I had been unmercifully bruised and beaten, my head throbbed until it seemed as if it would burst open, and, as for my hands, they at length felt as though the rough paddle were white-hot iron; I had certainly never in all my life before experienced such a complication of agonising pains. And, despite it all, the land seemed to draw never an inch nearer.
I think I must at length have become light-headed, for gradually a feeling stole over me that everything—my surroundings, my situation, and my suffering—was unreal; that I was the victim of a peculiarly ghastly and horrible nightmare; and that I should by and by be wakened fortunately to find that I was in my own bunk, and that the events of the past twenty-four hours had been nothing more than an exceptionally vivid and realistic dream. From this state I was partially aroused by seeing a number of glittering objects start out of the sea all round me, while at the same instant I was conscious of receiving a sharp blow on the chest, when, on looking down into my lap, I saw a fine flying-fish wriggling and flapping there, making a gallant but ineffectual effort to hoist himself out of the hollow formed by my crossed legs, and return to the water. For a second or two I stared stupidly down at the struggling creature, and then it seemed to dawn upon my dazed faculties that here at last was food, something that would at least mitigate for a time the fierce pangs of my gnawing hunger, and in a very frenzy of eagerness I clutched the unfortunate fish and bit savagely into its writhing body!
Yes, I know that the idea is inexpressibly repugnant, even revolting, yet I solemnly declare that never in my life before had I tasted anything so exquisitely delicious as that raw fish, never had I so keenly enjoyed a meal. I am glad to believe that there will be very few who can sympathise with or appreciate my enjoyment; for, reader, you must have experienced the first agonies of starvation—which are the worst—before you can do so. But, revolting or not, I am profoundly convinced that I owe my life to that meal, for my senses returned to me at once upon its completion; and although with them there also returned a full appreciation of the acuteness of my physical discomfort, I felt distinctly revived and reinvigorated. Moreover, with the full return of my senses I became aware that, after all, my painful efforts had not been nearly so ineffectual as I had imagined them to be, the land being now appreciably nearer than it had been at daylight that morning, a few of its bolder details being now visible.
And now once more I was sufficiently rational to take cognisance of the flight of time. I was not at all certain of my bearings, but I felt that the sun must certainly have crossed the meridian—that the eternity of suffering through which I had passed could never have been compressed into a short half-hour or so—and if I was correct in this surmise the hour must be somewhere about three o'clock in the afternoon.
Three o'clock in the afternoon! And the land still so far away that many further hours of toil and agony must be endured ere I might hope to reach it! My brain reeled again at the mere prospect of it, and in a perfect frenzy of despair I resumed my paddle, crying aloud mad, incoherent prayers to God that He would either send me help in my extremity, or mercifully put an immediate end to my sufferings. Then another thought came to torment me: in something like three hours the sun would set, darkness would encompass me about, and if the sky should become obscured with clouds and the stars be hidden, how should I continue to find my way? At that idea I looked about me—my mind had been too confused, and too busily occupied with other matters to take intelligent note of the weather during the last few hours—and I was somewhat relieved to observe that the sky was now clear, save for a few scattered, solemnly drifting clouds, that the weather had a tolerably settled appearance, that the wind had moderated to quite a gentle breeze, and that the sea had gone down very considerably and was no longer breaking. This certainly was a point in my favour, since I was not any longer in momentary peril of being capsized or washed off my frail ark; but the advantage was to a certain extent counterbalanced by the fact that the run of the sea was not materially helping me.
Wearily yet desperately I continued to ply my clumsy paddle, first on this side and then on the other, and with alarming rapidity my sufferings seemed to grow in acuteness until I found myself moaning and uttering short, sharp cries of distress with every movement of my body, ay, and with every breath I drew; for now, to add to my discomfort, I suddenly became aware that my lungs were in some way affected, and that the mere act of breathing seemed to tear them asunder. Yet, though my situation appeared to be so utterly hopeless, I doggedly persevered in my efforts, telling myself over and over again, out loud, that if I would but hold out long enough I must, in the natural order of things, eventually reach the shore and succour. I think it was about this time that I finally lost control of myself, for thenceforward I was conscious that I was continually talking to myself—in a hoarse, guttural croak, that even now I shudder to call to mind—now arguing, now encouraging, now reproaching myself, until at length my ideas wandered away to all sorts of incongruous subjects; and by turns I detected myself laughing, singing, praying, apostrophising the sun, the clouds, the distant land, and even the spirits of my drowned companions, whom I imagined to be crowding round me and trying to drag me off the floating hatch. I was aware, in a vague, impersonal fashion, of the gradual decline of the sun toward the west, of his disappearance beneath the horizon, and of the fact that just as the outlines of the land ahead were fading into the gathering darkness a small spark of light sprang into view somewhere in the direction that I was steering for, and then suddenly all grew black about me, there was a singing in my ears—and oblivion.
When consciousness returned, and I opened my eyes, I found myself stretched upon a bed in a large and lofty room, very barely furnished, there being nothing in the apartment save the bed upon which I lay, a large old-fashioned wardrobe, a dressing-table, a small round table by my bedside, and two massive carved chairs upholstered in stamped leather which showed signs of having seen many years of service. It was night, apparently, for the only illumination came from a large handsome lamp that had the appearance of being wrought out of silver. One of the two chairs in the room stood by the side of my bed, and was occupied by a very respectable-looking negress of some forty years of age, or thereabout, sound asleep. Two jugs, one of porcelain and one of cut glass, stood on the table, in company with a large tumbler and a cup with a spoon in it. The glass jug was three-parts full of lemonade, if my eyes did not deceive me, and the sight of it suddenly caused me to become acutely conscious of the fact that I was athirst. Had the negress been awake I would have asked her to give me a drink, but seeing that she was sleeping the sleep of the just I decided to help myself, and with that intent essayed to raise myself in bed. But I might as well have attempted to lift the house itself, for when I came to move I discerned, to my consternation, that I was so weak I could scarcely stir hand or foot, much less raise my entire body. In my alarm and distress I unwittingly gave vent to a feeble groan, which, faint as it was, proved sufficient to arouse my attendant, who stirred in her chair, adjusted her turban, and then, rising to her feet, leaned over the bed and peered down into my face. For some seconds she stood thus, when— her eyes having adjusted themselves to the rather dim light of the lamp—she perceived that I was awake.
"Ah!" she murmured, in a half whisper, in Spanish, "the Senor is at length himself again, thanks be to all the blessed saints! And how are you feeling, Senor?"
"Very thirsty," I replied, in the same language, which I spoke fairly well, and to my amazement, though I had intended to speak out loud, my voice was no more than a scarcely audible whisper, which the negress had to bend her head to catch.
"Bueno!" she ejaculated, with every evidence of keen satisfaction; "the Senor is thirsty—and he has the Spanish. He shall drink, and then,"—she laid her hand upon my forehead, and I now discovered, to my further astonishment, that my head was swathed in bandages—"yes, then the medicine, and more sleep."
So saying, she filled the big tumbler with lemonade—how delicious it looked with the thin shreds of lemon and the leaves of mint floating on its surface!—passed her arm very gently beneath my shoulders, raised me to a semi-sitting posture, and applied the tumbler to my lips.
Oh! how good, how delicious, how refreshing was that long, cool draught; how grateful to the parched palate its exquisite acidity of flavour! You talk of nectar; but my belief at that moment was that nectar was merely lemonade under another name! I smacked my lips audibly as I gasped for breath after emptying the tumbler, and my sable friend smiled with satisfaction. Then, still holding me, she poured about a wine-glassful of very dark-brown—almost black—liquid from the porcelain jug into the cup and presented it to me. This, too, I drank, for I was still thirsty; but the "medicine" was by no means so palatable as the lemonade, being of an exceedingly pungent, bitter taste, and I am afraid I made a rather wry face as the negress removed the cup from my lips.
"Ah!" she murmured smilingly, "the Senor does not like that so well as the lemonade, but it is nevertheless the better drink of the two, for it will kill the fever in his blood and give him back his strength, while the lemonade merely refreshes."
Then, as she gently laid me back on my pillow, and adjusted the sheet— my only covering—about my throat, she continued: "Now the Senor must sleep; and when he awakes Mama Elisa will have some nice nourishing broth ready for him—very good, ah! very good indeed, to make him strong again."
Whether it was the comfort and refreshment that followed the slaking of my thirst, the effect of the medicine which my kind-hearted nurse had administered, or the cooling night breeze that swept in through the open window and played freely over me, I cannot say,—possibly it might have been a combination of the three,—but, whatever the cause, true it is that my head was scarcely back on the pillow before I sank into a profound and most refreshing sleep, refreshing both to mind and body; for during the hours of unconsciousness that followed my brain remained absolutely quiescent, and I was no longer disturbed or harassed by the vague yet terrifying phantasies, dim memories of which had haunted me during the few minutes of my wakefulness.
When I next opened my eyes the room in which I lay was flooded with brilliant sunshine, that streamed in through a large open window in the wall that faced me, and which also freely admitted an indescribably refreshing breeze, richly laden with the mingled perfumes of a tropical garden. A spray of rose bush, laden with magnificent crimson blooms, swished to and fro before the window, swayed by the breeze, and wafted dashes of its scent-laden breath toward me; and beyond it there stretched a vista of flowering shrubs, orange and banana trees, the straight smooth stems of palms, part of the gigantic trunk of a silk-cotton tree springing from a smooth sward of guinea grass; and beyond it again a thicket of bamboo, the delicate feathery foliage of which closed the view. Splendid butterflies flitted hither and thither, a few humming-birds, poised upon their swiftly-fanning wings, hung over the flowering plants, like living gems, sipping the nectar of the blooms; and occasionally a brilliant green lizard would dart along the broad window-sill in chase of a fly.
For several minutes I lay quite motionless, lost in admiration of the beauty of the picture upon which my eyes rested, and inhaling long breaths of the perfumed air that played about me; then a swiftly awaking consciousness that I was distinctly hungry caused me to turn my head toward the chair which Mama Elisa had occupied when I fell asleep. The chair was still occupied, not by Mama Elisa, however, but by a quadroon girl of about seventeen years of age, clad in the usual garb of the coloured women, namely, a sort of loose chemise of white cotton, and a petticoat, printed in a kind of Paisley pattern, which reached to a little below her knees. Her long black hair hung in two thick plaits down far below her waist; she wore massive gold earrings in her small shapely ears; a necklace of big amber beads encircled her finely-modelled neck, and her otherwise bare feet were shod in low-cut crimson morocco slippers. When I first glimpsed her she was leaning back in a chair, idly waving a palm-leaf fan, while her fine dark eyes gazed abstractedly, and with a somewhat sad expression, methought, upon the brilliant picture presented by the open window; but as I stared she started to her feet and bent over me, gazing intently into my eyes; then she laid her soft, shapely hand for a moment upon my brow, withdrew it again, and murmured, in pure, rich Castilian:
"The Senor is better. He has slept long and well. His skin is cool; the fever has gone. And he is hungry; is it not so?"
"Good!" she exclaimed, with a smile of satisfaction that disclosed two rows of small, perfectly-shaped teeth. "I will go and tell Mama Elisa."
And before I could say a word, or ask a question, she had vanished through a door in the wall against which stood the head of my bed.
A minute later in came Mama Elisa, smiling all over her honest, still good-looking face, bearing in her hands a large, massive tray, which looked as though it might be solid silver. This tray was draped with a cloth of snow-white damask, upon which were symmetrically arranged a small silver bowl, the steaming contents of which emitted a most savoury, appetising odour, a spoon, a small cruet, a plate upon which lay a slice of white bread and another of dry toast, and a wine-glass containing some liquid of a rich ruby colour, that might possibly be port wine.
"Aha!" she cheerily exclaimed, as she placed the tray and its contents upon the table by the side of the bed, "it is easy to see that the Senor is better; his eyes are brighter; the long sleep has done him good. And now he needs only plenty of nourishing food and careful nursing to set him again upon his feet. Teresita tells me that you are hungry, Senor— which is another good sign. Do you think you could take a little broth, Senor?"
I replied that I had very little doubt upon that point, whereupon the good soul proceeded to crumble a small quantity of the bread into the steaming bowl, after which, slipping her arm under my shoulder and very tenderly raising me, she supported my body against her ample bosom as she fed me from the bowl, a spoonful at a time, coaxing me between whiles to nibble at the toast. The broth was delicious, whatever it might have been made of—I was in no mood to ask the question—and to my own surprise and Mama's intense gratification I consumed it—in quantity about half-a-pint—to the last drop, and also ate about half a slice of toast. Then came the wine-glass of ruby-coloured liquid, which proved to be, as I had anticipated, port wine, rich and generous, seeming to fill me with new life. And when I had finished my meal and had drained another bumper of lemonade, Teresita was summoned to assist in the process of washing my face and hands and inducting me into clean linen, after which followed another long sleep.
My progress toward recovery was now rapid, although I soon learned that my escape from death had been little short of miraculous. Naturally, as soon as my reason returned to me, and I was strong enough to engage in conversation, I began to inquire where I was, and how I came to be there; but for the first three or four days after the events above described my nurses, Mama Elisa and Teresita, refused to tell me anything save that I was with friends. But at length, when I had so far recovered as to be able to sit up in bed without assistance, Mama Elisa took compassion upon me and proceeded to satisfy my curiosity. She informed me first, that the gale in which the Wasp foundered had occurred more than three weeks previously! Then she proceeded to say that on the second day after the gale had moderated, the sea having by that time gone down sufficiently to permit the fishermen once more to proceed to sea in their canoes, one Tomasso, a negro—formerly a slave but now a freeman, in the service of Senor Don Luis Fernando Maria Calderon y Albuquerque, owner of the Bella Vista estate—had sallied forth from a certain small cove on the estate for the purpose of procuring a supply of fish, as usual. After having been thus engaged for some hours, with very scant success, Tomasso had decided to try his luck farther out; and while padding to seaward his attention had been attracted by the appearance of something floating about a mile away. Paddling in that direction, in the hope that what he saw might be worth picking up, he had at length come alongside the hatchway, with me upon it, in a state of collapse. The negroes on the island had risen in insurrection against the whites only some six years previously, while slavery had been abolished only about four years, the relations between the blacks and the whites on the island were consequently still greatly strained, and many a negro, finding one in that helpless state, would have callously left me to die. Tomasso, however, luckily for me, was not one of that sort: he had always been well treated by his master, and therefore felt no animus against the whites; consequently as soon as he found that a spark of life still remained in my body, he transferred me to his canoe and, abandoning for the moment all further thought of fishing, paddled back to the shore. Then, hauling his canoe up on the beach, he had hastened to the house and acquainted his master, Don Luis, with his find. The latter, a generous, humane, high-spirited fellow, and as noble a specimen of the Spanish hidalgo as one need wish to meet, at once hastened down to the cove and, upon perceiving my condition, gave immediate orders that I was to be carried up to the house, put to bed, and everything possible done to save my life. The nearest reliable doctor being at Santiago, over forty miles distant, on the other side of the mountains, he had quickly decided to put me in the hands of Mama Elisa, born upon his estate, of amply proved fidelity, and marvellously skilled in the use of herbs and the treatment of disease, with the result that, having battled for a fortnight with the raging fever that almost immediately developed itself, she had at length triumphantly brought me to the point of convalescence.
A NIGHT ALARM.
Having heard Mama Elisa's story, the next thing I wanted was, naturally, to see Don Luis and thank him for his extraordinary kindness to me, a stranger, and more than that, an enemy. Accordingly, upon being informed of my desire, and learning from Mama Elisa that I was now well enough to receive a visitor, my host presented himself at my bedside that same evening, and expressed the very great pleasure he felt at finding me making such good progress toward recovery. He accepted my expressions of gratitude with much graciousness, professed himself happy to have been the means of saving the life of a fellow creature, begged me to regard himself, his house, and everything that belonged to him as entirely at my service for as long as I might be pleased to make use of them, and then said he would be glad to learn how I came to be in the plight in which Tomasso had found me, if I felt equal to the task of telling the story. I thought that, for a moment, he looked a trifle disconcerted when I mentioned the fact that I was a British naval officer; but, if so, the expression was quickly suppressed, and he listened with deep attention and much sympathy to my story of our falling in with and boarding the Santa Brigitta, our subsequent fight with the pirate schooner, and the foundering of the Wasp during the gale.
Somewhat to my surprise, he was quite a young man, scarcely more than thirty years of age. I had somehow got it into my head that, being the owner of so fine an estate as Bella Vista, he must of necessity be at least a middle-aged, if not an elderly man; but I understood when he explained that the estate had originally been purchased, and afterwards developed, by his father, who, I now learned, had perished in the insurrection of 1791.
At length, after we had been chatting together for fully an hour, Mama Elisa intervened, protesting that I had been sufficiently excited for one day, and quite unceremoniously ordered her master out of the room; upon which Don Luis, laughing heartily at his favourite servant's brusqueness, shook me cordially by the hand, hoped I should soon be well enough to quit my sick chamber, and informed me that he would now do himself the pleasure to visit me for a few minutes daily, if only for the purpose of assuring himself that Mama Elisa had not poisoned me with any of her vile concoctions. After which parting shot at Mama he effected a masterly retreat.
From this time onward I mended rapidly, and on the sixth day after Don Luis's first visit I was well enough to rise from my bed and leave my room for an hour or two. And now I should have been in a ludicrous difficulty in the matter of clothes—for the scanty garments in which I had come ashore were not only ruined by long immersion in sea water, but were also in rags—had it not been for the fortunate circumstance that Don Luis and I were, as nearly as possible of the same height, which enabled him generously to place his wardrobe at my disposal. But while Don Luis was a fine, square-shouldered, well-built fellow, I had shrunk to little more than a skeleton, so that although the clothes fitted me well enough as to their lateral dimensions, in other respects they made me look pretty much of a scarecrow, and I could not avoid seeing the ghost of a smile flickering in Don Luis's eyes when, upon my first appearance in public, so to speak, he presented me in due form to his wife, Dona Inez. But there was no smile on that sweet lady's lips, nor in her eyes as they fell upon me and noted the evidences of suffering in my hollow cheeks and wasted form; on the contrary, she was at once all commiseration and sympathy as she expressed her gratification that it had fallen to the lot of one of her people to find me in the hour of my need, and to bring me to the shelter of her roof instead of leaving me to perish, as might very well have happened had the fisherman who found me been any other than Tomasso.
She was quite a young woman, not more than twenty-five, I thought; a typical Spaniard, with dark melting eyes shaded by very long, curving lashes, an immense quantity of black glossy hair, a clear colourless skin, petite, handsome, and exceedingly graceful in her every movement; but, even better than all that, she was kind, gentle in her manner, tender-hearted and sympathetic, and appeared to be absolutely idolised by every man, woman, and child upon the estate.
She received me in her drawing-room, a fine, lofty, spacious apartment occupying approximately half the width of the front part of the house, the other half being occupied by the dining-room, between which and the drawing-room there was a fine hall, roomy enough to be used as a lounge, and very cool and pleasant, since the house stood on the slope of a hill, facing north, and overlooking the sea, while the wide front door stood always open, freely admitting the sea-breeze. The drawing-room was a really handsome room, the floor being of some very beautiful native wood, polished to the brilliancy of a mirror, and covered here and there with mats, rugs, and skins; the walls, of polished satin-wood, arranged in panels, were hung with a few very fine pictures; a few small tables, loaded with miniatures and native curiosities, were arranged apparently haphazard about the room; there was a large, low couch, and about a dozen lounging chairs, and a piece of fancy work and a very handsome guitar lay upon the couch.
The large French casement was wide-open, giving access to a wide gallery reaching right athwart the house from side to side, and shaded from the direct rays of the sun by an overhanging veranda; and into this gallery I was taken, inducted into a low, spacious basket chair, well equipped with cushions, and made thoroughly comfortable: the Senora seating herself on one side of me, and Don Luis establishing himself on the other, each of them obviously doing their utmost to make me feel thoroughly at home. And oh! it was good to sit out there feeling the soft, warm breeze playing about me, to drink in the perfume-laden air, and to gaze abroad upon the sun-bathed, gently sloping lawns interspersed here and there with neat, symmetrically shaped flower-beds, gay with luxuriant, rainbow-tinted blooms, to watch the tall palms swaying as the wind swept through their clashing fronds, to note the magnificent butterflies and the brilliant-plumaged birds flitting hither and thither, with the blue foam-flecked sea, mottled with rich purple cloud shadows, stretching away to the far horizon. I was allowed to sit there for two hours, drawing in renewed health with every breath; and then Mama Elisa and Teresita, her lieutenant, swooped down upon me, declaring that I must not be further fatigued, and marched me back to my room, put me to bed, gave me a dainty little meal of broth and the breast of a roasted chicken, administered a stiff dose of some new concoction, characterised chiefly by its superlative nastiness, and then left me to go to sleep, which I did with amazing promptitude.
This sort of thing continued for a fortnight, my "sitting-up" time being gradually extended until on the fourteenth day Mama Elisa, my medico-in-chief, pronounced me well enough to turn out for second breakfast and to stay up for the remainder of the day. Then, as I gradually recovered my strength, came little walks in the company of Don Luis, Dona Inez, or perhaps both together, at first for a few yards only, as far as a certain flower-bed and back, then to some point near at hand from which a specially charming vista was to be obtained, and finally up into the mountains for a distance of a mile or so.
By the time that this stage of my convalescence was reached I had arrived at the conclusion that it was high time I should think of relieving my kind benefactors of my company, and return to duty, and on a certain day I took advantage of the circumstance of being alone with my host to mention the matter, and to ask him if he could put me in the way of obtaining a passage back to Jamaica, explaining that although, as he was aware, I had not a single coin in my possession, I could pay my passage-money immediately upon my arrival at Port Royal.
"My dear fellow," said Don Luis, laying his hand almost affectionately upon my shoulder, "I knew of course that this must come, sooner or later; we could not reasonably expect to keep you with us always—you naturally desire to return to your profession and your duty as early as possible; but do you not think that you are just a little hasty, a little over-eager, in mentioning this matter to me so soon? After all, you know, you are by no means well, as yet; your strength is no doubt equal to a leisurely walk of two or three miles about the neighbourhood; but do you really think that you are strong enough to return at once to the hardship and exposure of a sailor's life?"
"Yes," I said; "I certainly think so; indeed, I believe I am a great deal stronger than you seem to imagine. Besides, it is quite possible that I may not be sent to sea again immediately upon my return; there may be no ship for me just at the moment when I next turn up at Port Royal, and in that case I may have a short spell of shore duty before again going afloat. But, in any case, I am anxious to return and report to the Admiral the unfortunate result of my encounter with the pirates, and undergo my trial by court-martial for the loss of the Wasp."
"Your trial by court-martial?" he gasped. "Surely you do not mean to say that your countrymen will be so cruel as to treat you as a criminal, simply because you were inadequately equipped to cope with an overwhelmingly superior force, and because, after beating off that force, a storm happened to arise ere you had time to make suitable preparation for it? The idea is monstrous, absolutely monstrous!"
I was about to explain to Don Luis that it is a custom of the British Navy to try the officers who are unfortunate enough to lose their ship, no matter what the circumstances may be, but he would not let me speak; he was so full of indignation at what he evidently considered the rank injustice of the thing, and so eager to avail himself of the lever which it seemed to afford for pressing home upon me a certain proposition which he now sprang upon me, that he would not suffer me to utter a single word by way of explanation.
"Wait, my dear fellow, wait!" he exclaimed. "What you have just told me affords me the opportunity to mention what Dona Inez and I have discussed together more than once, without any real hope, however, of being able to bring it to pass. Now, however, I find that if you go back you must surrender yourself a prisoner, and be tried as a criminal for what was certainly no fault of yours, I will speak what is in my mind. Why go back at all? Why not give up the sea, remain here, and be my trusted friend and right-hand man in the management of the estate? I very badly need some one like yourself, some one in whom I can place the most absolute trust; for the estate is altogether too big for me to manage single-handed; and my overseers, while they are good enough men in their way, and no doubt understand their business, are scarcely the kind of men whom I could put upon an equality with myself, or admit to the house and to intimacy with Dona Inez. You, however, are different; you are a gentleman, and although an Englishman—"
"Thanks, Don Luis; a thousand thanks for your extraordinarily friendly and generous proposal," I interrupted; "but what you suggest is impossible. I must return to Port Royal, at all costs; my honour demands it. And, as to your exceedingly kind offer, all I can say is that not even to accept it would I give up a profession to which I am so greatly attached, and of which I am so inexpressibly proud. I am afraid I shall never be able to make you and the Senora understand how deeply moved I am, how profoundly grateful for this really remarkable proof of your kindly feeling toward me, but—"
"Quite so," interrupted my companion, again laying his hand upon my shoulder; "you need say no more; I think I understand. Since you feel that you really must go I will not make any further effort to tempt you, but, on the contrary, will do everything I possibly can to assist your wishes. I will ask you, however, my dear young friend, not to make any reference to this conversation in the presence of Dona Inez; for I am convinced that if she were to become aware that I had actually made this proposal to you, and that you had felt yourself bound to reject it, she would be profoundly disappointed."
We then changed the subject, Don Luis promising to send one of his negroes into the little town of Puerto Plata, some twenty miles distant, to make inquiry as to the possibility of my being able to obtain passage on board one of the small vessels that occasionally traded between that port and Kingston. At the same time the generous fellow gave me to understand that his purse was entirely at my disposal for the purpose of defraying all necessary expenses, and that the loan could be repaid at my own convenience.
The negro messenger was duly dispatched on the following morning; and then, as he was not expected back until the evening of the third day, I had to possess my soul in patience; meanwhile Don Luis, who seemed to have taken a most extraordinary liking for me, allowed matters on the estate practically to look after themselves while he and Dona Inez gave themselves up almost entirely to me, taking me short walks into the adjacent country, and showing me as much as possible of its beauties.
It was on the second night after the occurrence of the above-recorded conversation—or rather in the early hours of the following morning— that I was awakened out of a deep sleep by the sound of galloping hoofs, evidently approaching the house, and before I had found time to rub the sleep out of my eyes and sit up in bed, wondering meanwhile what such unusual sounds might portend, I heard the animals sweep past the end of the house and pull up, with much snorting and scattering of gravel, before the front door; and the next moment footsteps—apparently of several people—were heard ascending the front steps, crossing the wide gallery running along the front of the house, and entering the hall by way of the front door, which stood open day and night, except in bad weather. Then a strong voice pealed out, in Spanish—and methought there was a note of panic in it—
"Hola, there! Don Luis—Don Luis, where are you, man? Arise, I pray you, and at once. I have momentous news for you."
"Who is it? What is it?" I heard Don Luis exclaim, and then came the creak of the bedstead in the adjoining room as the good man leapt from it; and I heard him busy with the flint and steel, endeavouring to obtain a light.
"It is I—de Mendouca," answered the strange voice, "I and my family. The negroes from the mountains are out again, and, being warned that they were making for Montpelier, I abandoned the place, took horse, and came on here to warn you."
"Ave Maria!" Don Luis exclaimed, as he seemed to be scrambling into his clothes. "The negroes out again! I heard that they were showing signs of unrest. I will be with you in a moment. Nay, do not be alarmed, carissima, the danger is certainly not immediate; you will have ample time to rise and dress at your leisure."
"Oho!" thought I. "Danger, eh? It is time for me to be making a muster." I therefore rolled out of bed and, without waiting to strike a light, felt for my clothes, scrambled into them, and made my way to the entrance hall just as Don Luis, having joined his unexpected visitors, had succeeded in lighting the great hall lamp.
The strangers were five in number, and I was hurriedly presented to each of them in turn. First, there was Don Esteban de Mendouca, a tall, thin, cadaverous-looking man, with intensely dark eyes, a thin crop of hair, exceedingly long moustache with thin, drooping ends, and a pointed Vandyke beard, all dark, but beginning to be sprinkled with grey. Then there was Dona Christina, his wife, a small woman, as dark as her husband, but with a perfectly preserved complexion—fat, and fifty if a day. Next there was Don Pedro de Mendouca, Don Esteban's elder son, a very proud and haughty-looking man of about twenty-seven years of age; Don Silvio, his brother, some three years younger, and exceedingly like his elder brother, but with a much more agreeable expression of countenance; and lastly, but by no means least in attractiveness, Senorita Eugenia, Don Esteban's daughter, a most lovely young woman of about seventeen years of age, exquisitely fair, and with a pair of melting blue eyes. They all acknowledged the introduction with that stately courtesy which seems natural to the Spaniard; and then, as Don Esteban began his brief story, I had time to take a good look at them all. It was easy enough to see that they had risen from their beds and fled in the utmost haste, for the toilette of each had been very inadequately performed; but despite this the predominating impression which they produced upon me was distinctly favourable. Indeed, the only thing of which I in the least disapproved was the demeanour of Don Pedro de Mendouca, which struck me as being a good deal more haughty and arrogant than there was any excuse for. The circumstance that, I think, surprised me most was that these people should have fled in such apparent unreasoning panic, abandoning a fine property and absolutely all that they possessed, excepting the horses they had ridden and the clothes they stood up in, to a parcel of lawless negroes. I was soon to learn, however, that it was not lack of courage that had inspired their flight.
"I have no doubt, Don Luis," began Don Esteban, "that you, like myself, have heard rumours of late that the negroes up in the mountains were again beginning to show signs of unrest. But, so far at least as I was concerned, those rumours have been so exceedingly vague and contradictory that I paid little or no attention to them; for, as you are, of course, aware, scarcely a month passes over our heads but some story of an impending outbreak reaches us. Yet it has never come, and I think we have at last all grown to regard the rumours as mere idle talk, without foundation or justification. Consequently I was not only very greatly surprised, but also distinctly incredulous, when one of my house boys aroused me shortly after midnight to-night with the intelligence that the negroes were actually out, and that practically all my own people had abandoned their huts and gone forth to join them! It was this latter circumstance which alarmed me; and when, a little later, I had verified the statement I came to the conclusion that the time for action had arrived, and accordingly we saddled up and came away without further ado. As we came along my sons and I discussed the situation, and ultimately decided that the proper thing, and also the best thing, would be to make for Bella Vista in the first instance, inform you of the facts, and learn your views as to the situation."
"Were you able to learn in what strength the blacks have turned out?" demanded Don Luis.
"No," answered Don Esteban, "I was not; but we know from experience that when they begin these raids they usually divide themselves into a number of small bands, attacking in several directions simultaneously, and depending upon being reinforced by the negroes on the estates which they purpose to attack. Thus, for example, whatever may have been the original strength of the band which set out to attack Montpelier, they have already been augmented by two hundred of my people. Probably they now muster about two hundred and fifty altogether—not more, I should say. Ah! look yonder. Do you see that blaze? That is Montpelier. They have already plundered the house and set it on fire, so you see we did not get away from it any too early."
Looking out through the open door at the back of the house, which could be seen from the hall, we beheld a small, flickering spark of fire, well up on the lower slopes of the mountain, which, even as we gazed, waxed in size and brilliancy. Snatching up a powerful telescope that always hung ready to hand in the hall, and bringing it to bear upon the spark, I was able to make out that it was indeed a large house, from the windows and thatched roof of which flames were bursting in momentarily increasing volumes, while round about it a crowd of negroes were apparently dancing a dance of savage delight at the destruction which they were effecting.
"Yes," I said, as I laid down the glass, "that is undoubtedly your house, Don Esteban; I distinctly remember Dona Inez pointing it out to me while we were out for a walk about a week ago."
At this moment Dona Inez, fully attired, emerged from her room, and there was instantly a cordial interchange of salutations between her and our visitors. Then she turned to me and asked:
"What was that I heard you say just now, Don Ricardo? Surely not that Montpelier is in flames?"
"I deeply regret to say that you heard aright, Senora. Look yonder; you may see the blaze for yourself. And the blacks are dancing round it like so many demons," I answered.
Dona Inez clasped her hands together and wrung them in distress.
"Oh, Don Esteban—Dona Christina—I am so sorry for you all," she exclaimed. "It is horrible; and they will be here next. What do you intend to do, Luis? Must we really run away and leave this beautiful place to be destroyed and ourselves ruined? Is there nothing that can be done to save it?"
"I will not go so far as to say that," answered Don Luis; "on the contrary, I am strongly indisposed to abandon it without a struggle. What say you, Don Ricardo?" turning to me. "You are a fighting man; do you think this house is capable of being defended successfully against an armed but undisciplined rabble of some three hundred blacks?"
"That depends entirely upon how strong a garrison you can muster, my dear friend," answered I. "So far as the house itself is concerned I believe that, given, say, a couple of hours for preparation, it might be put into a very excellent state of defence; but that would be no good at all unless you could raise a garrison of, let us say, thirty fighting men, and at least as many non-combatants to act as loaders, ambulance party, and so on."
"Thirty fighters, and thirty non-combatants," returned Don Luis. "Surely that might be managed. Why, my 'boys' number more than three hundred, nine-tenths of whom were born and bred upon the estate. A few of them might possibly desert—perhaps twenty-five per cent of them, to put the figure at its very highest; but I feel certain that the bulk of them would stand by me through thick and thin; they have everything to lose and nothing to gain by going over to the outlaws. Oh yes, I am convinced that there should be no difficulty in the matter of raising a sufficient number of fighters."
"So far, then, so good," said I. "The next question is that of weapons—firearms especially. I am afraid, my dear Don Luis, you will scarcely be able to raise thirty guns, with adequate ammunition for the same."
"Ah, true," answered Don Luis, "I had not thought of that. Still—now, let me think a moment—"
"I may as well tell you here," cut in Don Esteban, "that although we could not see our way to defend Montpelier successfully, my sons and I have each brought our guns with us, and they of course will be available, should you decide to make a stand and defend the house."
"But, my dear Don Esteban, you will need them for your own protection on your way to—to—wherever you propose to make for; unless, of course, you choose to throw in your lot with us, which would perhaps be scarcely more dangerous than the attempt to reach one of the towns. For the news of this rising will spread among the negroes like wildfire, and—"
"Precisely," cut in Don Esteban again. "That is exactly my own thought. Therefore, if our presence here will not embarrass you we will gladly remain and take our chance with you."
"My dear Don Esteban," exclaimed Don Luis, "let me hasten to assure you that nothing could possibly give me greater satisfaction than to have the assistance of yourself and your two gallant sons at this critical juncture in my fortunes."
"Then that is settled," exclaimed I, breaking in rather ruthlessly, I am afraid, upon Don Luis' compliments, for which, I considered, there was scant time just then. "That makes three guns to start with. Now, how many more can we muster?"
"Four of my overseers have two guns each, while the remaining two have one each," answered Don Luis. "And each of them possesses a brace of good serviceable pistols in addition. Then, as for me, you must know, my dear Don Ricardo, that firearms are rather a weakness of mine; whenever I see an especially good gun I buy it, if I can, consequently I have a very fair selection in my gun-room, probably about twenty in all, as well as a few brace of pistols, duelling and otherwise."
"Oh, but that is excellent," I exclaimed; "far better than I dared expect. And as to ammunition?"
"I think you will find that we have as much of that as we are at all likely to need, for I always make a point of keeping an ample supply in stock," answered Don Luis.
"Good!" answered I. "The next point to determine is the identity of your garrison. First, there is Don Esteban and his two sons; that makes three. Then there is you and myself—five. Will your six overseers fight, think you, Don Luis?"
"Oh yes, without a doubt," answered Don Luis. "They are most excellent fellows, and devoted to me."
"Then, so far, we muster eleven," said I. "We want nineteen more fighters, and at least thirty good, steady non-fighters, men who can be depended upon to retain their coolness and do exactly as they are told during the confusion and excitement of a fiercely contested fight. Now, Don Luis, can you lay your hand upon forty-nine men of the kind I have indicated—men who are trustworthy enough to be admitted inside these walls at a moment when treachery on the part of any one of them would probably be fatal to us all?"
Don Luis flushed and looked almost angrily at me as I suggested the possibility of treachery on the part of any of his people.
"Really, Don Ricardo," he exclaimed, "put as you put it, you almost make me tremble at the vastness of the responsibility that I am about to undertake. But you shall see. I will at once go down to the huts, choose my men, and bring them up here for your approval." And with that shot at me he walked out at the back door and disappeared into the darkness, while Don Silvio, at his father's request, went out to lead the horses round to the stables, and bring in the guns.
THE ATTACK ON BELLA VISTA.
Some twenty-five minutes later Don Luis returned; and so colourless were his lips, so wild his eyes, so dreadfully agitated his entire appearance that I saw in a moment something had gone very radically wrong somewhere. Dona Inez saw it too, and approaching, laid her hand soothingly upon his arm as she anxiously asked:
"What is it, Luis? What is the matter, mi querido? Tell me; I can bear it."
"I could never have believed it!" ejaculated Don Luis, clasping his hands in front of him and wringing them, in his distress and disappointment. "I have always believed every one of my negroes to be absolutely faithful to me; yet now, upon the news that the outlaws are out, more than half of them have left me, and quite possibly will, an hour or two hence, be joining in the attack upon this house. The ungrateful wretches, the—!"
"Precisely," I cut in; "they are all that and more. But what about those who remain? Are any of them trustworthy enough to be permitted to assist us; or must we do the best we can without them?"
"Oh no," answered Don Luis emphatically. "Thank God, I can trust every one of those who remain. And, as for the forty-nine whom I have chosen to come into the house to help us—well, I am going to demonstrate the extent of my faith in them by placing all our lives at their mercy. Oh yes; I have no shadow of doubt, so far as they are concerned."
"Very well, then," said I; "in that case they had better be admitted at once, for all our defences have still to be made. What are you going to do with those who are not wanted?"
"I have given them instructions to go away and conceal themselves in the woods until we have beaten off the attack," answered Don Luis. "Then they will return and help us to put right whatever damage may have been done during the fight."
"Will they?" thought I. "I very much doubt it!" But I kept my doubts to myself, and turned instead to another matter.
"The next thing that we have to consider is the safety of the ladies," said I. "What is to be done with them during the fight?"
Don Luis looked at me rather blankly.
"The ladies!" he ejaculated. "But surely, my dear Don Ricardo, they will be more safe in this house than anywhere else, will they not?"
"It all depends," I answered. "If you think it would be safe for them to start on horseback for the nearest town, either alone or escorted by a few of the most trusty of your negroes—"
"Oh no, no!" exclaimed Dona Inez and Dona Christina in the same breath; "you must not propose anything of that kind, Don Ricardo. We will not be separated from our husbands. If they are to face danger, we will face danger with them."
Then Don Luis broke in. "I do not altogether like your suggestion that the ladies should attempt to make their way to the nearest town," he said. "For, you see, we have no means of knowing what is the state of the intervening country. An hour ago I might have deemed the suggestion an excellent one, but now, after the shameless desertion of half my own 'boys,' I know not what to think."
"I suppose there is no snug, secret place of concealment, such as a cave, or something of that sort, the existence of which is known only to yourselves?" I suggested.
"The very thing!" exclaimed Don Luis enthusiastically. "There is such a place, and its existence and locality are known to absolutely no one but Dona Inez and myself—"
"It is useless to speak of it," interrupted Dona Inez in a tone of finality. "I will not go there, or anywhere else; I remain here with you, Luis. If Dona Christina, or Dona Eugenia would like to go, let them do so by all means."
But Dona Christina and Dona Eugenia were quite as emphatic as their hostess in their determination not to be separated from their men-folk; so that question was very soon settled. After that there was nothing to be done but to call up our black auxiliaries, and put the house in as efficient a state of defence as the means at our disposal permitted; and this we at once proceeded to do.
Don Luis seemed naturally to look to me to take the lead in our warlike preparations; and this I as naturally did, finding that he had only very hazy notions of how to set to work. In the first place, the house itself was excellently adapted for defence, the outside walls being built of stone, and about two feet thick, to keep out the heat, while the roof was tiled; there was consequently very little danger of the place being set on fire from the outside, and ourselves burnt out of it. Its chief weakness consisted in the exceptionally large size of the door and window openings; but I thought I could see a way to minimise that evil. While out walking with Don Luis and his wife, I had noticed a spot that I remarked at the time might be very easily converted into an excellent sand and gravel pit; while only a few days prior to the eventful morning when Don Esteban de Mendouca and his party had burst in upon us with the news of the negro outbreak, Don Luis had received a large consignment of new sacks destined to receive the crop of coffee, cocoa, and other products that were at that moment coming forward upon the estate.
Now, the moment that the question of defending the house was raised, these sacks and the sand pit came into my mind. The first thing I did, therefore, was to get hold of the six overseers, instruct them to organise into gangs the blacks who still remained on the estate: equip one party of them with pick and shovel; set a second party to bring the sacks from the store, as required; a third party to fill the sacks with the gravel and sand as excavated; and the remainder to carry the filled sacks up to the house on hand-barrows and arrange them in the door and window openings under my direction. While this was being done, Don Luis produced his stock of firearms and ammunition; then he, Don Esteban, and Don Pedro set to work to clean them, oil the locks, and generally put the weapons in reliable working order; while Don Silvio, aided by his sister and Dona Inez, lighted a fire in the dining-room and went to work upon the task of casting bullets for the pistols, it proving upon examination that only a very small stock of these remained on hand. And, lastly, while Mama Elisa and Teresita busied themselves in the detached kitchen, cooking an ample supply of food for the little garrison, Dona Christina so far laid aside her dignity as to prepare the dining-room table and set it for breakfast; for day was by this time breaking, and we had decided that it would be sound policy to snatch a meal, if possible, before the fight began.
My scheme of defence consisted in blocking up all the door and window openings throughout the building with a good substantial wall of sand-bags, leaving here and there small loopholes just wide enough to admit of a musket being pointed through them. My musketrymen would be stationed at these loopholes, each man having an assistant who would stand by to pass him a fresh cartridge and bullet as soon as his weapon was discharged; and of course the musketrymen and their assistants would be moved from room to room as required, according to the point against which the attack was most strongly directed. I considered that we ought to stand a very good chance of making an effective defence, because it would be exceedingly difficult for our assailants to force a way into the building so long as our sand-bag walls stood firmly, and I believed it would require more courage than a negro possessed to charge home to them and overthrow them in the face of such a fire as we could direct upon them from the advantageous position which we should occupy. Moreover, we should possess the important advantage of being almost completely protected from their fire, and consequently should be able to take aim coolly and collectedly, while they would be fully exposed, there being no better cover for them than a few scattered bushes here and there, which I determined to remove, should there be time after our more important defences were complete.
At length, after some two hours of the most strenuous work that those negroes had ever performed in their lives, we had done everything that it was possible to do; so, first stationing a dozen of our best men at various commanding points, to act as pickets and give us timely warning of the approach of the enemy, we went to breakfast, most of us with excellent appetites, although I am bound to admit that the ladies did not eat much. When the meal was over, without any news from our pickets, I went out through an opening that we had purposely left in the front door barricade, and took a good look round. Passing from picket to picket, I questioned each man closely as to whether he had seen any signs of the enemy; but they all replied in the negative. Indeed, although I carefully scanned every open space I could see, even examining it with the telescope, not the faintest indication of lurking danger could I anywhere discover, although Montpelier was by this time a mere smouldering ruin, to all appearance utterly deserted.
I was about to return to the house to inquire whether, after all, we might not have taken too much for granted in assuming as a certainty that Bella Vista would be attacked, when one of the pickets uttered a shout and, raising his hand, pointed. I looked in the direction indicated, and there, sure enough, I beheld a party of negroes marching confidently toward the house. How many there were I could not tell—for they were just then winding their way through thick detached masses of scrub beyond the boundaries of the estate—but the confident manner of their approach led me to suppose that they believed they were quite strong enough to achieve an easy conquest of the place.
Raising a whistle to my lips, I blew a shrill call, not only as a warning to those in the house to be on the qui vive, but also as a signal for the pickets to fall back; then, when I had made sure that the latter were all on the run toward the house, I brought my telescope to bear upon the approaching party, with the view of learning a little more concerning their equipment and, if possible, their numbers.
The first thing that impressed me with regard to them was that they were a remarkably fine, stalwart-looking set of men, hard, wiry, and full of endurance, as indeed might be expected from the history of them which I had gathered by snatches from Don Luis during our preparations that morning. It appeared that they were practically all runaway slaves, or the descendants of such, who had made good their escape from the various plantations on the island before slavery was abolished a few years prior to the date of this story. These men had established themselves in mountain fastnesses, so difficult of approach and so easy to defend that, although the attempt had often been made, it had been found impossible to dislodge them. In those mountain fastnesses they had increased and multiplied prodigiously, raising their own cattle, growing their own corn, and supporting themselves generally in a state of comfort, if not of actual luxury, that to those who had not seen it, seemed incredible. To them fled every criminal, for every desperate character in the island found welcome and a safe sanctuary among them. Of course, they were all outlaws; their hand against every man, and every man's hand against them; and of late—that is to say, within a year or so of the time of which I am now writing—they had adopted a policy of sallying forth from their mountain retreats at irregular intervals, attacking isolated plantations, looting and destroying the buildings, and either murdering or carrying off captive the whites; their avowed intention being to terrorise and drive every white person off the island and make it their own. Although most of them had been brought up in the Catholic religion, it was said that they had all reverted to heathenism, and were addicted to the practice of voodooism, snake worship, and other hideous barbaric rites.
But although the physique of the men was good enough, I did not think very much of their equipment. It appeared that about every fourth man of them carried a firearm of some kind, with powder flask suspended by a cord round his neck, and bullet pouch attached to his belt, while the remainder carried cutlasses, pikes, and, in some cases, axes, cane knives, or even scythe blades lashed to the end of long poles.
Having learned as much of the approaching enemy as it was possible for me to ascertain without exposing myself to the risk of capture by having my retreat cut off, I retired in good order to the house, pausing at the detached kitchen on my way, and ordering Mama Elisa and Teresita to hasten at once to the house, with such provisions as they had been able to prepare. I waited until they were fairly on the way, and then set fire to the place, for it was within about sixty yards of the house, and would have afforded excellent cover for a dozen sharpshooters who, from its shelter, might have galled us rather severely. It was a flimsy structure, the walls built of wattles plastered with mud, while the roof was of thatch; by the time, therefore, that I reached the house it was blazing furiously, and a quarter of an hour later was a mere heap of smouldering ashes.
The sight of the blazing kitchen caused the approaching outlaws to raise a shout of triumph—possibly they were under the impression that the building had been fired by some of the negroes belonging to the estate who were about to join forces with them and had already begun the work of destruction—but when they saw me retiring toward the house their shouts quickly changed their note from triumph to anger, and several of them who carried guns halted, dropped on one knee, and proceeded to take pot shots at me. A few of their bullets came quite near—indeed, much too near to be pleasant; but the bulk of them flew wide, and I made good my retreat to the house, untouched, and was at once admitted by my friends, who immediately proceeded to block up with sand-bags the aperture by which I had entered.
The moment that the motley army of our assailants came close enough to the house to enable them to see that it had been put into a state of defence, they halted, and some half-a-dozen of them clustered about an immensely tall and powerful-looking negro who was attired in the stained and somewhat tattered uniform of a Spanish infantry colonel, and wore a sword buckled about his waist, with a pair of big horse pistols thrust into his belt. Apparently they were conferring together as to what was to be done under the unexpected circumstances; for it now appeared that, so completely had they succeeded in terrorising the whites, serious resistance to their raids had practically become a thing of the past.
The appearance among the attacking force of the big negro above-mentioned seemed to fill Don Luis and Don Esteban with consternation, for they recognised him at once as the chief of the outlaws, and a man with a reputation for ruthless savagery that had caused his name to become a word of terror among the whites on the island, only to be mentioned with bated breath.
"It is Petion himself!" gasped Don Esteban in accents of dismay, "and if we should be so unfortunate as to fall into his hands after resisting him, our fate will be too dreadful for description! Would it not be better," he suggested, with quivering ashen lips, "that we should surrender at discretion, without attempting resistance? If we do so we shall probably be shot, out of hand; but even that would be preferable to being carried off into the mountains, and there dying a lingering death by torture, as we know that many other whites have done who have dared to resist Petion."
"No, certainly not!" answered Don Luis with decision. "I will never agree to it. Our young friend, Don Ricardo, here, seems to be of opinion that the house is capable of being defended effectively, and he ought to know, since fighting is his trade. And I do not suppose that the mere fact of Petion's appearance among our assailants is going to make him alter his opinion. Is it, Don Ricardo?"
"By no means," said I. "Rather the other way about. For if we can only contrive to bowl over Mister Petion—"
Don Esteban uttered an ejaculation of horror. "Kill Petion!" he exclaimed. "My good sir, I most fervently hope that no one in this house will be so ill-advised as to attempt Petion's life. For if anything were to happen to him his followers would be so incensed, so utterly maddened with fury, that they would simply pull the place down about our ears, and drag us out from among the ruins to die a death of unimaginable horror!"
"My dear Don Esteban," I retorted, "do you really believe that those fellows will fight any the more courageously if their leader happens to be slain? Because I do not; on the contrary, I am firmly convinced that if the head is destroyed the body will also lose vitality, and very speedily collapse. Therefore I, for one, shall make it a point of honour to do my best to kill Petion, if he will only afford me the chance, and I very strongly recommend that the rest should do the same. If Petion falls, his followers will very soon be discouraged."
"Yes, yes, I quite agree with you, Don Ricardo," exclaimed Don Luis. "Nothing is so likely to discourage those fellows as to see their leader fall, therefore let us kill Petion, if we can—although he is popularly believed to bear a charmed life."
"It will need a very much more potent charm than any that he is at all likely to possess to stop a bullet, if I can only get a fair shot at him," I exclaimed. "But, come, gentlemen, let us get back to our posts. We must watch their every move now, or they may take us unawares and play us some very ugly trick."
Our dialogue had lasted less than five minutes; but, brief as it was, it had outlasted the consultation between Petion and his lieutenants, who, I was annoyed to find upon returning to my point of observation, had retired and were now out of sight.
A period of suspense lasting nearly ten minutes now ensued, at the end of which a whistle sounded shrilly from somewhere, and at the sound of it the whole band of outlaws, numbering somewhere about four hundred, suddenly broke cover and, with a yell, came charging down upon all sides of the house, firing as they ran. Their aim was not bad, considering that none of them paused to bring their pieces up to the shoulder, but just pointed the weapon in the direction of the house and pulled the trigger while still on the run. But although we heard several of the bullets strike the walls and roof, not one came through our loopholes, or penetrated to the interior of the house, and none of us were hit. The next second an irregular, straggling sort of volley rattled out from the house by way of reply; but I could not see that anybody was a penny the worse for it, at least on that side of the house where I was stationed. So far as I was concerned, I had not attempted to fire, having made up my mind that I would not pull trigger during the fight until I could be certain of making a hit; but the negro who had been told off to help in the defence of the window at which I was stationed had simply thrust his musket through his loophole and blazed away, apparently without taking the trouble even to sight along the barrel.
"My friend," I said, digging him savagely in the ribs, "which of those fellows was it that you aimed at?"
"Which of them, Senor?" he echoed in astonishment. "I did not aim at any one in particular; I simply fired my piece, believing that the bullet would be certain to hit some one."
"Just so," I retorted. "Well, that is not at all the way to win a fight, for, you see, your bullet has hit no one. Next time you shoot, aim straight at some particular individual, and make sure that your gun is pointing straight before you pull the trigger. For example—you see that big man running straight toward us, the man with the scythe on the end of a pole? Well, keep your eye on him for a moment, and see what happens."
The man in question was coming straight for our window, with the intention, probably, of attempting to dislodge some of the sand-bags and force his way into the house. He was only about ten yards away when, having carefully covered his chest with my two sights, I gently pressed the trigger. When the smoke blew away the fellow was lying motionless upon his face, and some twenty others who had been following him had come to an abrupt halt, and were gazing with indecision, first at the house and next at him.
"Another cartridge, quick!" I whispered, thrusting my hand out behind me. A small, soft hand met mine, thrusting a cartridge between my fingers, and glancing hastily over my shoulder, in some surprise, I saw that it was Teresita who had established herself as my assistant. The next moment I had bitten off the end of the cartridge, poured the powder down the barrel, thrust the empty paper after it by way of a wad, and was ramming a bullet home on top of all. Then, peeping through the loophole as I cocked the lock, I saw that a party of four of his comrades had picked up the stricken man, and were just about to carry him away, while the others were in full retreat for a clump of bushes not very far away, probably for the purpose of securing cover while they reloaded their weapons. The four bearers, however, were still within easy range, and, taking careful aim for a moment, I caught one of them fair between the shoulders, and down he went on top of the man who was being carried away. The other three at once took to their heels and ran, but did not finally get away scot free, for I snatched the now reloaded musket from my assistant's hand and was lucky enough to bring one of them down with a shot in the leg, though he was up and limping away the next instant.